Saturday, December 31, 2005

Friday, December 30, 2005

T.S. Zeta Closes Out '05

Of course. As the worst hurricane season ever recorded closes out, another tropical storm would form in the Atlantic.

The name is Zeta. The alphabet is Greek. The year is unbelievable.

Pensacola Journalists of the Year

As the year comes to a close, Pensacola's Independent News is busy patting its own back about the free weekly newspaper's Top Ten Cover Stories of the year. Allegations about the brutality and stupidity of local law enforcement officials (Headlines # 1, and # 2, and # 6) definitely predominate.

We'd like to give the Independent News a big pat on the back, too. The year-end issue and the top ten stories it references deserve a read by anyone who's interested in knowing the underside of Pensacola, the one that somehow never gets mentioned in the tourist brochures. (Unfortunately, the web article itself doesn't provide direct hyperlinks from each featured headline of the year to the archived original story, but you can use the search function page to navigate to each weekly issue.)

Along the way, the Independent News also takes a few potshots at the "Gannett-owned daily paper, Pensacola News Journal." That's a snarky subplot which has run through a number of IN stories over the years -- and fairly so. The news stories the News Journal doesn't cover, or arrives at embarrassingly late, certainly underscore just how much the media giant, Gannett Corporation, starves its Northwest Florida outlet of necessary resources.

The IN doesn't always pick on its daily competitor. Publisher Rick Outzen himself complimented the paper when Gannett assigned 30 extra reporters for a time to ensure truly superb coverage of Hurricane Ivan.)

But the lack of sufficient resources isn't the only cause for failings at the News Journal. Witness the IN itself. While the weekly isn't entirely a one-man show, there's little doubt that Independent News editor Duwayne Escobedo is its heart, soul, and brains. He wrote six out of the "top ten" stories featured for the year and several others just as good.

So what if he also wrote the "Top Ten" article itself? Almost alone, Duwayne Escobedo is more than a match for the daily News Journal's entire investigative reporter staff -- or what's left of it. The only thing Escobedo can't match is the News Journal's proclivity for choking its pages with trite, white bread family feature articles and the insipid ramblings of local columnists.

Which brings us to the one story from 2005 you won't see mentioned by anyone, not even the Independent News. That's the persistent rumor over the last half of the year that IN publisher Rick Outzen is exploring the possibility of selling the weekly.

Some speculate that he soured on the virtues of being a truly independent publishing voice after drawing heavy criticism for raising questions about Rebuild Pensacola's opaque accounting practices (Headline # 4). Given the close and cozy atmosphere of Pensacola's business elite, inevitably some of those critics were his personal friends, business associates, and advertisers.

The rumors may be just that and no more. After all, only a typically naive, bargain-hunting Yankee carpetbagger-- the same kind of customer all those water-front house sellers are hoping to snag before next year's hurricane season -- would buy the Independent News without a guarantee that Duwayne Escobedo would be part of the bargain.

In the ever-shrinking league of Pensacola journalism, Escobedo is The Franchise; he's Alex Rodriquez and Albert Pujols rolled into one.

Which is why, if there were an award for Pensacola Journalist of the Year, Duwayne Escobedo should get it. And Rick Outzen deserves to be named Pensacola Publisher of the Year for somehow keeping him on the job.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Message in a Bottle

The scanned photo you see above was discovered by a beach resident the other day while pawing through a few old boxes rescued from the hurricanes of the last two years. Although the picture was damaged, you may still be able to make out a piece of paper in the hands of the young boy, Charlie, and a glass bottle being held by the young girl, Amy. (The ages given are as of 2001 or 2002).

The story behind the photo goes back almost four years ago to this day. Way back at the end of 2001, the web site of the Pensacola Beach Residents & Leaseholders Assn. received an email from England. Brief mention was made of it in a newspaper column the PBRLA webmaster used to write for the weekly Islander Newspaper.

Today, of course, the PBRLA web site, the webmaster, and the Islander Newspaper for that matter, are no more -- thanks in large part to Hurricanes Ivan and Dennis.

The email purported to be written by two young girls who said they lived in England. They were wondering if there might be someone named "Miss Baker" who lived on Pensacola Beach. The message explained that the children had found a glass bottle on Camber Beach, which is in southwest England. The note inside was so faded it was hard for them to read, but they were able to make out the name of a "Miss Baker" or "Miss Barker."

It seemed improbable that a bottle thrown into the northern Gulf of Mexico at Pensacola Beach could make its way nearly a thousand miles south, round the southern tip of the Florida peninsula, cross the Atlantic Ocean, and come to rest safely on the rocky shore of Camber Beach, U.K. So, a correspondence ensued to verify the tale.

Sure enough, the proof came back in the form of a series of messages and, eventually, a very nice letter from the mother of two of the children, along with a packet of photos. Other details which are remembered after all this time are that the mother mentioned she was employed as an environmental specialist for a housing project in England. The bottle had been found by her daughter, Amy, and son, Charlie. Their friend, Annie, used her computer to help them find Pensacola Beach on the Internet.

The mother also reported that she was having computer problems. Sure enough, within a few months all contact was lost. Full names, addresses, phone numbers, and other contact information disappeared in Ivan's winds and waves.

Eventually, the story from this side of the ocean was unearthed, too. Every year, the popular PBES 4th grade teacher, Miss Baker, encouraged her class to keep individual diaries. One year -- about 1997 or thereabouts, as we dimly recall -- two boys in the class decided to try dropping a bottle in the Gulf with a message. On a single piece of lined school paper they wrote the names of their school, Pensacola Beach Elementary, and their teacher.

The boys' first efforts to send the bottle on its way were disappointing. It kept washing back to the beach with the waves. One day, the father of one of the boys decided to go fishing on his boat. The boys got the idea to hitch a ride and drop the bottle overboard once the boat got beyond the near-shore waves.

They heard nothing more of it until the emails from England started coming years later. Indeed, the boys had almost forgotten the whole thing, although the mother of one of them said she might have managed to keep her son's school diary from that year.

The story seemed to some beach residents a wonderful excuse to plan a party: Fly the whole family over, have some big-wigs give them the keys to the beach, have the boys return the bottle to its rightful owners, and then celebrate. Surely, they thought, beach businesses and the Chamber of Commerce would want to contribute to an airline ticket fund, offer free hotel accommodations, and otherwise support the idea.

Sadly, the answer was no. They wouldn't. Not unless network television coverage was guaranteed. The Chamber did contact a New York producer at ABC who gave it her best shot. But in the end, so she reported, the story just didn't have enough sex, suspense, or pathos to appeal to network decision-makers or their advertisers.

That bottle must be somewhere in England, even today. Now that hurricane-damaged businesses on Pensacola Beach are trying to climb off their knees and attract foreign and domestic tourists once again, maybe the time has come for a reunion of bottle and beach boys.

There's still no sex in the story. Not much suspense, either, other than whether the three kids from Britain ever can be found again. As for pathos, however, we've got plenty.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Whirlwind Through Pensacola

Winnie Hu spent 36 hours on a whirlwind tour of Pensacola for the New York Times just before Christmas.

Sadly, she seems to have had time only to follow the conventional tourist guide for places to go and things to do. And the copy she has seems to be missing a few pages, including "best restaurants" (Hemmingway's on the beach, Aegean Breeze in Gulf Breeze).

She got some things right, though, and even when she didn't, it still sounds nice:
"The city was forced to rebuild after Hurricane Ivan battered the region last year, and some hotels and beach sites remain closed for repairs. But Pensacola's identity -- a blend of Southern culture and redneck charm, conservative churches and Buddhist temples, and an ever-changing influx of ethnic newcomers, including many Vietnamese immigrants -- emerged stronger than ever."
The "influx of ethnic newcomers" and the plural of Buddhist temple will surprise many locals. They'll have to assume she means Katrina refugees from the Gulf Coast and undocumented repairmen from Mexico.

Other than that, around here, of late, the most visible "ethic" influx is peopled by Yankee retirees and quick-buck con artists looking to profit off the misfortunes of others.

Thus has it always been.

What Child Is This?

A 50-pound bouncing baby hippo was born on Christmas morning in Gulf Breeze, the Pensacola News Journal is reporting.

Mother, Cleopatra, and child are resting comfortably for now at the Gulf Breeze Zoo Northwest Florida Zoological Park and Botanical Gardens.

The father, Kiboko, is under a no-contact restraining order.

The new hippo will be named after its sex is determined. According to the News Journal, "Zoo tradition dictates that whoever finds the baby gets to name it."

Zoo keeper Rob Free found the new hippo unexectedly:
About 8 a.m. on Christmas Day, Free was about to feed Cleopatra her grains, nuts and fruits when he noticed that there was a lump about the size of an overnight duffel bag next to the hippo. It had the pinkish-gray hue.

But obviously, it was not a part of Cleopatra," he said.

When he realized it was a baby hippo, Free was ecstatic.

"Who else gets a hippo for Christmas?" he asked.
Free says he's thinking over "something Egyptian... and something I can pronounce."

Not to rain on this parade, but maybe Mr. Free and the zoo should consider abandoning the accidental-finders-are-namers policy just this once. Making a big to-do over the naming rights could jump-start a much-needed public fund raiser for the recently renamed zoo.

Raffle tickets, or name-nomination forms accompanied with entry fees, or just inviting kids to write a name on the back of buck, all spring to mind. Heck, if the Hall of Fame football bowl can make millions by renaming itself after a restaurant chain, the Zoo ought to be able to raise a little dough over the hippo's name.

Among the priorities for new funds might be building a Hippoquarium, as at Toledo Zoo.

Monday, December 26, 2005

Citizens Audit Report Finished

Former Citizens Property COO Paul Hulsebusch is talking -- at least to one reporter -- about the on-going federal grand jury investigation. Paige St. John has the story in this morning's Florida Today.

Hulsebusch isn't really doing a "tell all." More like a "tell some." But St. John throws in one bit of news at the end that hints at worse to come.

Short version: Yeah, says Hulsebusch, I was paid off with an expensive motorcycle. So what? Everybody else at Citizens knew about it and Citizens general counsel Mike Colodny told me it was OK (just a few months before the lawyer resigned under his own ethical cloud.)

Medium version: The scandal is "politically motivated" to boost Tom Gallagher's campaign for governor "while diverting attention from his own responsibilities" for Citizens' poor performance.

News Hint: Citizens has at long last "dropped all legal defense" of Hulsebusch and Quantum, the Texas adjusting firm to whom he allegedely steered $6 million worth of business. St. John reports that --
Quantum's contract work for Citizens ended abruptly Tuesday, the day after Citizens executives met with state auditors to learn the still-confidential results of their own investigation into the insurer.
Predictably, the state audit report hasn't been made public. Most likely, Citizens execs are waiting for some Friday news dump opportunity, say, in ten or eleven months, coincidentally right after Election Day 2006.

Update

Another Gannett newspaper, the reently-acquired Tallahassee Democrat, has a longer version of Paige St. John's article that adds more background facts.

The War on New Year's

Reuters reports that "scientists are delaying the start of 2006 by the first 'leap second' in seven years, a timing tweak meant to make up for changes in the Earth's rotation."

Say, what is this? Another attack on Christian patriotic values by the "atheists, communists, lesbianists, homosexualists, and the American Civil Liberties Unionists?"

Not to worry. The Fox News chickenhawks not doubt will be suiting up for this jihad right away. After all, they'll have an extra second to fight the new cultural war against "Intelligent Time Design."

Friday, December 23, 2005

Your Christmas Invitation

You're invited to share our Christmas tradition.

Every year at this time we dim the lights, brew up a warm drink, turn off the TV and radio, quiet the kids and visitors, and everyone sits down to listen -- really listen -- to Dylan Thomas reading A Child's Christmas in Wales. (warning: audio starts automatically).

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Getting to 'Now' You

An interesting thing about the blogging boom is the occasional glimpse one gets about some particular blogger or another whom you've been following but don't know personally.

We mentioned Jane Hamsher the other day. Best guess is that a lot of her blog fans started reading her on the worthy firedoglake blog long before they realized that she more or less discovered Quentin Tarantino before he was Quentiion Tarantino (which is the subject of the first half of her intelligent and entertaining book, Killer Instinct.)

Florida's own Bryan of Why Now?, in nearby Cinco Bayou, is another case in point. Who'd have thought that he's a former National Security Agency operative?

Note to Patrick Fitzgerald: We didn't out Why Now's wife. And we'll go to jail before saying who did.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Blood Simple

It's a small, simple article. Still, it's hard to know what to make of Carmen Paige's Pensacola News Journal report on Wednesday that "your blood donation will not be accepted right now at the Northwest Florida Blood Center" if you've had anything to eat or drink in New Orleans "in recent months."

She explains:
Health officials are taking the precaution because of flooding that inundated the city after its levees gave way after Hurricane Katrina struck on Aug. 29. Those floodwaters contained a toxic stew of sewage, decomposing bodies, chemicals and other harmful substances.

* * *
Potential donors will have to wait a minimum of two months before they can give blood. The local blood center already has deferred contributions from 40 people who have traveled to New Orleans.

The blood center will follow this policy for at least three more months, Picardi said.
Ms. Paige then serves up for proof a couple of quotes, attributed to Dr. Jim Picardi who is identified as medical director of the Northwest Florida Blood Center. Taken separately, each quotation is indubitably true. But do they really support Ms. Paige's lede -- or the apparently newly announced policy of the blood center?

First quote: "America's Blood Centers sent a warning around that people who had evacuated from New Orleans could be carrying infectious diseases particularly vibrio, associated with the disaster they'd had."

Can't argue with that. But on its face doesn't it read more like some post-Katrina alert that would have been circulated to medical personnel three months ago rather than a new alert to guardians of the blood supply?

Second quote:"The water in New Orleans has always had organisms called vibrio that cause cholera and cholera-like illnesses and could result in diarrhea, fever and severe dehydration."

As a historical statement of how New Orleans water "has always" been, you really can't argue with this one, either. Surely it's true. Again, however, we ask does this explain why all of a sudden -- now -- there's some newly announced concern about all blood donors who have any past connection with New Orleans?

It's hard to see. It's also hard to google any other blood center in America with the same concerns.

Apparently, it's also a mystery for Kathleen Devore-Jones, county health administrator for neigboring Santa Rosa County. The article ends with her words: "Our volunteers have been asked questions like what things they have been exposed to. I feel sure they are not at risk for developing symptoms because it's been months now."

Maybe there's a public health expert out there who can shed light on why now, and why only Pensacola? Or, should we instead be asking a journalism expert what's really going on here?

Shorter Bark-Bark

Winter Solstice, with a great photo.

Naked WaPo Pollster

The always entertaining Jane Hamsher -- film producer ... author ... and sharp-eyed progressive -- has caught Washington Post polling editor Richard Morin with his right-wing pants around his biased ankles.

Paddling from Penacola Beach

Photo courtesy of the Florida Memory Project

It seems the two Pensacola Beach roads leading east through the U.S. Park Service's 'Opal Beach' to Navarre Beach and west along the Gulf to Fort Pickens are unlikely to be fixed until late next year. Writes PNJ reporter Derek Pivnik earlier this week:
Gulf Islands National Seashore Superintendent Jerry Eubanks said road design work is scheduled to be finished by March, but it could take up to eight months after that to award the contract and complete construction.

"It could be the latter part of the year (before the roads reopen)," Eubanks said. "We're taking it one step at a time."

Eubanks held off beginning repairs until Nov. 30 -- the end of a record hurricane season. Both roads were severely damaged by Hurricane Ivan on Sept. 16, 2004. County Road 399, also known as J. Earle Bowden Way, reopened briefly before it was damaged again by Hurricane Dennis in July.
For most of next year, including the 2006 hurricane season, that leaves the Bob Sikes toll bridge over Santa Rosa Sound as the only escape route for Pensacola Beach residents, visitors, and construction workers. Alternative ways to leave the island include... well, drifting away on a float, swimming, boating and, if you're really adventurous, maybe hang-gliding or a helicopter.

Bring your own 'copter.

As for visiting Fort Pickens itself, it "could be partially open to the public by spring," we are told, but "likely will be accessible only by boat" according to Rick Clark of the local National Park Service office.

Pivnik quotes Clark as saying, "A ferry may be employed to shuttle people back and forth, but nothing has been completed."

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

What Will King George Do?

"President Bush said Monday he believes schools should discuss "intelligent design" alongside evolution when teaching students about the creation of life."
-- SF Gate, Aug. 2, 2005
Uh-oh.

Now that federal judge John Jones III has ruled that Intelligent Design is a "sham" that cannot constitutionally be taught in science class, will King George W. Bush use his unlimited powers to ignore law and have the judge hauled off to Gitmo until the war on terrorism is over?

Choice Excerpts From Kitzmiller v. Dover School Board

"The breathtaking inanity of the Board’s decision is evident when considered against the factual backdrop which has now been fully revealed through this trial."
More Choice Excerpts
(legal and scholarly citations omitted)

We initially observe that the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution provides that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” U.S. Const. amend. I. The prohibition against the establishment of religion applies to the states through the Fourteenth Amendment. (p. 10)

* * *
After a searching review of the record and applicable caselaw, we find that while ID [i.e., "Intelligent Design"] arguments may be true, a proposition on which the Court takes no position, ID is not science. We find that ID fails on three different levels, any one of which is sufficient to preclude a determination that ID is science. They are: (1) ID violates the centuries-old ground rules of science by invoking and permitting supernatural causation; (2) the argument of irreducible complexity, central to ID, employs the same flawed and illogical contrived dualism that doomed creation science in the 1980's; and (3) ID’s negative attacks on evolution have been refuted by the scientific community. (p.64-65)

* * *
Expert testimony reveals that since the scientific revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries, science has been limited to the search for natural causes to explain natural phenomena. * * * This revolution entailed the rejection of the appeal to authority, and by extension, revelation, in favor of empirical evidence. * * * Since that time period, science has been a discipline in which testability, rather than any ecclesiastical authority or philosophical coherence, has been the measure of a scientific idea’s worth. * * * While supernatural explanations may be important and have merit, they are not part of science.

This self-imposed convention of science, which limits inquiry to testable, natural explanations about the natural world, is referred to by philosophers as “methodological naturalism” and is sometimes known as the scientific method. * * * Methodological naturalism is a “ground rule” of science today which requires scientists to seek explanations in the world around us based upon what we can observe, test, replicate, and verify. (p.65)

* * *
It is therefore readily apparent to the Court that ID fails to meet the essential ground rules that limit science to testable, natural explanations. * * * Science cannot be defined differently for Dover students than it is defined in the scientific community ... .

ID is at bottom premised upon a false dichotomy, namely, that to the extent evolutionary theory is discredited, ID is confirmed. This argument is not brought to this Court anew, and in fact, the same argument, termed “contrived dualism” in McLean, was employed by creationists in the 1980's to support “creation science.” The court in McLean noted the “fallacious pedagogy of the two model approach” and that “[i]n efforts to establish ‘evidence’ in support of creation science, the defendants relied upon the same false premise as the two model approach . . . all evidence which criticized evolutionary theory was proof in support of creation science.” We do not find
this false dichotomy any more availing to justify ID today than it was to justify creation science two decades ago. (pp. 70-71)

* * *
[T]he concept of irreducible complexity is ID’s alleged scientific centerpiece. Irreducible complexity is a negative argument against evolution, not proof of design, a point conceded by defense expert Professor Minnich. * * * Irreducible complexity additionally fails to make a positive scientific case for ID, as will be elaborated upon below. (p 72)

* * *
As expert testimony revealed, the qualification on what is meant by “irreducible complexity” renders it meaningless as a criticism of evolution. In fact, the theory of evolution proffers exaptation as a well-recognized, well-documented explanation for how systems with multiple parts could have evolved through natural means. Exaptation means that some precursor of the subject system had a different, selectable function before experiencing the change or addition that resulted in the subject system with its present function. For instance, Dr. Padian identified the evolution of the mammalian middle ear bones from what had been jawbones as an example of this process. By defining irreducible complexity in the way that he has, Professor Behe attempts to exclude the phenomenon of exaptation by definitional fiat, ignoring as he does so abundant evidence which refutes his argument. (pp 74-75)

* * *
Indeed, the assertion that design of biological systems can be inferred from the “purposeful arrangement of parts” is based upon an analogy to human design. Because we are able to recognize design of artifacts and objects, according to Professor Behe, that same reasoning can be employed to determine biological design. Professor Behe testified that the strength of the analogy depends upon the degree of similarity entailed in the two propositions; however, if this is the test, ID completely fails.

Unlike biological systems, human artifacts do not live and reproduce over time. They are non-replicable, they do not undergo genetic recombination, and they are not driven by natural selection. For human artifacts, we know the designer’s identity, human, and the mechanism of design, as we have experience based upon empirical evidence that humans can make such things, as well as many other attributes including the designer’s abilities, needs, and desires. With ID, proponents assert that they refuse to propose hypotheses on the designer’s identity, do not propose a mechanism, and the designer, he/she/it/they, has never been seen. In that vein, defense expert Professor Minnich agreed that in the case of human artifacts and objects, we know the identity and capacities of the human designer, but we do not know any of those attributes for the designer of biological life. In addition, Professor Behe agreed that for the design of human artifacts, we know the designer and its attributes and we have a baseline for human design that does not exist for design of biological systems.

Professor Behe’s only response to these seemingly insurmountable points of disanalogy was that the inference still works in science fiction movies. (pp 80-81)

* * *
Accordingly, the purported positive argument for ID does not satisfy the ground rules of science which require testable hypotheses based upon natural explanations. ID is reliant upon forces acting outside of the natural world, forces that we cannot see, replicate, control or test, which have produced changes in this world. While we take no position on whether such forces exist, they are simply not testable by scientific means and therefore cannot qualify as part of the scientific process or as a scientific theory. (p. 82)

* * *
After this searching and careful review of ID as espoused by its proponents, as elaborated upon in submissions to the Court, and as scrutinized over a six week trial, we find that ID is not science and cannot be adjudged a valid, accepted scientific theory as it has failed to publish in peer-reviewed journals, engage in research and testing, and gain acceptance in the scientific community. ID, as noted, is grounded in theology, not science. Accepting for the sake of argument its proponents’, as well as Defendants’ argument that to introduce ID to students will encourage critical thinking, it still has utterly no place in a science curriculum.

Moreover, ID’s backers have sought to avoid the scientific scrutiny which we have now determined that it cannot withstand by advocating that the controversy, but not ID itself, should be taught in science class. This tactic is at best disingenuous, and at worst a canard. The goal of the IDM is not to encourage critical thought, but to foment a revolution which would supplant evolutionary theory with ID. (pp 88-89)

* * *
To conclude and reiterate, we express no opinion on the ultimate veracity of ID as a supernatural explanation. * * * It is our view that a reasonable, objective observer would, after reviewing both the voluminous record in this case, and our narrative, reach the inescapable conclusion that ID is an interesting theological argument, but that it is not science. (p 89)

* * *
Although Defendants attempt to persuade this Court that each Board member who voted for the biology curriculum change did so for the secular purposed of improving science education and to exercise critical thinking skills... are a sham, and they are accordingly unavailing, for the reasons that follow. (p 130)

* * *
Moreover, Defendants’ asserted secular purpose of improving science education is belied by the fact that most if not all of the Board members who voted in favor of the biology curriculum change conceded that they still do not know, nor have they ever known, precisely what ID is. To assert a secular purpose against this backdrop is ludicrous. (p 131)

* * *
Both Defendants and many of the leading proponents of ID make a bedrock assumption which is utterly false. Their presupposition is that evolutionary theory is antithetical to a belief in the existence of a supreme being and to religion in general. Repeatedly in this trial, Plaintiffs’ scientific experts testified that the theory of evolution represents good science, is overwhelmingly accepted by the scientific community, and that it in no way conflicts with, nor does it deny, the existence of a divine creator.

To be sure, Darwin’s theory of evolution is imperfect. However, the fact that a scientific theory cannot yet render an explanation on every point should not be used as a pretext to thrust an untestable alternative hypothesis grounded in religion into the science classroom or to misrepresent well-established scientific propositions. (p 136-37)

* * *
The citizens of the Dover area were poorly served by the members of the Board who voted for the ID Policy. It is ironic that several of these individuals, who so staunchly and proudly touted their religious convictions in public, would time and again lie to cover their tracks and disguise the real purpose behind the ID Policy. (p 137)

* * *
Those who disagree with our holding will likely mark it as the product of an activist judge. If so, they will have erred as this is manifestly not an activist Court. Rather, this case came to us as the result of the activism of an ill-informed faction on a school board, aided by a national public interest law firm eager to find a constitutional test case on ID, who in combination drove the Board to adopt an imprudent and ultimately unconstitutional policy. The breathtaking inanity of the Board’s decision is evident when considered against the factual backdrop which has now been fully revealed through this trial. The students, parents, and teachers of the Dover Area School District deserved better than to be dragged into this legal maelstrom, with its resulting utter waste of monetary and personal resources. (p 137-38)

Science - 1, Mythology - 0

The 139-page Federal court decision in the Dover, Pennsylvania, reenactment of the Scopes Monkey Trial has been filed.
Science wins, mythology loses.

No, Virginia, There Is No War on Christmas

The silly "war on Christmas" nonsense deserves to be thoroughly ignored, except for the revealing history of this canard which Hendrik Hertzberg supplies in this week's New Yorker Magazine.
The War on Christmas is a little like Santa Claus, in that it (a) comes to us from the sky, beamed down by the satellites of cable news, and (b) does not, in the boringly empirical sense, exist. What does exist is the idea of the War on Christmas, which, though forever new, is a venerable tradition, older even than strip malls and plastic mistletoe.
The "idea of the War on Christmas," he also reminds us, has very ugly roots:
The War on Christmas seems to have come along around a hundred years later, with the publication of “The International Jew,” by Henry Ford, the automobile magnate, whom fate later punished by arranging to have his fortune diverted to the sappy, do-gooder Ford Foundation.

"It is not religious tolerance in the midst of religious difference, but religious attack that they" -- the Jews -- "preach and practice," he wrote. "The whole record of the Jewish opposition to Christmas, Easter and certain patriotic songs shows that."

Ford’s anti-Semitism has not aged well, thanks to the later excesses of its European adherents, but by drawing a connection between Christmas-bashing and patriotism-scorning he pointed the way for future Christmas warriors.
Hendrick has more insights, including why Fox News' chickhawk in chief, Bill O'Reilley (who "sat out Vietnam"), is busy "in the trenches... grouping together a variety of enemies, where they can all be rhetorically machine-gunned at once."

Which reminds us: Has anyone warned Santa Claus that he can be legally shot in Florida even before he comes down the chimney?

Monday, December 19, 2005

Shorter Rockefeller: 'Bush Is Lying'

Senator Rockefeller issued a formal statement this afternoon along with the now-public copy of his 2003 hand written letter to Cheney.

Here is what the ranking senator on the Senate Intelligence Committee says today about the Executive Branch program to spy on Americans at home:
"For the last few days, I have witnessed the President, the Vice President, the Secretary of State, and the Attorney General repeatedly misrepresent the facts.

"The record needs to be set clear that the Administration never afforded members briefed on the program an opportunity to either approve or disapprove the NSA program. The limited members who were told of the program were prohibited by the Administration from sharing any information about it with our colleagues, including other members of the Intelligence Committees."

The Rockefeller Letter

This is what it has come to:

On July 17, 2003, Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-WV), the ranking minority member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, participated in a discussion about "sensitive intelligence issues" with Senator Pat Roberts (R-KS), also on the Intelligence Committee, their (two?) counterparts in the House of Representatives, Vice President Cheney, then-CIA director George Tenant (DCI), and then-director Michael V. Hayden of the National Security Agency (DIRNSA).

Under ground rules doubtless established by the Administration, no one else was allowed to know. Not another member of Congress, not another member of the Intelligence Committee, not a member of his staff, not even a typist.

So, upon returning to his office, Senator Rockefeller wrote out by hand a letter to Cheney. This is what it says:
"I am writing to reiterate my concerns regarding the sensitive intelligence issues we discussed today... .

Clearly, the activities we discussed raise profound oversight issues. As you know, I am neither a technician nor an attorney. Given the security restrictions associated with this information, and my inability to consult staff or counsel on my own, I feel unable to evaluate, much less endorse, these activities.

As I reflected on the meeting today, and the future we face, John Pointdexter's TIA Total Information Awareness] project sprung to mind, exacerbating my concern the direction the Administration is moving with regard to security, technology, and surveillance.

Without more information and the ability to draw on any independent legal or technical expertise, I simply cannot satisfy lingering concerns raised by the briefing we received.

I am retaining a copy of this letter in a sealed envelope in the secure spaces of the Senate Intelligence Committee to ensure the fact that I have a record of this communication.

I appreciate your consideration of my views.

Most respecfully,
/s/ Jay Rockefeller"
The "TIA project" Rockefeller mentions was an arm of the Defense Department, headed by Adm. John Poindexter, better known for multiple felony convictions arising out of the Iran-Contra affair (later reversed on a technicality). "TIA" was purportedly an experimental "data mining" project which, among other things, was designed to spy on American citizens.

A bi-partisan majority in Congress totally de-funded TIA in 2004. (We all know how often that happens. )

Does this sound to anybody like congressional 'authorization' for the Executive Branch to spy on Americans without review by any other branch of government? Or, does it look more like an Executive Department coup against Congress and the Constitution?

Before you answer, contemplate the words of New Hampshire Senator John Sununu today on National Public Radio's afternoon news program. The "All Things Considered" interview can be heard here .

Sununu is well know as a rock-ribbed conservative Republican and son of the former chief of staff for President Reagan. He has joined with Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold in opposing reauthorization of the Patriot Act without reforms, as well as the newly-confessed behavior of George Bush in spying on American citizens.

Asked how Congress can ensure that the Executive Branch doesn't violate the Constitution or the freedoms of the people, he replied that the only tool Congress really has available is the power of the appropriations purse.

Domestic Spying: 'The Rest of the Story'

The most novel, troublesome, and ultimately the scariest possibility is inspired by, of all things, something once said by Florida's popular, middle-of-the-road former U.S. Senator Bob Graham.
Most newspapers and blogs, including this one, spent the weekend worrying over the constitutional implications of George W. Bush's admission that he has authorized in the past, and intends to continue approving in the future, warrantless wiretapping and other surveillance of American citizens. At the same time, a few others were a step ahead, asking a question that has no answer as yet:
Why?

That is to say, why would Bush insist, in effect, that he has the unfettered power of a Russian dictator or a divine-right king to wiretap, search, and seize any and every American's telephone conversations, email messages, and for that matter the personal effects of any American without a court-ordered warrant before, or even after, the fact?

Why would he do that when, as several sources have pointed out, current law allows the administration easy, quick, and even post hoc access to judicial warrants where necessary to protect the public safety?

On the surface, it "makes no sense", as Defensetech.org points out:
The idea that the Bush Administration needed to bypass the courts to get wiretaps quickly makes no sense; under the current system, you can start eavesdropping, and get a warrant later. The notion that disclosing the surveillance would somehow tip off potential terrorists is laughable, too; Al Qaeda types know they're being monitored.
Separately, John Marshall, and Laura Rozen, and Dave Sirotta, and Brad DeLong agree.
  • Marshall raises the question this way:
    Wiretaps are conducted around the country every day. The FISA [Foreign Intelligence Surveillance] Court alone approves something like a half a dozen a day in highly classified national security or espionage related cases.

    The only issue here is why the president decided to go around the normal rules that govern such surveillance, why he chose to make himself above the law.
  • Rozen refers to a CIA trained source who confirms that getting a judicial warrant from the FISA court is no big deal, so "what was the point in avoiding the courts? Just like many of the administration's more shady decisions, the risk-reward here was all screwy... ."

  • Sirota frames the issue as a question and answer:
    [W]hy would the President deliberately circumvent a court that was already wholly inclined to grant him domestic surveillance warrants? The answer is obvious, though as yet largely unstated in the mainstream media: because the President was likely ordering surveillance operations that were so outrageous, so unrelated to the War on Terror, and, to put it in Constitutional terms, so "unreasonable" that even a FISA court would not have granted them.
  • Brad DeLong raises the same issue succinctly, even as he, too, hints at an answer: "What have they done that they did not believe the FISA court would approve?"
Larry Johnson, another ex-CIA agent now working as a Washington consultant, suggests that a more specific answer to the above questions may be entwined with the failed John Bolton nomination. This isn't as far-fetched as it may seem, once you read the public Senate committee transcript of the Bolton hearings on his nomination to become U.N. ambassador. The hearings blew up when the White House refused to release any of the 10,000 names on a National Security Agency list of people whose private conversation transcriptss had been slipped by someone to Bolton for his reading pleasure.

Scott Rosen of The Politics Blog looks at Karl Rove's "long record of very dirty tricks" and the White House exposure of "Valerie Plame as a covert CIA agent" for purely political reasons. He concludes, as Johnson does, "that [Bush] can not be trusted to limit such spying to persons demonstrably involved in extremist Islamic and other terrorist activities... ."

The most novel, and ultimately the scariest, possibility is inspired by, of all people, Florida's popular, middle-of-the-road former U.S. Senator Bob Graham. As Noah Shackman's DefenseTech.org explains:
I'm guessing -- and this is just a guess -- that the real difference is in the technology of the wiretaps themselves.

Look at what former senator Bob Graham (D-Fla.), who was briefed on the eavesdropping program, told the Washington Post:
"I came out of the room with the full sense that we were dealing with a change in technology but not policy," Graham said, with new opportunities to intercept overseas calls that passed through U.S. switches.
Or what New York Times editor Bill Keller had to say about the paper's year-long delay in breaking the story:
In the course of subsequent reporting we satisfied ourselves that we could write about this program -- withholding a number of technical details -- in a way that would not expose any intelligence-gathering methods or capabilities that are not already on the public record.
So maybe the NSA wiretaps were using a new kind of capability; one that terror suspects might not have know about; one that might have even made the FISA court uncomfortable, somehow.
And what "capability" would that be? Seeing the Forest has the likely answer: The administration has adapted the N.S.A's preexisting foreign intelligence system, known as Echelon, to domestic purposes. In other words, the Bush administration "is spying on all of us."

All of us. Teachers, journalists, housewives, students, construction workers, retirees, etc. etc. etc. As Forest explained yesterday:
After 9/11 Bush tasked the NSA with turning its glare on the U.S. What that means is that every single e-mail and phone conversation goes into their computers and is scanned for certain magic words and phrases. Anything that is flagged by the computers gets a closer look.

That is why they're doing it without warrants. You can't get a warrant for every single person in the country, and that is who they are listening to. But they wanted to do it "to protect us" so they just went ahead.

Here's the problem.

To do this you have to set up the means to do it. Billions in equipment to grab the calls and e-mails - satellites and connections into major network router hubs, billions more in computers to scan and analyze all those words... NSA has had that all in place for grabbing everything outside the U.S. but because it is illegal and expensive it wasn't the kind of thing you could get away with setting up here. That much money just wouldn't be available, and word would get out because there would be no reason to be setting up that kind of capability here. Until 9/11.

Here's the other problem: It's in place now. While it is a huge task to set up the technical capability it's not hard at all to tell the computers to scan for ... other words and phrases than the original targets. You're looking for "bomb" but maybe you also want to look for "Democratic Party strategy meeting." You start out looking for terorists but it's not hard to tell it to get everything from ... other people. Like Senators or CEOs or leaders of organzations opposing Republican policies or anyone else The Party wants to get something on.
In other words, Mr. Bush has unconstitutionally arrogated to himself, alone, the power to conduct domestic surveillance of American citizens because it's technologically easier to spy on all of us.

Is that a valid excuse for violating the U.S. Constitution? No more than it would be valid to excuse your local mayor if he ordered the police to make warrantless entry into every house in town for daily bed-checks to prevent crime.

The momentous issue raised by Bush's confession that he is conducting warrantless eavesdropping on American citizens, free from any judicial review, is not whether the threat of terrorism requires some flexibility in the bulwarks of individual liberty. No one disputes that wiretapping can be lawful and effective. It is whether we should abide having the decision whether and who to wiretap made by the president alone.

As Yale law professor Neal Katyal explained to the Senate Judiciary Committee two months after 9-11, when it was considering legislation to allow Government monitoring and recording of attorney-client jail conversations where the client is a suspected terrorist:
"Throughout history, there have been times when this country has had to dispense with civil trials, with other protections in the Bill of Rights, and with the rules of evidence. Those circumstances have been rare, carefully circumscribed, and never unilaterally defined by a single person. A tremendous danger exists if the power is left in one individual to put aside our constitutional traditions and protections when he decides the nation is in a time of crisis."
[emphasis added]
What Mr. Bush has confessed to doing has not make us safer. Instead, it undermines a fundamental and abiding democratic principle of America itself. The "rest of the story" is what "we the people" will do about it.

Island Dream

Jesse Earle Bowden is a retired editor of the Pensacola News Journal. In person, he is a gentle, good man justly known as the "Father of Gulf Islands National Seashore."

Forty some years ago, Bowden courageously put the newspaper at the head of a bitter fight with powerful local politicians and monied interests who opposed setting aside Santa Rosa Island for a national park. At the time, real estate development interests had visions -- and, indeed, a very specific blueprint -- for building a honky-tonk Disneyland penned by high-rise condos and hotels all the way down the 40-mile string of sand from Fort Pickens to Destin.

In the end, a compromise was struck. Roughly half of the island was set aside to become part of the National Seashore Park. The rest became Pensacola Beach and Navarre Beach. You can read Bowden's fascinating reminiscence about it all in a modest paperback book titled Gulf Islands National Seashore: The Sands of Time.

To memorialize Bowden's key role in saving part of the island from the bulldozers, a few years ago an 8-mile stretch of Highway 399 that passes through GINS was renamed "J. Earle Bowden Way." It seemed an ironic tribute, since Bowden has the reputation of being a vocal critic of rapacious commercial island development and the infrastructure that supports it. "J. Earle Bowden Way" begins at the gigantic Portofino Resorts complex rising at the east end of Pensacola Beach and comes to an end at the limits to condo-covered Navarre Beach.

This past weekend, from the comfortable distance of retirement Mr. Bowden contributed another op-ed piece in his unique style that some consider poetic and others a hopeless muddle. This one is about the unresolved debate over what to do about the semi-permanently washed-out road to Fort Pickens.

Who knows what he really thinks about the issue? At a first read, and a second and a third, it's hard to tell. Even the poor soul who was assigned to give Bowden's article a title -- Debate Over Roads or Beach Nightmare? -- seems to have been mystified.

The root of the problem isn't really with Mr. Bowden's singular writing style, though. It's the Fort Pickens dilemma itself. As with larger problems posed by a heightening hurricane cycle, warming oceans, fast-disappearing petroleum reserves, and global climate change itself, there does not seem to be any good solution.

All the options are unhappy ones. Every solution contains its own nightmare.

Perhaps that's what Bowden means when he says his dream turned into a nightmare.

At the Brink of Tyranny

Constitutional lawyer Glenn Goldman Greenwald provides a comprehensive, annotated, and accurate comparison of how Mr. Bush's extraordinary confession Saturday morning compares with the fundmental principle of checks-and-balances on every branch of government, including the Executive, which the Founding Fathers embedded in the U.S. Constitution, as revealed by the writings of John Jay, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton in the Federalist Papers.

About that and Mr. Bush's confession, Goldman Greenwald concludes:
"If the President is allowed to get away with secretly decreeing that he can violate the law and then doing exactly that, then there really are no remaining checks on Executive power -- and we have, without hyperbole, arrived at the very definition of tyranny."
If you're not familiar with the expressed chief purpose of our Founding Fathers in drafting the Constitution as they did, Goldman Greenwald has done the research for you -- and added the latest affirmation of that purpose authored by Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. Read it here.

Correction

Thanks to commenter Debs-LA for the correction on Mr. Greenwald's name.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Presidential Confessions and U-2

"Warrantless intelligence surveillance by an executive branch unaccountable to any judicial officer -- and apparently on a large scale -- is gravely dangerous."

-- Washington Post, Dec.18, 2005
George W. Bush confessed in yesterday's radio addresss that, yes, he has authorized and reauthorized more than 30 times over the past three years a secret domestic program to spy on Americans living in the U.S. He also acknowledged, in effect, that the spying has been done without benefit of Fourth Amendment warrants or even the retroactive approval of the secret Foreign Intelligence Court of Review.

This was an extraordinary presidential confession, historic by any standards. As many newspapers, commentators, and politicians are observing today, Bush's behavior can be legally justified only if our constitutional system is understood to grant to every U.S. president total dictatorial power to ignore all U.S. laws and constitutional freedoms in times of war.

That has not been our system in the 216 years we have been governed by the U.S. Constitution. Indeed, our Founding Fathers fought the War of Independence precisely so that we could live under a system limited government. Our most fundamental constitutional principle is that limited government preserves individual liberties by imposing checks and balances on every branch of government to ensure that no one of them can over-reach to oppress individual citizens.

As Sen. Russell Feingold (D-WI) said yesterday after Bush's radio address, Mr. Bush is a "president" not a "king." We are nation governed by laws, not a single monarch whose powers are unchecked and whose deeds can remain secret as long as he so wills it.

In the midst of reporting Bush's radio speech, David Sanger of the New York Times today spends a few moments drawing an unexpected historical parallel. Bush's "admission" that he personally authorized domestic spying on American citizens without judcial warrants, Sanger writes, "was reminiscent of Dwight Eisenhower's in 1960 that he had authorized U-2 flights over the Soviet Union after Francis Gary Powers was shot down on a reconnaissance mission."

The parallel is far from exact. Still, it is useful as an instructive precedent, although perhaps in a way that Sanger did not realize.

I don't claim to have been a precocious child, but I was very young in the days of the U-2 incident and lucky to have a father who was teaching me how to read the Washington Post as it had to be read in those dark years of the Cold War. (And, it might be said, as all media should be consumed today.) Which is to say, he was teaching me how to read critically and look for the hidden truths that sometimes lay between the lines of what was called in those days the 'official' Washington news. (Today, we might call it "embedded" journalism).

No hyperlinks here. What follows is mostly from personal memory.

While flying the supersecret, high altitude U-2 spy plane over the Soviet Union, Francis Gary Powers was brought down on May 1, 1960. Instead of biting the suicide capsule issued to all U-2 pilots, as expected by his superiors, he either landed or parachuted to safety and was captured and imprisoned by Soviet authorities. They also took possession of the plane and its camera cargo, largely intact.

Americans knew nothing of this for at least a few days. The first hint I saw that something dramatic might have happened came in a tiny two- or three-inch article buried deep inside the first section of the Washington Post a day or two after May 1. It was reported that key White House and cabinet officials had been evacuated to Camp David as part of what the newspaper claimed was a routine "civil defense" drill.

In itself, this was unremarkable. Civil defense drills in that era still were as common as dirt. Then, as now, there were real threats to our safety. Then, as now, they were greatly exaggerated by opportunists and hypocrites. Then, as now, politicians and bureaucrats at every level of government furiously fanned the flames of public fear every so often, especially in election years, by staging various kinds of "duck and cover" drills.

As we now know, none of this would have saved anyone if the worst ever had happened. Those ridiculous civil defense drills only saved the jobs of a lot of politicians.

In that small and seemingly insignficant Washington Post news item, one odd fact stood out. The White House, it was reported, was trying to reach then-vice president Richard Nixon, who happened to be on the 1960 presidential campaign trail. It was said the White House wanted him to join the rest of the government at Camp David.

Now, that raised a few eyebrows in my house.

"It's not a routine drill," my father said. "Not if they're trying to bring Nixon back. He's in the middle of a campaign. Something big has happened. The White House is scared."

Over the next day or two we combed the Post, my father and I, to see what might explain the "routine" removal of the cabinet to Camp David. The likeliest candidate turned up in big black letters on the front page. An official U.S. government statement claiming that a weather monitoring plane out of Turkey had strayed off course and possibly was lost near or over Soviet territory.

"We've lost a spy plane," my father flatly pronounced.

Sure enough, within hours, or a day at the most, we learned that Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev was claiming in Moscow that the Russians had shot down a U.S. plane. Not much more than that was said.

The Secretary of State and President Eisenhower both appeared before press gatherings and openly admitted that one of our airplanes had 'accidentally' invaded Soviet air space and had been lost. Khrushchev countered that lie by announcing, for the first time, that the pilot, Powers, had been captured alive, he was in prison, and the plane's camera equipment had been retrieved. Yet, at the same time, he made statements suggesting that he didn't believe President Eisenhower or his advisors were aware of the U-2 flight, since they were continuing to work toward a more positive and peaceful relationship with the U.S.S.R.

Then, and only then, did Eisenhower own up to the truth. He admitted that he had personally approved the U-2 spy program. That was the unprecedented confession Mr. Sanger mentions in the Post today.

But it's worth noting that it came only after the highest levels of our government -- Eisenhower, his Secretary of State, the Secretary of Defense, and other high-ranking aides -- had repeatedly lied about the what's, who's, where's, and why's of the lost U.S. airplane.

Eisenhower's belated 'confession' not only was unprecedented, it was widely believed to be unwise. It certainly complicated international relations. You can see this for yourself by reading the diplomatic correpondence which is now available in the web archive of the Eisenhower administration.

After Eisenhower came clean, Khrushchev had no choice but to demand an apology. Eisenhower could not bring himself to give one. Allied and neutral governments who had been hosting our spy planes for years were so embarasssed that most felt compelled to distance themselves and deny us the use of their airfields. An important, long-planned U.S.-Soviet summit meeting was permanently scuttled.

For years afterwards, the consensus in diplomatic and congressional circles was that Eisenhower had blundered badly. First, by lying when he mistakenly assumed the pilot and his plane must have been obliterated high above the earth; next, when he belatedly told the truth after the evidence of Francis Gary Powers and his high resolution photographs were displayed in Moscow for all the world to see; third, by imprudently admitting to a long-running program of deliberate and illegal incursions over Soviet air space, at a time when world leaders fully expected (and wanted) a lie; fourth, by failing to seize upon Khrushchev's obvious suggestion that the U-2 incident must have been the work of lower-level war mongers in the U.S. government, rather than the president himself; and, finally, when Eisenhower refused to give Khruschev a pro forma apology for what he had already admitted was his personal decision to invade Soviet air space on a regular basis.

Domestically, the president also had been caught in an outright lie to the American people. As one cable from the American ambassador to Moscow says:
In this way, after three days, the State Dept. already had to deny version [sic] which obviously had been intended to mislead world public opinion as well as public opinion of American (sic) itself."
Before his Saturday radio address, Mr. Bush already had traveled well down the path of deceiving the American people.
  • Just twelve hours earlier, he told PBS News Hour host Jim Lehrer that the breaking story about unilateral authorization of wiretaps on Americans was "speculation." It was fact.
  • Bush said Friday night "we don't talk about ongoing intelligence operations." The next morning, he did.
  • He told Lehrer that even "talking about" the Times' revelations "would compromise our ability to protect the people." Again, the next morning he did so, anyway.
  • Bush claimed congressional leaders have been "briefed" on the program. Several said immediately afterwards, no "briefing" was given, merely a "notification."
Mr. Bush also claims the domestic wiretap program is "consistent" with the Constitution and that those carrying out his orders "receive extensive training to ensure they perform... with the letter and intent of the authorization." Can he be believed in this statement?

The Times says no:
[T]his White House has cried wolf so many times on the urgency of national security threats that it has lost all credibility. But we have learned the hard way that Mr. Bush's team cannot be trusted to find the boundaries of the law, much less respect them.
Most of all, Bush avoided "the main question directed at him," in Sanger's words, by members of Congress --
[W]hy he felt it necessary to circumvent the system established under current law, which allows the president to seek emergency warrants, in secret, from the court that oversees intelligence operations. His critics said that under that law, the administration could have obtained the same information.
The 'critics' are right, of course. As the post immediately down-thread from here points out, the FISA Court's raw statistcs "show an overwhelmingly accommodationist court, willing to rapidly issue eavesdropping warrants both before and after the fact."

In the words he uses and the justifications he offers for warrantless eavesdropping on American citizens, Mr. Bush has uttered only more lies. They are likely to unravel in the coming days and weeks.

One may be reminded of Eisenhower's U-2 confession, but at their core the cases are not comparable. Eisenhower lied first. Then he told the whole truth and accepted personal blame, although it was diplomatically disastrous to do so.

Bush lied. But, unlike Eisenhower, he had a lawful, rapid, and effective way to accomplish the same legitimate objectives. Instead, he has chosen what the Washngton Post today calls a "gravely dangerous" means "not consistent with a democratic society."

Bush, unlike former President Eisenhower, has yet to tell the unvarnished truth. The question still remains, When he had a clear choice -- one legal, one not -- for accomlishing the stated goal of protecting the public, why did Mr. Bush choose to subvert the Constitution and undermine individual liberties guaranteed by the Bill of Rights?

FISA: The Lawful Alternative

Ezra Klein says it succinctly:
When you need a wiretap, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act allows you to apply for one. When you need it yesterday, FISA allows you to place the tap immediately and retroactively clear it with a judge 72 hours later. The law strikes a balance between broad executive powers and substantive oversight -- the president has full authority to assault the evildoers, but cannot deploy the law on behalf of his own political interests. It's a check on totalitarianism.

What Bush has done is unilaterally decide the oversight unnecessary. Given the shape and safeguards of FISA, there was no operational need to evade it. It was an exclusively ideological decision in service of unlimited executive powers, and it's chilling.
Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo has the secret FISA Court's raw statistcs. They show an overwhelmingly accommodationist court, willing to rapidly issue eavesdropping warrants both before and after the fact.

More later today.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Time for the 'I' Word

"The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
-- Fourth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States
If getting a blow job after hours from a star-struck harlot is an impeachable offense, what should we make of a president who repeatedly violates the Constitution by authorizing civilian and military spies to wiretap the telephones, faxes, and email message of U.S. citizens at home in the States -- without so much as asking for a court order -- in violation of the Fourth Amendment?

A little over a month ago, Florida blogger Bark Bark, Woof Woof called attention to a rare public disclosure of how the F.B.I. conducts its warrantless domestic searches under the justly reviled Patriot Act. As disturbing as that may be, at least domestic FBI surveillance of citizens was explicitly authorized by Congress.

Now we have hard evidence that over the last four years George W. Bush has expressly and repeatedly authorized the National Security Agency to spy on American citizens without congressional authority or a single judicial warrant. Not even a warrant issued by the super-secret Foreign Intelligence Court of Review, which itself has hardly been a stalwart bastion of liberty.

As Senate Judiciary chairman Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA) says of the NSA disclosure with heavy understatement, "There is no doubt that this is inappropriate."

More than that, as Newsweek and others reported several months ago, it seems probable that the fruits of NSA "intercepts and names of 10,000 U.S. citizens" have been regularly shuffled over "to policy-makers at many departments" in the Bush administration, including the "archdeacon of politicization," John Bolton, and his aide, Frederick Fleitz, who is on loan from the CIA.

You'd be mistaken if you imagine that the latest domestic spying disclosure involves only a clutch of N.S.A. techno-geeks sitting in some supercompter center in Fort Meade, Maryland, monitoring satellite signals from the phones, faxes, and computers of bad guys.

The same day the New York Times finally published its NSA-spying report, Dan Eggen of the Washington Post was reporting that the administration also has embedded "teams of Defense Intelligence Agency personnel stationed in major U.S. cities conducting the type of surveillance typically performed by the FBI: monitoring the movements and activities -- through high-tech equipment -- of individuals and vehicles... .'" [emphasis added]

The Defense Intelligence Agency is the military's version of the CIA. In its own words, it is --
"a major producer and manager of foreign military intelligence for the Department of Defense... .

* * * The Director of DIA is a three-star military officer who serves as the principal advisor on substantive intelligence matters to the Secretary of Defense and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff."
As Eggen explains:

The law governing clandestine surveillance in the United States, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, prohibits conducting electronic surveillance not authorized by statute. A government agent can try to avoid prosecution if he can show he was "engaged in the course of his official duties and the electronic surveillance was authorized by and conducted pursuant to a search warrant or court order of a court of competent jurisdiction," according to the law.
[Emphasis added]
First, the F.B.I. ... then the N.S.A. ... now, the D.I.A. All authorized by George W. Bush, himself, to spy and wire tap U.S. citizens in their homes without any checks or balances from a court or Congress to be sure there is "probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation... ."

Until now, impeachment largely has been seen as a paranoid fantasy of the most virulent Bush haters among us. But now it's time for ordinary citizens to ask themselves if we are, as we claim, "a nation of laws not men." What does it mean for the rule of law if we excuse any Government office-holder who arrogates to himself the absolute, unchecked power to spy on Americans without "probable cause?"

And for those who in the past have had another paranoid obsession, ask yourselves this: 'How trusting would I be to have Bill Clinton exercize the same unchecked power?'

Insuring the 'Not Impoverished'

Governor Jeb Bush remarked Friday that "maybe" the legislature "should look" at the possibility of capping individual Citizens Property insurance policies at $1 million. Kathy Bushous and Mark Hollis write the story for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel .

Turns out that million-dollar-plus structures make up only two percent of Citizens policies, but ten percent of the state-owned insurance company's total exposure:
There are 6,024 homes in Citizens that are insured for more than $1 million, said Citizens spokesman Justin Glover, and collectively those homes represent more than $13.7 billion in exposure for Citizens. * * * Most of those pricey homes are in South Florida, Glover said.
My goodness, what will these homeowners do if Citizens won't fully insure them? Not to worry.

"These are people who, generally speaking, can very well afford private insurance," says Robert Hartwig, identified as chief economist for the non-profit Insurance Information Institute. "We're talking about people who are, generally speaking, not impoverished."

Not impoverished, perhaps, until they discover Citizens won't pay off on anyone's insurance policy.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Trent Lott Sues State Farm

"Within minutes of Senator John Edwards’ selection by John Kerry as his running mate, the Republicans started their predictable onslaught of attacks on his national security experience and high-profile career as a trial lawyer. * * * Trent Lott (whose wistful, public nostalgia for the days of Jim Crow cost him the Senate majority leadership) called him 'a suing lawyer – that’s S-U-I-N-G lawyer.'"
-- PERRspectives, July 8, 2004
U.S. Senator and former majority leader Trent Lott (R-MI) and his wife today filed suit against State Farm Insurance over its refusal to pay for property damage caused by Hurricane Katrina.
Anita Lee of the Biloxi Sun Herald has the story:
Lott's brother-in-law, nationally recognized litigator Richard "Dickie" Scruggs, filed the suit Thursday in U.S. District Court on the Lotts' behalf against State Farm Fire & Casualty Co., which holds more than 30 percent of the homeowner's insurance policies in Mississippi.

"I take this action reluctantly after months of good-faith efforts to resolve this matter," said Lott, whose wife, Tricia, also is a plaintiff. "There is no credible argument that there was no wind damage to my home in Pascagoula."

Lott also said in the written news release: "My hope is that this litigation will set a precedent for the thousands of other Mississippi homeowners holding policies for coverage against hurricane wind damage that are not being honored by their insurance companies for Katrina."
A State Farm spokesman essentially declined to comment. But, after all, what could the company say? 'We're very grateful for all of Mr. Lott's help over the years. He's played a key role in shielding lousy companies like us from large jury verdicts when we set out to screw people through our negligence or deliberate indifference. But what goes around comes around.'

Senator Lott, like many other right-wing Republicans in Congress, has dedicated an appreciable part of his political career to supporting laws that restrict or eliminate a jury's ability to dispense justice against fraudulent insurance companies, racist employers, deceptive Wall Street brokerage houses, negligent doctors, indifferent HMOs, discriminatory employers, tobacco companies, abusive meatpacking plants, deceptive used cars dealers, and unethical corporate boards -- among other miscreants in Corporate America.

He can't be thrilled to suddenly find himself on the other side of the docket, where the injured plaintiffs suffer from all that Mr. Lott and his colleagues have done to them.

Addendum

Victoria Kos has collected more gems about the evils of filing lawsuits, straight from the lips of now-plaintiff Trent Lott.

Move To Florida - Leave Your Vote Behind

Via Florida Politics:
"Top computer scientists and voting experts said Thursday that Florida must re-examine the way it tests voting machines and needs to verify claims by a Tallahassee elections official who said hackers could alter some computerized election results." However, acting Florida Secretary of State David Mann, whose office oversees the state elections department, said Thursday that he has such "confidence" in his agency's certification process that he has no intention of doing any double-checking right now.

December 16 in History

December 16, 1689: English Bill of Rights.
King William III and Queen Mary formally announced they will accept Parliament's radical left-wing "Bill of Rights," bringing to an end the divine right of royalty. The English Bill of Rights later inspires left-wing radicals like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison to draft the U.S. Bill of Rights, guaranteeing individual rights to due process, equal protection of the law, and freedom from a Government that inflicts cruel and unusual punishment.
December 16, 1773: Boston Tea Party.
A ragtag crowd of several hundred Massachusetts colonists, led by left-wing radical Samuel Adams and secretly financed by notorious smuggler John Hancock, thinly disguise themselves as Mohwak Indians and dump H.M.S. Dartmouth's entire cargo of Darjeeling tea into Boston Harbor. This provides another catalyst leading to the American Revolution.
December 16, 1864: Battle of Nashville.
Union General George H. Thomas annhilates Confederate General John Bell Hood's Confederate "Army of Tennessee." This clears the way for Sherman's march through Georgia and, of course, the destruction of fictional Twelve Oaks.
December 16, 1944: Battle of the Bulge.
Ultimately, the defeat of this German counter-offensive eases the path toward Allied occupation of Germany, eventually bringing an end to a Nazi regime which tortured prisoners and ignored international law.
December 16, 2005: Bush Administration Announces It Accedes to Torture Ban.
The U.S. Congress resumes work on a major defense appropriations bill one day after President George W. Bush reluctantly agrees to congressional language prohibiting his regime from engaging in the torture of prisoners or ignoring international law.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Huge Hike in Premiums Proposed

Gannett's capital bureau reporter Paige St. John is reporting late Thursday in the Ft. Myers News-Press that the governing board for Citizens Property Insurance decided today to seek a second, "steep" premium increase from state insurance regulators.

Specific increases will depend on how close to the coast a home may be and where in the state it is located. Homeowners close to the coast will see an average 45 percent increase, according to St. John, and about 21 percent for structures further inland.

The higher premiums, once approved by the Insurance Division of the Department of Financial Services, would come "on top of average 17 percent hikes approved last month to keep the company's rates higher than the private market." Writes St. John --
Combined, it means insurance will cost Citizens policyholders nearly 80 percent more for coastal homes and 51 percent for mobile home owners. The increases still face public hearings and state regulatory approval. Citizens' nearly 840,000 policyholders could get notices for the higher bills as early as March.

More than 243,000 homeowners live in areas set for average increases that exceed $1,000, an analysis of Citizens' documents shows.
The proposed rate increase also will apply unevenly across geographical areas of the state. For three examples, St. John says:
The average premium increase for more than 12,000 residents in Lee County will range from $401 to $1,826 a year, raising the average annual insurance bill for more than 8,000 residents to over $6,700.

In Escambia County, more than 1,100 coastal residents will be charged an average $1,638 a year more for home insurance, pushing their average bill to $3,897. For example, a newer, $200,000 block home on Pensacola Beach or Perdido Key, without storm shutters, would have a $3,690 premium, on a policy with a 2 percent hurricane deductible. The premium for the same house within Pensacola would be $2,185.

In Brevard County, coastal insurance bills will go up an average $795, to $2,030.
Citizens officials claim the increase is needed to cover a $1 billion assessment for storm losses and to build up reserves for the next tropical strom season.

"This is the reason we've been running deficits, because we didn't have the reserves built up to cover eight storms," St. John quotes Citizens board chairman Bruce Douglas as saying. "As distasteful as it is to have to consider actuarially sound rates, from an insurance standpoint if you're going to break even, you better have them."

Pensacola Beach Today

Good news! Pensacola Beach Today is a new, full-service web site begun by 17 y.o. Grant Corbin. His lead story today is taken from the current issue of the Gulf Breeze News.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

A Road to Fort Pickens?

Photo courtesy of U.S. Geological Survey

New York Times science editor Cornelia Dean today reviews competing proposals of how -- and whether -- to repair the washed-out road to Fort Pickens. Dean, as we noted here, visited the Pensacola area earlier this Fall.

Among the options is the recently-recommended solution of Mobile engineers Volkert & Associates:
In a report on the situation, Volkert & Associates ... recommended building a kind of seawall made of sheets of corrugated metal called sheet piling that would be driven deep into the sand along the seaward edge of the road. If this construction proceeded, it would also be possible to run a sewer line to Fort Pickens to replace the septic system there.

Replies famed coastal morphologist Orrin Pilkey, author of A Celebration of the World's Barrier Islands: "People say, 'What are you going to do, let the road fall in?' The correct answer, of course, is yes."

Insurance Panel in Pensacola Wednesday

WHO: "The Task Force on Long-Term Solutions for Florida's Hurricane Insurance Market"

WHAT: Public testimony is scheduled, although tentatively toward the end of the meeting.

WHEN: Tomorrow, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. (Wednesday, Dec. 14)

WHERE: Pensacola Junior College, Hagler Auditorium (Building 2, Room 252)

WHY: Because Florida State Government wants to slap consumers in the face some more.

For more information, call Robbie Simpson, Florida Department of Financial Services, at 850-413-2963 or click here for tentative agenda
Panel Members
(Industry - 12½ Consumers - ½)

Purported Consumer Representative:

Steve Burgess, so-called "Insurance Consumer Advocate," State of Florida. (Salaried job dependent on good will of State CFO Tom Gallagher. See: "Insurance Foxes To 'Improve Service' For Us Chickens")

Industry Representatives:
Richard Cain, Vice President, State Farm Insurance Co.
Dave Cobb, President, Freedom Insurors, Inc.
Randy Dumm, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Risk Management and Insurance, FSU
Dan Gilmore, President, Florida Homebuilders’ Association
Blair Glenn, Mortgage Banking Executive, Wachovia Mortgage Corporation
George Grawe, Counsel, Allstate Floridian Insurance Co.
Tony Grippa, Executive Vice President, Brown & Brown
Robert P. Hartwig, Ph.D., Senior Vice President, Insurance Information Institute
Leslie Chapman-Henderson, CEO, Federal Alliance for Safe Homes
Harold Humphrey, Vice Chairman, InSource , Inc.
Kevin M. McCarty, Commissioner, Office of Insurance Regulation
James Wurdeman, CEO, Poe Financial Group

Phone-y Closed Claims Parade

"For some hurricane victims, the success exists only on paper. Complaints about Citizens persist, even from last year's storms."
Paige St. John reports in today's Ft. Myers News-Press that Citizens Property Insurance and its "spin-off" privatized insurance companies "again" are leading the state in property insurance related complaints:
Regulators show Florida's insurer of last resort has incurred more than five times the number of complaints against Florida's largest private insurers, State Farm and Allstate.

The most complaints involve Atlantic Preferred, a Florida-based company built on about 81,000 policies taken out from Citizens. Its 791 complaint calls are nearly twice as many complaints as any other insurer in Florida, including Citizens itself, which is second with 473.
To this news, Citizens Property flak-catcher Justin Glover, who can always be counted on to spin like a hurricane, says, "We're not leading the pack as we were last year, and we are proud of that."

Glover's pride at the surge of 'good news' just doesn't quit:
Though 61 percent of its claims from Hurricane Wilma have not yet been adjusted, the state-run insurer has logged only 473 help calls to the Department of Financial Services consumer line. That compares to more than 6,000 in 2004.

"We're pleased with that change and think it is due to improvements from last year," Glover said.
Sixty-one percent? And Glover says he's "pleased with that change"?

Never mind the fact Citizens' consumer complaint lines often haven't worked at all. From where most hurricane victims sit, a more likely explanation for the lower volume of telephone complaints is that Floridians have pretty well given up on Citizens -- and the Department of Financial Services, for that matter. Telephoning the state's consumer 'complaint' lines is less effective than dropping a message bottle in the ocean.

As bad as the 61 percent open claims status at Citizens is, St. John's news report suggests the 'closed complaint' problem likely is even worse than it appears. The reporter uses Port Richey homeowner Barb Polsky as an example:
Polsky, still battling Citizens over Hurricane Frances damage from 14 months ago, challenges her insurer's assertion it has closed 99 percent of 2004 claims, along with state officials' willingness to accept such statements.

Unable to afford repairs, her walls have rotted and the mold is so severe the 63-year-old woman is afraid to turn on her heat or air systems. Because adjusters have offered Polsky a partial check, her insurer can declare the claim as "closed."

Closer to home, just the other day we encountered a well known, long-time Pensacola Beach resident who has a similar story. A retired teacher, she was widowed just weeks after Hurricane Ivan completely destroyed her large cinder block home, some 15 months ago. Wind ripped the roof off, sent her fence flying, and blew out windows. Rain soaked the interior. About four to five hours later, flood waters inundated the whole structure.

To date, she's received virtually nothing from Citizens or her flood insurance company. Each is pointing the finger at the other, and neither one is willing to compensate her for the total destruction of her home. After fruitlessly trying state "consumer help" lines to get help, our friend turned the whole thing over to a lawyer.

"I just couldn't get anyone to pay attention to me," she says. "So I hired a lawyer to deal with it."

Other Florida insurance companies listed by St. John as leading the 2005 Hurricane Telephone Complaint Parade include:
  • Atlantic Preferred
  • Citizens Property Insurance
  • Florida Preferred
  • Gulfstream Property and Casualty
  • Federated National
  • Allstate
  • State Farm
  • Universal Property and Casualty
  • Argus Fire
  • United Property and Casualty
For more information, read Paige St. John's article.