It was Wednesday, shortly before Senator Rand Paul’s bravura 13-hour filibuster, the Jimmy Stewart star turn in Paul’s crusade to have the Constitution ban a bogeyman of his own making: the killing of American citizens on American soil by America’s armed forces — a scandal that clearly cries out for action, having occurred exactly zero times in the 20 years since jihadists commenced hostilities by bombing the World Trade Center.
At a hearing of the Judiciary Committee, Senator Ted Cruz was grilling Attorney General Eric Holder. Cruz seemed beside himself — in the theatrical spirit of the day — over Holder’s refusal to concede that the imaginary use of lethal force conjured up by Paul would be, under any and all circumstances, unconstitutional. The attorney general preferred the fuzzier term “inappropriate” — at least until Senator Cruz finally browbeat him into saying that by “inappropriate” he meant “unconstitutional.”
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Around the Pentagon, the budget cutters have put away their knives and are reaching for axes. In times like these, every service naturally circles the wagons around its share of the budget pie. The stress is so great that otherwise smart people take incredibly silly stands. Last week, for instance, the former chief of naval operations, Admiral Gary Roughead, published a paper that calls for cutting the Army in half and leaving the Navy’s budget untouched. He sums up the logic for this advice in a few simple words: “The force we propose accepts risk in the burden we are placing on our Army and Marine Corps.” Admiral Roughead, unfortunately, fails to tell us what risk he is accepting in the nation’s behalf. Let me do it for him. The risk he is taking on is summed up in one word: defeat.
A combined Air Force–Navy effort popularly known as Air-Sea Battle takes a seemingly more reasoned approach. At its base, Air-Sea Battle calls for purchasing expensive new weapons (lots of them) so as to clear the sea-lanes of enemies (that don’t yet exist), and to be able to fight through any enemy’s air and coastal defenses. These proposals, however, fail to answer a huge strategic question: To what purpose? After you have opened the sea-lanes and broken through an enemy’s defense, what do you do if that enemy refuses to surrender? In the past, we carried out these missions in order to open the door for the Army and Marines to enter a country and defeat an enemy force.
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I shall leave it to others to argue the legal and constitutional questions surrounding drones, but they are not without practical application. For the last couple of years, Janet Napolitano, the secretary of homeland security, has had Predator drones patrolling the U.S. border. No, silly, not the southern border. The northern one. You gotta be able to prioritize, right? At Derby Line, Vt., the international frontier runs through the middle of the town library and its second-floor opera house. If memory serves, the stage and the best seats are in Canada, but the concession stand and the cheap seats are in America. Despite the zealots of Homeland Security’s best efforts at afflicting residents of this cross-border community with ever more obstacles to daily life, I don’t recall seeing any Predator drones hovering over Non-Fiction E–L. But, if there are, I’m sure they’re entirely capable of identifying which delinquent borrower is a Quebecer and which a Vermonter before dispatching a Hellfire missile to vaporize him in front of the Large Print Romance shelves.
I’m a long, long way from Rand Paul’s view of the world (I’m basically a 19th-century imperialist a hundred years past sell-by date), but I’m far from sanguine about America’s drone fever. For all its advantages to this administration — no awkward prisoners to be housed at Gitmo, no military casualties for the evening news — the unheard, unseen, unmanned drone raining down death from the skies confirms for those on the receiving end al-Qaeda’s critique of its enemies: As they see it, we have the best technology and the worst will; we choose aerial assassination and its attendant collateral damage because we are risk-averse, and so remote, antiseptic, long-distance, computer-programmed warfare is all that we can bear. Our technological strength betrays our psychological weakness.
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We are now firmly ensconced in the brutal Age of the Sequester, and things in America are grave. The federal government, we learned on Wednesday, is so strapped for cash that the president has been forced to cut off the People’s access to the home he’s borrowing from them. He didn’t want to have to do this, naturally — “particularly during the popular spring touring season.” But then Congress just had to go and acquiesce in measures that the president himself had suggested and signed into law. How beastly! We axed 2.6 percent from a $44.8 trillion budget, and now the president can’t even afford the $18,000 per week necessary to retain the seven staff members who facilitate citizens’ enjoying self-guided tours around the White House.
The executive mansion is not in that much trouble, of course. It’s certainly not in sufficiently dire straits for Air Force One ($181,757 per hour) to be grounded, or to see the executive chef ($100,000 per year) furloughed, or to cut back on the hours of the three full-time White House calligraphers ($277,050 per year for the trio), or to limit the invaluable work of the chief of staff to the president’s dog ($102,000 per year), or to trim his ridiculous motorcade ($2.2 million). If Ellen DeGeneres wants another dancercize session or Spain holds another clothing sale, the first family will be there before you can say “citizen executive.” Fear ye not, serfs: Austerity may be the word of the week, but the president is by no means in any danger of being forced to live like the president of a republic instead of like a king.
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So here we are in the early dawn of the Age of Sequester, and the howls of rage are strangely subdued. Sure, Robert Reich is jumping up and down, and a few members of the bobblehead-pundit set are doing their thing, but, so far, there is no widespread public outcry over the “cuts”—which aren’t really cuts, of course, in most cases. Politically speaking, the sequester is a far tamer beast than, say, the Clinton–Gingrich government shutdown, an episode during which Republicans got burned, and burned but good.
As one insightful observer put it, the very modest reduction in the growth of government spending is roughly equivalent to an alcoholic switching from Guinness Extra Stout to Heineken Light, and while the ripples of economic anguish may be felt acutely by those closest to the federal cash flow — government employees and contractors — the general public seems at the moment to be taking the suspension of White House tours in stride.
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This week, the world was rocked by the news that an infant born in Mississippi with HIV has apparently been cured: The child tested positive for the disease several times in the first month after her birth, while she was receiving aggressive antiretroviral (ARV) treatment, but now, at the age of 23 months, she shows no sign of HIV.
This development points to a hopeful way forward for infants who contract HIV during gestation or at birth, but almost all of them live not in Mississippi, but in places like Mali and Namibia. Yet thanks to the United States government and private benefactors, prompted by President George W. Bush, many of those children and their mothers do have access to some HIV/AIDS treatment programs.
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?We?re a republic of laws,? Charles Krauthammer reminded his audience; ?we have a Constitution.? But he suggested that the Obama administration forgot or ignored that fact when it targeted Fox News reporter James Rosen and his colleagues. ?It is not illegal for a member of the press to seek information, and if you make it illegal, then you are really making a huge dent in, a huge assault on, freedom of the press.?
I did not expect to run into a study (based on comprehensive data in Denmark) in the International Journal of Cancer that shows so clearly that the retreat from marriage ? not just as a legal act but as a norm ? has medical consequences. Here?s the abstract:
Few population-based studies have investigated the relation between living arrangements and risk of invasive penile squamous cell carcinoma (iP-SCC). Using long-term national cancer registry data in Denmark we examined incidence trends of iP-SCC. Furthermore, we examined the relation between marital status, cohabitation status and risk of iP-SCC using hazard ratios (HRs) with 95% confidence intervals (CIs) obtained in Cox proportional hazards regression analyses as our measure of relative risk. Overall, 1,292 cases of iP-SCC were identified during 65.6 million person-years of observation between 1978 and 2010. During this period, the WHO world age-standardized incidence remained relatively stable (p-trend?=?0.41) with an average incidence of 1.05 cases per 100,000 person-years. When compared to married men, those who were unmarried (HR 1.37; 95% CI: 1.13?1.66), divorced (HR 1.49; 95% CI: 1.24?1.79) or widowed (HR 1.36; 95% CI: 1.13?1.63) were at increased risk of iP-SCC. Regarding cohabitation status, single-living men were at increased risk of iP-SCC compared to men in opposite-sex cohabitation (HR 1.43; 95% CI: 1.26?1.62). Risk increased with increasing numbers of prior opposite-sex (p-trend?=?0.02) and same-sex (p-trend?<?0.001) cohabitations. In conclusion, single-living Danish men and men who are not currently married are at increased risk of iP-SCC, and the risk increases with the number of prior cohabitations, perhaps reflecting less stable sexual relations in these subgroups.
There is good news about the State Department International Religious Freedom Report, released on May 20. First, the report is, by and large an excellent resource. While slightly slimmer than in most previous years, it is still the most comprehensive overview of religious freedom and persecution on the planet.
There is more good news. The report pays particular attention to the growing threat created by blasphemy and apostasy accusations to religious freedom, freedom of speech, and freedom of the press. It highlights this not only in the reports on particular countries, but also, following a practice that State introduced last year, in a special section in the executive summary: ?The use of blasphemy and apostasy laws continued to be a significant problem, as was the continued proliferation of such laws around the world. Such laws often violate freedoms of religion and expression and often are applied in a discriminatory manner.?
Secretary of State John Kerry also singled out this issue as one of the only two trends he highlighted in his very brief introductory remarks at the report?s release. ?Lastly, another troubling trend is the increasing use of laws governing blasphemy and apostasy. These laws are frequently used to repress dissent, to harass political opponents, and to settle personal vendettas. Laws such as these violate fundamental freedoms of expression and religion, and we believe they ought to be repealed. And because we defend others? rights of expression, we are also ensuring that we can express our own views and practice our own faith without fearing for our own safety or our own lives.?
Much of my and Nina Shea?s work is on this key issue, especially on how these accusations are used to repress political and religious dissidents and reformers, and Kerry appears to have adopted this analysis. His call for such laws to be repealed may signal an end or a change to the ?Istanbul Process? on religious tolerance in which the State Department has partnered with the Saudi-based Organization of Islamic Cooperation, whose charter commits it ?to combat defamation of Islam.?
Of course, the State Department has often said good things in its reports before, but without translating them into policy. This might turn out to be true here as well, but the signals are better than we have seen for a while.
? Paul Marshall is Senior Fellow at Hudson Institute?s Center for Religious Freedom and the co-author of Persecuted: The Global Assault on Christian.
A public-radio reporter was the latest victim of one of the harsh responses that have helped make Chris Christie famous. When the reporter asked whether the state was prepared for the impact of climate change before Hurricane Sandy hit its shores, the New Jersey governor wasn?t pleased.
?Well, first of all, I don?t agree with the premise of your question because I don?t think there?s been any proof thus far that Sandy was caused by climate change,? Christie said at a ceremony celebrating the final nail?s being hammered into a repaired boardwalk. ?But, I would absolutely expect that that?s exactly what WNYC would say, because, you know, liberal public radio always has an agenda.?
Since he disagreed with the premise of the question, he refused to answer it. Attendants can be heard applauding Christie during his response.
?He says he?s outraged, and that?s fine, but we need to see him do something,? Senator Rand Paul said of President Obama?s lack of action on the IRS?s targeting of conservative groups. He described the president as ?detached? and ?passive in all of this.?
?I think in order for government to gain its trust back, someone needs to be fired, someone needs to be held responsible, and, if it?s criminal, someone needs to go to jail,? Paul said on Fox News this afternoon. He compared the president?s handling of this situation to his handling of Benghazi, in which no one has yet been fired.
Paul also called for an independent investigation of the IRS case, especially after the news that Lois Lerner, director of the Internal Revenue Service?s Exempt Organizations division, would invoke the Fifth Amendment and not testify in tomorrow?s House Oversight Committee hearing. (Committee chairman Darrell Issa has since issued a subpoena for Lerner in hopes of having her testify.)
The unfolding of the Obama administration?s aggressive attitude toward the media continues to reveal the same sorry themes as the other scandals erupting inside the Beltway. First is partisanship. This weekend came news that the Justice Department conducted an invasive investigation into the daily activities of Fox News reporter James Rosen, to the point where the Department judged him a ?conspirator? in violating the laws against leaking classified information. Does anyone recall a similar pursuit of New York Times and Washington Post reporters during the Bush years? No? I didn?t think so. Both outlets published extremely sensitive classified information that harmed our national security during the Bush years, and in the last five years both papers have published sensitive information on the operation of the drone programs and the bin Laden killing.
To an outside observer it appears that the Obama Justice Department has selected for investigation the media outlets whose editorial views are most hostile to its political leaders, while giving a pass to friendly organizations that might have published leaks that benefit the White House.
The second theme is the lack of adult supervision over the most important functions of the U.S. government. I am sure that in all of these cases, there were career prosecutors who would like to pursue the media. It is the job of the political appointees in any administration to stop cases that might fall within the letter of the law, but make terrible sense in terms of the use of the executive branch?s resources or of broader values that might not occur to career civil servants.
The fact that the political leadership of the Obama Justice Department must have signed off on the investigation shows how mediocre the appointees in the Department have become. On the other hand, if the Obama folks blame it all on the career prosecutors, it shows that they cannot even do their job of managing the department. The fact that this negligence has occurred in one of the executive branch?s most important, unique functions ? investigating and prosecuting crime ? only raises deeper doubts that this administration cannot manage the government competently.
In the Bush administration, there were some who wanted to pursue the media over classified leaking. I for one thought that these proposals were ill-conceived and raised problems under the First Amendment?s protection for a free press. I don?t believe that the Bush Justice Department ? allegedly so hostile to civil liberties ? undertook any of them. The only example I can think of was the independent counsel investigation into the leaking of Valerie Plame?s identity to the press, which only went to show how bad an idea most independent-counsel investigations are. Only the Obama administration has authorized the tailing of reporters, monitoring of their phone calls and e-mails, and watching their sources.
Add up all the recent scandals and the message is clear: the Obama administration is showing that it cannot be trusted with the basic functions of government: law enforcement (surveillance of reporters), taxation (IRS scandals), and national security (Benghazi).
When a major journalist breaks a gun law in the nation's capital on national TV in front of hundreds of thousands of viewers at home, you'd think it would be pretty much an open-and-shut case to prosecute. But when Meet the Press host David Gregory did just that last December -- displaying on-air an empty 30-round magazine during an interview segment with the NRA's Wayne LaPierre -- he got off scot-free when the District of Columbia failed to prosecute. The relevant law on the books in the nation's capital calls for a $1,000 fine and a year in prison for any civilian who possesses a ammunition magazine that can hold more than 10 rounds.
Two months later, annoyed with the District of Columbia for failing to answer her questions pertaining to the case, pro-gun rights opinion columnist Emily Miller of the Washington Times filed a freedom of information request. On Friday, Miller updated readers by noting how the District has been stringing her and other conservative bloggers along when it came to producing documents related to the Gregory investigation (emphasis mine):