Freedom from the Patriot Act?

capitol-building

The Senate will hold a rare special session on Sunday to try to forge a compromise on the Patriot Act. The path forward is clear, and only the head of the Senate, Mitch McConnell, is gumming up the works.

The House has already passed the USA Freedom Act by a substantial bipartisan majority with a vote of more than 300 representatives versus 88 against. It curtails the mass collection of meta data revealed by Edward Snowden while maintaining the capability of private telephone companies to do the same thing. The Freedom Act also preserves essential Patriot Act capabilities such as continuing to follow suspects with roving wiretaps in case they try to elude authorities by using disposable cell phones.

The path forward is clear, and only the head of the Senate, Mitch McConnell, is gumming up the works.

But Mitch McConnell has dug in his heels in an attempt to renew the entire Patriot Act as is, a position that has drawn ire from his fellow Republicans in the House of Representatives, who have done their job, not to mention engendering a filibuster by Rand Paul. If Mr. McConnell is a true patriot, he will realize that the votes do not exist to support his position, and he will yield to compromise. The alternative is to have no special protections at all.

I wouldn’t put it past Mr. McConnell to “cut off his nose to spite his face,” so letting the entire Act lapse remains a tangible possibility. Despite his promise to run a smoothly functioning Senate, Mr. McConnell is the one who is forcing this cliff-hanging deadline.

Let’s Go Rangers

hockey

 

The Rangers game tonight promises to be an exciting, nail-biting exercise.

Rarely does sports intrude on the general news of the day, but tonight a truly extraordinary team faces a one-game battle to get into the championship round, the Stanley Cup. While almost all other professional New York City sports teams have continued with mediocre play on a long-term basis, the Rangers have played an exciting, fast-paced and stellar game within the confines of Madison Square Garden. With Henrik Lundqvist as goaltender, they have won a slew of game sevens, creating a record of clutch performances to compete with any other team in any sport in the nation.

The Rangers game tonight promises to be an exciting, nail-biting exercise. And their relatively new coach, Alain Vigneault, has played a key role in getting them this far. They went even farther, last year, to the Stanley Cup finals, and to beat that will require a trophy. If the Rangers win tonight, they may just get it. No team wants to be denied a championship two years in a row.

Threading the needle of the playoff process is taxing upon any team. Winning each playoff series requires sustained excellence, and if any team can achieve that, it has to be the Rangers. This year, they compiled the best record in all of hockey, so they are assured of home ice advantage throughout. One hopes it makes the difference tonight.

Death Penalty Defiance

electric-chair

Legislators endured a publicity blitz, intense lobbying by the governor and law enforcement groups, and the defection of two legislators, ramping up the drama for this close, cliffhanger of a vote.

The Nebraskan legislature turned the corner yesterday by overriding their Governor’s veto and becoming the first conservative state in 40 years to ban the death penalty. As a consistent pro-life sympathizer, I say kudos to their courageous and historic action.

Like any social change, it was difficult for the unicameral legislature to succeed. Legislators endured a publicity blitz, intense lobbying by the governor and law enforcement groups, and the defection of two legislators, ramping up the drama for this close, cliffhanger of a vote. The 30-19 outcome represented the slimmest of margins possible to achieve a two-thirds majority.

The death penalty is slowly losing its effectiveness as the public realizes there is no way to be sure it is painless, not lethal injections nor the electric chair nor even a firing squad as one state has suggested. Moreover, human life is sacred, both in the womb and in later life, and giving that all-encompassing power to the state is the essence of “big government.”

As the federal government remains paralyzed, the states are slowly taking up the slack on many critical issues such as the death penalty, minimum wage, family leave and much more. But of all these issues, the death penalty stands out due to its irreversibility and uneven manner in which it is applied. According to the latest statistics, juries are much more likely to apply the death penalty to a black man than a Caucasian.

One can only hope for Nebraska’s action to set off a chain reaction until every state does the same, or the Supreme Court realizes its folly and rules that taking a life is a cruel and unusual punishment.

Policing Prudence

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The program isn’t perfect, but it represents a recognition of the problem and a desire to change. And that’s all the protestors are really demanding.

We all start by believing the police. The man in uniform protecting us against the bad guys, whether black or white, carries a certain romantic appeal. Then, our experience either reinforces that vision or fails to do so.

In black communities, the situation is reversed. The police officer is viewed as an occupying force, a dangerous individual, who can arrest people based on a capricious standard, and send them away to jail. Reversing that image requires a proactive attempt to engage with law-abiding citizens and become known as a benificent ally.

In certain black communities, however, the police are not engaged in a proactive way and actually make their images worse. Those are the individuals who have driven the overriding story about police officers and youth of color. And it takes a whole lot of effort to change that.

Thank God, now, Cleveland has begun to do so. In an agreement with the Justice Department, the police department has agreed to systemic changes designed to codify a more productive relationship with all the citizens they exist to protect. Significantly, a civilian will head the internal affairs division. This idea seems like a long overdue transition. Just like a special prosecutor is hired for political malfeasance, this civilian will prevent the “blue wall” of silence in the face of police abuses.

Other steps in the far-reaching program apply as well. Officers are prohibited from using force if someone talks back to them or as punishment when they try to flee. They can’t “pistol whip” individuals and the use of stun guns will be strictly monitored. A special panel will review cases where the use of force is involved.

The program isn’t perfect, but it represents a recognition of the problem and a desire to change. And that’s all the protestors are really demanding.

The Senate is Stuck

bike-stuck

It’s a matter of whether the perfect is the enemy of the good, and Senator McConnell’s pride.

The Senate is stuck, and it’s Mitch McConnell’s fault. The man who famously declared that his overriding priority was to make President Obama a one-term President is tangled up in his own pride and unwillingness to acknowledge the vote count in the Senate for renewal of the Patriot Act.

This controversial legislation was passed in reaction to 9/11 and clearly overemphasized security as opposed to the Constitutional rights of all Americans. One section of the Act has been interpreted to allow the National Security Agency to vacuum up the meta data from every single phone call placed by American citizens. That provision, the same one that forced Edward Snowden to object in a very public and controversial way, does not have the votes for renewal in the Senate and has already been excised by the House in a truly bipartisan manner with more than 300 votes against it.

Moreover, Rand Paul feels strongly against this legislation’s infringement on the rights of every single American and has mounted a one-man filibuster against it. He is not alone in his fight and very well may succeed as the Senates ties itself up in knots trying to reach the 60 votes needed to override his actions.

Mitch McConnell faces a choice. Either he can get part of the U.S. Patriot Act renewed (it’s known as the USA Freedom Act in the version passed by the House), or he can watch it lapse completely. It’s a matter of whether the perfect is the enemy of the good, and Senator McConnell’s pride.

The Will to Win

soldiers-desert

When the new Secretary of Defense, Ashton Carter, observed that the national army far outnumbered the ISIS militants in the battle, he essentially called the Iraqi troops cowardly and ineffective.

The victory of ISIS in Ramadi has forced the United States and the Iraqi government to take a long, hard look at their assumptions and the ability to defeat what has become a new caliphate in the Middle East.

When the new Secretary of Defense, Ashton Carter, observed that the national army far outnumbered the ISIS militants in the battle, he essentially called the Iraqi troops cowardly and ineffective. While his statement was designed to take the heat off the United States, deflecting blame for the defeat will not change the dynamics of the battle.

What the ISIS militants lack in numbers, they make up for in intensity, and by exploding multiple Oklahoma-City-strength bombs, they forced the Iraqi army to retreat.

In any neutral analysis of the defeat, two errors in our strategy stand out. One: without any spotter calling in U.S. air attacks, our bombers are returning without dropping their load. We need more actionable real-time intelligence to make our air campaign more effective. Two: without embedding U.S. forces among the Iraqi troops, there is no one experienced enough to tell the average soldier what to do.

Neither of these strategic changes would require much more troops; it is just a matter of re-purposing the troops that are already there. One hopes the White House will be clever enough to make these changes instead of blindly following their current strategy due to a George W. Bush-like inability to admit errors.

Republicans Evolve?

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The governors are railing against Washington while the Senators are talking about “national security experience.”

The Republican race for President is evolving, and the dynamics are getting out of control.

It was to be anticipated, of course. Many of the candidates had seemed to evoke the rule attributed to Ronald Reagan — thou shall not speak ill of a fellow Republican. But as the realization that all of them will not be sharing the stage in the first debate takes root, a new “debate primary” has made the back of the pack, including former governors and senators, start to turbocharge their efforts.

Fox News has adopted a new rule limiting their debate to the top 10 candidates, as determined by the latest average of polls. And all participants must be officially declared as well. These qualifications knock out Carly Fiorina and Governor John Kasich, serious participants in the field.

In any case, Republican candidates are starting to “draw distinctions” between themselves and their rivals — otherwise known as negative campaigning. The governors are railing against Washington while the Senators are talking about “national security experience.” Even more direct attacks can not be far behind.

And that’s good for the Democrats. Because once the American people understand the exact policies being espoused by the Republicans, as opposed to the smoke and mirrors, they will be shocked and will end up voting for Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Bob Dylan on Letterman

Dylan last played on Letterman during the show’s first year, and they both continue to share the same irreverent attitude towards conventional society.

Somehow Bob Dylan knows how to continue to make himself relevant, even when he is plus 70 years old! He granted the departure of Dave Letterman his imprimatur with a performance on the penultimate show last night. Dylan largely eschews television so this concession meant a lot. Dylan last played on Letterman during the show’s first year, and they both continue to share the same irreverent attitude towards conventional society.

Dylan played a slow song from his “Shadows in the Night” album, a collection of unusual hits once performed by Frank Sinatra. It was a little slow for my tastes, but the topic and the words were spot on, “The Night We Called It a Day.”

Dylan definitely didn’t look comfortable in a TV studio, pacing around before and after the performance. His usual “dance” to the music did not seem to excite the studio audience like it does his loyal fans.

But David Letterman paid Dylan the ultimate compliment, praising him as the best songwriter ever in American history. And it was worth staying up to see the moment.

No one knows what Letterman will do for an encore, for his final show. But, as always, it’s going to be tough to top a performance by Bob Dylan.

Iraq in Retrospect

Because if we were lied into the war, that suggests a criminal act, and it demands a criminal prosecution.

Thanks to Jeb Bush’s flubbed response, the question on everyone’s lips, and the one all the candidates must answer is “Knowing what you know now, would you still go to war in Iraq?” One would think this to be one of the easiest possible questions after losing thousands of American lives and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi ones in the endeavor.

But after initially distancing themselves from Jeb Bush’s tortured reply, the Republicans have pulled back from trying to show him up … “of course, they wouldn’t” … to a more nuanced reply. After paying lip service to the poor intelligence at the time, the “no” response has morphed into an observation about how horrible Saddam Hussein was, and that we would have had to deal with him eventually.

Paul Krugman of The New York Times has offered the other extreme. No, the intelligence was not faulty, and many at the time realized we were being manipulated, “lied” into war.” The problem with Krugman’s response, however, even for Democrats, is that it is too honest.

Because if we were lied into the war, that suggests a criminal act, and it demands a criminal prosecution. But we don’t want to be dragged back into an analysis of that dark and dreary time. But the Republicans’ responses are important for the future as well because some candidates are already suggesting we need to go back in to battle ISIS.

But that type of effort would sap the remaining life blood from this country and plunge us irrevocably into the Sunni-Shiite split, a feud that has continued for centuries.

The Fall of Ramadi

Empirically, it is obvious that our re-training of the Iraqi Army is not having much effect. They still cut and run when the going gets tough.

The lightning strike against Ramadi by ISIS this weekend, and the subsequent fall of the city, represented another blow to the United States intervention in Iraq. After sacrificing more than 1,000 soldiers to re-take Anbar Province in 2003, we now see almost the entire region back in radical hands.

Moreover, another large store of weapons were deserted by the Iraqi Army, giving ISIS heavy military equipment that will make them even more difficult to overcome in the future. Empirically, it is obvious that our re-training of the Iraqi Army is not having much effect. They still cut and run when the going gets tough.

The ferocity of ISIS fighters, and their ability to camouflage themselves in their surroundings, makes them almost impossible to overcome through an air campaign alone. Yet without the Shiite militias trained by Iran, the Iraqi forces are unable to make much headway in trying to reclaim their country.

One wonders how we can best move forward from here. It is clearly unacceptable to allow ISIS safe havens for training and carrying out attacks against the West. So the status quo cannot be allowed to exist. Yet the American people do not have the stomach for another ground war in the Middle East. And our own country hungers for the space to make infrastructure repairs and repair a sagging economy.

It is clear, though, that some changes will need to be made. Supplying military weapons that eventually fall into ISIS hands is obviously not the answer.