Tag: usa today

McCain: Interests of Defense Contractors May Conflict with US National Interest

USA Today reports that retired military officers join the boards of directors of, or become employees of, defense contractors and take home big bags of money doing so.  Not surprising.  At the same time, the paper reports, lots of them are being paid by the Pentagon to be “senior mentors” of their former colleagues. Not being government employees, but rather independent contractors, these folks aren’t subject to government ethics rules.  To take one example, as chairman of BAE Systems, Gen. Anthony Zinni is clearing almost a million a year, in addition to his $129,000 per year government pension.  In addition to all that, the Pentagon pays him about $2,000 per day to “mentor” people at DOD.

As the article points out, information is almost invaluable to the defense contractors in these contexts.  The knowledge of what’s going on at DOD is extremely useful for planners at the defense companies, and so while the retired officers are protesting that being paid nearly $2,000 per day by DOD for their work as mentors is “way below the industry average,” it increases their value to, and presumably their compensation from, their military-industrial employers.  As one coordinator of the mentors program told the retired officers, “you’re getting paid in two ways–monetarily and informationally.”

This isn’t too surprising a story, but the crowning irony comes as Sen. John McCain calls for an ethics rewrite and offers his view that “the important thing is that [the involved officers] avoid the appearance of conflict.” This is a puzzling remark coming from a man whose top foreign-policy adviser was collecting hundreds of thousands of dollars from the Georgian government to lobby McCain at the same time he was being paid by McCain to advise him on foreign policy.

McCain’s thoughts about conflict of interest in that instance?  He was “so proud” of his lobbyist-cum-adviser.  Presumably once McCain issued his ridiculous “today we are all Georgians” fatwa it became a patriotic duty to take money from foreign governments to represent their interests.  But in the case of the proposed reforms–which would attempt to institute some semblance of transparency in these mentoring deals–one can only wish the senator from Arizona the best.

Obama, International Law, and Free Speech

Stuart Taylor has a very good article this week about the Obama administration, international law, and free speech.  This excerpt begins with a quote from Harold Koh, Obama’s top lawyer at the State Department:

“Our exceptional free-speech tradition can cause problems abroad, as, for example, may occur when hate speech is disseminated over the Internet.” The Supreme Court, suggested Koh – then a professor at Yale Law School – “can moderate these conflicts by applying more consistently the transnationalist approach to judicial interpretation” that he espouses.

Translation: Transnational law may sometimes trump the established interpretation of the First Amendment. This is the clear meaning of Koh’s writings, although he implied otherwise during his Senate confirmation hearing.

In my view, Obama should not take even a small step down the road toward bartering away our free-speech rights for the sake of international consensus. “Criticism of religion is the very measure of the guarantee of free speech,” as Jonathan Turley, a professor at George Washington University Law School, wrote in an October 19 USA Today op-ed.

Even European nations with much weaker free-speech traditions than ours were reportedly dismayed by the American cave-in to Islamic nations on “racial and religious stereotyping” and the rest.

Read the whole thing.

The Zazi Case: Spread the Good News!

As has been widely reported, federal authorities believe an Aurora, Colorado man named Najibullah Zazi was preparing to commit acts of terrorism in the United States. Ben Friedman has provided some insight into the charge against him.

I don’t know how the case will come out, of course. I take it for what it is: an alleged terror plot. Terrorism is an acute security challenge because people who look like nincompoops to us might be activated by a capable leader and used as “muscle” in a real attack. If authorities act too early, it looks like there was never a threat. If they act too late, they might fail to prevent an attack.

Putting aside the merits, the press reaction to this case seems different from many past cases. Take this story from yesterday’s Wall Street Journal. Along with reporting the possibility of this being the first Al Qaeda cell in the United States since 9/11, it says:

Hundreds of terrorism-related prosecutions, many for far more serious charges than lying to investigators, have been filed by U.S. authorities since the 9/11 attacks. On numerous occasions, U.S. officials have made startling allegations about terrorism suspects, only to later significantly dial back their rhetoric.

I was interested also by the tone of this USA Today story which focused as much on the U.S. government’s issuance of terror alerts as on their number and validity. “Since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the FBI and DHS have issued hundreds of similar bulletins,” the story said. It’s easy to see a reporter’s skepticism in that sentence, and his signal to readers that they shouldn’t get too agitated.

My sense — and it is only impressionistic — is that the media are starting to get their feet under them. After eight years of parroting official fear-mongering, serious reporters (I say mostly to exclude cable “news”) are prepared to question what officials tell them. That can only be good. The press plays an important role in digesting information and equipping society to address terrorism along many dimensions, including girding against unnecessary fear and overreaction.

The Zazi case has an important benefit. More muscular reporting or not, the episode gives Americans a chance to see what an alleged terror cell looks like. They see that law enforcement officials are working to discover and disrupt terror cells. It’s far less frightening than what Americans’ imaginations have been coming up with since 9/11. Terrorists are not geniuses, it turns out, and they have no magic powers.

When I visited Singapore in the spring of 2008, authorities there were looking for an alleged terrorist, an Indonesian who may have fled to Malaysia. They had posted pictures of him in the subway and elsewhere. He was a smallish man and he looked no different from any other accused criminal.

“What a relief to have a terrorist to look for,” I’ve joked since then. “If only we had one!”

It is a joke, irreverence is my stock in trade, and my true desire is the same as everyone’s — no terrorists anywhere — but there’s a serious kernel to it: Getting a look at terrorists is reassuring compared to what the imagination will produce in their absence.

Since 9/11, many Americans have been gripped by fear of Islamist terrorists. Learning how a terror cell might form up and seeing how it can be disrupted provides Americans some needed familiarity with actual terrorism. That familiarity provides reassurance to many Americans that they are safer than they thought.

Terrorists are fallible. Law enforcement is on the case. We are not confronted by anything close to an existential threat.

Whatever the outcome, thank you Zazi case! Spread the good news!

Government Employment Up or Down?

The New York Times editorialized today about the supposed “brutalizing” effects of state and local government spending cuts. They claim that “most states also have cut their public workforces.”

Yet USA Today reporter Dennis Cauchon takes a look at the actual data, and he finds that state and local governments added 12,000 workers in the latest quarter, while the private sector cut 1.3 million jobs.

Thus, it appears that “brutal” restructuring is going on in the private sector, but not in the government sector. Indeed, Cauchon finds that “a huge influx of federal stimulus money to state and local governments more than offset a sharp drop in tax collections” this quarter. The article shows that state and local government spending rose quickly in the first three quarters of 2008, then dropped for two quarters, but is now rising again quite quickly. That doesn’t sound very brutal to me.

Too often editorial boards and columnists seem to write economics articles based on their preconceived notions about what they think is going on, without looking at any solid data. Cauchon’s columns at USA Today are a refreshing alternative to the sort of impressionist writing on economics we see in the NYT editorial today.