Sunday, April 15, 2018

Way Down Below the Ocean

Yeah, the second trailer for the Chappaquiddick movie uses that old Donovan lyric (way down below the ocean, where I want to be, she may be), and that might seem heavy-handed except it perfectly suits the subject.

The film, released last week, has been rated PG-13 for, among other reasons, depictions of "historical smoking." Okay, we don't want young children to see how it was once common for Americans to smoke. A few other themes in the movie that may also be inappropriate for younger audiences include drunk driving, negligent homicide, manslaughter, abuse of power, aiding and abetting, public corruption, cowardice, misogyny, classism, and the kind of self-absorbed survivalism that enabled Senator Ted Kennedy to escape from a sinking car without a moment’s hesitation. Of course, Teddy had a lot more experience with drunk driving than the 28-year old passenger he left behind, Mary Jo Kopechne, and maybe that accounts for his greater presence of mind when the car spun around and water rushed inside.

It's not an Untold True Story, as I've recently  seen it referred to, because the story has been told before, especially in the 1988 book Senatorial Privilege (see the NYT book review here}.

The Successfully Suppressed and Largely Forgotten True Story would be more like it. I'm acquainted with a few 40-ish people who have worked in Washington for the Feds all their adult lives but never knew anything about the Chappaquiddick incident until now. The 50-ish and 60-ish people knew, however.

There was a remarkable fictional treatment by Joyce Carol Oates in 1992, Black Water, which is told entirely in the mind of the victim as she dies, and whose two-hour reading time corresponds with the time it likely took for Kopechne to die. Read the NYT review of that book here: "Her Thoughts While Drowning."

From the review:
Everything we learn comes to us in the moments just after the accident, Kelly's last moments alive, as she discovers that she's pinned in the car, as she refuses to believe that the Senator will not come back for her -- that he has in fact used her body for support to get out of the sinking vehicle -- and as she struggles to keep her head in the air bubble that was created as the car sank. Because we know the history, we know the outcome, and, in any case, Ms. Oates keeps it well focused. As the book draws to its conclusion, the refrain "As the black water filled her lungs, and she died" is repeated with very much the same frequency, and engenders much the same feeling of cathartic recognition, that one experiences hearing the choruses of the ancient Greek tragedies.
"She saw that. There was no mistake. Yet at the same time she was explaining to a gathering of people, elders, whose faces were indistinct through the cracked windshield that it was not what they thought ... he had not abandoned her to die in the black water ...

But, of course, he had.

The Chappaquiddick film is the only account of the incident since Oates' novel that pays attention to the victim who was sacrificed to Ted Kennedy's political career. In interviews, the film makers have said they wanted to depict Mary Jo Kopechne as a real, rounded, person, and not just as that school graduation photo that is all the public has ever seen of her.

That yearbook photo. Doesn't any other photo of her exist? Did no one take a photo of her between that class graduation and her 28th year? Evidently not, at least so far as we know. That photo was a ghostly presence that hung over Ted Kennedy's career for forty years after Kopechne's death. Only now, a decade after his own death, is she coming into definition.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Having a Capitol Spring

The Capitol weather forecast is for 4 to 8 inches of snow ending at 8PM.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

HRC, Bitter Clinger

So Hillary is in India this week explaining to the locals how she lost that election, or rather, how she won all the places that mattered but that wasn't enough to win the election (WaPo: Hillary Clinton takes her ‘deplorables’ argument for another spin).
Clinton offered some rather unvarnished remarks in India this weekend that sound a lot like her “deplorables” commentary from September 2016. She played up the states that supported her as more economically advanced than the states that voted for Trump, calling them “dynamic” and “moving forward.” Then she again suggested Trump supporters were motivated by animosity toward women and people of color.

“If you look at the map of the United States, there's all that red in the middle where Trump won,” Clinton said. “I win the coast. I win, you know, Illinois and Minnesota — places like that.”

“If you look at the map of the United States, there's all that red in the middle where Trump won,” Clinton said. “I win the coast. I win, you know, Illinois and Minnesota — places like that.”

She went on: “But what the map doesn't show you is that I won the places that represent two-thirds of America's gross domestic product. So I won the places that are optimistic, diverse, dynamic, moving forward.”

Well, something else you can see in the election map is that lots of places that went for Obama in 2012 went for Trump in 2016. You can see them in this November 2016 NPR story with 3 charts that show "where the Trump surge happened and the places that flipped from supporting President Obama in 2012 to going for the Republican nominee and billionaire real-estate mogul just four years later."

Maybe I missed it, but how does Hillary account for those optimistic, diverse, dynamic, etc., etc., pro-Obama places of 2012 that turned into redneck Hicksvilles in 2016?

Here's a thought. Could it be that Hillary was just an unlikable person and terrible candidate who did not offer anything of much appeal to states with a majority of the Electoral College vote?

Silent Rex's Last Act

When I saw the news today about President Trump dismissing Silent Rex, my first thought was that the decision might have been precipitated by his press release of yesterday about the killing of a Russian ex-spy in Britain, since that statement differed from one released by the White House.

However, it now seems the decision was made a day earlier. That means the last independent act of SecState Tillerson was to issue this statement attributing responsibility for the nerve agent attack in the U.K.:
The United States was in touch with our Allies in the United Kingdom ahead of today’s announcement, including in a call between Secretary Tillerson and Foreign Secretary Johnson this morning. We have full confidence in the UK’s investigation and its assessment that Russia was likely responsible for the nerve agent attack that took place in Salisbury last week.

There is never a justification for this type of attack – the attempted murder of a private citizen on the soil of a sovereign nation – and we are outraged that Russia appears to have again engaged in such behavior. From Ukraine to Syria – and now the UK – Russia continues to be an irresponsible force of instability in the world, acting with open disregard for the sovereignty of other states and the life of their citizens.

We agree that those responsible – both those who committed the crime and those who ordered it – must face appropriately serious consequences. We stand in solidarity with our Allies in the United Kingdom and will continue to coordinate closely our responses.

All questions of that particular killing and our response to it aside, how can any official USG statement say "there is never a justification for this type of attack – the attempted murder of a private citizen on the soil of a sovereign nation?" Targeted killings are still targeted killings whether a nation does them with up close with poison or from far away with armed drones.

The press reported how Obama decided whom to kill with the aid of a 'disposition matrix.' Here's a handy flowchart that spells out the Obama administration's justifications for the killing of private citizens on the soil of sovereign nations. The Trump administration presumably does the same.

But, but, didn't Obama have magic bombs that never killed the wrong person? Actually, no, as the Obama White House admitted in 2016, its drone strikes had killed 64 individuals conclusively determined to be non-combatants, in addition to 52 individuals whose status remained in doubt. Private monitoring organizations such as the Long War Journal, the New America Foundation, and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, have estimated there were several times that number of non-combatant casualties.

Personally, I support the use of targeted killing in at least some cases. And, if the USG wants to issue threats to Putin and demand consequences for the attack in the U.K., that's also okay by me.

But, so long as the USG conducts such attacks itself, please spare us the sanctimony.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

A Reward for Justice Went Unmentioned at U.S.-Jordanian Press Conference

The reward is for up to $5 million and it's offered by the U.S. State Department for information leading to the arrest and conviction of a Jordanian citizen, Ahlam Ahmad Al-Tamimi, for her leading role in the 2001 Sbarro restaurant bombing in Jerusalem, in which two of the victims were U.S. citizens. The U.S. charges against Al-Tamimi were unsealed on March 14, 2017.

See the details here:
A Jordanian citizen, Ahlam Ahmad al-Tamimi, also known as “Khalti” and “Halati,” is a convicted terrorist operative for HAMAS.

On August 9, 2001, al-Tamimi transported a bomb and a HAMAS suicide bomber to a crowded Jerusalem Sbarro pizzeria, where the bomber detonated the explosives, killing 15 people, including seven children. Two American citizens were killed in the attack – Judith Shoshana Greenbaum, a pregnant 31-year-old school teacher from New Jersey, and Malka Chana Roth, a 15-year-old. Over 120 others were injured, including four Americans. HAMAS claimed responsibility for the bombing.

In 2003, al-Tamimi pleaded guilty in an Israeli court to participating in the attack and was sentenced to 16 life terms in Israel for assisting the bomber. She was released in October 2011 as part of a prisoner exchange between Hamas and Israel. On March 14, 2017, the U.S. Department of Justice unsealed a criminal complaint and an arrest warrant for al-Tamimi, charging her under U.S. law with “conspiring to use a weapon of mass destruction against U.S. nationals outside the U.S., resulting in death.” The FBI also added al-Tamimi to its list of most wanted terrorists and considers her to be “armed and dangerous.”

A former student working part time as a television journalist, al-Tamimi drove the bomber to the target after pledging to carry out attacks on behalf of the military wing of HAMAS, according to the FBI. Al-Tamimi, who planned and engineered the Sbarro attack, chose the location because it was a busy restaurant. To reduce suspicion, she and the suicide bomber dressed as Israelis, and she personally transported the bomb, concealed inside a guitar case, from a West Bank town into Jerusalem. Al-Tamimi also admitted to detonating a small IED in a Jerusalem grocery store a few weeks prior to the attack as part of a test run.

So, we want Jordan to turn over Al-Tamimi, but Jordan refuses. You might think that would make for an awkward U.S.-Jordan press conference this week (see: Remarks at Memorandum of Understanding Signing and Press Conference) but no, the subject of murdered U.S. citizens did not come up.

Instead, Jordanian Minister of Foreign Affairs Ayman Safadi talked about our seven decades of mutual cooperation on countering terrorism and such, and he also said thanks for the latest MOU under which the U.S. will offer $1.7 billion to his Kingdom over the next five years.
Your Excellency [SecState Rex Tillerson], we highly value your continuous support for Jordan. We value the strong partnership and friendship ties between the two countries, and we look forward to continuing to cooperate together to serve our mutual interests and to accomplish peace, security, and stability in the region.

Before signing the MOU, I discussed with His Excellency the Secretary of State developments in the region, particularly with respect to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and Syria, and our common fight against terrorism and the strength of our relations ... We’ll continue to work together in pursuit of peace and stability. We will remain partners in the fight against terrorism until we destroy this evil.

SecState Tillerson's remarks included this:
I also want to highlight Jordan’s partnership and commitment to combating terrorism and violent extremism. His Majesty King Abdullah has long been a regional and global leader and a voice against terrorism, and is critical to our counterterrorism efforts.

Although he's critical to our counterterrorism effort, His Majesty apparently draws the line at turning over one of the Al-Tamimi family, even if it means he could add another $5 million to the pile of U.S. assistance.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

FBI = Federal Bacon Insatibility

Yeah, it was a testy hearing all right, just as the Biz Journal headline says: GSA sheds some light on FBI reversal in testy House hearing.

The House Oversight Committee called in GSA officials to explain their change in plans for replacing the FBI's decrepit headquarters building. After at least five years of feckless efforts to build a massive new FBI headquarters somewhere outside the beltway, the General Services Administration now prefers to demolish the old headquarters and build a smaller one on the same site.

That sounds good to me. The FBI headquarters will stay next to the Justice Department (of which it is a bureau, all pretense of being a separate agency aside), employee commutes and house-buying plans remain the same, and the GSA doesn't have to replace expensive specialized infrastructure that's already at the current site. What's not to like?

The answer depends on whether or not you're a Congressman from Fairfax County, Virginia, or Prince George's County, Maryland, the jurisdictions that have been lobbying for and drooling over and making promises about that multi-billion dollar new FBI campus for years. GSA's decision to keep it in the District rearranges the winners and losers rather drastically. I say it's a win for the taxpayers and the FBI, but that makes it a loss for the beltway real estate development and construction industries and the government-dependent economies in Fairfax and PG counties. It's also a loser for politicians in the District, whose tax base would be improved if the current FBI site were to be redeveloped as retail or hotel property.

The Committee's testiness was decidedly bipartisan, but the testiest of them all was the minority leader, my very own Congressman, Gerald Connolly (D-Va). He got the mic ten minutes into the session and bewailed the "body blow to public confidence” caused by GSA's change of mind, and the terrible burden of uncertainty it places on the long-suffering corporate big shots who sell buildings and real property development to the feds.

Oh, and the security! We can't forget about the security. The old Hoover building has no setback at all on that urban site, so very unlike the big sprawling campuses of the CIA, NSA, and all the other three-letter agencies. Has GSA no clue about security? At one point, Connolly suggested GSA should talk to the State Department about the overwhelming need for setback, if they won't take his word for it.

And the Trump! Don't forget him, either. GSA's old plan would have turned the vacated FBI site over to private developers who might, Connolly suggested, have built something there that would “directly compete” with the new Trump Hotel that is right across the street. I find it hard to believe there is enough high-end market in DC to support more than one hotel with rates in the $500-600 a night range and one-week minimum stays. But, if you must interpret GSA's decision through the lens of how it might benefit Trump's businesses, go right ahead. [Footnote: the Trump Hotel is also a GSA property, previously known as the Old Post Office Building, which coincidentally was used by the FBI as overflow space in the days before the Hoover Building.]

Most of the Committee's insinuations and insults were directed at Dan Mathews, Commissioner of the GSA's Public Buildings Service and the official who bore the main responsibility for standing in the way of congressmen like Connolly who are starving for a huge meal of federal bacon to bring back home just like West Virginia's Senator Byrd did in the old days, unashamedly and on a grand scale.

In his remarks, Mathews laid out some persuasive facts before his unappreciative audience. Facts like, the FBI has reduced its program requirements through consolidation of shared admin functions with its parent Justice Department, and will reduce its headquarters staffing from 10,000-some to 8,000-some, thereby making the current site a viable option for a smaller footprint. Anyway, the decision to give up on building a new site in Virginia or Maryland was forced upon GSA by a lack of sufficient funding to sign a contract with a private developer for a land-swap, and that decision was made back in July 2017.
In his first public remarks since Monday, Mathews explained during the hearing that the GSA came to its new recommendation after the agency canceled the prior search in July. Mathews, who previously served as a senior staffer to another House committee overseeing the GSA, said his agency canceled that search because it did not have sufficient appropriations to award a contract for the multibillion-dollar effort, which had been expected to cost nearly $3.6 billion.

The FBI then adjusted its requirements, recommending that it would only need room for about 8,300 headquarters staff, not 10,600, in a new facility. That adjustment lowered the GSA's cost estimate to around $3.3 billion and also opened up more options. He said the Pennsylvania Avenue site would not have been able to accommodate the larger number of workers but can be redeveloped to house the smaller number. The balance would be shifted to other FBI facilities across the country.

"All I can say, Mr. Mathews, is I just do not feel your answers hold up," Connolly said. "I think they contradict, as I said, six years of laying the groundwork for a different rationale for where it ought to be located, the value of consolidation, the danger of lack of consolidation, and the legitimate physical security concerns. And the rationales coming out of the GSA do not add up."

Connolly said it may be necessary for the GSA's inspector general to look more closely into the recommendation and added that the episode "is not a good moment for the GSA, and what I really worry about, besides process, is the mission of the FBI and, frankly, how it can be impeded by this decision."

Step off, old man. What you've been "laying the groundwork" for is a huge federal bacon-drop in Springfield, Virginia, and I don't think the mission of the FBI was your first concern.

In fairness to Connolly, let me say that his fellow elected officials in Maryland are just as avaricious and Trump-obsessed as their counterparts in Virginia.
Prince George's County spent over $1M pursuing the FBI headquarters, county economic development head David Iannucci said. County Executive Rushern Baker, who is running for Maryland governor, also questioned the administration's motivations.

"This decision is beyond logic but it is clearly political," Baker said in a statement. "The Trump Administration is now proposing to spread FBI offices across the country to states like Alabama, Idaho, and West Virginia — all states that voted for President Trump."

I like this business of snatching the bacon away from under the nose of my esteemed Member of Congress. Whether or not he gets his meal in the end will probably depend on the outcome of the 2018 midterm elections. Meanwhile, the mission of the FBI will continue to suffer as it makes do in that complete disaster of a headquarters building.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Well, That Was Very Brief

The Government Shutdown of 2018 barely had time to register with the public before the Senate Democrats voted to end it, with all but 16 - counting the two independents who normally caucus with them - of their 49 members voting to end cloture at 12:30 PM today.

Why such a very quick reversal? Here's a clue: a Harvard-Harris poll conducted just before the Friday night government shutdown found that 65% of voters would support a DACA deal that secures the Southern border, ends chain migration, and eliminates the visa lottery. That level of support was consistent across nearly every demographic group, including 68% of those who voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016.

Whats more, fully 81% of voters want to reduce legal immigration by at least half of its current number.

I'm guessing the Democratic caucus took one look at its internal polling on DACA and gave up that fight as quickly as they possibly could, getting nothing in return from the Republic leadership except the promise of a future Senate vote on some still-to-be-identified bill, something which neither the House nor the White House have so much as promised to consider.