Vox Pop

The Prospect's politics blog

The Bowe Bergdahl Situation Is Complicated. Let's Not Pretend Otherwise.

AP Photo/Jae C. Hong
AP Photo/Jae C. Hong A "Bring Bowe Back" sign honoring captive U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl is seen through a POW-MIA flag in Hailey, Idaho, Saturday, June 22, 2013. B efore long, we'll surely be hearing that Barack Obama arranged for the release of Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl to distract the country from Benghazi. Or maybe the theory is already making the rounds on talk radio; I'm not sure. But this messy episode reminds us of how little the people who fetishize "toughness" and want desperately for the War on Terrorism to extend into eternity actually grasp about where we find ourselves in 2014. But before we get to that, if you go to any conservative site today, you'll see one piece after another attacking Bergdahl, with the implied or stated conclusion that we should have just left him there. Some of the people with whom Bergdahl served say he was a deserter. And they may turn out to be right. But there was enough uncertainty about what he did, and why, to make the idea of just...

The Supreme Court and the Power to Make Treaties

Website of the Supreme Court of the United States
Given the ongoing Republican assault on essential federal powers, It is generally not good news when the Supreme Court narrowly construes a federal statute in deference to state authority. Monday's ruling in Bond v. U.S. , however, is an exception. A majority of the Court refused to accept conservative arguments that would severely limit the power of Congress to enforce treaties signed by the United States. The dissents by Justices Scalia and Thomas, conversely, show that this case could have been a vehicle for a major new limitation on federal power. The facts in Bond , summarized in an excellent story by Newsweek 's Pema Levy, are the stuff of soap opera. Carol Bond, a microbiologist, put highly toxic chemicals on various surfaces at the home of Myrlinda Haynes, her erstwhile best friend and husband's lover. Haynes escaped the dangerous trap set for her with only minor burns. Nonetheless, Bond was prosecuted under Section 229 of the federal Chemical Weapons Convention Implementation...

Facial Recognition and the Loss of Anonymity

You're not fooling anyone, kid. We know who you are. (Flickr/Glen)
With all the attention given to the Obama administration's new regulations on carbon emissions, you may have missed the latest revelation from the documents obtained by Edward Snowden, which came out over the weekend. The latest news is that the NSA is now increasingly relying on facial recognition in its surveillance, and gathers millions of images a day from emails, social media, and other sources, and it isn't alone. Here's an excerpt from a report that appeared in the New York Times on Sunday : State and local law enforcement agencies are relying on a wide range of databases of facial imagery, including driver’s licenses and Facebook, to identify suspects. The F.B.I. is developing what it calls its "next generation identification" project to combine its automated fingerprint identification system with facial imagery and other biometric data. The State Department has what several outside experts say could be the largest facial imagery database in the federal government, storing...

Maybe It's Time We Did Declare War On Coal

Wikimedia commons/U.S. Department of Interior
A look around at the reactions to today's administration announcement of new regulations to reduce carbon emissions shows about what you'd expect. Environmentalists are pleased, but think it doesn't go far enough . Conservatives are outraged . Across coal country, you can expect to hear cries that that this is just the latest salvo in Obama's "war on coal." The administration will respond that it isn't waging war on coal, because under these regulations states will have the flexibility to achieve emissions reductions in a variety of ways. But you know what? Maybe it's time we did wage war on coal. The stuff is a menace. OK, I'm joking—kind of. What I mean, though, is that it might be clarifying if we decided that we're going to mobilize our resources and ingenuity to rid ourselves of this scourge upon the earth--to actually say not just that we're going to enhance other forms of energy, but that our goal is to get to the point, no matter how long it takes, where our use of coal drops...

Daily Meme: Hit Me With Your Best Shot

BortN66/Shutterstock
Amid the ordinary comings and goings of Washington and New York, today was mostly a day of goings—and their dissection. In an extraordinary interview with Dean Baquet, who succeeded the summarily ousted Jill Abramson as the New York Times’ executive editor, NPR’s David Folkenflik asked Baquet if it was true that maps on the walls of the Times’ Washington, D.C., bureau were strategically placed to cover holes that Baquet was rumored to have punched through the sheetrock. “I have a temper,” Baquet replied. "In each case I was mad at somebody above me in rank. That's not an excuse, but it's a fact." However, he contended that he never, ever told Times managers that “it's me or Jill.” (He let the holes in the walls speak for themselves.) Note that in the media narrative of the Times contretemps, it’s always been Abramson described as the femme brutale, while Baquet’s interpersonal skills are lauded. In other news, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney surprised media mavens with his...

Resignation: What Kind of V.A. Secretary Was Eric Shinseki?

Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson
Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson Vietnam veteran Rollie Lewis, center, from Solway, Minn., looks at the challenge coin given to him by Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki at the Veterans Affairs Regional Office in Fargo, N.D., July 5, 2011. T o no one's surprise, Veterans Affairs secretary Eric Shinseki resigned today. Once Democrats started calling for him to step down, it was pretty much inevitable; the political damage from him remaining was just too overwhelming to resist. But even if you've been following the V.A. scandal closely, you probably have no idea whether Shinseki was actually doing a good job as secretary. You're not alone; in fact, the ratio of people who actually understand his tenure to those who are expressing opinions about it is infinitesimal. Not only that, we'll probably get only the blurriest impression of how his successor does. The reason is that like most departments of the federal government outside of State, Defense, and to a lesser...

Who's Hacking Your Phone?

They can definitely hear you now. (Flickr/Esther Vargas)
NBC aired its interview with Edward Snowden on Wednesday night, and there were lots of interesting things about it, particularly how confident and articulate Snowden was. One of the details that stood out for people was when Brian Williams asked Snowden about the NSA's ability to infiltrate your phone. I think the real lesson here isn't the one most people are taking, but to start, here's an excerpt from NBC's write-up : "The NSA, the Russian Intelligence Service, the Chinese Intelligence Service, any intelligence service in the world that has significant funding and a real technological research team, can own that phone the minute it connects to their network. As soon as you turn it on, it can be theirs. They can turn it into a microphone, they can take pictures from it, they can take the data off of it." Snowden described how the simple pattern of his phone calls—not the content of the calls but the time and location of those calls—could be invaluable to a security service. And how...

Daily Meme: Fans of War Shoot at Straw Men

Official White House Photo by Pete Souza
Yesterday, President Obama gave a speech at West Point outlining his vision for the use of American power in the future. So how did people react? The consensus on the right was that Obama's speech was a litany of arguments against straw men. "In rebutting his many critics, Obama would be more persuasive if [he] seriously engaged their arguments instead of rebutting arguments that no one is making in the real world," wrote Max Boot at Commentary . "Once again, the president caricatures the views of his critics rather than addressing them fairly," wrote Elliot Abrams , whose continued influence within conservative foreign policy circles is an inspiration to convicted criminals everywhere looking for a second chance. The conservative critics weren't completely wrong—Obama may have overstated their lust for American military action in his speech. But if he exaggerated, it wasn't by much, and many Republicans reacted by once again criticizing the President's insufficient enthusiasm for...

Where Terrorists and Assassins Don't Hide

Flickr/Wyn Van Devanter
At the end of last week, I wrote about a report showing how law enforcement authorities reacted to Occupy protests as if they were the advance guard for an al Qaeda invasion of America, on the apparent assumption that unlike non-violent right-wing dissent, non-violent left-wing dissent is likely a prelude to violence and thus must be met with surveillance, infiltration, and ultimately force. On Tuesday, the Supreme Court issued a decision on a case involving the Secret Service that seems to grow from a similar assumption about the connection between dissent and violence. The case was about an incident in 2004 when President George W. Bush stopped at an outdoor restaurant in Oregon. A crowd quickly formed, with some people cheering Bush and some jeering him. The Secret Service forced both groups away from the location, but let the pro-Bush citizens stay closer than the anti-Bush citizens; the plaintiffs charged that this was impermissible viewpoint discrimination. The Court ruled 9-0...

Daily Meme: Joe the Plumber on 'Dead Kids' and His Gun

ronnie44052/Flickr via Wikipedia
Remember Joe the Plumber? During the 2008 presidential race, Samuel Joseph Wurzelbacher, a plumber from Holland, Ohio, vaulted himself into campaign history after telling then-candidate Barack Obama that his proposed tax plan would prevent him from buying a small business. During the presidential campaign debate that followed, John McCain latched on to Wurzelbacher's comments and held up "Joe the Plumber" as the American everyman, his livelihood threatened by Obama's tax plan. When he coined the moniker, McCain inadvertently created a new GOP personality with a penchant for assault weapons. Six years later, Joe the Plumber is still in the headlines. But he's moved way beyond protesting the president's tax plan. Following last weekend's tragic shooting rampage on the campus of the University of California-Santa Barbara, Wurzelbacher took it upon himself to pen an open letter to the victims' families, sensitively informing them that "as harsh as this sounds—your dead kids don't trump my...

The Seductive Allure of "Ideas"

Flickr/Dennis Wilkinson
In 1994, as Republicans were headed for a historic midterm election victory, Newt Gingrich and his compatriots produced the " Contract With America ," a point-by-point description of what they wanted to do should they prove victorious. After the election, there was much talk in the media about how their agenda for change had won the day, but the truth was that barely anybody noticed it. A poll from ABC News and the Washington Post in January of 1995 —that is, after all the press coverage—found 55.6 percent of respondents saying they had never heard of the Contract, and given that people are generally reluctant to express ignorance about anything in polls, the real number was almost certainly higher. The Contract itself was a mixture of minor procedural reforms (eliminate the casting of proxy votes in committee markups!), poll-tested nostrums, and what passed for conservative good-government reforms at the time (term limits, a presidential line-item veto). That few voters knew any of...

Daily Meme: Have My People Call Your People

Today brings news and reminiscing of unlikely meet-ups, past, present, and future. In a Nixon-in-China moment, India’s newly minted prime minister, Narendra Modi (a Hindu nationalist), welcomed Pakistan’s prime minister, Nawaz Sharif (a Muslim nationalist), to New Delhi for the former’s swearing-in ceremony. The two nations have been arch-rivals since Pakistan was carved out of Greater India in 1947, and both possess nuclear weapons. The New York Times reports that the two became emotional when discussing their mothers. Pope Francis, on a return flight from his pilgrimage to the Holy Land, announced plans to meet with a small group of people who survived sexual abuse at the hands of Catholic clergy, according to the Guardian . Joelle Casteix of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests is not impressed, the Times reports , saying it’s all for show. The Vatican has been under extreme pressure ever since a United Nations commission denounced the sexual abuse of children by...

Supreme Court Decides: What is 'Cruel and Unusual Punishment'?

In the 2002 case Atkins v. Virginia , the Supreme Court ruled that executing the mentally impaired violated the Eight Amendment's prohibition on "cruel and unusual punishments." Atkin s, however, did not define what constituted mental impairment, which gave states a potentially easy way of evading the opinion. If left alone to determine their own standards, states that didn't want to comply with the Court's ruling could simply make it enormously difficult or impossible for those sentenced to death to prove that the were mentally impaired. In an important ruling Tuesday, the Supreme Court refused to allow the states unlimited discretion to determine whether defendants had the mental capacity to be legally executed, restoring some teeth to Atkins . In his opinion in Hall v. Florida , Justice Kennedy, joined by the Court's four Democratic nominees, began by reaffirming the rationale of the Court in Atkins . First, "[n]o legitimate penological purpose is served by executing a person with...

How Conservatives Will React to Obama's New Climate Regulations

A mountaintop removal mine in Virginia. (Flickr/Universal Pops)
President Obama is set to announce new rules for carbon emissions today, and what we'll see is a familiar pattern. The administration decides to confront one of the most profound challenges we face. It bends over backward to accommodate the concerns of its opponents, shaping the policy to achieve the goal in ways that Republicans might find palatable. Then not only are its efforts to win support from the other side fruitless, the opposition is so vituperative that it veers into self-parody. That's what happened with the Affordable Care Act; not only was the law not "socialism" as Republicans charged, it was about as far from socialism as you could get and still achieve universal coverage. It involved getting as many people as possible into private insurance plans, where they could see private medical providers. But Republicans who had previously embraced similar market-based ideas decided that once Obama poisoned them with his support, they were were now the height of statist...

American War Dead, By the Numbers

Photo: Melissa Bohan/Arlington National Cemetery
Photo: Melissa Bohan/Arlington National Cemetery Army Staff Sgt. Juan Esparzapalomino, a supply sergeant with the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, "The Old Guard", inspect the rows of newly-placed flags in Section 27, ensuring the flags are aligned as perfect as possible for the 2013 annual National Memorial Day Observance. T oday is Memorial Day, when we honor those who died in America's wars. It's often said that Americans are increasingly disconnected from the military, since the all-volunteer force, not to mention the limited nature of the wars we've waged since Vietnam, means that most Americans don't serve or even have family members who serve. I thought it might be worthwhile to look at some figures on the number who served and the number who died, to place that change in context. The number of Americans who were in uniform peaked during the national mobilizations of World War I and World War II, particularly the latter, when more than 16 million Americans were in the armed forces:...

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