Monday, December 30, 2013


They say there’s no going back in time, but for tens of thousands of Afghans, it is as the blues singer says, “Thems that’s sayin’, sure ain’t  thems that has.” 

Afghanistan’s grip on the 21st century, always weak and partial, seems to be slipping, threatening a return to its recent, but pre-modern past.

For someone who spent a few weeks teaching young video journalists in Afghanistan, this is a very painful reflection, occasioned by the Washington Post’s account of a new National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) of the future of that country.

“A new American intelligence assessment on the Afghan war,” the Post’s front-page story begins, “predicts that the gains the United States and its allies have made during the past three years are likely to have been significantly eroded by 2017, even if Washington leaves behind a few thousand troops and continues bankrolling the impoverished nation, according to officials familiar with the report.

“[The NIE,]” the Post continues, “predicts that the Taliban and other power brokers will become increasingly influential as the United States winds down its longest war in history.”

To this, may we all add, “DUH!” 

What is accomplished by force can only be sustained by force, until all opposing forces have been rejected, disarmed and disabled, and a credible local government is in place.

After 12 years, and more than 2300 Americans killed and more than 19,000 wounded (according to icasualties), and roughly $680 Billion spent (says the Center for Defense Information), The US effort has failed at both tasks, -- creating a government that is close to credible or competent, or disarming or disabling it’s life-threatening enemies (and not just the Taliban; all over Afghanistan, much local turf is ruled by local warlords, militias or religious factions). 

Hence, a sharp reduction, or complete withdrawal of American forces in Afghanistan will result in a sharp reduction, if not eradication of American influence in Kabul.  No kidding?  As it did in Iraq?  And Vietnam?

Is it us?  Or is it the world?  More on this later.

Let’s first return to the more immediate question, the future of Afghanistan, a.k.a. after American and other foreign forces leave. Will it irrevocably plunge my Third Millennium former students back into First Millennium feudalism, tribalism, fundamentalism, and violence?  Is the best they can hope for that a few Afghan cities like Kabul or Herat might become relative safe havens of urbanity and opportunity, surrounded and besieged by various rural-based absolutisms.

The Post reports that the NIE says even that hope may be too optimistic.  “The central government in Kabul is all but certain to become increasingly irrelevant as it loses ‘purchase’ over parts of the country,” is the estimate.

The report also predicts “that Afghanistan would likely descend into chaos quickly if Washington and Kabul don’t sign a security pact that would keep an international military contingent there beyond 2014. ’The situation would deteriorate very rapidly,’ said one U.S. official familiar with the report.

Whether achieving an agreement, and keeping forces here for 3 or 10 or a 100 years would, in the analysts’ opinion, do anything more than delay the inevitable, either the NIE or the Post has left unmentioned.

But as to the imminence of “chaos, “the Post reports, “That conclusion is widely shared among U.S. officials working on Afghanistan, said the official.”

But in Washington, it would seem, the Post found a different perspective, or at the least, it found 3 home front dissenters.

“One American official” told the Post, “there are too many uncertainties to make an educated prediction.”  The big variable to this observer, “next year’s presidential election.”

The other push-back against the NIE comes from “a senior administration official [who] said that the intelligence community has long underestimated Afghanistan’s security forces.”

And this person predicted to the Post, White House pushback against the NIE assessment will be decisive. “’An assessment that says things are going to be gloomy no matter what you do, that you’re just delaying the inevitable, that’s just a view,’ said the official. ‘I would not think it would be the determining view.’”

Then there was the “e-mailed statement” from a presumably second “senior administration official saying intelligence assessments are ‘only one tool in our policy analysis toolbox… as we look at the consequential decisions ahead of us, including making a decision on whether to leave troops in Afghanistan after the end of 2014.’”

According to the first “senior official,” “’the intelligence community has long underestimated Afghanistan’s security forces.’”

Actually, the “gloomy” and “grim” assessments of the Afghan armed forces made in NIEs in 2008 and 2010 seemed pretty much borne out by the metrics of desertion, training performance, and battlefield outcomes

But in December 2013, this senior official told the Post, “’the development of a credible and increasingly proficient Afghan army and [has] made it unlikely that al-Qaeda could reestablish a foothold in the country.’”

This, the senior government defender attributes to President Obama’s decision to “surge” 30,000 American troops into Afghanistan in 2009.  Whatever critics, including many of the military participants themselves, may think, the White House insists, the American fighters have not fought, slogged, frozen or died in vain, because al-Qaeda has lost its foothold in Afghanistan.

If Al Qaeda were still (or was ever) primarily an organization, this assertion might hold some water.  But Al Qaeda has long since devolved into an idea, a shared, diversified mission to expel “Western,” modern, secular influences from Muslim lands and to bring the world of Islam under total Wahhabi control.  This idea remains as alive and well in Afghanistan as the Taliban and other jihadis who adhere to it.

The Obama Administration’s “decimation” of the Al Qaeda group’s leadership hasn’t slowed the spread of the Al Qaeda mission to Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Kenya,  Nigeria and Mali.  As for Afghanistan, there are real questions to be raised about whether 12 years of American and international military intervention has produced real, lasting change.  The NIE suggests that most of rural Afghanistan will be, as it long has been: a patchwork of feudal zones, controlled by local warlords, tribal elders or religious zealots like the Taliban.  Even the cities, Kabul, Mazar-I-Sharif, Herat, Kandahar, whatever their shared interests might be, are as separate in culture and mentality as they are geographically.

But after 12 years of funding and frustration, fighting and dying in Afghanistan, almost all of it borne by people who live far from Washington, one sees few significant changes in the mindset of America’s rulers or its journalists. 

For one thing, we still think it’s all about us.

For the Post that means, receiving the NIE leak, detailing it, and soliciting comment from within the Beltway, and then without any reference to what is happening in Afghanistan, turning to the important hometown question of who benefits, politically, from the leak. “The latest intelligence assessment, some U.S. officials noted, has provided those inclined to abandon Afghanistan with strong fodder.”

Actually, it provides “strong fodder “to those who advised against going to war in Afghanistan and those who opposed the “surge” of 2009.  Especially, since this time, as opposed to when NIEs were issued in 2008 and 2010, the Post says, “Gen. Joseph F. Dunford, the commander of international troops in Afghanistan, chose not to submit a rebuttal.” 

But lest defeatism dislodge “pragmatism,” the article gives the last word to Stephen Biddle, whom the Post calls, “a defense policy expert at the Council on Foreign Relations,” forgetting, I guess, that he has been a constant counselor in devising the disasters of Afghanistan’s last dozen years.  “He predicts a stalemate for years to come,” the Post concludes, “‘Whether it’s a worse or better stalemate depends on the rate at which Congress defunds the war,’ he said.”

Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who got and kept his job largely because of American support, says what determines worse or better is the rate of death and destruction in his country, and he says that making things better depends on reducing the numbers, activities and autonomy of American forces.  

Not everyone in Afghanistan agrees, and that very issue is likely to be very important in the 2014 elections for Karzai’s Presidential successor. 

But there are other, perhaps even more important questions about Afghanistan which involve, not Americans, but Afghans. They relate to the 2 goals of the whole intervention, governance and security.

In re governance: these questions about the 2014 elections.  (1) Who will be the candidates? (2) Will any of them represent a national constituency, or will each be beholden to particular local, tribal, or religious interests? (3) If it’s to be the latter, how will coalitions be formed to achieve a national plurality and central government? (4) Will the election be clean and credible, or just another instance of political theft? And (5) will the winner rule in the national interest, or just to enrich his particular constituents, his backers, his family or himself?

And for the purported hallmark of American achievement in Afghanistan, the security forces, the military and the police? (1) Will either group fight, and how well? (2) For what principles or values? (3) For whom, the nation, the leaders, some smaller center of power? (4) Against whom, all comers?

These are really hard questions, but they define the Afghan reality and its future, and not just political gamesmanship thousands of miles away.  But these are the questions that matter.

Where were they in the Post’s report?  AWOL.

No wonder the US has such an interventionist losing streak.  We remain steadfast in our ignorance about our ignorance; we retain our Rumsfeldian determination to deny or ignore what we don’t like about what we ought to know.

Before we “surge” somewhere else, here a few small lessons we might want to learn.

Force sometimes works, but always breeds resentment, especially when it is visiting force used against “homies.”  Thus, a visitor’s use of force should be minimized.

Reliance on local sources to identify enemies sometimes works, but always risks confounding the visitor’s enemies with their sources’ enemies.  On the other hand, the visitors’ enemies, and local bystanders, can always identify them, both for blaming and for targeting.

The only way in which visitors win is by weakening their local enemies so definitively that their creation of a “better” home team can survive.  The quicker and more completely the home team government can take over, the better.

It is always just a matter of time until the visitors return home. Everybody there knows this, and knows the capabilities of the “insurgents” to re-insurge, and shapes his or her loyalties accordingly.

Everyone here and there knows that time in Afghanistan is coming; sooner, or Steven Biddle would say, “better,” later. Then we’ll know the truth. 

Did American intervention produce both a credible, sustainable governing structure, and a population ready to embrace it?  Or have we, once again, spent blood and treasure trying to impose old-fashioned short-term domination on a world where new-fashioned weaponry and communications make that an impossible long-term ambition?












Tuesday, December 24, 2013


“Inequality is in.  The president, you have probably heard, has declared income inequality to be ‘the defining challenge of our time.’ (Except he didn’t quite, but we’ll get to that.)”

From the start of his New York Times op-ed, tellingly titled “Inequality for Dummies,” former editor-in-chief Bill Keller announces his strategies of diminishment and dishonesty in addressing perhaps the most important political issue of our time.

It sounds cute, when Keller confesses parenthetically, that he is willfully misstating the President’s theme, but be not disarmed:  the fact is, as Keller notes, some 4 paragraphs later, “President Obama’s speech … was actually billed by the White House as a speech on economic mobility. The equality he urged us to strive for was not equality of wealth but equality of opportunity.”

This is, of course, a distinction with a difference.

Keller almost immediately endorses the President’s goal: “A stratified society in which the bottom and top are mostly locked in place,” he says, “is not just morally offensive; it is unstable.”

Then, he brings in expert support for his thesis. “’The most pernicious fact of inequality is when it translates into political inequality,’ said Daron Acemoglu, a co-author of the book [Why Nations Fail] and a Massachusetts Institute of Technology economist. ‘That means our democracy ceases to function because some people have so much money they command greater power.’ The rich spend heavily on lobbyists and campaign donations to secure tax breaks and tariff advantages and bailouts that perpetuate their status. Not only does a dynamic economy stagnate, but the left-out citizenry becomes disillusioned and cynical. Sound familiar?”

So, if President Obama’s speech hit the bull’s-eye, why distort its meaning and then wait for 4 paragraphs to agree with it?

Because the reality of inequality,-- economic, political, legal, and social,-- does not interest Keller.  What he wants to write about is the public conversation about inequality, and how pathetic and, ultimately futile it is.

Note Keller’s gratuitously cynical lead: “Inequality is in.”  Even Keller will eventually admit that the reality of inequality is not only real, but devastating, it’s the rhetoric of inequality he’s mad at. He seems to believe his long-standing avoidance of the issue is a victimless crime, while addressing inequality is a waste of time.  In fact, his second paragraph is entirely focused on another self-admiring confession of the unworthiness of his column.  “If you traffic in opinions, as a pro or an amateur, you’d better have opinions about inequality. And so I set off into the intramural battlefield to see what’s up.”

Gee, he moans, I feel so silly to be writing, even thinking about the disappearing American dream of opportunity for all. 

As for those who, by talking so well about it, have forced him to devote a column to inequality, Elizabeth Warren and Bill de Blasio, are given the derogative label “progressive idols,” and characterized as fanatical persecutors “of Liberals of a more centrist bent — notably the former Clintonites at the Third Way think tank — [who] have refused to join the chorus and been lashed by fellow Democrats for their blasphemy.”

The idea of a crowd of well-paid Clinton toadies clutching their testaments of triangulated belief as they are led to the fiery stake by a mob of angry populists, attractive though it may be, has as much to do with reality as Keller’s alleged secret goal of the inequality critics: “forcing the rich to become poor.”

In Keller’s paper, it seems the overdogs are always the victims of “class warfare.  Poor babies. 

The populists, who Keller likes to call “the left-left,” a phrase that has no meaning at all, except a reductive “off the cake,” are accused of a vengeful campaign to redistribute wealth downward.  They want, Keller says, ”to take from “the 1% … to subsidize the needs of the poor and middle class.”

That means, Keller asserts, they “would string the safety net higher: expand Social Security, hold Medicare inviolate, extend unemployment insurance, protect food stamps, create more low-income housing.”   

The bastards!  Those left-left lefties want the people who have benefited most from America to contribute something closer to the traditional share of their wealth to improve institutions and infrastructure created for all Americans to use, schools, hospitals, highways and bridges, airports and parklands.  They want Social Security to give old people better and, yes, more secure lives.  They want poor families not to go hungry, or homeless.

And, it should be noted, far from wanting Medicare to be inviolate, they want to extend its coverage to more people while simultaneously making it a much tougher price bargainer against the truly inefficient greed mills of the health care and health insurance industries and Big Pharma.

Notwithstanding this harsh stance against oligarchic pricing, populists are, to Keller, well-meaning suckers, simpletons.  They are dangerous plaque in the bloodstream of progress.  Keller contrasts them with, “The center-left — and that includes President Obama, most of the time — [which] sees the problem and the solutions as more complicated. [They understand] you also need to create opportunity, which means, first and foremost, jobs. Yes, you can raise taxes on the rich, but you don’t want to punish success.”

But much of Warren’s and DiBlasio’s programs have nothing to do with punishing success.  They are about creating jobs, construction and engineering jobs, teaching and service-providing jobs, and by using the tax codes and enforcing the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, bringing back to America some of the jobs that have gone abroad, mostly to places with low wages, high corruption and lax environmental protection.

As his piece develops, Keller continues his contrast between the extremists and moderates by demeaning the former and dreaming up false dichotomies that allow him to praise the latter (who are, after all, the same people who presided over, even fostered, the inequality gap in the first place.)  The populists,” he says, simply want to give your tax dollars away, “putting more money in the hands of the bottom and middle, who will then spend us back to economic vigor. This is classic Keynesian thinking, largely vindicated by history.”

That’s it, he says, that’s the populist program: confiscation and redistribution, of the foreign, if proven, Keynesian sort.  In contrast,  he notes with approval, “In a line from his speech that was not widely quoted, President Obama said, ‘The fact is if you’re a progressive and you want to help the middle class and the working poor, you’ve still got to be concerned about competitiveness and productivity and business confidence that spurs private-sector investment.’” 

Keller actually gives a good translation of what the President’s generalities mean: “While closing loopholes, Obama would also lower corporate tax rates; he would do trade deals to expand our diminishing share of foreign markets; he would shrink long-term deficits and streamline regulations.”

Obama would attack the inequality injustice by protecting corporate profits, heading back to historic highs, from taxation, and by doing trade deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) which I discussed in an earlier post, as a way to re-empower the powerful multinational corporations of media, pharmaceuticals and energy, at the expense of consumers and netizens worldwide.


There is no evidence that these “trade deals” do “expand our diminishing share of foreign markets.”  Quite the contrary, they reward the job exporters.

TTP will globalize the kind of ruinous deregulation those Clinton “moderates” imposed on the American economy.  How “moderate” is that?

The second argument,” separating the loony from the lovable, Keller says, “is over entitlements. The left tends to treat entitlements as sacred,” he lies, while “centrists favor measures to slow the growth of entitlements.” 

Nope.  Both groups acknowledge a need to slow the growth of entitlement.  The disagreement is over how to do it.  Here’s Keller’s “moderates’” formula: “using a cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) formula that more accurately reflects how people spend, cutting benefits for those who don’t really need them, possibly extending the retirement age a couple of years, and using the government’s leverage to drive down the costs of medical care.”

A populist plan would include some of the same items, but turn the priorities upside down.  First, not last, would be to restructure entitlement services to allow more government cost and performance controls and fewer open-ended cost-plus contracts.  Second, would be tax reform that, by slightly steepening the graduation curve on everyone’s  income taxes would obviate the need to figure out who “needs” their social security benefits, or precisely what COLA  does reflect the cost of living.  If the rich or the undeserving non-poor get too much, the IRS will get it back. 

On the question of retirement age, populists worry less about forcing older people to work longer, than they do about the non-retirees keeping  jobs that might go to unemployed younger workers.  Keller mentions neither of these “complications” to an argument he simplifies for “the Dummies.”

“A third difference between the near left and the far left,” says the Simplifier, “is the question of making government more efficient.”

It seems, only the moderates want that.  “In education, health care, Social Security and other areas, the center seems more receptive to reforms intended to get decent results at lower costs. Further left, reform is seen as a euphemism for taking stuff away. 

Of course, the “entitlement reforms” Keller praises do consist almost entirely of takeaways from the poor, the sick and the elderly.

But “reform” is just a word, a label every bit as useful as “moderate,” “left” and “left-left,” and as susceptible to abuse.

Take “education reform,” the determination to pay edu-corp contractors to design standardized tests to measure un-standard-izable children, and draw from them, consequential conclusions about the quality of their teachers.  Who is guilty here of criminal simplification of extremely complex social and pedagogical issues?  Seems to me it’s those “moderates,” and the “education reformers” who sell them these bogus tests. 

Education reform alone cannot succeed without social service reform to help all students realize the opportunities a classroom can provide.  Teachers by themselves cannot overcome their students’ long-known disadvantages of poverty, cultural marginalization, and family disintegration, but more and better government provision of  educational, recreational and counseling services can certainly mitigate them.

As bad as Keller’s cynical lead may be, his declaration of futility at the close is even worse.  “Barring a purge of Congress,” Keller says, “most of the ideas put forth by the liberals, center-left or left-left, are going nowhere in the partisan sludge pit that is Washington.”

From his “Why am I writing about this?” at the top, he bottoms out with a “Why bother?” at the end. 

Inequality may be real, may be destroying America, but it ain’t gonna change.  And isn’t it brave to say so?

No, it is not.  Bravery means admitting that real reform requires displacing powerful, but illegitimate interests, and honestly taking them on. This is the opposite of the “healthcare reform” of the Affordable Care Act, which displaced nobody in power, just handed a freshly marked deck of cards to the health industry’s institutional elite to use to fleece their customers.

Before we punish the practitioners of such success, we should punish their enablers: politicians and pundits alike.   

Saturday, December 21, 2013


The latest revelations about NSA/GCHQ spying seem, literally, more of the same.  The numbers go up, “thousands of targets,” and so do the levels of folly and indiscrimination.  The NY Times says,


Secret documents reveal more than 1,000 targets of American and British surveillance in recent years, including the office of an Israeli prime minister, heads of international aid organizations, foreign energy companies and a European Union official involved in antitrust battles with American technology businesses.”

The list of targets published by the Times, The Guardian and Der Spiegel

includes: “senior European Union officials, foreign leaders including African heads of state and sometimes their family members, directors of United Nations and other relief programs, and officials overseeing oil and finance ministries, according to the documents. In addition to Israel, some targets involved close allies like France and Germany.”

At this point the Times reporters James Glanz and Andrew W. Lehren pause for a moment and gather a joint “straight face,” and use it to deliver this: the NSA/GCHQ to-surveil lists “also include people suspected of being terrorists or militants.”

Let me do better than just italics to highlight this.  Let me repeat:  in addition to officials of Doctors without Borders, the EU anti-trust agency, and the African economic organization ECOWAS, our security services also tracked actual potential threats to someone’s security: “people suspected of being terrorists or militants.”

How reassuring.

Less reassuring was the revelation that one of the email accounts tapped by GCHQ (likely on assignment from the NSA) was “the email address was used for correspondence with [then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s] office, which he said staff members often handled. He added that it was unlikely that any secrets could have been compromised.

“This was an unimpressive target,” Mr. Olmert said.

Unless the Times/Guardian/Spiegel missed something, the snoopers were plugged into the wrong circuit, the G rated email account.  I suspect bureaucratic buffoonery: some intel  jobsworth was tasked to set up a tap on Olmert. And he did. Incompetently and ineffectively.  But if anyone up chain asked him about the Olmert account, he could answer truthfully, “We’re on it. It’s working like a charm.”  Turning up nothing.

If the White House, or some other NSA “client” within government wanted to know what Olmert was up to, a search of Israel’s hard-charging news media, print, radio, TV and internet, almost certainly would have provided better information, at a much lower cost, measured in dollars or national dignity.

Probably the first question any spy should ask him or herself about a possible penetration for information is, “Can I get away with it?”

Probably the most frightening thing about all the secret surveillances Edward J. Snowden has publicized is, the NSA brass actually believed they could “get away with them, all of them.”

Somehow, as they burrowed deeper down intercept alley, the intelligence executive was blind to a world of change (as their analogs were so amazingly deaf to the rumble of impending collapse of the Soviet Union.)  DNI James Clapper and NSA Director Keith Alexander acted as if the universality of smartphones, digital recorders, and computers were no significant threat to data-security, and existence of a 24/7 digital livestream of global communication meant that stolen info could be instantaneously re-distributed to a worldwide public

Remember, these latest revelations cover the period 2008-2011, by which time institutional dreams of secure secrecy should have been thoroughly discredited.   In 2005 and 2006 James Risen had published in his book State of War, and in the NY Times, well-sourced stories on a secret CIA cyberwar against Iran, and the NSA’s warrantless surveillance of American telephone communications.  Barton Gellman, in 2007 and 2008, had outed the super-secret White House Group on Iraq, and in the Washington Post and his political biography of Vice President Dick Cheney, Angler, the NSA’s massive data-mining of digital communications. 

I guess the professional judgment of Clapper and Alexander was, “That can’t happen again.”

How would Angela Merkel ever find out, we’re tapping her cellphone?

It’s called risk-assessment, and it’s probably the most basic job in national security.  If you can’t manage the first, you shouldn’t be allowed to attempt the second.  So, beyond the imperative to fire the 2 retired Generals because they both lied to Congress and systematically misled their legal monitors on the FISA Court, (yeah, I know, too late to fire Alexander.  He’s already resigned.) how about firing them for their obvious and avoidable misjudgments of risk and reality that, for very little return in important intelligence, has subjected the United States to international hostility, mistrust, contempt and humiliation?

Whatever the risk, what was the expected reward from collecting and transcribing the conversations of ECOWAS’ Mohamed Ibn Chambas, which included, the Times reports, “’Am glad yr day was satisfying,’ Mr. Chambas texted one acquaintance” The Times reported.

“’I spent my whole day travelling ... Had to go from Abidjan to Accra to catch a flt to Monrovia ... The usual saga of intra afr.’ Later he recommended a book, “A Colonial History of Northern Ghana,” to the same person. ‘Interesting and informative,’ Mr. Chambas texted.”  This is an intellgience mission that seems stupid from top to bottom, beginning to end.  Chambas is even mis-identified by his snooper as “Dr. Chambers.”

The same Congress that has cut food stamps and unemployment insurance, that won’t build highways or repair bridges writes a blank check to the national security services to exemplify the idea of “a bureaucracy run amok.”

Challenged about the apparent surveillance on the EU’s anti-trust ball-buster of Intel and Microsoft, NSA spokeswoman Vanee Vines actually gave a coherent and intelligent answer: “The intelligence community’s efforts to understand economic systems and policies, and monitor anomalous economic activities, are critical to providing policy makers with the information they need to make informed decisions that are in the best interest of our national security.”

Me, I buy that, we probably do want to know what the top economic movers and shakers around the world are thinking and saying.  But I’m no better than agnostic on whether that’s what the tap on Joaquín Almunia, vice president of the European Commission was really about, helping government make  better economic policies.  I suspect it could have been about helping US companies cut a better deal with the Euro-folk, a more diffuse national benefit.

At least the cost of this revelation will be borne by the security bumblers and their White House enablers.  Sr. Almunia may now, righteously, be doubly suspicious of the American Government and American IT firms, and doubly harsh in his treatment of them.  But the news that UN relief agencies, even NGOs like Medecins du Monde, have also been penetrated, their notes and observations swept into the NSA’s data files, will hurt the organizations, hamper their ability to do good around the world, perhaps even put their refugee rescuers and volunteer doctors and nurses in mortal danger.

In the case of Almunia, and of the human rights and social service workers, what they see and say may well be worth knowing.  But not at any price; and all these cases, the consequences that were risked should have forestalled any secret sweeping.

In addition to being an historically grave offense against privacy, the decade-long NSA etc surveillance campaign has been an offense against competence, judgment, discipline and common sense.

This clown show started under President George W. Bush, but it hasn’t dropped a stitch (or a seltzer bottle) since Barack Obama took over the White House.  With his characteristic mysterious mixture of diffidence (or is it laziness) and passivity (or is it cowardice?) he has permitted, nay encouraged, the most dysfunctional departments of his government to keep on doin’ their thing.

Now, 6 months after the Snowden revelations hit the fan, Obama is admitting there’s a problem.  Appallingly, it is clear from his remarks at his December 20 News Conference, the problem he sees is not an ongoing privacy problem, or competence problem, but a theoretical issue far in the future: “I have confidence in the fact that the NSA is not engaging in domestic surveillance or snooping around, but I also recognize that as technologies change and people can start running algorithms and programs that map out all the information that we're downloading on a daily basis into our telephones and our computers that we may have to refine this further to give people more confidence.”

That for Barack Obama is the real problem here, a public relations problem.

The President says, “What [is clear] from the public debate, people are concerned about the prospect, the possibility of abuse. And I think that's what the judge in the district court suggested. And although his opinion obviously differs from rulings on the FISA Court, we're taking those into account.”

Uhhh, can we hold it right there?  (1) Judge Richard Leon didn’t just worry about some as yet undocumented potential for abuse, he declared unconstitutional the present, on-going, broadscale, warrantless imposition of government surveillance on the private lives of American citizens who are suspected of crimes, and have had no direct contact with suspected terrorists.  And (2) those previous “rulings on the FISA Court,” were all predicated on now-corrected misinformation, lying claims that the DNI and NSA and the other agencies under FISA supervision were obeying the law in their actions and in their filings to the court. 

Thus, those FISA Court “rulings” are completely invalid.

I hope Mr. Obama also takes that “into account.”  But more likely his scheme is to calm down the rubes and keep doing what he and his security team have been doing since the day he took office (and to be fair, many years before).  As he himself said at the news conference, “it is clear that whatever benefits the configuration of this particular program may have, may be outweighed by the concerns that people have on its potential abuse. And if that's the case, there may be another way of skinning the cat.”

That’s not cat skin, sir, that’s my privacy.




Friday, December 13, 2013


When I went to work in 1985 at WRC-TV, Channel 4, the NBC owned station in Washington, DC, it was carrying on 2 remarkable traditions of public service.  One was sponsored.

The one that the station paid for, 2 annual Saturday-before-Christmas parties, one for the children of employees, which included an expensive gift for every child, was in the morning.  In the afternoon a very similar party featured slightly less expensive but still very nice presents for more than 100 children from poor families.  2 years into my reign as Santa Claus, (unforgettable!), a new general manager ended the tradition, saying he had to cut his budget.

The other, even greater tradition, It’s Academic, the longest-running quiz show in television history is still alive and on the air after 52 years.  For most of that time, it had one regular sponsor, the Giant Supermarket chain, and for 50 years, one superlative host and quizmaster, “Mac” McGarry.

Mac died this week, aged 87, as full of honors as he was years and memories.  On the basis of 4 years as a colleague I can say, he was a sweetheart who always had  cheery greeting in the hall or in the newsroom, usually followed by an intelligent comment about something in the news..  His own claim to fame, every bit as unlikely to be challenged, was that he was “the [Washington] area’s most inquisitive man.”

Unlike most Washington inquiries which have the tone (and often the misplaced moral superiority) of an, if not The, inquisition, Mac’s questions on It’s Academic were both gentler and more genuinely curious.  McGarry spent every Saturday morning for 50 years, (except one, when he had a bad cold), as Lauren Wiseman put in his obituary in the Washington Post, “pitching local teenage contestants hundreds of thousands of fastball trivia questions about topics as diverse as Shakespeare, Michelangelo, Chubby Checker and the chemical makeup of paint.” 

The contestants were panels of students representing the whole gamut of DC-area high schools and their mission was two-fold, to answer more questions correctly than the other teams and to demonstrate that smart was beautiful, and fun.

The show, created and brilliantly produced by Sophie Altman and continued today by her daughter Susan, is smart enough to honor the scholars, not just with prizes and congratulations, but with the enduring icons of high school respect and stature: marching bands and cheerleaders in support.

The simple format, and the intellectual integrity of It’s Academic was replicated in a dozen or more markets outside DC, although none of the clones have had close to the lifespan of the original.  Mac had a parallel run in Baltimore on an It’s Academic that lasted 27 years.

Mac’s questions, devised with Sophie in the days before every show, were tough:  Here are 2 examples cited by Wiseman:  “What mythological figure has the whole world on his shoulders?” Answer: “Atlas.”

“If you had been a voter in the 1896 and 1900 presidential elections, your choice of candidates would have been limited to men with what same first name?” Answer: “William,” for McKinley and Bryan.

Although many, like Wiseman, would call the answers “trivia,” a more accurate, less reductive label would be, “general information.”  And the winning teams won, not because they achieved Mr. Memory feats of disconnected recollection, but because they were generally well-informed.

It’s Academic honored, not just the knowledgeable but knowledge itself; and in his back and forth of details demanded and accurately supplied, its host found, as my favorite quotation has it, “delight.”

"Mac McGarry was probably the only game show host in television history who would occasionally burst into song in the middle of the show,” his last It’s Academic Executive Producer Susan Altman told WRC-TV;s Jim Handly. And what you saw on TV was the real Mac McGarry---funny, smart, knowledgeable, and a joy to work with. He set the standard---not just professionally--but as a human being as well.”

I do not just refer to Mac McGarry’s effervescent personality and agile mind, when I say sincerely the old cliché, “We won’t see his like again.”

When Mac began his broadcast career in the late 1940s, quiz shows were a staple of radio, and when It’s Academic began in 1961, it’s genial style, personified by the man asking the questions, it was an honorable contrast to the top-rated high tension, big money, big scandal-scarred network quizzes, The $64,000 Question and Twenty One.

Mac celebrated along with his students the joy of correct answers, not the torture of trying to remember them, nor the piles of cash at stake.  It was a homey, hometown formula that worked.  But It’s Academic was a show of scholarship, and even 28 years ago, McGarry told the Washington Post, it was a “reflection of the way our country was.”

It’s Academic is part of a proud tradition, of pride in intellectual achievement, and although many “preppies” also participated, pride in the achievements of public education.  Although the show lives on, it is an anachronism, because in today’s Washington bullying intellectual bankruptcy triumphs, and the public schools are among the worst in the country. One fears It’s Academic may soon go the way of WRC-TV’s annual pair of Christmas parties.

To close on a more cheerful, and personal note:  Obituaries are wonderful for their “Who knew?” effect.  From the Post obit I learned that Mac McGarry got his job at WRC-TV in 1950 after his Fordham college classmate Vin Scully, the greatest of all baseball announcers, told him to apply. 

This reminds me that Channel 4’s longtime anchor, and my treasured 4-year on-air partner on the 6 and 11 O’Clock News Jim Vance made his application to Channel 4 on the same kind of say so from another of my former co-workers, Vance’s college buddy at Cheney State.  When Ed Bradley told you to do something, you did it.  For Jim and for the station you’d have to say, things have worked out.

For Mac McGarry, Sophie and Susan Altman, and anyone who worked at Channel 4 over the past 52 years; for thousands of high school students in the Washington area, and thousands more in other cities and towns, and for tens of thousands of parents, teachers and fellow students across the country; for anyone who values thought and information, his advice to his classmate stands as one of Vinnie’s finest calls.

Mac and DC and America were made for each other.  Once upon a time, alas.


Wednesday, December 11, 2013


Once again, it’s below 10 degrees outside the Little House between the Mountains and the Prairie.  There’s a thick, frozen 4 inch snowcap covering the ground.  And once it warms up at the end of the week, and the snow disappears over next weekend, we face world of mud.  Slippery, lithe, shoe-sucking mud, probably through much of next week.

I love it here.

But, if ever there were a time to fire up the hot stove (Amy is known widely as The Firestarter) and turn our fingers towards the hardball, glove, or mitt, towards baseball.

Baseball’s “Hot Stove League” period between the end of the World Series and the opening of training camps in Florida and Arizona is the perfect season for mankind’s most universal vice: judging other people.  Because, the months teams aren’t playing, is when they are signing and cutting and trading players, and the trades, and the players involved become perfect subjects, or targets, for judgment.

Baseball judgments, if they are done in what baseballers love to call “the right way,” are very different from those catered to by tabloid TV news, reality shows, and radio talk shows.  They only rarely veer into moral judgment, and they do not invite hatred.

Anguish, anger, disappointment?  Yes, trades do provoke those dark emotions, but baseball fans only hate teams.  Players are only judged on their performances.  But come a trade or free agent contract signing, and the questions are unavoidable:  What’s he worth?  Who got the better deal?

With most of the power players in baseball management gathered together in Florida for Winter Meetings this week, trading is in high gear, and so is judging.

Order in the Court! (The monkey wants to speak.)

Today, the California Angels traded a 27 year old, but fully-crednetialed power hitter, Mark Trumbo for 2 young (25 and 22), still very unfinished pitchers, the lefthanded Hector Santiago from the Chicago White Sox and 22 YO lefthander Tyler Skaggs from the Arizona Diamondbacks, who sent a recently-prized 25 YO centerfielder, Adam Eaton to Chicago.  The Diamondbacks are still owed 2 yet-to-be-named players (of lesser importance, almost certainly) even though their acquisition, Trumbo, has by far the highest established value of the bunch.

In each of his 3 seasons in Anaheim, Trumbo hit more than 30 home runs, in a spacious, (favors the) “pitchers' park.”  In the thin air of Arizona, he is very likely to hit even more.  He strikes out a lot, “has holes in his swing,” and in 2013, his batting average was a wretched .235.  I predict he will do much better than that over the next 10 years, during which he will hit between 350 and 400 homers and knock in more than 1000 runs.  Furthermore, I’m betting, in the National League, his average will come up (not very far, .250-.265 seems to be his range), and his patience will improve and with it, his walks, on base percentage and overall value. 

Statistics say he’s a better defensive player than he looks (and who are you gonna believe, Ultimate Zone Rating Plus or your own lying eyes?).  Like a lot of large, lumbering guys, who look like Klumsy Klutz, Trumbo may have softer, quicker, and surer hands than you’d suppose.  His undeniable lack of foot speed may be compensated for by the 2 speedy defense-first outfielders the D-Backs will run out to his left, A. J. Pollack and Gerardo Parra (a favorite of mine).  Arizona fans should be very happy about this deal, even before they open their still-to-be-identified 2-player bonus package.

What makes this trade so interesting, and susceptible only to very provisional assessment, is that all 3 of the players put in motion by Trumbo are expected to take their careers a quantum leap up in the next year or two.  If they do, fans on the south sides of both Chicago and California should also be glad. 

For the White Sox it was in effect a simple swap of Santiago, who surprised them by following a good 2012 in the bullpen, with a better 2013, mostly as a regular starter, for Eaton, whom they plan to make their regular centerfielder for the foreseeable future.  Eaton was supposed to be that for Arizona starting last April, but he got hurt, missed more than half the season, and performed unremarkably in 66 games.  Essentially, the less-touted Pollack made him expendable.  The Sox plan on Eaton leading off or batting second, stealing a lot of bases, hitting for a high average and anchoring the outfield defense.  It’s the high average I have my doubts about.  If Eaton is gonna hit above .270 he’s gonna have to prove it to me.  In my judgment, he’s a solid major-leaguer, but a starter only for a second-division club.  A team that sees itself as a contender will want to do better.

Hector Santiago?  I think the Angels got a steal.  He’s only 25 but looks maturish on the hill, with good but not great stuff, but good command that will get better.  I’m saying Hector will be a fixture in the Angels’ rotation, probably their #3 starter behind the outstanding Jered Weaver and C J Wilson for a good many years.

The last player from the pile is 22 year old Tyler Skaggs, very highly-rated prospect who flopped in his first chance at the major leagues.  The Angels hope he’s their fifth starter this year, or next year sure.  If he is, he and and Santiago will be even more valuable than Trumbo, making the Angels the ultimate winners in this exchange of human flesh.  If Skaggs turns out to be just overrated, or if Santiago doesn’t prove to be a dependable plus, fans will be loudly ruing the day “those idiots” let Mark Trumbo leave town.

The day’s other trade involved a pitcher, Brett Anderson, who has looked great in the major leagues, but has been hurt and ineffective for the last 2 years and Drew Pomerantz, a guy who liked super-great in college, but not so much as a pro.  Anderson seems the better bet, so give the judgment here to the Colorado Rockies who got him, against Pomerantz’ new team, the Oakland A’s.  There was a third pitcher involved but he hasn’t even looked good in the low minors.  My guess on Chris Jensen, who joins the A’s, (they also get $2 million to balance the perceived value of Anderson) is that you are hearing of him here last.  If Anderson returns to form, a better than reasonable possibility, his acquisition will be a great bargain.  If Pomerantz makes people remember why he was once a very high draft choice, I’ll be happily surprised.

Earlier this week, there were several interesting changes of address.  Via free agency, the New York Yankees added the Boston Red Sox star centerfielder Jacoby Ellsbury, and the St Louis Cardinals aging rightfielder Carlos Beltran and subtracted their perennial All Star second baseman Robinson Cano, who left for Seattle, and their former home run hitting outfielder Curtis Granderson, who moved across town to the Mets.

They Yankees' excuse for letting Cano, an OK defender who is one of the 5 best hitters in the game, leave was that he cost too much.  The richest team in baseball let the more modestly marketed Mariners give Cano $240 million over 10 years.  They were also radically outbid for Granderson, a fine defender, and by all reports an even finer person who transformed himself from a high average hitter to an all-or-nothing home run hitter, before injuries ruined his last 2 years.  The Mets will pay him $60 million over 4 years.

On a per annum basis, that’s just what the Yanks will pay Beltran, but for just 2 years.  Beltran, who is 4 years older than Granderson and has creaky knees, will play less on, and cover less of, the field than the new Met, but he will likely outhit him.  But both men are good fits, -- Beltran is another widely-renowned good fellow, -- for their teams.

The Yanks and their supporters make much of the fact that the excellent Ellsbury’s contract is for almost $90 million less than Cano’s.  But that’s for 3 fewer years.  On an annual basis, the contracts are close, Ellsbury’s just over $2 million a year cheaper.  But here’s what I’m saying, in the Designated Hitter league, the Mariners will get more value from Cano over the course of his contract than the Yanks will with Ellsbury, who has been somewhat prone to injury, and whose game is predicated on foot speed, a much more perishable attribute than Cano’s hand speed and power.    

Final (for today) judgment:  Although their Beltran-Ellsbury-Brett Gardner outfield will be much better than last year’s (remember Granderson was out injured), but without Cano, their infield and their batting order are a mess.  Even though the Yankees also signed the Atlanta Braves fine catcher Brian McCann, likely the best at his position the Yankees have had since the late Thurman Munson, without further free agent spending, they flat out DO NOT SCARE ME.

The Mets only scare the mirror, but I think (and hope) Curtis Granderson will prove a great success.  But he’s going to have to reconstruct his swing back to what it was when he played (successfully) in Detroit, going for hits to all fields, and eschewing his Yankee Stadium, short-porch-in-right, pull with power technique.  I bet he can do it, and still hit a few homers.  I’m gonna guesstimate he hits .275, with 20-25 HRs, and fills his slot cleaning up behind David Wright.

As for Seattle’s big investment, it’s a shot in the arm for fans who are used to seeing stars leave Seattle (Randy Johnson, Ken Griffey, Jr and Alex Rodriguez to name just 3 superstars). But for it to work, Cano has to “buy into” the Pacific Northwest.  It’s a long way from the Dominican Republic, and it’s hard to know how much fun he’s going to have there, but Seattle’s other mega-millions star, pitcher “King” Felix Hernandez has thrived equally distant from his homeland Venezuela.

But the team needs so much more.  Some Yankees whispered that Cano wasn’t always “focused,” and that was playing for a good team under the hot lights of New York and its demanding, baseball-mad Dominican population; so doubters say, tucked away in Washington state, with a lesser team, Cano might pack it in early.  I doubt it.  This 30 year old could be a lock for the Hall of Fame by the time he’s 40 and his contract is fulfilled.  That prospect alone should keep him pumping, but it’s up to the Mariners’ front office to keep him primed with big-time colleagues.

UPDATE:  The team took a stab at it, a week after signing Cano, they hired on free-agent Corey Hart from the Milwaukee Brewers, and traded a very promising young relief pitcher Carter Capps to Miami for Logan Morrison.  

Hart is coming for a season and a half lost to injury, so no one knows how much of his former self he'll be. He sometimes looked like a consistent power hitter, a pillar of the Brewers' lineup when they were a contending team.  Morrison has had one pretty decent year, but he, too, has been hampered for more than a year by a series of injuries.  Like Hart, he has a lot of admirers.

Here's the problem: Hart, Morrison, and the Mariner's incumbent first baseman Justin Smoak are all more or less, the same guy.  Good but not outstanding hitters who are not even considered average on defense.  All are most comfortable at 1B, although Hart (before his knees went bad) and Morrison have also played in the outfield.  Smoak who has improved, steadily if painfully slowly, probably has the greatest potential of the 3 and will likely stay where he is, starting most days at first base, with perhaps more days off to be the designated hitter.  Hart and Morrison, it is hoped, will share left field and designated hitting, and add protection for Cano in the batting order.

Baseball babble is so much fun (at least for the babbler) that I threaten to inflict more of this on (at least you’re voluntary) readers, but for now, just one more thought: the Trumbo trade opens a spot with the Angeles for one of my favorite players, the former Washington National, Michael Morse.

One place where baseball judgment veers towards moralizing is when a player is downgraded for being “injury-prone.”  It’s not enough to consider this bad luck, for some fans, it’s as if the player chose to malinger.  Mikey Mo has suffered a series of injuries to his hands and legs, that crimped his 2012 season in Washington, and washed out a terrible 2013 spent not playing in Seattle and Baltimore.  Before that, for a blessed year and half, this guy was one of the most feared sluggers in the National League, and one of the most adored “goofballs” of the Nats clubhouse.

I believe, and so do two of the most astute judges of baseball I know, the identically wonderful Hellinger twins, Duke and Stash, that the feared guy is who Michael Morse really is.  He’s an unsigned free agent.  He’ll have to take a relatively low-cost, probably one-year contract to prove his misfortunes are over, but sharing leftfield and designated hitter duties with Josh Hamilton for the Angels is a perfect slot for him, and would reunite him with Rick Eckstein, the hitting coach under whom his latent stardom blossomed in DC.

Angels, Morse, make me happy by getting together, and even better, confirming my judgment.