Uncle Sam: Lord of the Flies

The Fish & Wildlife Service announced yesterday that it will move with great dispatch and determination to save 12 species of rare Hawaiian flies from the brink of extinction. Thank God for the Endangered Species Act. Who knows what sort of dark ecological night might descend upon us without it?

Of course, the ESA is like an operating room in which patients check in but they don’t check out. Its success as saving and reviving patients is akin to Jack Kevorkian’s. So don’t throw a party for those flies yet.

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McCain-Feingold Bites

So a court confirms that, under the McCain-Feingold law, it’s illegal to run ads urging a senator to vote for a bill in Congress if the bill is coming to the floor within 30 days of a primary election in which the senator is running unopposed. Because letting a grassroots group contact voters on a proposed constitutional amendment would compromise “the integrity of the electoral process.”

John McCain often takes the lead on economic freedom, and Russell Feingold was the only senator to vote against the PATRIOT Act, but they should both be sorely ashamed that they have so effectively blocked the voters from the sacred “electoral process.”

NSA Database II

The disclosure by USA Today that the NSA has another domestic surveillance database is no shocker. Yet the newly uncovered database includes only calling and receiving phone numbers, not the content of the conversations.

More ominous, when asked by Congress whether the NSA was monitoring the content of wholly domestic calls, Gonzales refused to rule out such surveillance. Indeed, from a policy rather than legal perspective, if it’s necessary and effective to monitor calls from, say, DC to Naples, Italy, then why not DC to Naples, Florida? If the NSA can disregard legal barriers because a communication might include information of foreign intelligence value, then monitoring domestic-to-domestic calls would seem no less justified than monitoring domestic-to-foreign calls.

When communications from and to a US person in the US are monitored, that’s domestic surveillance, no matter whether the party on the other end is inside or outside of the US.  Since Bush believes that warrantless domestic surveillance is permissible regardless of FISA’s contrary provisions, we shouldn’t be surprised if the NSA has much more data (including content) than USA Today has uncovered.

Missing the Point on Gen. Hayden

The final paragraph from Dana Priest’s fine analysis of the story behind Gen. Michael Hayden’s appointment to head the CIA in Tuesday’s Washington Post caught my attention:

The CIA, with the help of its foreign partners, has been responsible for capturing or killing nearly all the key al-Qaeda figures since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

One can dwell on intelligence failures in recent years, starting of course with the failure to predict the 9/11 attacks, and extending to the mistaken belief that Iraq possessed WMDs. But to the extent that so much of our intelligence work now falls under the Department of Defense, it is particularly short-sighted to single out the CIA for blame.

Meanwhile, we have to give the Agency its due: Al Qaeda attacked us on 9/11, and the CIA has had Al Qaeda in its gunsights ever since. While we can all look forward to the day when Osama bin Laden, Ayman al Zawahiri and Mullah Mohammed Omar are out of circulation, the killing and capture of other senior Al Qaeda operatives (including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, described by the 9/11 Commission as the “mastermind” behind the 9/11 attrocities; and Ramzi Binalshibh, another key 9/11 figure) must be counted as an intelligence success. Score one for the spooks.

Meanwhile, the greatest intelligence blunder since 9/11 was the notion that post-Saddam Iraq would quickly settle into a stable and friendly unitary nation-state, ideally a democratic one. And on this point, the instincts among many at the CIA (as well as the State Department and the Army War College), were generally sound. Justin Logan and I took up this issue in a recent Cato Policy Analysis:

The common theme running through essentially all of the postwar planning was that the project in Iraq was going to be incredibly difficult and require a great deal of resources and sacrifice. Contrast that view with the view of the civilian leadership at the Pentagon at that time. The Pentagon believed that, by and large, resistance would be light and that a new liberal Iraqi leader could be implanted without a great deal of trouble. Accordingly, it appears that the Pentagon brushed aside pessimistic assessments from the Department of State and the War College as unduly negative.

Alas, being right doesn’t always count for very much in Washington. When CIA analysts warned that it would be difficult and costly to bring order to post-Saddam Iraq the assessments were immediately viewed with suspicion. As the Post’s David Ignatius reported last Sunday:

From late 2003 on, the agency was warning about the rise of the Iraqi insurgency and the failings of the administration’s political strategy. In 2004 the CIA station chief in Baghdad was sending warnings … about the deteriorating situation. This candid and largely correct reporting is said to have angered White House officials, who complained that the Baghdad chief was defeatist and not a team player. At the end of his tour, he was punished with a poor assignment.

No wonder the agency has experienced a shocking loss of senior talent in recent years. The announcement that Porter Goss would be replaced by a decidedly non-partisan person, and that Gen. Hayden would be accompanied by a well-respected careerist Stephen R. Kappes, a former head of CIA’s operations branch who resigned in a dispute with Goss, was aimed first and foremost at staunching the losses – and perhaps even reversing them.

We need an intelligence service in this country that is insulated from political pressures to the greatest extent possible. It cannot be hermetically sealed, of course, and there is a natural tendency for an analyst or briefer to want to play to his or her audience. Which is all the more reason why political leaders, beginning with the president and his senior cabinet officers, must do their utmost to seek out dissenting opinions, and to carefully consider whether the various sources of information are objective and knowledgeable in the matter at hand. President Bush hasn’t always done that, and the results have been disastrous.

I don’t mean this as an endorsement of Gen. Hayden. My colleague Gene Healy raises the issue of Hayden’s oversight of the NSA surveillance program, an issue that must be addressed during Hayden’s confirmation hearings. The answers he provides may ultimately warrant a “no” vote from senators.

It is also clear, however, that the CIA suffered greatly during Porter Goss’s brief but troubled tenure. Here’s hoping that a successor, whomever that might be, can turn things around.

Mission Creep

Opponents of Gen. Michael Hayden’s nomination as CIA director object to the fact that he’s an active-duty military officer. I’m not sure that’s the best argument against Hayden, since he wouldn’t be the first such to run the agency. That Hayden happily ran a secret surveillance program that violates the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act ought to be a bigger concern.

But if you want to worry about a military/surveillance nexus – and you probably should – there’s plenty to worry about quite apart from Gen. Hayden and the NSA. There have been a number of unsettling reports in recent months about military intelligence officials developing an unhealthy interest in peaceful protest groups.  

The history of domestic surveillance by the military is part tragedy, part farce. I covered a little of that history here:

[T]hroughout the 20th Century, in periods of domestic unrest and foreign conflict, army surveillance ratcheted up again, most notably in the 1960s. During that tumultuous decade, President Johnson repeatedly called on federal troops to quell riots and restore order. To better perform that task, Army intelligence operatives began compiling thousands of dossiers on citizens, many of whom had committed no offense beyond protesting government policy. Reviewing the files, the Senate Judiciary Committee noted that “comments about the financial affairs, sex lives and psychiatric histories of persons unaffiliated with the armed forces appear throughout the various records systems.” Justice William O. Douglas called army surveillance “a cancer in our body politic.”

Check the Church Committee’s report on “Improper Surveillance of United States Citizens by the Military” for more on the history we should be loath to repeat.     

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A Marshalltown Plan for Immigration

Below, Tom Palmer mentions Cato adjunct scholar Don Boudreaux’s wonderful essay on the ability of today’s United States to absorb immigrants as compared to our storied Ellis Island immigration heyday. I’d like to add a point that many Lou Dobbs fans seem not to fully grasp. Not only can we accommodate more people, we need more people.

I grew up in Marshalltown, Iowa. I’ll tell you, they’re not running out of space in Marshalltown. From the historic courthouse at the center of town, a ten to fifteen minute drive in any direction will put you in a cornfield. Over the past decade or so, Marshalltown has seen an influx of Mexicans – many from a single village, Villachuato – who came to work at the Swift meatpacking plant, or in the fields in the summer. This has caused a bit of friction in a middle-class town with a largely German and Scandinavian heritage – but just a bit. In fact, many small Midwestern towns like Marshalltown have been fighting for decades to hold on to a dwindling population. This is a real problem. Marshalltown businesses, for example, receive less than one application for each new job opening.

In 2001, with typical Iowan civic spirit, then-mayor Floyd Harthun ventured down to Villachuato to see if he could learn something about Marshalltown’s newest workers and taxpayers. Here’s part of an account of that trip, from a 2002 article in Governing Magazine (for state and local governments), which illustrates the symbiotic relationship between Mexican immigrants and towns like Marshalltown:

[Villachuatans] account for about half of the 1,900 employees at the largest employer in Marshalltown, a Swift & Co. meatpacking plant that also generates 1,200 additional jobs at related companies. Mexicans also have opened several new businesses in town, and their children have propped up sagging enrollment in Marshalltown schools. Not surprisingly, Mayor Harthun was eager to learn more about them – in part, because he wanted them to stay. “I was being self-serving,” he admits. “We need people.”

When Harthun reached Villachuato, several hours’ drive west of Mexico City, he was surprised to discover just how much the people there need Marshalltown as well. “About a third of the license plates were from Marshall County,” he recalls. He learned that Villachuatans who live in Marshalltown sent money to provide electricity and underground water in their native town, helped finance road-paving projects and restored the town church and town plaza. As Harthun visited with his hosts, he also started to understand something else: The villagers in Mexico are in close contact with their friends and family members in Iowa. “If a job opens up in Marshalltown,” he says, “the people in Villachuato know about it even before I do.”

Marshalltown (population 29,000) and Villachuato (about 15,000) are examples of what [University of Northen Iowa professor Mark] Grey calls “unofficial sister cities” – pairs of communities in Iowa and Mexico whose economies have become interdependent as a result of the flow of workers across the border. As Harthun learned, these relationships have developed out of view of the mainstream media and established institutions, following a logic rarely acknowledged in today’s polarized debates over immigration. And they show that while Americans often view immigration as an act of graciousness on our part, for many communities, it is becoming an economic development strategy as well, possibly making the difference between prosperity and economic decline.

What I love about this story (other than the fact that it makes me proud of my hometown) is the way it illustrates the positive-sum nature of exchange and human cooperation. Nobody loses when Marshalltown and Villachuato become sisters. It is maddening to see the Minutemen stringing barbed-wire along the Mexican border because that is an attempt to erect a literal barrier to the exercise of our natural moral right to cooperate – to deny our ability to make strangers our friends (our figurative siblings, even) through exchange. I agree that there is something terribly wrong when millions of people have to break the law to excercise their moral rights. But the problem isn’t that people are trying and succeeding to exercise them. The problem is poor legislation that fails to acknowledge, accommodate, and protect those rights. We can do better.

Marshalltown, a typical apple pie and baseball Midwestern town, has a great physical infrastructure, outstanding public schools, and more than enough room, physically and culturally, for tortillas and futbol. But it can’t merely accommodate more people, it needs them. There are thousands of Marshalltowns in this country (though no other may have my heart) that new immigrants could benefit and that could benefit new immigrants.

Now, part of the difficulty with immigration in a huge country like ours is that a lot of newcomers never make it out of the region of entry. This does place an undue burden of absorption on border states and port cities. No doubt most rural Mexicans have never heard of such exotic, faraway places as Iowa or Nebraska. But they should hear of them; they are needed there. Perhaps immigrants ought to be encouraged, like subway riders, to make space around the doors and move to the center.

Economics 101, Republican Style

According to Greenwire (a subcription-based electronic daily on all news environmental), House Speaker Denny Hastert (R-IL) told reporters yesterday that increasing the supply of ethanol available to refineries would have no positive effect of any kind. “I just don’t see an economic plus in it right now” he said. Apparently, it’s just a Democrat myth that increasing the supply of something will have a favorable impact on the price of that something.

Of course, Hastert’s comment was made in the context of a discussion about tariffs the United States currently has in place to discourage ethanol imports from Brazil. Removing those tarrifs would certainly help motorists (whose fuel prices are going up in part because Congress mandated massive increases in ethanol consumption at the pump in the 2005 energy bill), but there would indeed be “no economic plus in it” for U.S. corn farmers, who are thriving on the ethanol shortages that are driving up fuel prices.

Sooner or later, politicians are going to choose between motorists and farmers. Denying economic reality isn’t going to hold off the day of reckoning.