A Home Fit for a President

According to the Washington Post, Barack and Michelle Obama

wanted to step up from their $415,000 condo. They chose a house with six bedrooms, four fireplaces, a four-car garage and 5 1/2 baths, including a double steam shower and a marble powder room. It had a wine cellar, a music room, a library, a solarium, beveled glass doors and a granite-floored kitchen.

It sounds – and looks – like a home fit for a Roosevelt. Of course, the old-money Roosevelts had their homes, so they didn’t have to go through the costly and distasteful process of taking out a mortgage to buy them. Fortunately for the Obamas, the Chicago-based Northern Trust made the process a lot less costly than it might have been for other people. (See also a comment here from Clio1, who claims to know that the deal was even better than the Post suggested.)

Repeat after Me: FISA Doesn’t Expire

One of the hazards of running a grassroots campaign is that sometimes those grassroots supporters raise a ruckus if you don’t live up to your primary campaign promises. The New York Times reports that 7000 of Obama’s supporters (the number is up to 13,000 as I write this) have created a group on Obama’s own campaign website to pressure him to reject the “compromise” FISA legislation that the House passed last month. Obama declared his opposition to any FISA legislation that included retroactive immunity back in February, and many of Obama’s liberal supporters feel betrayed that while he is still nominally against the immunity provision, he has signaled a willingness to support the overall legislation whether or not the immunity provision is stripped out.

Not surprisingly, the Obama campaign’s response is both lame and misleading:

Greg Craig, a Washington lawyer who advises the Obama campaign, said Tuesday in an interview that Mr. Obama had decided to support the compromise FISA legislation only after concluding it was the best deal possible.

“This was a deliberative process, and not something that was shooting from the hip,” Mr. Craig said. “Obviously, there was an element of what’s possible here. But he concluded that with FISA expiring, that it was better to get a compromise than letting the law expire.”

I feel like a broken record, but FISA, which was enacted in 1978 and updated in 2001, doesn’t expire. It will remain the law of the land indefinitely, whether or not Congress passes new legislation this month. The Protect America Act, which was passed last August, has already expired – back in March. As I pointed out at the time, the expiration of the PAA simply returned us to the permissive surveillance regime that Congress enacted with the Patriot Act in 2001. That regime isn’t perfect, to be sure, but it leaves our intelligence community with plenty of tools to spy on terrorists.

What Mr. Craig is most likely referring to is the fact that the first surveillance “authorizations” under the PAA will begin expiring in August. These “authorizations” are good for a year, so any authorizations approved in August 2007 will expire in August 2008. But that simply means that intelligence officials will have to apply for a FISA order under the still fairly permissive Patriot Act rules. Those rules include a lower legal threshold than exists under ordinary criminal wiretaps, and an “emergency” provision allowing wiretapping to begin immediately and authorization to be sought after the fact. The net result will be a modest increase in the NSA’s paperwork burden, but there’s no reason to think any reasonable surveillance activities will cease. (Some indiscriminate vacuum-cleaner surveillance may have to be stopped, but that wouldn’t be a bad thing)

Indeed, Pres. Bush himself praised the changes Congress made to FISA in the wake of the September 11 attacks, noting that the Patriot Act’s FISA amendments “will allow surveillance of all communications used by terrorists, including e-mails, the Internet, and cell phones” and makes the intelligences community “able to better meet the technological challenges posed by this proliferation of communications technology.” That’s the legal regime that will apply if Congress declines to enact a FISA bill this year. There hasn’t been a major terrorist attack on American soil in the six and a half years that legal regime has been in place. Surely it will serve us well enough for another six and a half month until Obama himself is likely to be sitting in the Oval Office and can negotiate a FISA reform more consistent with his supposed liberal principles.

On the Rescue of Ingrid Betancourt

The rescue by the Colombian army of Ingrid Betancourt and three American contractors held hostage for years by the FARC guerrillas constitutes a crippling blow to the rebel group. Due to her high profile as a former presidential candidate, the release of Betancourt had become a powerful bargaining tool for the FARC. Now their standing is severally damaged. However, the guerrilla group still holds hostage approximately 700 people in the jungles of Colombia. This rescue, along with other serious setbacks that the FARC have suffered in recent months, including Hugo Chávez’s call to put down their arms, should further isolate the FARC and increase the pressure within the group to put an end to the armed conflict.

Cohn’s Fuzzy-Math Health Care Plan

Over at The Plank, my friend Jonathan Cohn makes a first pass at a Center for American Progress paper on John McCain’s proposed health insurance tax credit.

The main thrust of the CAP paper is that McCain’s tax credit would raise taxes on some people. I can’t really argue with that. If you replace an unlimited tax break with a limited tax break (especially one whose growth is limited), then some people are going to pay higher taxes. The fact that McCain’s tax credit is “refundable” makes the tax-hike problem worse: high-income people must suffer higher tax increases to pay for the new welfare payments. For what it’s worth, I have forwarded a proposal to reform the tax treatment of health insurance that does a much better job of protecting people from tax increases. But that’s not why I’m blogging.

After Cohn finishes with the tax-hiking aspect of McCain’s tax credits, he writes:

But this is where we run smack into the real problem of the McCain plan… This is an incredibly crude and ineffective way of controlling costs. It puts the entire onus on the consumer–basically, it says to everybody “spend less on health care” without doing anything to make sure that people can actually get decent health care at that price. There’s no guarantee of minimum benefits, in terms of services covered or limits on out-of-pocket expenses; nor is there any guarantee of available coverage for people with pre-existing conditions. (Folks with pre-existing conditions could still get coverage through employer policies. But, of course, as the tax deduction goes away, employers will have less incentive to give such coverage in the first place.)

The better way to control costs is with a variety of approaches that starts with a guarantee of coverage to everybody.

That is the Left’s approach to cost-containment – give more health benefits to more people with more ailments, while making everyone pay less – and it is just plain goofy.

More stuff costs more money. Universal coverage equals more stuff. If you’re going to use “universal coverage” and “cost-containment” in the same breath, you’d better tell me where you’re going to cut.

Defending Nukes

Walter Pincus writes for the Washington Post today:

Most overseas storage sites for U.S. nuclear weapons, particularly in Europe, need substantial improvements in physical security measures and the personnel who guard the weapons, according to a newly available Air Force report.

I bet many Post readers saw that and wondered why in the world the United States still has nuclear weapons in Europe. The answer is no good reason. In the Cold War, some US war planners worried about being overrun by numerically superior Soviet forces and wanted to use tactical nuclear weapons to slow a Soviet invasion or deter it from occurring. The sense of this at the time was questionable, given the difficulty of limiting the exchange. Now there is no strategic justification for placing these forces in Europe – unless it’s to trade to Russia for reductions in their own tactical nuclear weapons arsenal, where security is more worrisome. But tactical nuclear weapons were absent from the Moscow Treaty on nuclear arsenals that the US and Russia negotiated in 2002, and no agreements have occurred since then.

The nukes in question are reportedly all relatively small B-61 bombs designed for delivery by F-16s. The disposition of our tactical nukes in Europe is secret, but according to this report from the Federation of American Scientists, we recently removed all nuclear weapons from the United Kingdom, leaving 150-240 nuclear bombs scattered at six bases, some European run, in Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Italy and Turkey.

All this gets to the absurdity of US nuclear weapons force posture – the maintenance of the famous Triad, which was always more a logroll among military communities in the Air Force and Navy than a strategic imperative. The US gets all the survivable firepower it needs, and then some, from our 14 Trident ballistic missile submarines. Today, the need for land-based nuclear missiles is questionable. The case for nuclear bombs delivered by aircraft is hard to articulate, let alone believe, especially when they are deployed to defend rich nations capable of defending themselves from a state, Russia, that is no longer our enemy.