29 December, 2005

"a goddamned piece of paper"

For those who missed it elsewhere, I want to link to the original publication. Capitol Hill Blue has, in my expereince, a good record of getting the facts that the typical press-release-reprinting "journalist" doesn't bother to dig up. In this case, the story fits with what we hear elsewhere of the president's temper, and there seem to be three independent sources confirming it. So judge for yourself. The key section:

Last month, Republican Congressional leaders filed into the Oval Office to meet with President George W. Bush and talk about renewing the controversial USA Patriot Act.

Several provisions of the act, passed in the shell shocked period immediately following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, caused enough anger that liberal groups like the American Civil Liberties Union had joined forces with prominent conservatives like Phyllis Schlafly and Bob Barr to oppose renewal.

GOP leaders told Bush that his hardcore push to renew the more onerous provisions of the act could further alienate conservatives still mad at the President from his botched attempt to nominate White House Counsel Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court.

“I don’t give a goddamn,” Bush retorted. “I’m the President and the Commander-in-Chief. Do it my way.”

“Mr. President,” one aide in the meeting said. “There is a valid case that the provisions in this law undermine the Constitution.”

“Stop throwing the Constitution in my face,” Bush screamed back. “It’s just a goddamned piece of paper!”

I’ve talked to three people present for the meeting that day and they all confirm that the President of the United States called the Constitution “a goddamned piece of paper.”

Many presidents chafe against consitutional restraints. That's why the restraints are there. But this sounds like Richard Nixon on a bad day.

Gold and oil

I gave my wife several presents for her birthday. Among them was a pair of earrings. And thus I had my most recent exposure to the rising prices of precious metals. Why the rise? I heard more than one explanation. One salesperson told me the price of platinum was rising due to increased wartime demand for (unnamed) military procurements. But the trend seems to be that everything is rising, as if in anticipation of rising inflation.

The recent announcements by the Federal Reserve that it will no longer publish many of its standard indicators of the money supply may be fueling the concern. The date on whch the Fed will stop publishing--March 23rd, 2006 (reporting, of course, the week prior)--happens to correspond to the announced date --March 26th--when Iran is switching from dollars to euros for purchases of oil.

And how might these events be connected? Here's a little speculation from somebody who keeps a close eye on the gold market:

Call me silly, but has anyone noticed that the Fed’s last report of M3 just happens to be the week prior to the first day of trade on the IOB? You see, if countries like Japan and China [and other Asian countries] with their trillions of U.S. dollars no longer need them [or require a great deal less of them] to buy oil - does anyone suppose they might begin a wholesale liquidation of their U.S. Bonds [the primary instrument where foreigners ‘store’ their U.S. dollars]?

Well, count me in coach – because [barring an accidental war or invasion of Iran] the demand for Petroeuros [and subsequent liquidation of dollars] could have – in Greenspan parlance – highly undesirable effects on foreigner’s willingness to hold vast sums of U.S. debt obligations.

If [and I’m afraid when] foreigners begin wholesale liquidation of U.S. debt obligations, there is no doubt in my mind that the Fed will print the dollars necessary to redeem them – this would necessarily imply a an absolutely enormous [can you say hyperinflation] bloating of the money supply – which would undoubtedly be captured statistically in M3 or its related reporting.

I find it hard to believe the Fed could pump that much money into the system without somebody talking about it, but in this kind of situation having a little extra warning may be very important for currency speculators. And I fear that even if the Fed isn't planning anything, the rumor that it might could have serious repercussions. Nobody wants to be the last one to hold a falling dollar. So will there be a rush to the exits? This policy might encourage the sort of behavior it is supposedly designed to prevent.

27 December, 2005

Starbase One

From a recent Fox news report:

LONDON — Virgin Galactic, the British company created by entrepreneur Richard Branson to send tourists into space, and the state of New Mexico announced an agreement Tuesday for the state to build a $225 million spaceport.

Virgin Galactic also revealed that up to 38,000 people from 126 countries have paid a deposit for a seat on one of its manned commercial flights, including a core group of 100 "founders" who have paid the initial $200,000 cost of a flight upfront. Virgin Galactic is planning to begin flights in late 2008 or early 2009.

I usually have no desire to be especially wealthy, but I wish I had the money for a ticket.

24 December, 2005

No Such Agency, No Such Program

In all the discussion of whether or not GWB has violated the law in ordering a broad program of warrantless wiretaps, two questions aren't getting the attention they deserve:

1) What, exactly, did the president order?

2) Why didn't the executive bother to use the FISA process?

I suspect the answers to these questions are connected. Taking the last one first, there are a number of possibilities. Some of these make more sense than others.

Perhaps the administration believed that the FISA court (and attendant offices) has been compromised. This doesn't make sense. If it were the case, there would be a investigation and removal of court personnel, not simply bypassing (or misleading) the court. To do otherwise would be to miss the whole point of what the court is about.

Perhaps the process of application is too complex and/or time-consuming to work through the court and still get the surveillance done. Leaving aside the constitutional issues for a moment, this still doesn't make sense. First, the track record for the court is that it has been very supportive of requests from the intelligence agancies. Second, the act allows for a retrospective approval process--spy now, justify later--so time isn't the critical problem.

Perhaps the adminstration knew it didn't have (and would never have) a sufficient case to justify the intercepts, and chose to ignore the process. This is possible. Then the question is why?

Perhaps, as some have suggested (Defense Tech and William Arkin, for two) the technology of the program was (is) somehow sufficiently different to make the process irrelevant. For example, approving a wiretap presupposes the ability the identify an individual target, or set of targets. It may be a particular person, so a particular phone, or a particular (limited) system. What if the plan is to intercept everything, filter it, process it, and then use this information to determine who needs to be targeted more directly? Data mining is growing more and more practical. Pattern analysis can show who the unusual cases are--but only in contrast to everthing else. Thus, the "everything else" has to be monitored, too. And that, by most standards, would be a violation of the 4th amendment beyond anything the FISA court is able to approve.

Also consider Congress' reaction to the "Total Information Awareness" proposal floated after 9/11. It was too much, Congress said. TIA "died". But the desire remained, and the technology remained, and there are lots of places to hide a similar program under another name.

Add to that the likelihood that major telecom carriers have voluntarily (or otherwise) provided access to supposedly confidential conversations.

No wonder several of the key people in Congress now say they registered complaints. But in the system as it now stands that's about all they could do. To raise the issue--even with their colleagues in Congress--would be a violation of the security oaths they took to have any access to the information in the first place.

Which leads me to wonder: who leaked the story to the New York Times?