Why seizing journalists’ records is the last option, not the first

The latest revelations about the Obama Administration overstepping its moral authority, if not entirely its legal one, in dealing with enemies both real and perceived have left me melancholy.  At best.  While I am buoyed to see that the concept of using the IRS as a blunt instrument  to punish one’s political opponents seems to have won near-unanimous disapproval, the idea that the government shouldn’t be investigating reporters seems not to be getting quite so much support, at least not outside of journalism.

This government is out of bounds—and out of its mind—if it believes that treating journalists as suspected criminals is legally or morally the right way to go.  A government led by a former professor of constitutional law should know better, even if that government has prosecuted more alleged leakers than any previous one.  The things we’re learning about, or which have been alleged, in just a matter of a few days, are stupefying: not just secretly seizing reporters’ phone records and examining their emails, but treating the reporter as though he were a criminal suspect and investigating his associates—even looking at the reporter’s parents’ phone records!

(Look here for links to a number of good stories, editorials and op/eds on government overreach of authority, the attack on civil liberties, and uncomplimentary comparisons to the administrations of George W. Bush and Richard Nixon.  Look here for a first-hand account of the “Kafkaesque” experience of a reporter who had his phone records secretly seized by two government agencies more than 20 years ago.)

Government has a right to protect its secrets; and yes, I think there are circumstances in which government should properly keep information from general distribution.  But unless the information is (1) critical to preserving public safety and security and (2) cannot be obtained in any other way, the government should not be allowed to try to compel journalists to turn over unpublished research or provide testimony or rat out their associates, because that turns those reporters into de facto government investigators and will make people with stories to leak and asses to protect choose their asses over the story. Seizing journalists’ records or compelling testimony is the last option, not the first one, and it’s up a court to decide that, on a case by case basis.

I don’t think journalists have a legal “right” to protect sources; others disagree.  I think they must protect sources if they hope to be effective at their job, but I don’t think the law shields them from any and every effort by the government to uncover information.  (Unless there’s a shield law.)  And I think journalists should be prepared to pay the price under law when they choose to protect their sources, as a good journalist should, while simultaneously refusing to comply with a lawful court order, as a good citizen should.

Yes, Sarah Palin, it’s possible to be a good journalist and a good citizen.  All good citizens are not good journalists, but all good journalists are good citizens when they fulfill a critical role in the functioning of a free society: to tell citizens those things that people in power don’t want us to know; to inform us of what is being done in our name and on our behalf.

I’m not making a case for the purveyors of “news you can use”—things like consumer news, what’s trending on social media, breathless reports on developments on a TV network’s prime time entertainment program as if it was the explosion of the Hindenburg (yes, I’m talking to you, KTRK-TV in Houston); that’s the sissified bullshit kind of “news” we get from outlets that sold their souls when they bought the line of crap peddled by non-journalist consultants whose only real goal is increased profitability.  (I’m not opposed to profit, by the way—I’d like to have been better at it myself—but I am opposed to those organizations for which profit is the only or primary reason for being, and to the people who see journalism as just another product to sell like cook pans or bicycles or bird seed.)

I mean to make the case for the journalism that is there to confront those in power, one citizen to another, and to tell the rest of us what’s going on with the people we’ve authorized to spend our money and operate our governments, from Washington, D.C. to the state capitols and from counties and cities to utility districts and homeowner’s associations.  I mean the journalism that is envisioned in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution when it guarantees us the right to a free press right alongside the freedom of religion and freedom of speech and freedom of peaceable assembly and redress of grievances.

How well do American journalists do in living up to that standard?  Each according to his talents, like the rest of us.  The ones Don Henley sang about a generation ago are still around and (still) aren’t even trying, but the ones who are trying to do the job the right way for the right reasons deserve our respect and the respect of our government, regardless of who is president at the moment.

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OK, let’s make gay rights an issue in the presidential election—why not?!

I mean, it’s not like there’s already a bunch of issues in this year’s election on which the candidates (and presumptive candidates) have staked out well-reasoned and philosophically-consistent positions as they make a rational case to the people of America asking for the responsibility of managing one of the major branches of our national government, right?  So I’d like to see if anybody is ready to really show some leadership, and gay rights and gay marriage are perfect issues: all that’s required is the courage to publicly do the right thing.

The latest engagement was in North Carolina where the voters took to the polls Tuesday to say no to gay marriage, in great big, red letters.  In Slate William Saletan summarized the vote-no-’cause-God-says-so arguments, and other scare tactics, those people heard in the campaign: Gay marriage will destroy religious freedom, and weaken the economy, and be treason against God, and we’ll lose God’s protection from racial disasters, and it will lead to man-on-dog marriage.  (Seriously.)

(Interesting perspective, though, from the speaker of the North Carolina state house, who is convinced that any ban on gay marriage in his state will only be temporary.  “State House Speaker Thom Tillis, a Republican from a Charlotte suburb, said even if the amendment is passed, it will be reversed as today’s young adults age.  ‘It’s a generational issue,’ Mr. Tillis told a student group at North Carolina State University in March about the amendment he supports.  ‘If it passes, I think it will be repealed within 20 years.’”)

This comes just a week after a Mitt Romney campaign foreign policy spokesman resigned after anti-gay conservatives “made an issue” out of his support for gay marriage.  Yes, it was Richard Grenell’s “unhinged” support for gay marriage that upset these folks, surely; the religious extremists wouldn’t have used that to cover their opposition to Grenell because the man himself is gay…no no, surely not.  Romney didn’t cover himself in glory, caving to the intolerance from the religious rightand sacrificing Grenell on the altar of getting elected.

Joe Biden’s got something to say here—what a surprise!  But I’m inclined to agree with those who think that putting the loose-lipped vice president on “Meet the Press” and having him say he is comfortable with gay marriage as a civil right is part of a political plan by the Obama campaign, which wants to reassure gay and lesbian voters, and other voters who support gay rights, that the president really is on their side but doesn’t want to take the chance of reigniting this culture wars issue and inflaming anti-gay voters into supporting Romney.  Adding the secretary of education to the mix was a nice touch.  From the standpoint of election politics, I understand that reasoning.  (There are Democratic spin doctors who insist there’s no subterfuge involved, that the campaign wishes this issue had stayed down in the weeds.)

But I also agree with J. Bryan Lowder in Slate, and probably many others in other places, when they argue that there has to come a time when the political calculations take a back seat to doing the right thing.

However, at some point this kind of political prevarication is going to have to give way to principle. Though the cultural mood in this country regarding homosexuality has been morphing in the right direction for a number of years now, waiting for the zeitgeist or generational turn-over to solve everything isn’t going to help those citizens affected in the meantime by dangerously reactionary legislation.

(They’re talking about you, Mr. President, if you’re up to it.)

Lowder goes on to explain, and links to a FiveThirtyEight blog post in the New York Times that further explains, that the North Carolina constitutional amendment doesn’t just prohibit same sex marriage, it outlaws all civil unions and domestic partnerships in the state regardless of gender.  Now, God’s position on heterosexual civil unions is not entirely clear, but there is a new Gallup poll showing half of Americans today believe same-sex marriages should be recognized as valid by lawwith the same rights as heterosexual marriages.  That’s a dramatic change from 15 years ago when it was only 27% favoring and 68% opposing.

The tide is turning: last week Funky Winkerbean started a new series, and I have a feeling the good people of Westview, Ohio will end up on the side of the angels.

gay prom at westview

Reflecting on September 11: a call to our better angels

In the entry hallway at our house we have a framed picture of the night skyline of Lower Manhattan as seen from New Jersey, the twinkling twin towers of the World Trade Center the focal point.  The caption under the photo reads, “We’ll never forget.”  Not forget what happened that day?  That’s the easy part.

That morning I was at my desk at work with the television tuned to CNN, trying to concentrate on the newspaper, when I became barely conscious of talk about a plane hitting one of the towers.  They got my attention when I saw the video of smoke coming from the north tower and heard the anchor talking to someone who said he saw a passenger jet hit the building.  That’s ridiculous, I thought: those planes would never accidentally hit a downtown building, and you could see on TV that the sky was a clear, brilliant blue…must have been a small private plane or something.  My office mate walked in and I brought him up to date on what they were saying, then we sat and watched…and saw a passenger plane come into the frame and slam into the other building!  My first thought: this is not an accident.  (Firm grasp of the obvious, eh?)

I didn’t move from the TV.  Another plane hit the Pentagon.  I watched the towers collapse, fascinated at how they seemed to accordion down on themselves, and not believing the size of the dust cloud they sent up.  Then we were all sent home from our government office in Houston because no one knew what might be the next target.  I sat in front of my television at home the rest of the day trying to get it all straight in my head—what do we know, as opposed to what we think we know—as I had done sitting at a microphone in a radio studio in Houston more than 15 years earlier, on the day space shuttle Challenger blew up.

In the next few weeks we learned that the hijackers who died along with almost 3,000 innocent victims on September 11 were connected to a global terrorist network called Al Qaeda, founded by Saudi-born Osama bin Laden, and which was implicated in prior attacks on American targets around the world.  Apparently, Al Qaeda was attacking those it saw as enemies of its fundamentalist interpretation of Islam.  Before the end of the year, President Bush sent American troops to Afghanistan to get bin Laden and other Al Qaeda leaders and their protectors within the Taliban.  We’ve been at war ever since.

Not just an impossible to quantify war on “terrorism,” which is really more a tactic than an enemy, but an actual boots-on-the-ground bullets-in-the-air war, and there’s still no end in sight.  One big reason, I believe, is that “we” aren’t at war.  Our armed forces are at war, and so are their loved ones, but when have the rest of us felt like we were at war?  There haven’t been any shortages of goods, damn few protests, and no tax increases to pay for a war.  Absent any kind of personal connection it’s not surprising that many Americans find it hard to remember that “we” have been fighting war constantly since late 2001—and for much of that time, two wars.  We have come to think of it, when we think of it at all, as a perfectly normal situation; for many of our soldiers, sailors and Marines, being in a shooting war is all they know professionally, and what their spouses and kids assume to be a normal life.

We went to war in Afghanistan to get the people who attacked us on September 11.  We finally killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan this year, but there’s no sign of an end to our presence in Afghanistan.  We went to war in Iraq to…go ahead, you fill in the blank, but we know it wasn’t to get Al Qaeda, since they weren’t there, or to stop Saddam Hussein from using his weapons of mass destruction, which also weren’t there.  Ironically, the war we chose to fight in Iraq only strengthened our enemy there, if it didn’t actually create an enemy where he didn’t previously exist.  Last month, some eight and a half years after that war began, was the first month that there were no American casualties in Iraq.

The attacks of September 11 were a shot to the solar plexus of the American people.  In the immediate aftermath we did what Americans do after a surprise attack, whether from a mortal enemy or from Mother Nature: everyday men and women responded heroically in the face of the crisis, then we all took care of those who needed to be taken care of.  We opened our hearts and our purses without complaint or even a second thought, and helped each other through until the shock wore off, then turned our attention to those who attacked us.

Unfortunately, we didn’t see the second surprise attack, the one launched by cynical politicians and government functionaries who took advantage of our fear and anxiety.  The news media, shamefully fearful of even being accused of being less than loyal patriots, stood by and let officials get away with murder, in the figurative if not the literal sense.  We let our fear overpower “the better angels of our nature” and spent parts of the next ten years squandering our time, our treasure and our good karma.

We crawled all over each other with demonstrations of the trappings of patriotism as if that was all that was required to be a patriot, as if claiming allegiance to America’s ideals was just as good as living up to those ideals when it really matters.

We let natural wariness in unusual circumstances turn into fear of The Other.  We treated Americans who are Muslim, and those who came here from the Middle East and southern Asia, as though they were in the cockpits of those planes in spirit that day.  People whose only sin was that they practice a particular religion—including those in the peaceful mainstream of that religion, not in the violent, radical extreme—or trace their heritage to a particular part of the world weren’t given the benefit of any doubt but that they were enemies of America.  How much time have we wasted on things like trying to ban shariah law, or trying to stop Muslims from building mosques where some loudmouth decided it’s not appropriate?

How is it that we really spent breath fighting with each other over whether it’s all right to torture prisoners, or just OK to secretly send them to friendly countries where they do the torturing for us?  Were we napping when the government enacted Patriot Acts at the expense of our own civil liberties?  Why did we devote our time and energy to a blue ribbon investigation into ways we could better protect ourselves in the future, and then not implement the recommendations?

How did we sit still for the manipulators who used this attack on our country to whip up sympathy for a war against a country (and its people) that had nothing to do with that attack, with the result that a larger number of Americans have died in that needless war—Americans who bravely, selflessly volunteered to protect the rest of us—than died in the original attack?  And that’s to say nothing of the cost in dollars, and the resulting impact that has had on our national economy and well being.

Back then, I thought that a few months after the attacks, when the shock subsided, we’d regain our perspective, but it seems that I was thinking about a different America, one which perhaps only ever existed in dreams: one where we followed the rules we set for ourselves, even when we were frightened; where people who hijack our airplanes and use them to kill thousands of our fellow Americans have the right to a fair and public trial; where, when crazy people who claim to adhere to the tenets of one of the world’s great religions but are in fact an extremist group led by a delusional maniac with a messiah complex attack our cities and our government institutions, we don’t ignore facts and logic to leap to the conclusion that every person in the world who practices that religion is part of a plot to get us.

Today we have the chance to do better, and I believe we can.  We can work to put aside our fear and get over the juvenile impulse to attack anyone different from ourselves.  Let’s choose to deal with people based on who they really are and what they really do, rather than relying on our fevered imaginations to do our thinking for us.  Let’s start, for example, by recognizing the difference between Al Qaeda and Al Jazeera, or the difference between a community center and a terrorist training camp.

Not forgetting the events of September 11, 2001—that’s the easy part.  If we don’t do the hard part, and act like the people we pride ourselves on being, then the terrorists have already won.

Towers 002

Take your seats, please, the curtain’s going up for the Big Finish

Since we last checked in with our heroes: Speaker Boehner, faced with his own proposal going down to defeat in the chamber he (ostensibly) leads, capitulated—he added a balanced budget provision to his plan for lowering government spending, reducing debt and raising the federal debt ceiling, to placate enough members to get the bill passed.  It worked; and as expected, and warned, the Senate rejected the plan; now Majority Leader Reid is trying to persuade Senate Republicans to let his plan come to a vote. [UPDATE 3:03 pm: The House rejected Reid’s plan before the Senate had a chance to vote on it.]

The Wall Street Journal editorial page wants Republicans to accept a plan now, and claim a victory, even if it’s one that doesn’t solve all the nation’s economic problems once and for ever.  (Why didn’t I think of that?)  An economy struggling to recover from recession doesn’t need the government to suddenly stop making some of its payments—and you can take comfort in knowing, there is a plan for who gets paid first in the event the debt ceiling is not raised by the deadline next Tuesday…the bureaucratic imperative prevails.

I still choose to believe that Congress may bring us to the edge of default but reason will prevail and the debt ceiling will be raised to prevent a default…that puts me in the company of an American conservative icon:

Socialists-7-27-11-color-640x469 

Thanks to David Horsey, seattlepi.com and Hearst Newspapers…click the cartoon to read Horsey’s commentary:

If it were not for their powerful recklessness, I would simply get a good laugh out of the alarmists on the right who see socialism in any tilt toward moderation in our politics.

(snip)

To ensure that his country does not follow Greece into a bottomless hole of debt, Tory Prime Minister David Cameron has implemented a budget balancing formula of three-to-one – that is, three parts spending cuts to one part revenue increases. These austerity measures have, not surprisingly, provoked rioting among leftists and students. Nobody in Europe would be silly enough to call this socialism.

Yet, when President Barack Obama proposes the same formula to rein in the debt in the United States, a mental riot goes off in the heads of Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, the House Republican Caucus, the Tea Party and all the others who are somehow convinced Obama wants to turn America into Sweden.

Consumed by their fear of phantom socialists, these folks see politics in stark, black-and-white terms. If you are not with ’em, you’re agin’ ’em  and even the most staunch conservative risks charges of treason if he shows a willingness to bargain with the other side.

(snip)

Like ultra-conservatives of past decades, today’s reactionaries have scared themselves silly by demonizing their opponents: every liberal hates America, every Democrat is a socialist, every moderate is a dupe, every compromise is a pact with the devil. What is new is that this mindset now dominates the majority caucus in the United States House of Representatives. And because of that, there very well could be no deal to raise the debt ceiling, unless the president and the Senate choose to grant the militants everything they want.

(snip)

…to confuse the centrist economic policies of Barack Obama with socialism is as absurd as calling a conservative like Tom Coburn a RINO – Republican In Name Only. As clean cut, moral and upstanding as my fellow citizens on the right may be, I have to say they have become unhinged from economic and political reality and, in their delusion, they are about to take us all over a cliff.

In a Newsweek interview, Tom Coburn, a guy I disagree with about most things, summed it up frightening well:

“We’ve never been in this territory before. I mean, if we handle this wrong, we’re near the end of our republic as we know it.”

Beware of those peddling politics for dummies

The chattering classes say Republicans are in trouble because of House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s proposed changes to Medicare.  They say that because, across the land, there has not been a rousing call for its adoption by acclamation, and therefore we can ascertain that the proposers are on the outs with the American people.  In fact some people do object, and for a number of reasons, but I don’t know how much trouble the whole GOP is in over this issue, since I try not to make the sweeping generalization my first conclusion or give myself credit for being able to see the future or into the minds of others.

But I think that what’s happening right now on this subject is a good thing.  We need to talk about details if we’re going to find a way out of our federal budget mess.  No one has wanted to talk specifics because, well, talking about paying more and spending less is not fun.  But beyond that, few in power dare to address specifics for fear that the short attention span American voter and the heat-before-light American news media will fixate only on the fact that someone proposed something and rain down ridicule and ignominy upon them until the end of days (no, not until October 21, for much longer than that).  Any open discussion or real give and take on a serious issue becomes more and more unlikely as it becomes more and more clear that the discussion will be intentionally twisted into a negative campaign ad.

We have to talk specifics on this, but that doesn’t mean that we have to do everything that is proposed, or that every unadopted proposal is a failure.  Ryan’s plan may never become law, but it already served the purpose of getting us talking about details.  Now we need to keep talking, not recoil from the negative reaction to the first serious plan and never say anything ever again.

The budget crunches in this country are real and can’t be solved just with accounting tricks; it’s going to mean painful cuts in programs that people need as well as ones they want.  For example: here in Texas our state law requires a balanced budget and there’s only so much money available this time around—tens of billions of dollars less than the current budget.  Absent a multi-billion dollar windfall of biblical proportions, the only way out means someone’s ox gets gored…or likely in this case, everyone’s oxen.  As Patricia Kilday Hart made the point in a recent column, the discussion is about what gets defined as an “essential” government program.  In order not to reach into the state’s savings account this time, there are budget plans that make some changes:

It cuts state Child Protective Services “intake” offices so severely that officials predict 85,000 calls about abused children will not be answered.

It shortchanges school districts for the 80,000 new students expected to show up at the front doors of public schools next year.

It cuts Medicaid reimbursement rates to nursing homes so drastically that the industry predicts 75 percent of the nursing homes in Texas will shut their doors, leaving 60,000 elderly Texans without care and 47,000 employees without jobs.

The polls have been showing for a while that people want the budget fixed, they just don’t want the fix to hurt them.  Well, “they” are going to have to get over that or “we” will get nowhere…except closer to the edge as the wind picks up a little bit.