The Army announced 22 additional charges on Wednesday against Pfc. Bradley Manning, the military intelligence analyst who is accused of leaking a trove of government files to WikiLeaks a year ago.
The new charges included “aiding the enemy”; wrongfully causing intelligence to be published on the Internet, knowing that it was accessible to the enemy; multiple counts of theft of public records, transmitting defense information and computer fraud. If he is convicted, Private Manning could be sentenced to life in prison.
“The new charges more accurately reflect the broad scope of the crimes that Private First Class Manning is accused of committing,” said Capt. John Haberland, an Army spokesman.
The charges provide new details about when prosecutors believe that Private Manning downloaded copies of particular files from a classified computer system in Iraq. For example, the charges say he copied a database of more than 250,000 diplomatic cables between March 28 and May 4, 2010.
Most of the charges add little to the ones already filed, but the most serious new charge is for “aiding the enemy,” a capital offense under Article 104 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Although military prosecutors stated that they intend to seek life imprisonment rather than the death penalty for this alleged crime, the military tribunal is still empowered to sentence Manning to death if convicted.
Article 104 — which, like all provisions of the UCMJ, applies only to members of the military — is incredibly broad. Under 104(b) — almost certainly the provision to be applied — a person is guilty if he “gives intelligence to or communicates or corresponds with or holds any intercourse with the enemy, either directly or indirectly” (emphasis added), and, if convicted, “shall suffer death or such other punishment as a court-martial or military commission may direct.” The charge sheet filed by the Army is quite vague and neither indicates what specifically Manning did to violate this provision nor the identity of the “enemy” to whom he is alleged to have given intelligence. There are, as international law professor Kevin Jon Heller notes, only two possibilities, and both are disturbing in their own way.
In light of the implicit allegation that Manning transmitted this material to WikiLeaks, it is quite possible that WikiLeaks is the “enemy” referenced by Article 104, i.e., that the U.S. military now openly decrees (as opposed to secretly declaring) that the whistle-blowing group is an “enemy” of the U.S. More likely, the Army will contend that by transmitting classified documents to WikiLeaks for intended publication, Manning “indirectly” furnished those documents to Al Qaeda and the Taliban by enabling those groups to learn their contents. That would mean that it is a capital offense not only to furnish intelligence specifically and intentionally to actual enemies — the way that, say, Aldrich Ames and Robert Hanssen were convicted of passing intelligence to the Soviet Union — but also to act as a whistle-blower by leaking classified information to a newspaper with the intent that it be published to the world. Logically, if one can “aid the enemy” even by leaking to WikiLeaks, then one can also be guilty of this crime by leaking to The New York Times.
The dangers of such a theory are obvious. Indeed, even the military itself recognizes those dangers, as the Military Judges’ Handbook specifically requires that if this theory is used — that one has “aided the enemy” through “indirect” transmission via leaks to a newspaper — then it must be proven that the “communication was intended to reach the enemy.” None of the other ways of violating this provision contain an intent element; recognizing how extreme it is to prosecute someone for “aiding the enemy” who does nothing more than leak to a media outlet, this is the only means of violating Article 104 that imposes an intent requirement.
But does anyone actually believe that Manning’s intent was to ensure receipt of this material by the Taliban, as opposed to exposing for the public what he believed to be serious American wrongdoing and to trigger reforms?
The “aiding the enemy” charge should come as no surprise to anyone, and in fact we had predicted it would come down to treason last winter. Despite the poo-pooing and endless protestations of some of Manning’s most vocal and frequently comical defenders, there is one object lesson here which can not be repeated often enough: the U.S. Military has zero sense of humor when it comes to things like this.
Assuming for the moment that this winds up in a conviction – and the Army is certainly acting like they’re playing a pretty solid hand at this point – the situation only becomes more explosive and holds the potential to be a huge thorn in the side of the Obama administration for months or years to come. Aiding the enemy during a time of war is generally considered one of the surest paths to a firing squad for obvious reasons, but it will leave the President in a sticky position.
If the military decides to drag Manning out back and shoot him – a distinct possibility – a significant portion of Barack Obama’s base will be in an uproar. They tend to be opposed to the death penalty in general, for starters. But Manning has also become something of a folk hero on the Left, allegedly helping – albeit indirectly – Julian Assange to “stick it to the man” and expose the various perceived evils of the American government. Allowing him to be executed would be a huge black eye for Obama with his base.
But if he steps in and commutes the sentence – assuming there is a legal mechanism for him to do so – then he will be seen as undercutting his own military establishment and substituting his judgment for their established practices and discipline. (Not to mention earning the tag of “going soft on traitors,” always a sure winner in an election year.)
Of course, the Army could let Obama off the hook and simply send Manning to Leavenworth for the rest of his natural life, but that’s not a great option either in terms of the political optics. Manning’s cheerleaders are already complaining about the “horrific” conditions he’s being held under and it’s only going to get worse after his conviction. (He might even lose his cable TV, library and newspaper privileges and private exercise yard.)
If convicted on the Big Count, Manning will never, ever be able to be transferred into the general military prison population and will, in all likelihood, spend the rest of his life in solitary confinement. Of all the scoundrels in legal history, traitors are probably the most unpopular with the enlisted rank and file. Dumped into a large crowd, Manning’s safety would be virtually impossible to assure. And that would leave the President with a “folk hero” of the Left locked up under the same – or worse – conditions than he’s in now for the rest of his time in office. This would be a burr under Obama’s saddle which would never go away.
It’s been a long and winding road, but it looks like we may be coming to the end of it. The Army moves at their own pace, as they should, but if they’ve filed charges now they probably feel like their case is just about ripe for presentation. Look for a court martial date to be announced in the coming weeks or months.
While we can’t be sure, I suspect the reference in Charge II, Specification 3 is to this information about the surveillance of Assange.
If I’m right about that, then it means the government is charging Manning with providing WikiLeaks with information about the surveillance being conducted, in real time, on WikiLeaks. And it would make it easy to prove both that “the enemy” got the information and that Manning intended the “enemy” to get it.
So if the government maintains that, by virtue of being an intelligence target, WikLeaks qualifies as an “enemy,” then they can also argue that Manning intentionally gave WikiLeaks information about how the government was targeting the organization. Which would make their aiding the enemy charge easy to prove.
But I also think that opens up the government to charges that it is criminalizing democracy.
As I noted above, the government’s own report on WikiLeaks describes its purpose to be increasing the accountability of democratic or corrupt governments. The government, by its own acknowledgment, knows that WikiLeaks’ intent is to support democracy. Furthermore, while the intelligence report reviews the debate about whether WikiLeaks constitutes protected free speech or criminal behavior (without taking a side in that debate), in a discussion of WikiLeaks’ efforts to verify an NGIC report on the battle of Fallujah, the report acknowledges that WikiLeaks did the kind of thing journalists do.
Wikileaks.org and some other news organizations did attempt to contact the NGIC personnel by e-mail or telephone to verify the information.
Given the high visibility and publicity associated with publishing this classified report by Wikileaks.org, however, attempts to verify the information were prudent and show journalist responsibility to the newsworthiness or fair use of the classified document if they are investigated or challenged in court.
So while the military, according to its own report, describes WikiLeaks as a threat to the armed forces, it also acknowledges that WikiLeaks has behaved, at times, as a journalistic organization.
Mind you, all of this is simply a wildarsed guess about what the government may mean with its invocation of the “enemy.” But if I’m right, it would mean the government was threatening Manning with life in prison because he leaked information about the government’s surveillance of what it admits is an entity that engages in journalistic behavior.
Personally, though, I don’t think it would be that difficult a position for the President. The number of people complaining about Manning’s treatment can basically be whittled down to the Glenn Greenwald segment of the President’s progressive base, and many of them don’t seem to understand that Manning’s rights as a military prisoner being prosecuted under the Uniform Code Of Military Justice are distinctly different from the rights he would be entitled to as a civilian defendant in a civilian court. Additionally, many of them don’t seem to think that he did anything wrong even if the charges against him are true. I dare to say that they do not represent a majority of the Democratic Party, and certainly not a majority of the country. If Bradley Manning is convicted of aiding the enemy, then I doubt many Americans are going to care what happens to him.
Pentagon and military officials also report that investigators have made no direct link between Manning and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.
This has been the case for months, despite digging by federal investigators in all directions, and it makes the probability that any charges will ever be sustained against Wikileaks, Julian Assange, or any related individuals, seem very remote indeed.
On Wednesday March 2, 2011, PFC Manning was told that his Article 138 complaint requesting that he be removed from Maximum custody and Prevention of Injury (POI) Watch had been denied by the Quantico commander, Colonel Daniel J. Choike. Understandably frustrated by this decision after enduring over seven months of unduly harsh confinement conditions, PFC Manning inquired of the Brig operations officer what he needed to do in order to be downgraded from Maximum custody and POI. As even Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell has stated, PFC Manning has been nothing short of “exemplary” as a detainee. Additionally, Brig forensic psychiatrists have consistently maintained that there is no mental health justification for the POI Watch imposed on PFC Manning. In response to PFC Manning’s question, he was told that there was nothing he could do to downgrade his detainee status and that the Brig simply considered him a risk of self-harm. PFC Manning then remarked that the POI restrictions were “absurd” and sarcastically stated that if he wanted to harm himself, he could conceivably do so with the elastic waistband of his underwear or with his flip-flops.
Without consulting any Brig mental health provider, Chief Warrant Officer Denise Barnes used PFC’s Manning’s sarcastic quip as justification to increase the restrictions imposed upon him under the guise of being concerned that PFC Manning was a suicide risk. PFC Manning was not, however, placed under the designation of Suicide Risk Watch. This is because Suicide Risk Watch would have required a Brig mental health provider’s recommendation, which the Brig commander did not have. In response to this specific incident, the Brig psychiatrist assessed PFC Manning as “low risk and requiring only routine outpatient followup [with] no need for … closer clinical observation.” In particular, he indicated that PFC Manning’s statement about the waist band of his underwear was in no way prompted by “a psychiatric condition.”
While the commander needed the Brig psychiatrist’s recommendation to place PFC Manning on Suicide Risk Watch, no such recommendation was needed in order to increase his restrictions under POI Watch. The conditions of POI Watch require only psychiatric input, but ultimately remain the decision of the commander.
Given these circumstances, the decision to strip PFC Manning of his clothing every night for an indefinite period of time is clearly punitive in nature. There is no mental health justification for the decision. There is no basis in logic for this decision. PFC Manning is under 24 hour surveillance, with guards never being more than a few feet away from his cell. PFC Manning is permitted to have his underwear and clothing during the day, with no apparent concern that he will harm himself during this time period. Moreover, if Brig officials were genuinely concerned about PFC Manning using either his underwear or flip-flops to harm himself (despite the recommendation of the Brig’s psychiatrist) they could undoubtedly provide him with clothing that would not, in their view, present a risk of self-harm. Indeed, Brig officials have provided him other items such as tear-resistant blankets and a mattress with a built-in pillow due to their purported concerns.
This is just vile. The former brig commander, James Averhart, violated military rules by putting Manning on suicide watch as punishment, and was subsequently replaced by Denise Barnes. Now she’s stripping him naked to punish him for a sarcastic quip. Who is she, Nurse Ratched? Abusing someone’s mental health classification in order to subject them to torture “for their own good” is sick and sadistic, reminiscent of Soviet gulags.
First, Lt. Brian Villiard, a Marine spokesman, confirmed that Manning’s clothes were taken from him, though he didn’t give many details of the incident, except to say that it wasn’t done for punitive reasons.
“It would be inappropriate for me to explain it,” Villiard told the New York Times. “I can confirm that it did happen, but I can’t explain it to you without violating the detainee’s privacy.”
This isn’t the first time that Manning’s lawyer has asserted that the private suffered abuse in prison, and it likely won’t be the last. It’s typical of attorneys to claim that their clients are mistreated in prison, and in a case like Manning’s, these types of allegations will be eaten up by his supporters.
But based on Villiard’s statement, and the timeline of the incident, it sounds like Manning’s clothes may have been taken from him owing to suicide concerns. The Army private was previously put on suicide watch in prison. His reaction to the new charges against him could have military officials apprehensive about his mental state.
As Glenn Greenwald notes, there really only seems to be one purpose behind what Manning is being subjected to:
Let’s review Manning’s detention over the last nine straight months: 23-hour/day solitary confinement; barred even from exercising in his cell; one hour total outside his cell per day where he’s allowed to walk around in circles in a room alone while shackled, and is returned to his cell the minute he stops walking; forced to respond to guards’ inquiries literally every 5 minutes, all day, everyday; and awakened at night each time he is curled up in the corner of his bed or otherwise outside the guards’ full view. Is there anyone who doubts that these measures — and especially this prolonged forced nudity — are punitive and designed to further erode his mental health, physical health and will? As The Guardian reported last year, forced nudity is almost certainly a breach of the Geneva Conventions; the Conventions do not technically apply to Manning, as he is not a prisoner of war, but they certainly establish the minimal protections to which all detainees — let alone citizens convicted of nothing — are entitled.
Moreover, Greenwald points out, correctly I think, the media seems to be giving the Obama Administration a pass here:
I’ll say this again: just fathom the contrived, shrieking uproar from opportunistic Democratic politicians and their loyalists if it had been George Bush and Dick Cheney — on U.S. soil — subjecting a whistle-blowing member of the U.S. military to these repressive conditions without being convicted of anything, charging him with a capital offense that statutorily carries the death penalty, and then forcing him to remain nude every night and stand naked for inspection outside his cell. Feigning concern over detainee abuse for partisan gain is only slightly less repellent than the treatment to which Manning is being subjected.
Indeed. It’s understandable, to be honest, why the right wouldn’t care all that much about how Private Manning is being treated. If this were happening under a Republican, though, the left would be united in outrage. Now, their silence is telling
Make no mistake about it. I do not consider Bradley Manning a hero in any sense of the word. Even if it were the case that much of the material that Manning stole from military computers should not have been classified, or really wasn’t all that important (and much of it wasn’t in the end), that isn’t a decision that a Private in the Army has a right to make. If the charges against him are true, he violated orders, accessed systems he had no right to access, and stole information that he had no right to take off base. If he’s convicted of these charges, he deserves to be punished to the fullest extent of the law. While he’s awaiting trial, though, and even after he’s convicted, he still must be treated humanely and, at present, Manning is receiving worse treatment than a Prisoner Of War would, and the only purpose behind it seems to be to break him psychologically. That’s simply unacceptable.
But can this treatment really be justified? There are two points to address on this front.
First and most simply put, Manning made the comment about being able to kill himself with his underwear, sarcastic or not. Can you imagine what would be said if the brig commander did nothing and then he actually did turn up dead in his cell by his own waistband? It would be a movable feast for the media and several careers would come to an abrupt end. How does the commander ignore something like that?
The second point is a bit more complicated and far less clear, and one that we’ve touched on here in the past. It boils down to some of the fundamental differences between civilian society and the military community. Just as civilians, used to all their freedoms of free speech, etc. don’t understand the restrictions on military personnel, those familiar with the civilian justice system are frequently shocked by many of the “unofficial” aspects of the U.C.M.J. Lots of things like this go on all the time in the military, or at least they used to back in the day. But normally you don’t have the civilian press watching and reporting on it.
Does that make it right? I leave that to the judgment of the reader.
Also, life in the military in general is just a bit more physical and harsh than in the civilian world. A lot of things happen which would probably shock many of you who have never served. In the Navy, for example, there is an old tradition of an initiation rite of passage the first time a sailor crosses the equator on a war ship. It is the time when you graduate from being a “pollywog” (or just “wog” for short) to being a “shellback.” Trust me, it’s an ordeal, usually lasting 24 hours or more.
The third time I made the passage, two enlisted men wound up in sick bay with broken arms. Everyone got to experience the joys of crawling through plastic chutes filled with garbage, rotting food and bilge water, all the while being “herded” by shellbacks wielding foot long lengths of fire hose, loving called, “shillelaghs.” (During my own initiation it took more than a week before the bruises finally faded.) And this is all for your friends who have done nothing wrong.
I’ll leave it for one of the veteran submarine sailors to tell you about the grand old tradition of having your dolphins “tacked on” if they wish to do so in comments.
So I suppose our final question is, does any of this make it acceptable for Manning to be treated in this fashion, either to cover the brig commander’s butt or for the sake of teaching a lesson to somebody mouthing off to their superiors? I really don’t know. Maybe we do need to shine a light on this and review military procedures, both official and “under the covers.” But I do know that life in the military community is a lot different than in the civilian world, and having lived it for a number of years myself, this story honestly didn’t shock me at all.
There is only one word to describe the treatment of this model prisoner: sadism. Glenn Greenwald has been following the case closely and has two disturbing must-reads here and here. We all hoped that under Obama, brutal treatment of military prisoners and lies about it would end. In this case, they haven’t.
I understand that Bradley Manning has probably done something very wrong, for which, if guilty, he deserves a hefty jail sentence and the contempt of his fellow citizens. But this is not what a decent country does to its citizens.
Jane Hamsher is with David House who is trying to visit Pvt. Bradley Manning at Quantico today while carrying a petition with 42,000 signatures requesting humane treatment for Manning. The military isn’t making it easy at all and detained Jane and David for two hours. We’re publishing her tweets as well as David House’s tweets here as a post in case you haven’t been able to follow them on Twitter (@JaneHamsher and @DavidMHouse
UPDATE: At 2:50pm the military released Jane and David, and told David he could go off base and come back on to visit Bradley. But visiting hours end at 3pm, so Bradley won’t get a visit. We’ll have more soon.
I don’t think any of this had anything to do with me, or frankly the 42,000 petition signatures. The only thing I did was provide housing and transportation to David House, because he’s just out of college and Glenn Greenwald told him he could stay with me when he comes to visit Manning.
Everyone but David has stopped coming to see Bradley, and it takes a lot of courage to do what David is doing. It’s a very intimidating situation. So I try to support him by giving him a place to stay and driving him to the base when he comes to town. That’s really my only involvement.
There is no doubt in my mind that the primary objective of everything that happened today was to keep Bradley Manning from having the company of his only remaining visitor. The MPs told us they were ordered to do this, the brass showed up to make sure that they did, and they held us until 2:50 by repeatedly asking for information they already had whenever we asked to leave.
Visiting hours at the brig end at 3pm, and don’t begin again until the next weekend. It’s a half hour walk from the front gate to the brig, and although they have allowed David to walk before, they wouldn’t let him do it this time. They said he’d have to catch a cab and come back on the base, but they wouldn’t release him to do that until 2:50.
This was all about detaining David, not me. I would not be surprised to learn they were also punishing him for speaking out about Manning’s conditions. The State Department, the FBI and just about every three-letter government agency has been investigating David and the other Boston hackers since they began organizing support for Bradley Manning last summer, with one witch hunt after another attempting to implicate them in one of Adrian Lamo’s fabulist tales of a physical disk hand-off from Manning to Wikileaks. The New York Times keeps printing that one, over and over again, with the Justice Department whispering in their ear and nothing but the word of the inconsistent Lamo for evidence.
David has been detained at the airport, his computer seized and held for months with no explanation. The McCarthy-esque actions of the security agencies has terrified all of these idealistic young people. It is exceptionally admirable that David and others persist in supporting Bradley Manning despite it all.
The net effect of the MP’s actions today was to escalate the climate of threats and intimidation around David, a 23 year-old who just graduated from college, and cut Manning off from any personal contact with the one person who is still showing up to visit him after the government consciously scared everyone else off.
I am very happy that I went, and could be there to support David, because one of the first things the MPs said to us when we arrived — long before they asked for driver’s license, social security numbers, registration, phone numbers, quizzed us about the addresses on our licenses, etc, etc, was that they had orders to do all of this. Which means they were planning to detain us long before we got there. They were going to use any excuse to keep David from visiting Manning, and try to intimidate him from coming back.
A spokesman for the base told the AP that the two were never detained. He said Hamsher’s car was towed after she failed to show proof of insurance, and after MPs determined her car’s license plates were expired.
Manning, who is 23, has been charged with eight crimes related to illegally leaking classified information. Manning is accused of leaking 250,000 diplomatic cables, tens of thousands of military dispatches from the war in Afghanistan and a video that shows U.S. forces opening fire on civilians in Iraq, including two Reuters journalists.
Here’s a free tip for those who are obviously not terribly familiar with the military. You don’t give the military a courtesy call to tell them you are coming. You ask their permission. It’s a military base, not a theme park. And when you tell them in advance that you’re coming to their turf to pull off a media stunt intended to make them look bad and challenge their authority, they’re going to mess with you. Further, even if one of you is on the approved visitor list, (Hamsher is not) when you arrive at a United States Military facility, you are there as their guest. They may choose to suffer your presence, but from the moment you pass through those gates you’re playing by their rules.
Nobody knows why Marines are holding Bradley Manning who is in the Army anyway. Manning attorney unable to get an answer.
If there’s any truth to that, Manning needs to fire his attorney. The Marines handle security duty at numerous military facilities around the world, including the brigs on larger Navy ships. Quantico’s brig, which is staffed by both Marine and Navy personnel, is famous as a secure destination for suspects and convicts in transition, particularly in high profile cases. It has housed a variety of notorious figures ranging from wannabe presidential assassin John Hinkley to convicted traitor and spy Clayton J. Lonetree. There is absolutely nothing unusual about a suspect like Manning winding up there.
In the end, this stunt was just the next phase in Hamsher’s relentless campaign to lionize both Bradley Manning and Julian Assange as some sort of heroes. It’s an effort which has been regularly abetted by Glenn Greenwald, who jumped into the brewing Twitter storm almost immediately. At one point I asked him if he thought Manning might actually be guilty of releasing all those documents and if that made him some sort of hero in Glenn’s eyes. His response was refreshingly honest.
I have no idea – we wait until what’s called a “verdict” before imposing punishment on people. And yeah, I think it’s heroic.
I’m sure we’re all anxious to find out where this story goes next. Will more visitors take on the U.S. Marines? Will Private Manning have his cable TV access reduced to even more barbaric levels less than six hours per day? Will Jane get her car back and find her insurance card? Tune in next time on, As the World of Manning Turns.
The claim is that Hamsher has only electronic rather than printed proof of car insurance — the same proof she’s had every other time she brought House there, though without a petition — and they have thus impounded her car. They also, though, are refusing — without any explanation — to let House visit Manning despite his being on the approved visitor list. So much for Manning’s once-a-week reprieve from solitary confinement.
On June 6, Kevin Poulsen and Kim Zetter of Wiredreported that a 22-year-old U.S. Army Private in Iraq, Bradley Manning, had been detained after he “boasted” in an Internet chat — with convicted computer hacker Adrian Lamo — of leaking to WikiLeaks the now famous Apache Helicopter attack video, a yet-to-be-published video of a civilian-killing air attack in Afghanistan, and “hundreds of thousands of classified State Department records.” Lamo, who holds himself out as a “journalist” and told Manning he was one, acted instead as government informant, notifying federal authorities of what Manning allegedly told him, and then proceeded to question Manning for days as he met with federal agents, leading to Manning’s detention.
On June 10, former New York Times reporter Philip Shenon, writing in The Daily Beast, gave voice to anonymous “American officials” to announce that “Pentagon investigators” were trying “to determine the whereabouts of the Australian-born founder of the secretive website Wikileaks [Julian Assange] for fear that he may be about to publish a huge cache of classified State Department cables that, if made public, could do serious damage to national security.” Some news outlets used that report to declare that there was a “Pentagon manhunt” underway for Assange — as though he’s some sort of dangerous fugitive.
From the start, this whole story was quite strange for numerous reasons. In an attempt to obtain greater clarity about what really happened here, I’ve spent the last week reviewing everything I could related to this case and speaking with several of the key participants (including Lamo, with whom I had a one-hour interview last night that can be heard on the recorder below, and Poulsen, with whom I had a lengthy email exchange, which is published in full here). A definitive understanding of what really happened is virtually impossible to acquire, largely because almost everything that is known comes from a single, extremely untrustworthy source: Lamo himself. Compounding that is the fact that most of what came from Lamo has been filtered through a single journalist — Poulsen — who has a long and strange history with Lamo, who continues to possess but not disclose key evidence, and who has been only marginally transparent about what actually happened here (I say that as someone who admires Poulsen’s work as Editor of Wired‘s Threat Level blog).
On May 20 — a month ago — Poulsen, out of nowhere, despite Lamo’s not having been in the news for years, wrote a long, detailed Wired article describing serious mental health problems Lamo was experiencing. The story Poulsen wrote goes as follows: after Lamo’s backpack containing pharmaceutical products was stolen sometime in April (Lamo claims they were prescribed anti-depressants), Lamo called the police, who concluded that he was experiencing such acute psychiatric distress that they had him involuntarily committed to a mental hospital for three days. That 72-hour “involuntary psychiatric hold” was then extended by a court for six more days, after which he was released to his parents’ home. Lamo claimed he was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, a somewhat fashionable autism diagnosis which many stars in the computer world have also claimed. In that article, Poulsen also summarized Lamo’s extensive hacking history. Lamo told me that, while he was in the mental hospital, he called Poulsen to tell him what happened, and then told Poulsen he could write about it for a Wired article. So starved was Lamo for some media attention that he was willing to encourage Poulsen to write about his claimed psychiatric problems if it meant an article in Wired that mentioned his name.
It was just over two weeks after writing about Lamo’s Asperger’s, depression and hacking history that Poulsen, along with Kim Zetter, reported that PFC Manning had been detained, after, they said, he had “contacted former hacker Adrian Lamo late last month over instant messenger and e-mail.” Lamo told me that Manning first emailed him on May 20 and, according to highly edited chat logs released by Wired, had his first online chat with Manning on May 21; in other words, Manning first contacted Lamo the very day that Poulsen’s Wired article on Lamo’s involuntary commitment appeared (the Wired article is time-stamped 5:46 p.m. on May 20).
Although none of the Wired articles ever mention this, the first Lamo-Manning communications were not actually via chat. Instead, Lamo told me that Manning first sent him a series of encrypted emails which Lamo was unable to decrypt because Manning “encrypted it to an outdated PGP key of mine” [PGP is an encryption program]. After receiving this first set of emails, Lamo says he replied — despite not knowing who these emails were from or what they were about — by inviting the emailer to chat with him on AOL IM, and provided his screen name to do so. Lamo says that Manning thereafter sent him additional emails encrypted to his current PGP key, but that Lamo never bothered to decrypt them. Instead, Lamo claims he turned over all those Manning emails to the FBI without ever reading a single one of them. Thus, the actual initial communications between Manning and Lamo — what preceded and led to their chat — are completely unknown. Lamo refuses to release the emails or chats other than the small chat snippets published by Wired.
Using the chat logs between Lamo and Manning — which Lamo provided to Poulsen — the Wired writers speculated that the Army Private trusted Lamo because he “sensed a kindred spirit in the ex-hacker.” Poulsen and Zetter write that Manning confessed to being the leaker of the Apache attack video “very quickly in the exchange,” and then proceeded to boast that, in addition, “he leaked a quarter-million classified embassy cables” to WikiLeaks. Very shortly after the first chat, Lamo notified federal agents of what Manning told him, proceeded to speak to Manning for the next several days while consulting with federal agents, and then learned that Manning was detained in Iraq.
Here’s how it worked in the Manning case: Manning first contacted Lamo by IM on May 21st. On May 24th, Lamo called Poulsen to let him know about the potential story, but witheld details. Lamo began working with the feds to nab Manning. On May 26th, Manning was arrested. The day after Lamo learned of Manning’s arrest, he told the whole story to Poulsen, who drove miles to pick up a zip drive with the chat logs, according to the CJR. Poulsen wrote the post and published June 6th.
We see here how Lamo functions essentially as an informal stringer for Poulsen. Lamo told the BBC that he had even told Manning he was a journalist. That Lamo then turned on his source is a pretty blatant violation of journalistic ethics, but never mind; Poulsen gets his story and Lamo gets his name in the papers.
In typical hyperbolic fashion, Wikileaks has been Tweeting allegations that this means Wired was in collusion with Lamo and, thus, the US government. Really, what’s going on doesn’t differ much from any source-journalist relationship.
But Wired’s role is indeed colored by Poulsen’s strong relationship with Lamo—and the fact that Lamo turned Manning into the authorities. When hackers come to the media with, say, evidence of a massive iPad security flaw, they usually demand some sort of anonymity. Manning didn’t have this option, since, technically he wasn’t speaking with a journalist. But the fact that Lamo presumably intended from the beginning to dish to Poulsen complicates things.
The exact role of Wired in this—and the extent to which Lamo misled Manning to think he was a journalist—could presumably be answered by looking at the full chat logs Lamo gave Poulsen. But Poulsen told Greenwald that Wired didn’t release the full transcript because it detailed “personal matters” or sensitive government information. Bullshit. Poulsen and Lamo have been working as an informal hacker-journalist unit for years. It’s time to get some Wikileaks-style transparency on how it all works.
Poulsen’s concealment of the chat logs is actively blinding journalists and others who have been attempting to learn what Manning did and did not do. By allowing the world to see only the fraction of the Manning-Lamo chats that he chose to release, Poulsen has created a situation in which his long-time “source,” Adrian Lamo, is the only source of information for what Manning supposedly said beyond those published exceprts. Journalists thus routinely print Lamo’s assertions about Manning’s statements even though — as a result of Poulsen’s concealment — they are unable to verify whether Lamo is telling the truth. Due to Poulsen, Lamo is now the one driving many of the media stories about Manning and WikiLeaks even though Lamo (a) is a convicted felon, (b) was (as Poulsen strangely reported at the time) involuntarily hospitalized for severe psychiatric distress a mere three weeks before his chats with Manning, and (c) cannot keep his story straight about anything from one minute to the next.
To see how odious Poulsen’s concealment of this evidence is, consider this December 15 New York Times article by Charlie Savage, which reports that the DOJ is trying to prosecute WikiLeaks based on the theory that Julian Assange “encouraged or even helped” Manning extract the classified information. Savage extensively quotes Lamo claiming that Manning told him all sorts of things about WikiLeaks and Assange that are not found in the portions of the chat logs published by Wired:
Among materials prosecutors are studying is an online chat log in which Private Manning is said to claim that he had been directly communicating with Mr. Assange using an encrypted Internet conferencing service as the soldier was downloading government files. Private Manning is also said to have claimed that Mr. Assange gave him access to a dedicated server for uploading some of them to WikiLeaks.
Adrian Lamo, an ex-hacker in whom Private Manning confided and who eventually turned him in, said Private Manning detailed those interactions in instant-message conversations with him.
He said the special server’s purpose was to allow Private Manning’s submissions to “be bumped to the top of the queue for review.” By Mr. Lamo’s account, Private Manning bragged about this “as evidence of his status as the high-profile source for WikiLeaks.”
Wired magazine has published excerpts from logs of online chats between Mr. Lamo and Private Manning. But the sections in which Private Manning is said to detail contacts with Mr. Assange are not among them. Mr. Lamo described them from memory in an interview with the Times, but he said he could not provide the full chat transcript because the F.B.I. had taken his hard drive, on which it was saved. . . .
It has been known that investigators were looking for evidence that one or more people in Boston served as an intermediary between Private Manning and WikiLeaks, although there is no public sign that they have found any evidence supporting that theory. . . .
“At some point, [Manning] became satisfied that he was actually talking to Assange and not some unknown third party posing as Assange, and based on that he began sending in smaller amounts of data from his computer,” Mr. Lamo said. “Because of the nature of his Internet connection, he wasn’t able to send large data files easily. He was using a satellite connection, so he was limited until he did an actual physical drop-off when he was back in the United States in January of this year.”
Lamo’s claim — that Manning told him that he physically dropped off a disk with classified information to WikiLeaks’ “intermediaries” in Boston — is nowhere to be found in the chat logs released by Poulsen. And while there are a couple of vague references in the chats to Manning’s interactions with Assange, there is also little in the released portions about Assange using an “encrypted Internet conferencing service” to talk to Manning or specially creating a “dedicated server” for Manning to use. Yet here is Lamo, on the front page of The New York Times, making these incredibly inflammatory accusations about what Manning supposedly told him — accusations that could implicate both WikiLeaks and numerous individuals in the Boston area, including MIT students who (due at least in part to Lamo’s prior accusations) have been the subject of WikiLeaks-related probes by the FBI.
Whether Manning actually said these things to Lamo could be verified in one minute by “journalist” Kevin Poulsen. He could either say: (1) yes, the chats contain such statements by Manning, and here are the portions where he said these things, or (2) no, the chats contain no such statements by Manning, which means Lamo is either lying or suffers from a very impaired recollection about what Manning said. Poulsen could also provide Lamo — who claims he is no longer in possession of them — with a copy of the chat logs (which Lamo gave him) so that journalists quoting Lamo about Manning’s statements could see the actual evidence rather than relying on Lamo’s claims. Any true “journalist” — or any person minimally interested in revealing the truth — would do exactly that in response to Lamo’s claims as published by TheNew York Times.
But manifestly, those descriptions do not apply to Kevin Poulsen. It’s been almost two weeks since Savage wrote his story in which he prominently pointed out that Wired has the evidence — but has not released it — which would confirm whether Lamo is telling the truth about these vital matters, and Poulsen has said nothing. Moreover, I sent Poulsen an e-mail two days ago — here — expressly asking whether or not the chat logs contain what Lamo says they contain about WikiLeaks and Boston-area “intermediaries,” and he has ignored the inquiries. This is not the behavior of a journalist seeking to inform the public, but of someone eager, for whatever reasons, to hide the truth.
On Monday, Salon.com columnist Glenn Greenwald unleashed a stunning attack on this publication, and me in particular, over our groundbreaking coverage of WikiLeaks and the ongoing prosecution of the man suspected of being the organization’s most important source. Greenwald’s piece is a breathtaking mix of sophistry, hypocrisy and journalistic laziness.
We took the high ground and ignored Greenwald and Salon the first time they pulled this nonsense. Now it’s time to set the record straight.
If you’re just tuning in, Wired.com was the first to report, last June, on the then-secret arrest of Pfc. Bradley Manning. I learned of the arrest from Adrian Lamo, a well-known former hacker on whom I reported extensively from 2000 to 2002. It was Lamo who turned Manning in to the Army and the FBI, after Manning — isolated and despondent — contacted him online and began confiding the most intimate details of his life, including, but by no means limited to, his relationship with WikiLeaks, and the vast databases he claimed to have provided them.
Co-writer Kim Zetter and I followed up the story four days later with a piece examining Manning’s motives. The Washington Post had just run a fine story about Manning’s state-of-mind: At the time of his discussions with Lamo, he’d been through a bad breakup and had other personal conflicts. But I felt — and still do feel — that it’s a mistake to automatically ascribe Manning’s actions to his feeling depressed. (For one thing, his breakup occurred after the leaking.) There’s an implicit political judgment in that conclusion: that leaking is an aberrant act, a symptom of a psychological disorder. Manning expressed clear and rational reasons for doing what he did, whether one agrees with those reasons or not.
We’ve had several more scoops since then, reporting new information on Manning’s history in the Army, and revealing the internal conflict his alleged disclosures triggered within WikiLeaks.
But those first stories in June either excerpted, quoted or reported on everything of consequence Manning had to say about his leaking. We’ve led the coverage on this story, and we would gain nothing by letting another scoop simmer unreported on our hard drives.
The debate, if it can be described as that, centers on the remainder of Manning’s conversations with Lamo. Greenwald argues that Wired.com has a journalistic obligation to publish the entirety of Manning’s communications. As with other things that Greenwald writes, the truth is the opposite. (See the statement above by Wired’s editor-in-chief.)
Greenwald’s incomplete understanding of basic journalistic standards was first displayed in his earlier piece on this subject, last June, titled “The Strange and Consequential Case of Bradley Manning, Adrian Lamo and WikiLeaks.” This is where he first claimed that Lamo and I have “long and strange history together.”
That “history” began in 2000, when, while reporting for the computer security news site SecurityFocus.com, I contacted Lamo to use him as an expert on security issues at AOL. I sought him out because he’d been quoted in a similar capacity in a Salon.com article the year before.
Later, Lamo began sharing with me the details of some of his hacking. Lamo was nearly unique among hackers of that period, in that he had no evident fear of discussing his unlawful access, regardless of the inevitable legal consequences. He cracked everyone from Microsoft to Yahoo, and from MCI to Excite@Home. And he freely discussed how he did it, and sometimes helped the victim companies close their security holes afterward.
This came at a time, prior to the passage of California’s SB1386, when companies had no legal obligation to reveal security breaches, and hackers, facing tough criminal sanctions, had a strong disincentive to reveal it themselves. Lamo’s transparency provided an invaluable window on the poor state of computer security.
Using little more than a web browser, he was able to gain sensitive information on critical infrastructure, and private data like Social Security numbers. He changed a news story on Yahoo — at the time the most-trafficked news source on the web — undetected. In the intrusion that finally resulted in his arrest, he cracked The New York Times intranet and added himself to the paper’s internal database of op-ed contributors.
Some people regarded him as a hacker hero — Kevin Spacey narrated a documentary about him. Others argued he was a villain. At his sentencing, Lamo’s prosecutors argued he was responsible for “a great deal of psychological injury” to his victims.
To Greenwald, all this makes Lamo “a low-level, inconsequential hacker.” This conclusion is critical to his thesis that Lamo and I have something more than a source-journalist relationship. Greenwald’s theory is that Lamo’s hacks were not newsworthy. But, this line of thought goes, in exchange for the chance to break the non-news of his intrusions, I reported them — getting Lamo attention among the readers of SecurityFocus.com.
What he fails to report is that those same breaches were also covered by the Associated Press, Reuters, Wired magazine (well before my tenure at Wired.com), cable news networks, every tech news outlet and several national newspapers, and that Lamo spoke freely to all of them.
Last night, Wired posted a two-part response to my criticisms of its conduct in reporting on the arrest of PFC Bradley Manning and the key role played in that arrest by Adrian Lamo. I wrote about this topic twice — first back in June and then again on Monday. The first part of Wired‘s response was from Wired.com Editor-in-Chief Evan Hansen, and the second is from its Senior Editor Kevin Poulsen. Both predictably hurl all sorts of invective at me as a means of distracting attention from the central issue, the only issue that matters: their refusal to release or even comment on what is the central evidence in what is easily one of the most consequential political stories of this year, at least.
That’s how these disputes often work by design: the party whose conduct is in question (here, Wired) attacks the critic in order to create the impression that it’s all just some sort of screeching personality feud devoid of substance. That, in turn, causes some bystanders to cheer for whichever side they already like and boo the side they already dislike, as though it’s some sort of entertaining wrestling match, while everyone else dismisses it all as some sort of trivial Internet catfight not worth sorting out. That, ironically, is what WikiLeaks critics (and The New York Times‘ John Burns) did with the release of the Iraq War documents showing all sorts of atrocities in which the U.S. was complicit: they tried to put the focus on the personality quirks of Julian Assange to distract attention away from the horrifying substance of those disclosures. That, manifestly, is the same tactic Wired is using here: trying to put the focus on me to obscure their own ongoing conduct in concealing the key evidence shining light on these events.
In a separate post, I fully address every accusation Hansen and Poulsen make about me as well as the alleged inaccuracies in what I wrote. But I’m going to do everything possible here to ensure that the focus remains on what matters: the way in which Wired, with no justification, continues to conceal this evidence and, worse, refuses even to comment on its content, thus blinding journalists and others trying to find out what really happened here, while enabling gross distortions of the truth by Poulsen’s long-time confidant and source, the government informant Adrian Lamo.
The bottom line from Hansen and Poulsen is that they still refuse to release any further chat excerpts or, more inexcusably, to comment at all on — to verify or deny — Lamo’s public statements about what Manning said to him that do not appear in those excerpts. They thus continue to conceal from the public 75% of the Manning-Lamo chats. They refuse to say whether Lamo’s numerous serious accusations about what Manning told him are actually found anywhere in the chat logs. Nor will they provide the evidence to resolve the glaring inconsistencies in Lamo’s many public tales about the critical issues: how he came to speak to Manning, what Lamo did to induce these disclosures, and what Manning said about his relationship to WikiLeaks and his own actions. Every insult Wired spouts about me could be 100% true and none of it changes the core fact: Wired is hiding the key evidence about what took place here, thus allowing Lamo to spout all sorts of serious claims without any check and thus drive much of the reporting about WikiLeaks.
To defend this concealment, Hansen claims that they “have already published substantial excerpts from the logs.” But the parts they are concealing are far more substantial: 75% by their own account, and critically, the person who played a key role in hand-picking which parts to publish and which parts to conceal is the person whom BBC News accurately describes as “Mr Lamo’s long-term associate Kevin Poulsen.” Poulsen claims he “either excerpted, quoted or reported on everything of consequence Manning had to say about his leaking,” but that begs the key question: is everything — or anything — that Lamo has been claiming about Manning’s statements found in the chat logs or not? Why won’t Wired answer that question? Below, I set forth what Lamo has claimed that is not in the chat logs and why it is so vital to know if it’s there.
Hansen’s defense principally relies on a total strawman: that I’m calling for the full, unedited release of the chat logs. Hansen insists that Wired cannot do this because of privacy concerns for Manning. He titles his response “The Case for Privacy,” and claims “that the logs include sensitive personal information with no bearing on Wikileaks.”
But neither I nor anyone else I’ve read has called on Wired to indiscriminately dump the chat logs without any redactions or regard for Manning’s privacy. Back in June — once Poulsen’s claims that they were withholding only private information and national security secrets was proven false by TheWashington Post‘s subsequent publication of chat excerpts that fell into neither category — this is what I called on Wired to do:
Wired should either publish all of the chat logs, or be far more diligent about withholding only those parts which truly pertain only to Manning’s private and personal matters and/or which would reveal national security secrets. Or they should have a respected third party review the parts they have concealed to determine if there is any justification for that. At least if one believes Lamo’s claims, there are clearly relevant parts of those chats which Wired continues to conceal.
Then, on Sunday, I noted several important events that transpired since I wrote that June article: most prominently the fact that Wired‘s source, Lamo, had spent six months making all sorts of public claims about what Manning told him that are nowhere in the chat excerpts published by Wired. Moreover, the disclosures by WikiLeaks gut Poulsen’s excuse that Wired‘s concealments are necessary to protect national security secrets (an excuse Hansen did not even raise). As a result of those developments, this is what I wrote on Sunday that Wired should do:
What they ought to do, at the absolute minimum, is post the portions of the chat logs about which Lamo had made public statements or make clear that they do not exist. . . . Poulsen could also provide Lamo — who claims he is no longer in possession of them — with a copy of the chat logs (which Lamo gave him) so that journalists quoting Lamo about Manning’s statements could see the actual evidence rather than relying on Lamo’s claims.
For anyone who wants to defend Wired here, I’d really like to know: what possible excuse is there for their refusal to do this? Even if you trust Poulsen — despite his very close and long relationship to Lamo — to conceal some parts of the chats on privacy grounds, what justification is there for Wired‘s refusal to state that either (a) Lamo’s claims about what Manning told him are supported by the chat logs (and then publish those portions), or (b) Lamo’s claims are not found in the chat logs, thus proving that Lamo is either lying or has an unreliable recollection? While Adrian Lamo runs around spouting all sorts of serious accusations about what Manning supposedly told him that are not found in Wired‘s excerpts — claims which end up in the world’s largest news outlets — and while he issues one contradictory claim after the next about these events, how can anyone claiming to be a journalist not inform the public about whether those stories are true? For Wired defenders: what justifies that obfuscatory behavior, that refusal to say whether Lamo’s claims are true or false based on the chat logs?
I love a good blog fight as much as anyone, but after reading several thousand words of accusations and counter accusations being slung between Salon blogger Glenn Greenwald and Wired‘s Evan Hansen and Kevin Poulsen, I’m left scratching my head trying to figure out what, exactly, this particular dispute is all about.
For those of you who haven’t been paying attention, first of all: congratulations. Second, here’s a quick synopsis: On June 6, Poulsen and his colleague Kim Zetter broke the sensational story that a young Army intelligence officer, Bradley Manning, had been arrested for disclosing classified information to WikiLeaks, including a video showing a U.S. helicopter gunship killing three civilians in Iraq and more than 250,000 State Department cables. Wired‘s main source was Adrian Lamo, a former hacker who says he turned Manning in to U.S. authorities after the latter confessed to the deed in a Web chat. As Lamo explained his motivation: “I wouldn’t have done this if lives weren’t in danger.”
Four days later, Poulsen and Zetter published a new article on Manning, as well as an incomplete transcript of Lamo and Manning’s chats, which had begun on May 21 and continued for a few days. “The excerpts represent about 25 percent of the logs,” they wrote. “Portions of the chats that discuss deeply personal information about Manning or that reveal apparently sensitive military information are not included.”
That same day, the Washington Post published its own article on Manning’s arrest, quoting from the logs, which the paper said it had received from Lamo. Some of the quotes do not appear in Wired‘s excerpts. Wired also continued to follow the story.
On June 18, Greenwald wrote a long blog post raising questions about Poulsen’s scoop and about Lamo. He said he found the story “quite strange,” called Lamo an “extremely untrustworthy source,” and accused Poulsen of being “only marginally transparent about what actually happened here.”
What was curious about Greenwald’s post was that he didn’t challenge any specific facts in Wired‘s reporting; he just pointed to what he saw as inconsistencies in the story, as well as Lamo’s account, and condemned the ex-hacker’s actions as “despicable.” He didn’t suggest outright that Manning had not actually confessed to Lamo. He didn’t try to argue that Manning hadn’t broken the law. He didn’t say the log excerpts were fabricated. He did, however, complain that Lamo had told him about conversations with Manning that were not in the chat-log excerpts published by Wired, and called on the magazine to release them. Poulsen said he wouldn’t be doing so, telling Greenwald: “The remainder is either Manning discussing personal matters that aren’t clearly related to his arrest, or apparently sensitive government information that I’m not throwing up without vetting first.”
Still with me?
Then, on Monday, several weeks after the cables had begun trickling out, Greenwald again returned to the issue. In a torqued-up post titled “The worsening journalistic disgrace at Wired,” he excoriated the magazine and Poulsen for refusing to release the full logs, calling Poulsen’s behavior “odious” and “concealment” of “key evidence.” Greenwald appears to have been motivated to weigh in anew by Firedoglake — a left-leaning website whose members had been obsessively trolling the Web for stories about Lamo and Manning, and even pulled together a handy, color-coded expanded transcript from the logs — as well as by a flawedNew York Timesarticle reporting that the Justice Department was trying to build a conspiracy case against WikiLeaks frontman Julian Assange. Presumably, the logs would be an important part of the prosecution’s argument.
Wired responded to Greenwald Tuesday night with twin posts by Hansen, the magazine’s editor in chief, and Poulsen. Greenwald fired back with two angry posts of his own today (1, 2). Long story short: Wired reiterated its refusal to release the logs (Poulsen: “[T]hose first stories in June either excerpted, quoted or reported on everything of consequence Manning had to say about his leaking”), Greenwald rejected that explanation, and both sides traded some nasty barbs about each other and made competing claims about the nature of Poulsen’s relationship with Lamo.
What still remains a mystery to me is what, exactly, Greenwald thinks is being covered up here. What is he accusing Wired of doing, and why? Does he think that the full transcript of the logs would somehow exonerate Manning, or prove Lamo a liar? And if he catches Lamo telling a journalist something that wasn’t in the logs, what then?
8:20 For a good running twitter debate on Greenwald vs. Wired (see below), check out @felixsalmon and @penenberg. And Jeff Jarvis tweets: “Now I need a journalist (& FDL) to cut through personal, professional invective among @ evanatwired, @ kpoulson, @ ggreenwald to answer Qs.”
More to the point, Wired gets even in a two-part article by EIC Evan Hansen and Senior Editor Kevin Poulsen. The latter writes:
On Monday, Salon.com columnist Glenn Greenwald unleashed a stunning attack on this publication, and me in particular, over our groundbreaking coverage of WikiLeaks and the ongoing prosecution of the man suspected of being the organization’s most important source. Greenwald’s piece is a breathtaking mix of sophistry, hypocrisy and journalistic laziness.
Significantly, Hansen and Poulsen include Salon in their critique. Granted, if Salon was serious about maintaining some minimum level of integrity, they wouldn’t have brought Greenwald on board in February 2007, as he had already been exposed as a egomaniacal sock-puppeteer. It is nevertheless a timely reminder of that lack of standards on the part of both Greenwald and Salon.
Here are the chat logs, here are the previous Lamo interviews, and here is a timeline of events. Any journalist writing on the subject can easily make themselves familiar with the history of what has been said and written, and they should be responsible for making sure that anything they produce is contextualized within that.
I’m not sure why Hansen thinks transcribing interviews and logging articles qualifies as “discrediting Lamo.” Lamo’s own words and actions are responsible for any indictment being made in the press, and Wired’s decision to sit on the chat logs makes them an active participant in whatever claims Lamo makes about their contents.
If Hansen doesn’t think the credibility of the key source for Wired’s reporting on this story can hold up when simply compared to his own words, I’d say they’ve got bigger problems than Glenn Greenwald.
What is particularly odd is that this is an online journal that should know better about this sort of thing- the logs will eventually come out. Maybe some of you were right about Wired, that it is basically People magazine for the online set, and I should find better sources in the future. At any rate, all we can do for now is keep the pressure up and refuse to visit Wired or any affiliates until they come clean. Hit em in the statcounter, I guess.
The White House is simmering with anger at criticism from liberals who say President Obama is more concerned with deal-making than ideological purity.
During an interview with The Hill in his West Wing office, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs blasted liberal naysayers, whom he said would never regard anything the president did as good enough.
“I hear these people saying he’s like George Bush. Those people ought to be drug tested,” Gibbs said. “I mean, it’s crazy.”
The press secretary dismissed the “professional left” in terms very similar to those used by their opponents on the ideological right, saying, “They will be satisfied when we have Canadian healthcare and we’ve eliminated the Pentagon. That’s not reality.”
Of those who complain that Obama caved to centrists on issues such as healthcare reform, Gibbs said: “They wouldn’t be satisfied if Dennis Kucinich was president.”
If the White House really doesn’t think it has any problems among self-identified liberals or progressives, and that all the complaints are coming from a grasstop elite, it needs to look at the data again. From 2008 to 2010, President Obama has suffered far more erosion of support among self-identified liberals than among self-identified moderates or conservatives:
In 2008, according to exit polls, 89% self-identified liberals voted for President Obama. Over the past four weeks, according to Gallup, President Obama’s approval rating among self-identified liberals has averaged 74%. That is a decline of 15 points.
In 2008, according to exit polls, 60% of self-identified moderates voted for President Obama. Over the past four weeks, according to Gallup, President Obama’s approval rating among self-identified moderates has averaged 54%. That is a decline of 6 points.
In 2008, according to exit polls, 20% of self-identified conservatives voted for President Obama. Over the past four weeks, according to Gallup, President Obama’s approval rating has averaged 24% among self-identified conservatives. That is an increase of 4 points.
So, according to Gallup, disapproval among self-identified liberals accounts for the majority of President Obama’s approval rating underperformance compared to his 2008 vote share (from the perspective that the smaller decline among moderates is partially canceled out by the small gain among conservatives). If it were not for President Obama’s decline among liberals, there would be virtually no difference between his 2010 approval rating and 2008 voter performance.
Maybe the White House knows that its problem among self-identified liberals is not confined to the grasstops. Maybe it is “reaching out” to liberals in this insulting manner because it figures that while it has lost more support among liberals than among any other group, those liberals are still going to vote Democratic anyway.
Spiro Agnew — sorry, Robert Gibbs — says “the professional left is not representative of the progressives who organized, campaigned, raised money and ultimately voted for Obama.” Well, the Obama in the White House is not representative of the Obama who organized, campaigned, raised money and ran for office, so I guess it’s a wash.
Gibbs does the only thing you can do when trying to defend a record of corporatist capitulation: triangulate against your critics as extremists. But the fact is, the positions Obama has abandoned aren’t the exclusive territory of Dennis Kucinich. Standing up to the banks and the insurance companies, reducing the political influence of corporate money, defending Social Security and ending the wars are issues that are broadly popular with the American public. That’s why Obama campaigned on them in order to pave his way to the White House.
I don’t recall Obama making campaign promises to increase the defense budget and cut Social Security benefits, order the assassination of American citizens without due process, or cut sweetheart deals with the pharmaceutical industry in exchange for political patronage. Where was the bold, inspirational speech where he vowed to give AT&T immunity for operating their own private corporate spy network, tax people’s health insurance benefits, abandon gay rights and throw a party in the rose garden for Bart Stupak’s presidential signing statement? When did he promise to re-appoint Ben Bernanke, protect the bonuses of bailed out bankers and keep shoveling money at Wall Street?
Marshall Ganz was the field organizer responsible for Obama campaign programs that motivated those progressive volunteers. During the health care debate, when it was clear Obama was abandoning his campaign rhetoric on health care, he said “If Barack had campaigned on the politics of narrow self-interest, he never would have won the nomination, let alone the election.”
Maybe Gibbs should stop and revisit some of those campaign speeches and ask himself if the guy in the oval office looks like the guy on the campaign trail. He might figure out why people are upset, and it’s not just the “professional left.” According to Gallup, Obama’s approval ratings among Hispanics was 73% in January of 2010 and is now at 54%. That’s largely over his failure to fulfill the promises he made about immigration.
So, to recap: (1) The Professional Left are totally irrelevant losers who speak for absolutely nobody, and certainly nobody in Real America who matters; but (2) they’re ruining everything for the White House!!! And: if you criticize the President, it’s only because you’re such a rabid extremist that you harbor a secret desire to eliminate the Pentagon — that’s how anti-American you are! You’re such a Far Left extremist that Dennis Kucinich isn’t far enough Left for you, you subversive, drug-using hippies! You’re so far to the Left that you want to turn the U.S. into Canada. As David Frum put it today: “More proof of my longtime thesis, Repub pols fear the GOP base; Dem pols hate the Dem base.”
The Democrats have been concerned about a lack of enthusiasm on the part of their base headed into the midterm elections. These sorts of rabid, caricatured, Fox-News-copying attacks on the Left will undoubtedly help generate more enthusiasm — more loud clapping — for the Democrats. I know I’m eager to go canvass and clap for Democrats after reading Gibbs’ noble, inspiring vision. If it were Gibbs’ goal to be as petulant and self-pitying as possible, what could he have done differently?
Perhaps one day the White House can work itself up to express this sort of sputtering rage against the Right, or the Wall Street thieves who destroyed the American economy, or the permanent factions that control Washington. Until then, we’ll have to satisfy ourselves with White House explanations that the Real Culprits are not (of course) them, but the Professional Left, that is simultaneously totally irrelevant and ruining everything. I’ll give credit to Gibbs for putting his name on this outburst: these are usually the things they say anonymously and then deny afterward on the record that it’s what they think.
Lord knows I’ve had my share of disagreements with the “professional left”, as Press Secretary Robert Gibbs derisively referred to them in a rant to The Hill this morning. And I tend to endorse Jonathan Cohn’s view that Obama has had a reasonably accomplished first year-and-a-half in office that perhaps has been taken for granted by some liberals.
But if there is a gulf between what Obama has accomplished and the amount of credit that some liberals are willing to give him for it, it just became much wider today with Gibbs statements like “those people ought to be drug tested” and “they wouldn’t be satisfied if Dennis Kucinich was president”.
One problem that Obama is having — and not just on the left, although it might be most acute there — is the dissonance between the grand, poetic narratives of the campaign trail and the prosaic and transactional day-to-day grind of governance. To some extent, this is intrinsic to the nature of the respective activities. Still, for the 70 million who voted for Obama, there was a sense that — after a difficult eight years for a country challenged by two wars, two recessions, Hurricane Katrina, and the worst act of terrorism in history — things might finally start to be different. That change had come. That progress was happening. That politics were becoming more elevated. A black man had just received 365 electoral votes, for crying out loud!
The euphoric feeling among liberals in the days between the election and the inauguration seems so quaint now — like something that happened decades ago — but it was very tangible at the time. Conservatives, for their part, were willing to give Obama the benefit of the doubt, with his approval and favoability ratings sometimes soaring into the 70s: such a post-election “bounce” had once been commonplace in the days of Eisenhower and Kennedy, but had rarely been seen in the post-Watergate era.
But Obama was never really able to capitalize on that momentum. Perhaps, in the face of the headwinds of an ever-deepening jobs crisis (far worse than his advisors had anticipated) and unrepentant Republican obstructionism (a canny, even ballsy strategy in retrospect), there was no way he really could have.
Nevertheless, I suspect that for most liberals, any real sense of progress has now been lost. Yes, the left got a good-but-not-great health care bill, a good-but-not-great stimulus package, a good-but-not-great financial reform plan: these are a formidable bounty, and Obama and the Democratic Congress worked hard for them. But they now read as a basically par-for-the-course result from a time when all the stars were aligned for the Democrats — rather than anything predictive of a new direction, or of a more progressive future. In contrast, as should become emphatically clear on November 2nd, the reversion to the mean has been incredibly swift.
What liberals haven’t had, in other words, is very many opportunities to feel good about themselves, or to feel good about the future. While the White House has achieved several wins, they have never been elegant or emphatic, instead coming amidst the small-ball banality of cloture vote after cloture vote, of compromise after compromise.
Robert Gibbs, under fire for his attack on the “professional left,” sends over a statement walking it back, conceding it was “inartful,” and clarifying that the views he expressed frustration about are not widely held:
I watch too much cable, I admit. Day after day it gets frustrating. Yesterday I watched as someone called legislation to prevent teacher layoffs a bailout — but I know that’s not a view held by many, nor were the views I was frustrated about.
So what I may have said inartfully, let me say this way — since coming to office in January 2009, this White House and Congress have worked tirelessly to put our country back on the right path. Most importantly, to dig our way out of a huge recession and build an economy that makes America more competitive and our middle class more secure. Some are frustrated that the change we want hasn’t come fast enough for many Americans. That we all understand.
But in 17 months, we have seen Wall Street reform, historic health care reform, fair pay for women, a recovery act that pulled us back from a depression and got our economy moving again, record investments in clean energy that are creating jobs, student loan reforms so families can afford college, a weapons system canceled that the Pentagon didn’t want, reset our relationship with the world and negotiated a nuclear weapons treaty that gets us closer to a world without fear of these weapons, just to name a few. And at the end of this month, 90,000 troops will have left Iraq and our combat mission will come to an end.
Even so, we will continue to work each day on the promises and commitments that the President made traveling all over this country for two years and produce the change we know is possible.
In November, America will get to choose between going back to the failed policies that got us into this mess, or moving forward with the policies that are leading us out.
So we should all, me included, stop fighting each other and arguing about our differences on certain policies, and instead work together to make sure everyone knows what is at stake because we’ve come too far to turn back now.
Joking aside, I know Gibbs’ hissy fit didn’t happen because he stays up late at night petrified wondering who might be the next wanker of the day. But, generally, DC Dems hate The Left even when, as below, it’s The Left that’s spending time and money to exert the pressure to pass their stated agenda.
What with all the hoopla over Robert Gibbs’ comments today it pays to simply remember that everyone in Washington hates liberals. It’s a fact of life and until something happens to change the dynamic in which Democratic politicians are afraid to even mutter the words liberal, much less boldly and persuasively make a case for liberalism, I expect this will be the case. (The irony, of course, is that the liberals who do so have been proven right on the politics and the substance far more often than those who bet with the conservatives.)
Kevin Drum says that Democrats do this because only 20% of the country identifies as liberal so they are making a play for the center. I think he’s right that they think this way, but one could easily make the case that they’d do better by demonizing the 30% that calls themselves conservatives instead of their own voters. The center, by definition, doesn’t identify with them any more than the liberals, right?
There is also a case to be made that the Democratic establishment should be concerned about enthusiasm — that the activist base needs to be handled with a little bit more respect because they are the ones who knock on doors and make the calls. There’s something to that, of course, particularly in the mid-terms which depend so heavily on getting the base out.
But what’s dangerously myopic about going ballistic as Gibbs did in his statements is that just 10 years ago we had a little event in which only a tiny portion of the base went with a third party bid from the left — and the consequences were catastrophic. Democrats, of all people, should remember that every vote matters.
It’s embarrassing to have David Frum point out the obvious — that the Republicans fear their base and the Democrats hate theirs, but it has been so since I was a kid — a long time ago. At some point they are going to realize that their demanding activist base is the way it is and that they need to figure out a way to deal with it rather than rail against it. You cannot browbeat people into loving you and you can’t argue them into being enthusiastic. Certainly characterizing them in cartoon terms by saying “they want to eliminate the Pentagon”, they are on drugs and — worst of all — suggesting they are not part of America — isn’t going to get you there.
On the other hand, if they just want to use them as doormat as a way to appeal to “the center” then they take their chances that their activists won’t turn out to volunteer — or worse. Sometimes all it takes to lose is a quixotic third party bid, 535 disputed votes in Florida and Antonin Scalia. Why would they ask for that kind of trouble?
I understand why the White House is frustrated by the criticism from the “professional left” and feels progressives should focus on all the progressive things the administration has done rather than all the things it hasn’t been able to do or interested in doing. What I don’t understand is why Robert Gibbs would voice that frustration to the press. His comments just turn this into a “story,” giving the very professional lefties whose criticism is rankling the White House another high-profile opportunity to criticize the White House.
Baffling. Meanwhile, it’s worth noting that this is largely a Beltway phenomenon: According to Gallup, Obama is at 81 percent among self-described Democrats and 76 percent among self-described liberals. His problem is that he’s at 38 percent among self-described independents and 55 percent among self-described moderates. Now, this might tell you less than meets the eye: Maybe independents would like Obama better if he’d followed the professional left’s advice and really hammered the banks or sped up the withdrawal from Afghanistan.
A Republican-held Congress might look to raise the retirement age to 70, House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) suggested Monday.
Boehner, the top Republican lawmaker in the House, said raising the retirement age by five years, indexing benefits to the rate of inflation and means-testing benefits would make the massive entitlement program more solvent.
“We’re all living a lot longer than anyone ever expected,” Boehner said in a meeting with the editors of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. “And I think that raising the retirement age — going out 20 years, so you’re not affecting anyone close to retirement — and eventually getting the retirement age to 70 is a step that needs to be taken.”
In the face of plenty of demagoguing by both parties on deficits, Boehner’s stark statement is a welcome one. It’s a real policy suggestion, and it’s one that conveys to voters that they can’t get something for nothing: deficit reduction is going to be painful.
Some European countries are raising retirement ages as part of austerity measures: France’s decision to raise the age from 60 to the harrowing extreme of 62 years old practically caused riots, while Britain’s new government has announced plans to raise the retirement age from 65 to 66, with further increases likely. But in the U.S., there’s been little meaningful discussion on the topic.
That said, just making people work another five years probably isn’t quite the silver bullet Boehner suggests. For one thing, as Robert Reich and others point out, Social Security is a less serious problem than Medicare, the costs of which are growing faster. And liberal think-tankers wring their hands over such proposals, worrying that blue-collar workers, who are more likely to lose the ability to do their work at a young age, will bear the brunt of a retirement-age increase. No matter how overblown his rhetoric on the divisions facing the U.S., Boehner deserves credit for offering a serious, fiscally conservative suggestion, and openly discussing the sacrifices Americans will have to make.
But in an interview with the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, Boehner is now publicly expressing support for the very same ideas Rivlin proposes. And he wants to use Social Security benefit cuts to fund the wars:
Ensuring there’s enough money to pay for the war will require reforming the country’s entitlement system, Boehner said. He said he’d favor increasing the Social Security retirement age to 70 for people who have at least 20 years until retirement, tying cost-of-living increases to the consumer price index rather than wage inflation and limiting payments to those who need them.
Boehner has a three-point plan here to get money for mo’ war: 1) raise the retirement age to 70, 2) adjust Social Security’s cost of living increases (COLA), and 3) reduce payments to those with higher incomes.
This is a big deal. It’s not just that he wants to cut Social Security, it’s that he says cutting Social Security would be at the center of the GOP’s fiscal policy if Republicans win the November elections.
And not only is Boehner saying he wants to raise the retirement age to 70, he also is proposing to ban Social Security recipients from earning “substantial” amounts of outside income. That’s a truly radical notion: John Boehner thinks people who have paid Social Security taxes their entire life should be denied Social Security if they earn outside income above a certain level.
So in Boehner’s view, everybody should pay for Social Security, but only some people should get it, and they shouldn’t get it until they are 70. And he’s pledging to push that agenda as Speaker. I think his ideas are ridiculous but he’s right on one thing: they do deserve to be at the center of the debate. Voters deserve to know that Republicans will try to gut Social Security if they win the elections this fall.
Democrats are attacking House Minority Leader John Boehner for his comments to a Pittsburgh paper about how America is in “revolt” similar to 1776 and Wall Street reform is like “killing an ant” with a nuclear weapon.
Boehner also touched on the third rail of politics, claiming that Social Security should raise the retirement age to 70.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee issued a statement blasting Boehner, as did the Democratic National Committee and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). Operatives are blasting his statements to the Pittsburgh Tribune Review all over the blogosphere.
But the reality is that Boehner’s comments are hardly out of line with what his own party has said – especially on Social Security and financial reform.
Rep. John Sullivan (R-Okla.), while noting he didn’t see Boehner’s comments, said that he wasn’t going to vote for the financial regulatory bill because “it’s going to hurt small banks, community banks…that weren’t doing the collateral debt obligations, collateral debt swaps and derivative trading.”
On Social Security, Sullivan seems to be in lock-step with Boehner.
“If we want to really get our debt down and really truly reform spending and what we do here in Washington all entitlement programs need to be looked at,” he said. “I think Social Security should be on the table. Whether we raise the age or not, that should be looked at.”
And the reality is that even House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) may even find some agreement with Boehner on Social Security – in a recent speech Hoyer said raising the retirement age needs to be on the table.
Rep. John Boozman (R-Ark.) said “we need a national dialogue about how we make Social Security solvent” – but he wouldn’t touch Boehner’s words, saying he hadn’t read them and wasn’t familiar with the context.
“When you look at the fact that we’re blessed that we’re living so much longer with fewer workers, because of those kind of things, I believe it’s going to take the president, both houses of Congress, the American people buying whatever we do,” Boozman said Tuesday.
Each time the Catfood Commission holds its secret meetings, Alex Lawson of Social Security Works has been outside with his camera, shooting video of the closed front door as FDL runs a live stream on our front page. The Washington Post wrote it up recently. As committee members go in and out of the room Alex asks them questions when he can, and yesterday he had an exchange with Alan Simpson that was…well, extraordinary.
Simpson is apparently a graduate of the Bobby Etheridge school of charm. Alex Lawson was incredibly respectful and polite as the crankly Simpson berated, interrupted and cussed him. Simpson has been a long-time supporter of rolling back the New Deal, and when asked about cuts he would recommend to the President and Congress on CNBC, Simpson said “We are going to stick to the big three,” meaning Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. His sentiments haven’t changed.
CJR’s Trudy Lieberman recently ran down Simpson’s history of delicate statements on the subject of Social Security. He is equally decorous on camera with Alex, who clearly knows a great deal more about the subject than he does. Simpson starts from the premise that the Treasury will default on the bonds issued to the Social Security trust fund, because all the best people apparently know that it’s better to default on America’s senior citizens and plunge them into poverty than it is to default on, say, the Chinese.
The commission is also looking into cutting Medicare benefits, because the deal guaranteeing no-bid Medicare contracts to the pharmaceutical industry by both Republicans and Democrats can’t possibly be abrogated. The committee claims it’s independent, but it’s not THAT independent. So, old people, too bad for you.
In the absence of any transparency coming from the committee about what transpires in its secret meetings, Simpson’s comments to Alex are the best insight we have into what is being discussed there.
Bottom line: bon apetite, Grandma!
ALAN SIMPSON: We’re really working on solvency… the key is solvency
ALEX LAWSON: What about adequacy? Are you focusing on adequacy as well?
SIMPSON: Where do you come up with all the crap you come up with?
SIMPSON: We’re trying to take care of the lesser people in society and do that in a way without getting into all the flash words you love dig up, like cutting Social Security, which is bullshit. We’re not cutting anything, we’re trying to make it solvent.
SIMPSON: It’ll go broke in the year 2037.
LAWSON: What do you mean by ‘broke’? Do you mean the surplus will go out and then it will only be able to pay 75% of its benefits?
SIMPSON: Just listen, will you listen to me instead of babbling? In the year 2037, instead of getting 100% of your check, you are going to get about 75% of your check. That’s if you touch nothing. If you like that, fine. You’ll be picking with the chickens yourself when you’re 65.
So we want to take care, we’re not cutting, we’re not balancing the budget on the backs of senior citizens. That’s bullshit. So you’ve got that one down. So as long as you’ve got those two things down, you can’t play with anymore, that we’re not balancing the budget of the United States on the backs of poor old seniors and we’re not cutting anything, we’re stabilizing the system.
LAWSON: Thanks for being so frank. My question is: raising the retirement age, is actually an across-the-board benefit cut?
SIMPSON: There are 15 different options being discussed in here today, and why nail one of them…[inaudible]…if you would like to get one of them that pisses your people off.
Alan Simpson, co-chair of the White House Debt Commission, provides a full and frank engagement with an activist questioning him on the proposed reforms of the Social Security system. He doesn’t duck. He doesn’t hide. He doesn’t grab the guy around the wrist or neck. And the cry-babies at Huffington Post complain that he uses profanity.
I’m frankly amazed that Simpson spent 8 minutes, 20 seconds talking to some yahoo with a video camera. Regardless, the problems he describes are real. Social Security and Medicare are massive structural burdens, even compared to the spectacular cost of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Those will soon go away whereas the entitlement demands will continue to skyrocket.
Now, Hamsher and Lawson are right: Simply raising the retirement ago to 70 won’t work, either. There are many occupations that are too physically demanding to work that long. And many people’s health declines much sooner than that. The ultimate solution is going to have to be some combination of means testing and raising the ceiling on the FICA tax. But that’s going to require an admission that Social Security and Medicare are subsidies for the less fortunate elderly rather than “insurance” programs wherein we fund our our retirement during our working years.
But that was always the intent! They were poverty relief programs, designed to provide a safety net for people who couldn’t support themselves one they were no longer able to earn a steady paycheck. Most jobs didn’t provide retirement annuities and many people don’t earn enough to save for retirement, much less for fifteen years of retirement. I’m willing to kick in some money to help those people get by.
Instead, though, we’ve created a bizarre system where I’m paying a pretty nice chunk of change every month and being told that I’m paying for my own retirement. Yet, even if we were able to sustain the current setup, my return from Social Security will be so modest that, barring unforeseen circumstances, it’ll be a tiny portion of my income. And we’re bankrupting the system to keep up the illusion.
In the interview, Simpson maintained Social Security is already insolvent because it is paying out more than it is getting in tax revenue. It is not clear whether that will be true for the current fiscal year or the next few years, but it will be happening not too far in the future.
Then Lawson asked, “But what about the $180 billion in surplus that [the trust fund] brings in every year [in interest payments on the Treasury securities it holds]?”
“There is no surplus in there. It’s a bunch of IOUs,” Simpson said. “Listen. It’s two-and-a-half trillion bucks in IOUs which have been used to build the interstate highway system and all of the things people have enjoyed since it has been set up.”
Since Social Security finances were overhauled in 1983, tax revenues have far exceeded costs. That surplus went into the trust fund, was invested in Treasuries and has been earning interest for almost 30 years. Those annual surpluses meant that the government did not have to borrow as much from the public to finance whatever it spend money on. (However, interstate highways have not been financed even indirectly by Social Security surpluses, but rather by motor fuel taxes.)
Whenever tax revenues don’t cover Social Security costs, Simpson said, ” What do they do? They go to that trust fund and say, ‘We need the IOUs out of it.’ And they say, ‘You can have them, but you have to pay for them.’ So you’re taking a double hit on your own government. Makes no sense.”
Indeed, Simpson makes no sense. What is the “double hit”? The government didn’t have to borrow in the past, or pay interest on what it didn’t borrow. Now it has to borrow from the public and pay the interest. There’s no “double hit” involved.
Finally, Lawson said that his understanding was that part of the justification of the 1983 changes was “prefunding the retirement of the baby boom by building up that huge surplus.”
Simpson responded, “They never knew there was a baby boom in ’83.”
Well, Alan Greenspan, who headed the bipartisan commission that proposed the 1983 changes, would tell Simpson something different. The big demographic shift that began right after World War II was precisely why Social Security was expected to face a deficit as the number of workers relative to beneficiaries began to decline when the Baby Boomers began to retire. And that was why taxes were raised and benefits were cut then–to build up a trust fund surplus so benefits could be paid.
Simpson always likes to be outrageous in a cranky-old-man kind of way. It’s part of his charm. But as John points out, Simpson throws around a lot of claims that are just plain wrong and insulting to boot. Among other things, he talks about Social Security being for the “lesser people.” His comments threaten to undermine the commission’s credibility.
OK, the immediate problem is the statements of Alan Simpson, the commission’s co-chairman. And what got reporters’ attention was the combination of incredible insensitivity – the “lesser people”??? — and flat errors of fact.
But it’s actually much worse than that. On Social Security, Simpson is repeating a zombie lie — that is, one of those misstatements that keeps being debunked, but keeps coming back.
Specifically, Simpson has resurrected the old nonsense about how Social Security will be bankrupt as soon as payroll tax revenues fall short of benefit payments, never mind the quarter century of surpluses that came first.
We went through all this at length back in 2005, but let me do this yet again.
Social Security is a government program funded by a dedicated tax. There are two ways to look at this. First, you can simply view the program as part of the general federal budget, with the the dedicated tax bit just a formality. And there’s a lot to be said for that point of view; if you take it, benefits are a federal cost, payroll taxes a source of revenue, and they don’t really have anything to do with each other.
Alternatively, you can look at Social Security on its own. And as a practical matter, this has considerable significance too; as long as Social Security still has funds in its trust fund, it doesn’t need new legislation to keep paying promised benefits.
OK, so two views, both of some use. But here’s what you can’t do: you can’t have it both ways. You can’t say that for the last 25 years, when Social Security ran surpluses, well, that didn’t mean anything, because it’s just part of the federal government — but when payroll taxes fall short of benefits, even though there’s lots of money in the trust fund, Social Security is broke.
And bear in mind what happens when payroll receipts fall short of benefits: NOTHING. No new action is required; the checks just keep going out.
So what does it mean that the co-chair of the commission is resurrecting this zombie lie? It means that at even the most basic level of discussion, either (a) he isn’t willing to deal in good faith or (b) the zombies have eaten his brain. And in either case, there’s no point going on with this farce.
The bank lobbyists have the champagne out – the Brown-Kaufman amendment, which would have capped the size and leverage of our largest banks – was defeated in the Senate last night, 33-61. Feeling ascendant, the big banks swarm forward to take on their next foe – the Kanjorski amendment (that would greatly strengthen the power of regulators to break up megabanks), which they plan to gut in the backrooms.
This is overconfidence – because the consensus against them is beginning to shift significantly. Partly this is the result of great efforts by Senator Ted Kaufman, Senator Sherrod Brown, and their colleagues over recent months and weeks. Partly this is due to all the people who came on board and pushed hard.
But, as in many such cases, it is also a question of luck – and timing.
As far as anyone can ascertain, this is almost all debt held by banks (often then “repo-ing”, or borrowing against it as collateral, at the European Central Bank.)
In other words, the European megabanks – lauded by Senators Dodd, Corker, Warner and others as a model for us to follow – are up to the eyeballs in bad debt. Their governance has completely failed. Their regulatory systems have been gutted – on their way to being turned into ash.
None of this would matter, of course, if the eurozone policy elite had its act together and could terminate its current position with minimal losses. But it cannot – the deer are in the headlights.
To the victors last night in the Senate: congratulations – your opponents have fallen back. Your generals are known to be invincible, your forces are the best, and your resources are without limit.
And so we wait for you again, on a gentle slope and behind a ridge – appropriately enough with our backs to Brussels. Welcome to Waterloo.
The Kaufman “break up the banks” bill got drubbed tonight because it was perceived as a Democratic bill and the banks could work through the GOP to kill it, which gave the ConservaDems cover for opposing it too.
But nobody got on the floor of the Senate today to speak against Audit the Fed. They were all scared shitless. The left/right coalition supporting the bill includes everyone from Richard Trumka, Bill Black, Andy Stern and Jamie Galbraith to Grover Norquist, the Campaign for Liberty and Freedomworks on the right. We worked hard to put that coalition together for the past year, and it was transpartisan by design. If you stood against Audit the Fed, you were just a shill for the banks. There’s no justification. It made the dividing lines extremely clear: populism vs. corporatism, with no ability to take refuge in the safe crannies of partisanship.
It took a lot of courage for the people involved in that coalition to join together and say “enough.” Party hacks on both sides launched endless personal attacks against those involved, accusing them of “consorting with the enemy” in a desperate attempt to restore a disfunctional chess board. But everyone stood their ground, and when all else failed, the White House put the squeeze on Bernie Sanders.
Only, outside of a couple upstart groups like A New Way Forward, the progressive movement determined it not a cause worth fighting for. It’s just a plain fact that breaking up the mega-banks would have 10,000 times the impact of the public option – or auditing the Fed, for that matter – and absolutely nobody in the progressive coalition cared. There’s no doubt that something this transformative was a tough road – the White House didn’t go totally on the record but they weren’t exactly for it, with the Treasury Department’s Neal Wollin saying in a press event yesterday that “What’s really key about this is that the institutions be less risky, that they not pose threats to the broader system. Size is one attribute with respect to risk, but there are other attributes.” Given the political capture of our governmental system by Wall Street, something of this magnitude was always a high climb.
And yet it got three more Republican votes than the public option ever got in its history. Yesterday, at the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, Henry Paulson – Henry Paulson! – came out for it, saying “we should not move ourselves back to a system of consolidated, monolithic commercial banks.” Alan Greenspan – Alan Greenspan! – said in March that Federal Reserve data showed no positive effect from economies of scale for anything but a mid-sized banking institution, pinpointed at only around $100 billion in assets (some of our banks are over a trillion right now). Conservative academics supported it. Republicans in the Senate made the argument for everyone, saying that the current bill didn’t stop too big to fail.
But practically nobody on the progressive side foresaw its power, its simplicity, preferred to look at other priorities, and Wall Street won big in a time when their political influence is at a low ebb. That 28 Democrats will get off the hook with this vote, because nobody bothered to look into it, is astonishing, given those facts.
This is a failure of the progressive movement. You fight the fights worth fighting for, and nothing – nothing – has been more worth fighting for, which got a vote on the floor of the Senate during the Obama Presidency, than this. Nothing at all. It’s a viciously cruel irony that a coalition called Mobilize For Our Economy just formed on the DAY that the Safe Banking Act went down to defeat.
Jane claims that “the Kaufman “break up the banks” bill got drubbed tonight because it was perceived as a Democratic bill and the banks could work through the GOP to kill it, which gave the ConservaDems cover for opposing it too.” If this were true, there was never any reason to spend six months on a public option campaign, because Safe Banking was far more bipartisan and far more transformational. It may not have had bright shiny poll numbers that could be touted, but that would be because nobody ever tried to force it into the national conversation. We have a problem with financial behemoths that cannot be regulated. It’s at the root of everything we’ve seen in the economy in the last decade. If you’re not willing to fight that fight you’re not really willing to change anything.
On that midday press conference, Kaufman referenced the big drop of the stock market and said, “The idea that there’s not going to be another financial crisis is a victory of hope over reality.” The idea that progressives were either blindsided, completely unaware or too preoccupied with whatever other nonsense to whip this vote is a victory of cynicism over hope.
My guess is that Dayen and I disagree on many things, but my sense is that while the Safe Banking Amendment was far from flawless — I’m still not convinced that size is as centrally important as the bill’s sponsors, and its intellectual architects Simon Johnson and James Kwak, believe — it did include a variety of other measures that would really would alleviate the TBTF problem, thus making it a pretty decent second best option. The fact that it attracted the support of three reliably conservative senators — Shelby, Ensign, and Coburn — suggests that this was a lost opportunity for the right. Now that the bulk of the Republican caucus has coalesced around the Dodd bill, plus trivial tweaks, Senate Republicans have left close observers scratching their heads: if this is the endgame, why fight back at all?
There won’t be any votes today or Monday, but there was one more positive development yesterday: A compromise has been reached on Sen. Bernie Sanders’ bill to audit the Fed, which will apparently allow for more transparency while protecting independent monetary policy. That means the White House and Senate leaders are supporting the amendment. If progressive economist Dean Bakerthinks the deal is a win for reformers, it probably is.
The effort to audit the Fed got a big boost last night when Senator Bernie Sanders reached an agreement with Chris Dodd, the chair of the banking committee. Under the deal, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) would undertake a full audit of the special facilities created by the Fed since December of 2007. GAO would make the findings from its audit available to the Congressional leadership. It would also make most of the details of the Fed’s transactions available to the public.
To cope with the economic crisis, the Fed created 13 different special lending facilities. At their peak last year, these facilities had lent out more than $2 trillion. The Fed has only disclosed aggregate data about these facilities, telling us how much each one lent out month by month. It has refused to disclose any information about the specific loans and beneficiaries. This means that we have no way of knowing how much Citigroup, Goldman Sachs or anyone else benefited from these facilities.
Under the terms of the deal, by December 1 of this year the Fed will have posted on its website all the loans that were part of these facilities. Any interested journalist, academic, blogger or generic snoop can read through the data and find exactly how much money Goldman Sachs got, at what interest rate, with what collateral and when they paid it back. This is a big victory.
Yes it is, and as I have come to understand, the entire point of conducting an audit of the Fed was to get at these special lending facilities. “What have you done with our money” was the key question, which will be answered under the terms of this deal (which still has to go through a conference committee and a final vote, mind you).
Now I know Ron Paul and some libertarians are angered by this deal. But understand that Ron Paul doesn’t want an audit of the Federal Reserve. He wants to end the Federal Reserve. The best-selling book “End the Fed” that he wrote tipped me off to this. He wants to go back to hard-money policies and a return to the gold standard. Now, you can argue that this would end the cartel of central bankers scheming with their monetary policy, or that it would turn US monetary policy into the inflation-uber-alles laissez-faire mess we’re seeing in Europe that is threatening a global depression. The consequences for Paul’s favored end-state would be catastrophic if implemented in real time. This Fed is failing in different ways – and their actions should draw more scrutiny – but eliminating it would return us to the Stone Age.
And so you should probably know who you’re dealing with. There’s no good reason for the restrictions on this particular audit, but in its streamlined form, it seeks to answer one question – what did the Fed do on an emergency basis with two trillion dollars in taxpayer money. Not only does the Sanders amendment force an answer to that question, it opens it up to public scrutiny in ways that Paul-Grayson didn’t. As Baker says, this is a beginning and not an ending for transparency and accountability.
Meanwhile I think there’s some needed perspective here. Fed transparency is important but it pales in comparison to the very real efforts to force fundamental changes to how Wall Street operates, changes that have thus far been batted down without people batting an eyelash. That has been the ongoing failure of this debate, sidetracked over an issue (however important) about opening up the books rather than ones that would actually legitimately constrain the runaway finance sector.
As the FinReg process has pushed forward, controversy has centered around two amendments: Bernie Sanders’s proposal to audit the Federal Reserve and a proposal by Sherrod Brown (pictured) and Ted Kaufman to break up large banks. Grouping the two of these together has been a little bit weird; one transforms Wall Street while the other directs a government agency to keep us abreast of what they’re doing with our money.
But the Federal Reserve has fought the effort for transparency as if it were an effort to break them apart. Ben Bernanke’s letter on the subject sounds alarmed, to say the least. But because the Fed was never able to make a very good case that their new powers shouldn’t result in somewhat more transparency, they’ve lost. Now, a modified version of Sanders’s amendment seems sure to pass.
Conversely, the Brown-Kaufman proposal to break up the banks failed last night, 61 to 33. In some way, I’d say you’re seeing the fundamentals of these policies assert themselves. Audit the Fed is not a radical bill and it’s actually a bit hard to argue against it. Breaking up the banks makes a fair amount of sense, but it’s substantively a lot more radical than anything else in the legislation.
UPDATE: This post was originally titled “Tea Partiers Working With Firedoglake on HCR Whip Count.” After I posted it, Kathryn Serkes e-mailed me to say that she didn’t mean to imply that Firedoglake’s Jane Hamsher used the phrase “union thuggery. Serkes also disputed my description of her as a “Tea Partier,” but I really used that because this was a Tea Party rally, and she was an organizer of it. She also argued that there was a difference between working with Hamsher and working “with Firedoglake.” I agree, and none of the links below are meant to imply that other FDL bloggers have any connection to Tea Parties.]
I spoke to Kathryn A. Serkes of the Doctor Patient Medical Association at this morning’s rally against the health care bill, after Serkes had addressed the smallish crowd.
“I’m in contact with folks on the progressive side,” said Serkes. “They’re saying right now that Pelosi’s almost there with the votes. What they’re saying is that there’s some serious arm-twisting — their words were union thuggery. One progressive source told me that there was serious union thuggery this weekend, targeting Rep. Jason Altmire (D-Pa.).”
I know Katherine, we were on MSNBC together and we’ve spoken about working on the pot legalization measure in California in the future. She tells me that when Weigel approached her and asked her who her “source” was, she didn’t say. He said “It’s Jane Hamsher, isn’t it…I’ve been around.” According to Katherine, she didn’t respond.
Weigel decided to print his own suspicions as fact, and didn’t bother to contact me for confirmation. It’s a pattern with him.
Weigel goes on to accuse me of using the words “union thuggery,” in quotes. He completely put words in my mouth. That is a totally fabricated quote.
I’m not “working” with the tea partiers on health care. But Weigel doesn’t care about the truth — any reporter would’ve contacted me first before printing something like that. He’s just a fantasist printing propaganda, and the Washington Independent has no higher standards than to print it.
I’m more interested in Serkes’ response to my post in an email — she now says that she did not mean to attribute “union thuggery” to Hamsher, and because Hamsher denies saying that, I’ll update my original post. But I am disappointed that Hamsher would use such personal insults and fabricate quotes to make me look like a liar.
Here is the relevant part of my conversation with Serkes. I was recording the rally, so I have audio to back up this transcript.
SERKES: They’re saying that there’s some serious arm-twisting, and their words were union thuggery.
ME: Who’s the they?
SERKES: The progressive side. A progressive source told me that there was serious union thuggery going on this weekend.
ME: Is this the Firedoglake folks?
SERKES: It’s Jane. You’re figured it out.
ME: I’m not new at this.
SERKES: She said they were after Altmire this weekend. Yeah, because Jane and I last talked Saturday.
As I said, Serkes no longer stands by her attribution of “union thuggery” to Hamsher, so I will correct that. I apologize to Jane Hamsher for not giving her more time to respond to my email. When Serkes spoke to me, it seemed clear that she was characterizing her conversation with Hamsher and recalled “union thuggery” enough to use it twice and, twice, attribute it that way. But that is not what she meant to say.
As for Hamsher’s insults of me and my publication — which she supports with fabricated quotes — I’d welcome an apology and a retraction.
By the way, by “I’m not new at this,” I meant I’ve been covering this stuff closely and know that Hamsher has made some high-profile team-ups with conservative activists such as Grover Norquist. And I’d argue that figuring this stuff out, and getting people to name sources, is absolutely the work of a journalist.
Somehow, I am not surprised that somebody who would work with Grover Norquist to promote the idea that poor people getting loans caused the financial meltdown would work with Dick Armey’s AstroTurf TeaBaggers to try and kill HCR.
Most of the liberal community has figured out that passing health care reform, even in an imperfect form, is both a political and policy imperative. Not so Hamsher, whose crusade against the current bill has reached the point that she will happily climb into bed with even the most repellent right wingers if she thinks it will serve her monomaniacal quest. And apparently she will engage in union bashing as well (although Serkes now denies that Hamsher used the words “union thuggery”), which is really rich for someone who is more progressive than thou — maybe she could get together with Mickey Kaus.
A couple of months back I had dinner with Rick Perlstein and Dave Weigel. Rick had been impressed with Weigel’s reporting on the Tea Partiers and sought him out to get his sense of the movement — and I got to tag along. I came away impressed with Weigel’s obvious dedication to reporting this story and the degree to which he had quickly immersed himself in this political subculture. He also apparently has a pretty good sense for where Hamsher is coming from these days.
In a big get for House Dems, Dennis Kucinich just made it official: He’s voting for the Senate bill, making him the first member to go on record fliping his vote from No to Yes.
“In the past week it’s become clear that the vote on the final bill will be very close,” Kucinich, who voted No last time because of the lack of the public option, said at a presser moments ago. He acknowleged that he’d be voting “not on the bill as I would like to see it, but as it is.”
“However, after careful discussions with President Obama, Speaker Pelosi” and others, Kucinich said, “I’ve decided to cast a vote in favor of the legislation.”
Kucinich’s stance was being closely watched by both sides, partly as a test of President Obama’s ability to corral the support of reluctant Dems. Obama wooed him directly with a lift on Air Force One and gave a big health care speech in his district earlier this week.
I spoke with Dennis following his speech, and his campaign will return the money to those who have donated in support of his pledge to vote against any health care bill that does not have a public option. It’s the honorable thing to do. While he shouldn’t be expected to carry the weight of the health care bill on his back when the other 64 members of Congress have abandoned him, it is both disheartening and illuminating to realize that the progressives in Congress have no true commitment to anything but putting on a show. Rep. Edwards and her fellow members of Congress should follow Rep. Kucinich’s lead and return the $430,000 they collected from donors for their part in the House kabuki as well.
Obviously, having one former no vote swing to yes doesn’t mean Nancy Pelosi can pass the bill. It does, however, create a sense of momentum. Kucinich, as one of the most loony of the progressive caucus, provides cover for those progressives more connected to reality to follow suit and switch their votes to yes. Despite Kucinich’s insistence that Barack Obama didn’t offer him any deal to convert, other Democrats may decide it’s better to be on board and get something rather than end up empty-handed on the losing end of the vote anyway.
On the other hand, Blue Dog moderates who already don’t want to be linked to Nancy Pelosi in upcoming midterms may find being linked to Kucinich even less palatable. We’ll see. In this case, the real test may not be Kucinich’s switch but who will be the first to follow him.
Obama knows Kucinich well. When both were bidding for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination, the pair maintained a steady conversation on their personal cell phones, regularly joking with one another and comparing notes from the campaign trail. With Kucinich’s encouragement, his backers provided Obama with critical support in the Iowa caucuses.
So there is mutual regard and respect between the two men.
Obama understood that he could not merely demand Kucinich’s vote and get it; he recognized that the Ohioan was serious about the flaws in the bill as it is now written.
The case Obama needed to make was a specific one, which acknowledged that the current legislation is imperfect and portrayed it as a foundation for developing a more equitable and fiscally-sound health care system.
The media will make a lot of noise about this because Kucinich is the first “no” vote to publicly switch to “yes,” but we shouldn’t be surprised that a single-payer advocate would support a bill that’s such a major step toward government-run health care.
As I’ve said all along, the question is not whether, with this one piece of legislation, liberals achieve their dream of a government-run health care system. The important point is that it moves the United States in that direction. The bill puts the infrastructure in place by providing government subsidies to individuals to purchase government-designed health insurance on government-run exchanges. It imposes a raft of new taxes and regulations, and mandates that individuals purchase government-approved insurance policies. Over time, the government can shift more people to the exchanges, tighten its control over insurance policies, impose more cost controls (i.e. rationing), and add a public option – all of which will keep moving us toward a system of total government control.
“I left [our previous meeting] with a real sense of compassion for our president and what he’s going through,” Kucinich said. “We have to be compassionate towards those who are called upon to make decisions for this nation. It’s not an easy burden that he has taken up.”
“One of the things that has bothered me,” Kucinich added, “has been the attempt to delegitimatize his presidency. That hurts the nation when that happens. He was elected…this is a defining moment for whether or not we’ll have any opportunity to move off square one on the issue of health care…. I think it’s important that–we have to be very careful that the potential of President Obama’s presidency not be destroyed by this debate.”
Kucinich insisted that he was given no assurance that Obama would push for a public option after the bill passes, and said that he was offered no favors in exchange for his support.
MIT health economist Jonathan Gruber has been the go-to source that all the health care bill apologists point to to defend otherwise dubious arguments. But he has consistently failed to disclose that he has had a sole-source contract with the Department of Health and Human Services since June 19, 2009 to consult on the “President’s health reform proposal.”
He is one source for the claim that the excise tax will result in raises for workers (though his underlying study is in-apt to the excise tax question). He is the basis for the argument that the Senate bill reduces families’ risk–even if it remains totally unaffordable. Even Politico stenographer Mike Allen points to Gruber’s research.
a technical memorandum on the estimated changes in health insurance coverage and associated costs and impacts to the government under alternative specifications of health system reform. The requirement includes developing estimates of various health reform proposals on health insurance coverage and cost. The alternative specifications to be considered will be derived from the President’s health reform proposal. [my emphasis]
The President’s health reform proposal? But I thought this was the Senate’s health reform proposal?!?!? (wink!)
Now, HHS says they had to put Dr. Gruber in charge of evaluating health care reform proposals because he’s got,
a proven micro-simulation model with the flexibility to ascertain the distribution of changes in health care spending and public and private sector health care costs due to a large variety of changes in health insurance benefit design, public program eligibility criteria, and tax policy.
Even assuming that Gruber is the only one in the world who can run these simulations, don’t you think it’s rather, um, dubious that the guy evaluating the heath care reform–for $300,000–is also the package’s single biggest champion?
And no one has been transparent about this contract?
Update: Actually, Gruber failed to disclose his $392,600 contracts with HSS. The reference to ongoing work in the bigger, second one refers to a $95,000 contract he had from March 25, 2009 to July 25, 2009.
I certainly would not have written about him the same way, even though I am sure that what Gruber is saying comports with what he believes. My guess is that like me, most journalists would have treated him as an employee of the administration, with all the constraints that implies, rather than passing along his pronouncements as the thoughts of an independent academic. Christina Romer is a very, very fine economist. But her statements about administration policy are treated differently from statements by, say, her colleague Brad De Long.
Given how influential Professor Gruber’s work has been during the health care debate, that’s rather a large problem.
Gruber’s explanation that “he disclosed this to reporters whenever they asked” is not very compelling. I don’t see how anyone even tangentially connected to policy work could fail to realize that this was a material conflict of interest that should have been disclosed, and reporters cannot take up all their interview time going through all the sources who might have been paying or otherwise influencing their interviewee.
The standard is even higher for people who are taking public funds, and not only Professor Gruber, but the administration had a responsibility to disclose the relationship. Yet a post on the OMB blog signed by Peter Orszag cited Brownstein’s Gruber quotes without mentioning the relationship.
To be clear, I’m sure that Jonathan Gruber is in favor of passing this health care bill, and thinks it will do a lot of genuine good. I don’t think that funding automatically discredits the message; his work should stand on its own merits. But journalists and academics are granted a presumption of independence that is not given to most other professions, and that gives them a special duty to make it clear whenever there is a relationship that people might reasonably think has affected their views. Lefties were rightly furious when journalists turned out to have been taking money from the Bush administration, and I’m glad to see that at least some of them are holding Obama to the same standard.
I’ve spoken occasionally with Gruber for years now, and never noticed a shade of difference in his positions. Even so, his government contract should have been disclosed to me, and in the future, when I quote Gruber, it will be disclosed to you. In the meantime, if the administration is indeed listening to Gruber, I hope they heed him on this.
It was foolish of Jon not to disclose this relationship because it calls his integrity into question. Henceforth, he will have to be identified in the media as an Obama administration adviser rather than being considered an independent analyst, albeit one who served in the Clinton administration’s Treasury Department.
I asked Gruber about the reports, and he responded by stressing that the contract was not for public relations, but for analysis, and that he’s long advocated for a consistent set of policies:
I do indeed have a contract with HHS. Throughout this year I have provided technical assistance to the administration and to Congress with my micro-simulation model, as well as based on my experience as a member of the Massachusetts health connector board. But NONE of the work I have done in public, or any public declarations I ahve made, has been in any way funded by the Administration. That funding was strictly for internal work that I did for the administration and, via the administration, for congress. All externally visible work and comments, such as my editorials or public reports, have been done on my own time.
Moreover, at no time have I publicly advocated a position that I did not firmly believe – indeed, I have been completely consistent with my academic track record.
The Continued Case Of Bradley Manning
Charlie Savage at NYT:
Emptywheel at Firedoglake:
Jane Hamsher at Firedoglake:
Alana Goodman at Commentary:
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