Quote of the Day

It is a funny thing about life, if you refuse to accept anything but the best, you very often get it: if you utterly decline to make due with what you get, then somehow or other you are very likely to get what you want.

–W. Somerset Maugham, The Treasure.

In Memoriam: Paul Sally

I didn’t take Paul Sally’s math class when I was an undergraduate. I wish I did; unlike most professors, Sally was clearly devoted to teaching first and foremost. A rare trait amongst academics (alas). Be sure to read this Q&A as well. The interviewer was Supriya Sinhababu, and the key passage, in my mind, is the following:

SS: You’ve said that people view it as a “badge of honor” to not be good at math.

PS: Yeah, well. Ignorance is bliss.

SS: You’ve also said that they’d never say the same thing about not knowing how to read. I was wondering why you think it’s become socially acceptable to not be good at math, and what can be done about it?

PS: …First of all, to actually be good at math you have to practice, you have to take it seriously, and you have to be willing to spend time working at it. And all of these are very difficult for students and for humans in general. And they don’t understand that you should never confuse activity with achievement. Many people spend a lot of time early in their math careers, early in their math days, in the classroom, working at it extensively, saying, “I worked three hours on math last night.” Well, if they didn’t achieve anything, that’s activity, that’s not achievement…. And if you don’t get it right, you have failed.

…If you’re working on a certain project in a lab, and you set up the protocol correctly, then whatever the results, you can publish them. “I did this in the lab, and this is what happened.” But see, in mathematics you can’t do that. You have to set out to solve a problem or prove a theorem, and by the time you get through, if you don’t have a proof, you cannot actually publish your results, making apologies for your inability to prove the theorem. You simply have to confess that you couldn’t do it….

Requiestcat in pace.

When Monopolists Attack

Yes, this story is from France, which is hardly a bastion of free market economics, but that doesn’t make the story any less outrageous or ridiculous:

At first, it was just an idea, but this bill is now very real — urban transportation services like Uber and LeCab will now have to wait 15 minutes in France before letting a customer in the car. Back in October, the French government mentioned this piece of legislation as these new services would hurt traditional cab drivers. But nothing was set in stone until the AFP spotted the new bill today — and this news comes as a surprise.

In France, you have to pay a hefty price to get your taxi license. As a payback, the taxi industry is very regulated in this country, and drivers can expect to get a healthy influx of clients.

Yet, when the young and fearless startups appeared, many taxi drivers protested against LeCab, Chauffeur-privé, SnapCar, Allocab, Voitures Jaunes and Uber. While the French law calls these companies “VTC” services (car services), taxi drivers think that they are direct competitors — and smartphones certainly make Uber and others act like taxi services. That’s why the government sided with taxi drivers and talked about creating the 15-minute rule.

There is no point whatsoever to this law, of course, save protecting the interests of the taxi drivers’ monopoly. And while we can all laugh at the French over this issue, let’s remember that laws restricting the business opportunities of companies like Uber and of food trucks that compete with restaurant quasi-cartels get passed all the time here in the United States.

The New York Times Owes Scott Irwin and Craig Pirrong an Apology

Details here. And via Felix Salmon, this outstanding response by Pirrong. Any chance whatsoever that the Times will apologize for its shoddy reporting, or should we just assume that they will be happy to move on, having done their best to smear Irwin and Pirrong with no supporting evidence whatsoever?

Once again, leave it to blogs to inject some actual facts in this story.

Can We All Stop Taking MSNBC Seriously?

Truly appalling:

An MSNBC host apologized Tuesday morning after she and panelists on her weekend program faced criticism after poking fun at a photo of Mitt Romney, his wife and their nearly two dozen grandchildren, zeroing in on the Romneys’ recently adopted African-American grandchild, Kieran.

“I am sorry. Without reservation or qualification. I apologize to the Romney family. #MHPapology,” Melissa Harris-Perry wrote on Twitter.

During the segment, which appeared on the show “Melissa Harris-Perry,” the panelists made jokes about the infant standing out.

Two panelists later said their comments weren’t directed at the baby and apologized if the family was offended.

You would think that MSNBC might have learned something after Martin Bashir revealed to the world that his mindscape is a disturbed place. Incidentally, apologizing “if the family was offended” (emphasis mine), as MSNBC’s in-house failed comic, Dean Obeidallah (who was also part of the segment) did, is no apology at all. Indeed, as others have said, when an apology includes the word “if,” it is a wholly inadequate apology.

All of this, of course, is part and parcel of MSNBC’s efforts to politicize just about everything; the racial identity of a baby is now used to talk about racial diversity in the Republican party–never mind the harm and the offense to an entire family. Firings should take place as a consequence of all of this. MSNBC claims to be a credible source of news and information. It is, in fact, nothing more than a purveyor of smug insults that are handed out on a regular basis in order to ensure that the station remains in the good graces of its port-side viewers.

Who Cares Whether al Qaeda Was Involved in the Benghazi Attack?

I am scratching my head, wondering what the point is of arguing over whether al Qaeda was behind the 2012 attack on the American consulate in Benghazi. I don’t see why the identity of the terrorist group matters when it comes to judging the Obama administration’s awful handling of the issue. We got varying stories regarding the reasons for the attack, we got varying stories regarding the timeline and facts surrounding the attack, and no one in the administration has been held responsible for the debacle–a debacle that cost lives. The terrorists behind the attack could have been al Qaeda, Hezbollah, Hamas, the Irish Republican Army, the Baader-Meinhof gang, the Red Brigades, or the Silly party for all I care. This story doesn’t get any less horrible even if we assume that al Qaeda was not involved.

It’s Time for a Big, Giant Health Care Reform Roundup

I have been neglectful in posting about the continuing travails of Obamacare; real life demands mean less time for blogging. There is a lot of news to cover, and the news does remain bad for Obamacare fans.

Let’s start with what might be the next big problem for Obamacare:

Obamacare’s rollout dented the Department of Health and Human Services in just the first month. Up next year: the Internal Revenue Service.

A key piece of the health care law gives Americans making less than 400 percent of the poverty line subsidies to buy insurance. But if buyers don’t alert the insurance exchanges to big life changes throughout the year — like a divorce, promotion or new job for them or a spouse— they could wind up with sticker shock at tax time.

It’s a new responsibility for this group — many of whom are just struggling to sign up.

The IRS, for its part, must make sure consumers don’t get blindsided — or it will face a bunch of angry taxpayers who didn’t realize they would owe Uncle Sam money back, tax experts said.

“If I were the IRS, I would be very concerned that I’m going to be viewed as the villain when people have to pay back money the government gave them for health insurance,” said Chris Condeluci, who was Senate Finance Committee GOP tax counsel during drafting of the Affordable Care Act.

There is time. Potential “repayments” to the government will not come due until 2015, when recipients file next year’s taxes. But the new rule for reporting these life changes begins this January.

I fully expect this to be an issue, especially given the fact that “[r]ight now, the IRS does explain the issue on its website, but consumers would have to be looking for the information to find it.” It’s bad enough that people have been forced to give up insurance plans that they liked, and that they have lost access to doctors and hospitals that they have grown comfortable with–all despite the Obama administration’s assurances and promises that if we liked our health care plans, our doctors and our hospitals, we could keep them “period.” Now, people are likely going to have to face a third nasty surprise–tax penalties. Incidentally, for all those who believe that Democrats have suffered through the worst of the Obamacare implementation debacles, get ready to be proven wrong when taxpayers get eye-popping bills from the Internal Revenue Service.


Here comes the ObamaCare tax bill.

The cost of President Obama’s massive health-care law will hit Americans in 2014 as new taxes pile up on their insurance premiums and on their income-tax bills.

Most insurers aren’t advertising the ObamaCare taxes that are added on to premiums, opting instead to discretely pass them on to customers while quietly lobbying lawmakers for a break.

But one insurance company, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Alabama, laid bare the taxes on its bills with a separate line item for “Affordable Care Act Fees and Taxes.”

The new taxes on one customer’s bill added up to $23.14 a month, or $277.68 annually, according to Kaiser Health News. It boosted the monthly premium from $322.26 to $345.40 for that individual.

The new taxes and fees include a 2 percent levy on every health plan, which is expected to net about $8 billion for the government in 2014 and increase to $14.3 billion in 2018.

There’s also a $2 fee per policy that goes into a new medical-research trust fund called the Patient Centered Outcomes Research Institute.

Insurers pay a 3.5 percent user fee to sell medical plans on the HealthCare.gov Web site.

Avik Roy reminds us that “fact-checkers” completely fell down on the job when it came to covering Obamacare:

On December 12, the self-appointed guardians of truth and justice at PolitiFact named President Obama’s infamous promise—that “if you like your health care plan, you can keep it”—its 2013 “Lie of the Year.” An understandable choice. But in its article detailing why the President’s promise was a lie, PolitiFact neglected to mention an essential detail. In 2008, at a critical point in the presidential campaign, PolitiFact rated the “keep your plan” promise as “True.” The whole episode, and PolitiFact’s misleading behavior throughout, tells us a lot about the troubled state of “fact-checking” journalism.

Indeed it does, and there have hardly been any apologies made to those who predicted the problems that would attend the implementation of Obamacare. Meanwhile, problems with the website continue:

I tried to use the Obamacare exchange in my state, I really did. I probably spent about seven hours on the site in four or five sessions over the past few months.

Theoretically, I’m the sort of person who might benefit from the program. I don’t work for a big company that provides health insurance for its employees. We had been getting our family health insurance by paying for a “cobra” policy that extended the benefits my wife had gotten from her former job, but that has an 18-month time limit. So we need new health insurance for our family effective January 1, 2014. (A modest health reform might extend that 18-month time limit to, say, four years, but the drafters of Obamacare were not interested in modest reforms.)

In the past, I had bought health insurance through the Authors Guild. But because Obamacare outlawed individual policies of the sort that had been available through the Guild, that is no longer an option. (A modest health reform might have encouraged the purchasing or provision of health insurance through voluntary professional associations such as the Authors Guild, but the drafters of Obamacare were not interested in modest reforms.)

I live in Massachusetts, a state that had, under Governor Mitt Romney, pioneered the “individual mandate” and “universal coverage” that are at the center of Obamacare. You’d think they’d have a functioning Web site for health insurance. And they did, a year or so ago when I window-shopped for health insurance. Since then, however, to become compliant with Obamacare, the state scrapped the old RomneyCare web site and replaced it with a non-functioning Obamacare site.

By “non-functioning,” I mean, “non-functioning.” As in, it really doesn’t work.

And more:

A glitch is once again stacking up would-be health insurance shoppers on HealthCare.gov.

The oft-troubled federal Web portal that is supposed to be the front door for millions of Americans to enroll in Obamacare health insurance plans started directing shoppers this morning to a “queue,” notifying them there is a problem with the site and to come back later.

“Right now, hc.gov is queuing consumers,” HHS spokeswoman Joanne Peters confirmed in a statement. “This system is in place while the tech team works on fixing an error that happened during routine maintenance last night. This work started at 10 a.m. and we anticipate this could take two to three hours and that the site will be up and running again soon.”

The outage comes at a critical time as people are expected to flock to the site before a Dec. 23 deadline to enroll in order to get coverage that’s effective Jan. 1 under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

And more:

A top HealthCare.gov security officer told Congress there have been two, serious high-risk findings since the website’s launch, including one on Monday of this week, CBS News has learned.

Teresa Fryer, the chief information security officer for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), revealed the findings when she was interviewed Tuesday behind closed doors by House Oversight Committee officials. The security risks were not previously disclosed to members of Congress or the public. Obama administration officials have firmly insisted there’s no reason for any concern regarding the website’s security.

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) responded to questions about the security findings in a statement that said, “in one case, what was initially flagged as a high finding was proven to be false. In the other case, we identified a piece of software code that needed to be fixed and that fix is now in place. Since that time, the feature has been fully mitigated and verified by an independent security assessment, per standard practice.”

According to federal standards set by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), the potential impact of a high finding is “the loss of confidentiality, integrity, or availability could be expected to have a severe or catastrophic adverse effect on organizational operations, organizational assets, or individuals.”

Details are not being made public for security reasons but Fryer testified that one vulnerability in the system was discovered during testing last week related to an incident reported in November. She says that as a result, the government has shut down functionality in the vulnerable part of the system. Fryer said the other high-risk finding was discovered Monday.

In another security bombshell, Fryer told congressional interviewers that she explicitly recommended denial of the website’s Authority to Operate (ATO), but was overruled by her superiors. The website was rolled out amid warnings Fryer said she gave both verbally and in a briefing that disclosed “high risks” and possible exposure to “attacks”.

There are problems on the state level too:

Nearly 16,000 Iowans who tried to apply for coverage via the trouble-plagued federal health-insurance website are being told to apply separately through the state Department of Human Services.

The Friday afternoon announcement is the latest bout of bad news about the website, which is a key part of the Affordable Care Act.

The announcement affects people who entered their information into healthcare.gov and received a notice that they might qualify for Medicaid. The federal computer system was supposed to transfer their applications to a state computer system, but that transfer has been complicated by technical problems. The timing is critical, because the new insurance coverage is supposed to take effect on New Year’s Day, which is Wednesday.

State officials say they can’t guarantee that people in this situation will have coverage if they need to see a doctor before the mess is untangled.

And more:

While Americans around the country scramble to meet the deadline to sign up for Affordable Health Care coverage to start Jan. 1, Marylanders have until Friday. The insurers in Maryland’s Health Care Exchange agreed to extend the deadline for those who want coverage in January until Dec. 27.

The Maryland Health Connection website has been a source of frustration since the launch on Oct. 1.

“With all its problems, it was like changing tires on a rolling car, but it is working a lot better and it has worked for 42,589 people,” said Governor Martin O’Malley.

Dwayne Henderson is not one of them.

“Saturday about 6 p.m. I tried the local site; the local site was not working. I went to the federal site; the federal site said I was ineligible to apply because Maryland has its own exchange,” he said.

Forty percent of Marylanders enrolled in Affordable Health Care enrolled last week, according to the governor, but many like Henderson couldn’t sign up.

“I reapplied at 11 p.m. on a Sunday, thinking that the volume should not be a problem. Unfortunately, I got the same response asking me to reapply,” he said.

Remember, the implementation of Obamacare is supposed to have “improved” after its initial disastrous start.

I guess that this story ought to surprise no one:

Even as President Obama’s health insurance website limps to recovery, at least two states that used the same contractor and are still plagued with malfunctions — Massachusetts and Vermont — are taking preliminary steps to recoup taxpayer dollars.

Massachusetts officials are reviewing legal options against CGI Group, a Montreal-based information technology company, and will make recommendations on how to seek financial redress at a Jan. 9 meeting.

So far, the state has paid $11 million of its $69 million contract with CGI. It will not pay a penny more until a functioning website has been delivered, said Jason Lefferts, spokesman for the Commonwealth Health Connector, the state’s insurance marketplace.

“CGI has consistently underperformed, which is frustrating and a serious concern,” Lefferts said. “We are holding the vendor accountable for its underperformance and will continue to apply nonstop pressure to work to fix defects and improve performance.”

Expect other states to follow suit by filing suit themselves.

Because of all of the problems associated with the implementation of Obamacare, the administration has been forced to implement a host of rules changes. For those who claimed to be worried about an imperial presidency back when George W. Bush was in the White House, now is the time for all of you to perk up:

It’s hard to come up with new ways to describe the Obama administration’s improvisational approach to the Affordable Care Act’s troubled health insurance exchanges. But last night, the White House made its most consequential announcement yet. The administration will grant a “hardship exemption” from the law’s individual mandate, requiring the purchase of health insurance, to anyone who has had their prior coverage canceled and who “believes” that Obamacare’s offerings “are unaffordable.” These exemptions will substantially alter the architecture of the law’s insurance marketplaces. Insurers are at their wits’ end, trying to make sense of what to do next.

And more:

Deadlines? Who needs ‘em? Not when it comes to Obamacare anyway. [December 23] was set to be the final day to sign up for coverage that begins on January 1 of next year. But the administration has quietly extended that deadline by an additional 24 hours. And by quietly, I mean, with no official announcement at all. News of the delay comes from two unnamed sources who confirmed the move to The Washington Post.

I am sure that this is someone’s idea of “good government,” but you will forgive me if I think otherwise.

I had planned to make this post longer, but it appears to be long enough for the moment. Not to worry; there is much more bad news to pack into a future post, and I should have the time to write one relatively soon.

Good for Case Western Reserve University

Its president and provost have denounced the academic boycott of Israel. I won’t excerpt the statement; you should just go ahead and read the whole thing, which is brave, to the point, honest, and worthy of all academics who are genuinely interested in engaging in open, free and vigorous inquiry.

The Intellectually and Morally Bankrupt Boycott of Israeli Universities

You know that the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions crowd–which is currently busy targeting academic freedom in Israel–doesn’t have much of a leg to stand on when the best that they can do is cite the likes of Richard Falk for support:

It appears no one told the American Studies Association that when attempting to fend off accusations of bigotry, it’s best not to cite a bigot.

In a sign that the organization is feeling the heat from outside opprobrium, the ASA’s Caucus on Academic and Community Activism has posted a defense of its Israel boycott. The statement offers tacit acknowledgment of the fact that over 40 universities–including almost the entire Ivy League–have condemned the ASA’s action. In response, the ASA Caucus lists other academics who have endorsed the boycott and calls for supporters to renew their membership or join the ASA. Unfortunately for those attempting to exonerate the ASA from charges of prejudicial treatment of the Jewish state, one of the six scholars the ASA Caucus cites is Richard Falk, a known 9/11 truther and promoter of anti-Semitism.

By day, Falk serves as the United Nations special rapporteur for human rights in the Palestinian territories, where his support for the terrorist group Hamas has been so blatant that the Palestinian Authority tried to get him fired. The United States and Canada have also called for him to be dismissed, and he has been censured by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. But Falk’s most objectionable conduct has actually taken place outside the U.N.’s halls.

In 2004, he wrote the preface to a book by conspiracy theorist David Ray Griffin which argued that the Bush administration helped perpetrate the 9/11 attacks. “There have been questions raised here and there and allegations of official complicity made almost from the day of the attacks, especially in Europe,” Falk wrote, “but no one until Griffin has had the patience, the fortitude, the courage, and the intelligence to put the pieces together in a single coherent account.” In 2011, Falk mused on his blog about the “apparent cover up” of 9/11, and the “eerie silence of the mainstream media, unwilling to acknowledge the well-evidenced doubts about the official version of the events.” He reaffirmed these views this past June, when he told radio host and 9/11 truther Kevin Barrett that “questioning that deeply the official version of 9/11 does touch the third rail of American political sensitivities, and there is an attempt to discredit and destroy anyone that makes such a bold statement, and this has intimidated a lot of people.”

I am sure that in response to this bill of particulars, supporters of the BDS movement and the American Studies Association in general will assure all of us that they are not anti-Semitic. You will forgive me if I view that claim with at least some degree of skepticism.

Meanwhile, Stanley Fish notes the disconnect between the rhetoric and the actions of the ASA and the BDS movement (as though this is difficult to do):

. . . on occasion my anatomy of a structure of argument bled right into a substantive position. This was so recently, when I analyzed the case being made by some academics for boycotting Israeli universities. They reason that a boycott is justified because as the result of Israel’s actions, “Palestinian universities have been bombed, schools have been closed, and scholars and students deported.” I quote from a statement by the American Studies Association, which just a few days ago endorsed the boycott and did so in the name of academic freedom, defined (correctly) by the statement as “the necessity for intellectuals to remain free from state interests and interference.” Yet, in the next breath, the Association is busily assuming the interests of one state against another and acting accordingly, on the reasoning that the academic freedom of Palestinians has been “severely hampered” by Israel’s policies. Or, in other words (my words), “the state of Israel has done bad things to the Palestinians and therefore we should do bad things to Israeli universities.”

That’s a good example of the kind of bad argument I like to skewer: the American Studies Association resolves to harm the good (academic freedom) it has pledged many times to protect in the hope that by doing so it will bring about a greater good somewhere down the line; it will misidentify the appropriate target of retaliation, because the target it has in its sights — the Israeli academy — is the only one it can hope to affect; it will compromise, indeed abandon, its principles in exchange for the (possible) furtherance of a political goal. And I would add that not only is the argument bad in this instance in the context of these particular facts; it would be bad in any instance. No matter what the motivation or the circumstances, curtailing the freedom of academics because of a political judgment — saying, as the boycotters say, “because we don’t like the policies of your government, we won’t have anything to do with you” — is just flat out wrong.

The American Studies Association could have passed an intelligence and morality test of sorts by eschewing cooperation with the BDS movement, and with vicious anti-Semites like Richard Falk. Instead, it decided to besmirch its reputation for all time by getting into bed with a crowd that has never lacked fleas.

Republican Signs of Intelligence

In what should be absolutely non-shocking news, Republicans have discovered that it is necessary to appeal to centrists, moderates and working-class families if they want to win elections. So a number of them are doing just that, and seeking in the process to undo some of the damage that conservative grassroots organizations have done to Republican party prospects. This is a good thing, I think. I certainly believe that the Republican party needs a conservative (and a libertarian!) grassroots organization, but by now, there really can be no doubt about the fact that conservative grassroots organizations cost the Republican party a great deal with their demands for a government shutdown and their misguided belief that a government shutdown would somehow serve to defund Obamacare. I hope that the grassroots has learned a lesson from the experience on the virtues of pragmatism and on how to negotiate, but until it shows that those lessons have been learned, other groups within the Republican party will act in order to make sure that the Republican party does not destroy itself. And well they should.

I look forward to the day when grassroots organizations will work more closely with Republican mainstream groups, but until that day happens, I am going to support the work of those who understand that in order to influence policy, one must actually win elections.

Why Is Rick Perlstein Sliming Lawfare?

On Friday of last week, Rick Perlstein of the Nation, wrote this post, in which he claimed that the New Republic was “taking money from an NSA contractor to run defenses of the NSA.” The post also implicated Lawfare. Perlstein argued that “[t]he National Security Agency has a friend at the Harvard Law School. And at the Brookings Institution. And at The New Republic. And at The Washington Post.” He claimed that Benjamin Wittes, who is the editor-in-chief of Lawfare, has “been blogging on the report on the abuses of the National Security Agency just out from the President’s Review Group on Intelligence and Communication Technologies, in terms highly favorable to the super-secretive and media-shy agency. He also enjoys extraordinary access to the NSA, for instance in this series of podcasts with its top officials. (“We Brought In a Recoding Device So You Don’t Have To,” the series is titled—cute!)” Perlstein further adds:

Why is Lawfare the NSA’s media portal of choice? Well, consider this. Lawfare, in turn, partners with The New Republic, where this post was republished in its entirety. The joint Lawfare/TNR project is titled “Security States,” and it is sponsored, Wittes proudly notes, by the Northrop Grumman Corporation. Grumman, in turn, is a major NSA contractor—see this $220 million deal it scored with the NSA “to develop an advanced information management and data storage system that will support efforts to modernize the nation’s electronic intelligence and broader signals intelligence capabilities,” a fact TNR does not disclose to its readers.

And the NSA is apparently well-pleased with the arrangement. “Check out Lawfare’s interview with NSA’s acting Deputy Director Fran Fleisch,” the agency enthused today, one of the NSA’s public affairs office’s six breathless tweets booming “Lawfare” over the past five days. Surely they also enjoy the laundering of the content of “the indispensable Lawfare blog” through The Washington Post, courtesy of its hack right-wing blogger Jennifer Rubin. (“The NSA will falter unless Obama does his job.”)

Meanwhile, Wittes’s Lawfare co-blogger Jack Goldsmith, late of George W. Bush’s Pentagon and Justice Department, is a professor at the Harvard Law School, but does not disclose any conflict of interest, as most Harvard Law professors do, for being part of such a project sponsored by a commercial entity.

Boiling all of this down, Perlstein is alleging that (1) Lawfare is blogging on law and national security issues; (2) Lawfare’s blogging is favorable to the NSA’s point of view; (3) Lawfare does informative podcasts with members of the NSA; (4) the Lawfare project is partnered with the New Republic; (5) Northrop Grumman sponsors the joint project; (6) Northrop Grumman “scored” a $220 million contract with the NSA; which leads to (7) conflicts of interest for Jack Goldsmith, who is called upon by Perlstein to disclose “whether he is paid by Northrop for his posts at Lawfare, and whether he thinks he has disclosed that to his Harvard employers, and whether he should make the arrangement public.”

If you think that all of this is an incredibly lame series of accusations to make against Lawfare and the New Republic, you are not alone. Benjamin Wittes responds to Perlstein’s accusations by pointing out that Perlstein ran his piece without checking any of the facts with either Wittes, or Goldsmith, or TNR. Perlstein only asked for reactions after running his piece, and after Wittes sent in corrections, Perlstein ignored them for a time. Wittes points out that Northrop Grumman only sponsored the joint Lawfare/TNR project (called Security States) for the month of October, and that as far as Wittes is concerned, he would not mind more sponsorship (who would?). Furthermore:

. . . not a dime of the money from the sponsorship we used to have from Northrop has been paid to Jack or anyone else for writing for Lawfare. Lawfare is a labor of love for all involved. It is a tiny non-profit we are working to stand up, one from which nobody is getting paid—let alone getting rich.

Third, the Security States project with the New Republic, in any event, had nothing whatsoever to do with the “Inside NSA” podcast series, which developed–as Bobby and I made very clear on the site–out of dialogues Bobby has been organizing between the agency and academics.

Perlstein got one thing right: I am, as he alleges, not a lawyer.

Further correspondence between Perlstein and Wittes is found here. Note Wittes’s discussion of how long it took for Perlstein to respond to Wittes’s reply and corrections; Perlstein, it should be clear by now, is no one’s definition of a responsible journalist. Bizarrely, in response to Wittes’s original reply, Perlstein sent the following head-scratcher:

What’s your speaking fee?

Will you release the agreement—who got paid, and how much? If N-G had any oversight over content? I’m also interested if they were promised pieces on drones.


Several responses come to mind: (1) Who cares what Benjamin Wittes’s speaking fee is? (2) Wittes said that no one at Lawfare got paid, so why is Perlstein asking for information on “who got paid, and how much”? (3) What basis is there to allege or wonder “[i]f N-G had any oversight over content,” or “if they were promised pieces on drones”? In any event, Wittes showed more patience with Perlstein than anyone ought to, and pointed out that “I have never received a speaking fee from either NSA or from N-G of any size. N-G had no oversight over content with respect to Security States and was not promised pieces on drones or NSA matters either. Editorial content was the province of Lawfare and TNR alone.” Wittes also made the entirely sensible point that given Perlstein’s lack of good faith, there is no reason whatsoever why any agreement should be shared with him.

Now, Perlstein has come back with a new post that is full of new allegations. Let’s take them in turn:

On Friday I posted a short piece in which I said that (1) Benjamin Wittes, co-director of the Harvard Law School-Brookings Project on Law and Security, has been blogging at his website Lawfare “on the report on the abuses of the National Security Agency just out from the President’s Review Group on Intelligence and Communication Technologies, in terms highly favorable to the super-secretive and media-shy agency”; (2) that The New Republic’s website republishes his posts and others from the Lawfare group blog in a project entitled “Security States” that is sponsored by Northrop Grumman, a major NSA contractor; and (3) that Wittes and his colleagues enjoy extraordinary access to the NSA, as suggested by a series of interviews they’ve published on the site with top NSA officials. I drew a connection between all of these things. Then I sent the post to TNR’s editor Franklin Foer and to Wittes, promising to publish their responses. What I learned was that the problem isn’t as bad as I originally described. In fact, it’s worse.

“It’s worse,” eh? Quite a setup. This tempest in a teacup that Perlstein has generated had better be worth something with that kind of introduction.

Here is what Franklin Foer, who is an old friend (I hired him for his first journalism internship) wrote back to me:

We’ve been running pieces from Lawfare for many months—and we’ve been running pieces by Ben and Jack for many years. They are valued contributors, sharp minds, genuine experts, and ideologically unpredictable. (Jeff Rosen, another treasured contributor and our legal affairs editor, has long been one of the most important critics of the surveillance state.) When our collaboration with Lawfare was sponsored by Northrop—which was just the month of October—it was clearly disclosed on each article page.

I spent Monday researching Foer’s claim of full disclosure of Northrop Grumman’s sponsorship. Let’s not bury the lead here: what Foer said does not seem to be true.

An announcement of the new collaboration between TNR and Lawfare on September 30, 2013, at Lawfareblog.com (“Coming Tomorrow: Teaming Up With The New Republic) stated, “We are calling the project, which is being sponsored by the Northrop Grumman Corp, ‘Security States.’” An announcement under Wittes’s byline at NewRepublic.com on October 1 says nothing about any sponsorship, and a third announcement, a press release on the same day the same day at NewRepublic.com, concluded, “This partnership is made possible by Northrop Grumman, a leading global security company.” That is the only mention of Northrop Grumman sponsorship of TNR content I can find on their website—ever. Going through each online page with posts tagged as part of the “Security States” series in October, the sponsorship was not “clearly disclosed on each article page.” As this forlorn little Googlewhack reveals, it was in fact revealed on none of them.

Frankly, who cares? Lawfare disclosed the sponsorship, as did TNR. Whether or not it was “disclosed on each page” is immaterial; the initial disclosure to Lawfare’s readers and to TNR’s ought to have been and was more than enough to put those readers on constructive notice of what was going on. If Perlstein’s further investigations really did reveal “worse,” then he is going to have to do a lot better than this to generate a scandal. [SEE UPDATE AT THE BOTTOM OF THIS POST–ed.]

I sought clarification from Foer: did I misinterpret his response? He wrote back, “Northrop doesn’t advertise with us on our site now. That was a month-long deal that ended.” I took him to be saying, perhaps, that the posts published under the “Security States” tag during the period of sponsorship mentioned the sponsorship, but only while that sponsorship was ongoing. However, using the Internet Wayback Machine, I checked for how a post made on October 17 showed up the next day, on October 18—and could find no indication of sponsorship there, either. I followed up by asking Foer about that, too. He replied, “”Northrop was an advertiser. They were promised nothing, other than prominent placement on Security States pages.”

He had appended to his original response “what I hope would be obvious: Nobody from our staff or Lawfare ever had any contact with this specific advertiser; and advertisers never have any say in what we produce.” That’s fine. I don’t doubt him. But to summarize, there was no way to know the arrangement had ended; so Wittes is off-base for knocking me for not knowing the arrangement had ended. Indeed there seems to have been no way, really, for most of The New Republic’s readers to know it ever began. Trusting New Republic readers consumed prose sponsored by Northrop Grumman, concerning issues in which Northrop Grumman had a direct financial interest, without being aware of the fact. I’ll have more to say about that below—because the stuff about the NSA is only the beginning of the problem. The drones are the bigger issue.

If Perlstein wanted to know whether “the arrangement had ended,” all he had to do was to contact Foer, Wittes and/or Goldsmith before running his piece. That he didn’t do so made Wittes entirely on-base in “knocking” Perlstein “for not knowing the arrangement had ended.” The further claim that “there seems to have been no way, really, for most of The New Republic’s readers to know it ever began,” is equally ridiculous, since, as we saw above, both Lawfare and TNR disclosed Northrop’s sponsorship of Security States.

Responding to Wittes, Perlstein gives us the following:

It’s odd. Soon after my post, Wittes blogged that the Lawfare/TNR partnership no longer had “active sponsorship from Northrop, though I sincerely wish we did and look forward to working with them (or other companies) in the future.” Yes, that’s right: his defense against the accusation of taking money from a defense contractor while producing journalism that specifically impacts that defense contractor was to publicly solicit more money from more defense contractors. Lawfare is published by a non-profit, the Lawfare Institute. It is read by a few thousand people, among them the most powerful decision-makers in the Washington D.C. firmament. It leans right. It likes drones and the NSA. It is also full of smart analysis, valuable analysis, that nonetheless becomes the less valuable the more doubts persist about the independence of its publishers. So who are its funders? Indeed, why does it need funders? Publishing a blog doesn’t cost a penny.

Again, several responses spring immediately to mind. (1) It is neither illegal or unethical for bloggers to say “I wish we had sponsorship or advertising that supported out site,” and there are plenty of bloggers on both sides of the aisle who seek sponsorship and advertising, so Perlstein’s faux-outrage regarding this issue is bizarre and absurd. Just out of curiosity, will Perlstien be attacking left-of-center bloggers anytime soon for having fundraisers or hosting ads? Somehow, I doubt it. (2) Stating that Lawfare’s analysis “becomes the less valuable the more doubts persist about the independence of its publishers. So who are its funders?” presumes that there are any credible doubts about the independence of its publishers (Perlstein has raised none whatsoever). As for the issue of funders, Lawfare has a PayPal button on the right hand sidebar, which solicits donations. Above that button, we are told that Lawfare has filed a pending application for 501(c)(3) status. Wikipedia informs us that “[c]onsumers may file IRS Form 13909 with documentation to complain about inappropriate or fradulent [sic] (i.e., fundraising, political campaigning, lobbying) activities by any 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organization,” so if Perlstein wants, he can write up the Lawfare Institute. I highly doubt that his complaint will be taken seriously, even by the IRS, though I can certainly understand if people feel otherwise.

But Lawfare solicits sponsors nonetheless. And maybe a super-human being would be able to do that without the temptation to self-censor—without refraining from publishing the sort of content that would make that stated priority difficult. But unless you believe Benjamin Wittes is a super-human being, it’s hard take Lawfare seriously as an impartial source of analysis. Writing bad things about the sponsor’s products is bad for business; that’s why serious publications maintain a rigid wall between ad sales and editorial—and don’t try to sell sponsorship in the very pieces in which they defense their editorial independence!

After you read the above, look to your right at all of the sponsorships and advertisements found on the pages of the Nation. I currently see advertisements for the New York Times, and the Vanguard Group. Assuming that this is not the product of algorithms (I read the Times, but don’t do web searches for investment funds), presumably, Perlstein is signaling that neither he nor anyone else at the Nation can write about the Times, Vanguard, or financial planning in general “without the temptation to self-censor.”

Consider, too, what with Wittes describing his outfit as a tiny nonprofit: these guys are not just some random dudes blogging out their idle thoughts out into the Internet ether. According to a feature in CQ Weekly this past spring, “When the House Judiciary Committee summoned experts in February to testify about the legality of drone strikes on U.S. citizens, all of them came from one blog: Lawfare. And when California Democratic Rep. Adam B. Schiff wanted to draft legislation creating a court to oversee such strikes, he consulted with one of the founders of Lawfare, Jack Goldsmith. It’s a common phone call from Capitol Hill to experts who write for the blog.”

A tiny nonprofit? Sure, why not. But here’s another fascinating detail in the CQ piece: the site gets only 2,000 to 3,000 visits a day, but “[a]mong the top six cities reading Lawfare in 2013 are Washington; Arlington, Va.; and McLean, Va., the latter two the neighborhoods of the Pentagon and the CIA.” (I wonder if traffic of late has increased from Laurel, Maryland, the site of the NSA’s Ford Meade headquarters.)Their writers may not get paid. But they certainly earn plenty of political capital from the association—specifically with the national security state’s reigning right-leaning powers that be.

Nowhere has Lawfare hid the fact that its writers are esteemed experts on law and national security issues, and that their opinions are sought by policymakers. If one searches for “testimony” at the site, one comes up with a host of blog posts, including instances where Lawfare writers gave testimony (here is one such example). Heck, if one bothers to Google “Benjamin Wittes”, one encounters his homepage, which has–wait for it!instances when he testified before Congress. I am still waiting to find out all of the “worse” things that Perlstein claims to have discovered.

The CQ Weekly piece cites Andrew Prasow, senior counterterrorism counsel at Human Rights Watch, who “criticizes Lawfare for its authors’ frequent defenses of surviving elements of Bush’s anti-terrorism policies.” The joint Lawfare/TNR project also, it’s true, publish great stuff that does not—even left-leaning stuff. For instance, there’s this outstanding five-part series on why corporations should be liable for design flaws in their software that make customers vulnerable to cybersecurity breaches. But (concern-troll alert) good dissenting writers won’t publish stuff there for long if their editors keep squandering credibility by selling themselves to the highest defense-contractor bidder.

For those keeping score, one month of  Northrop Grumman sponsorship of Security States is apparently enough to justify bamboozling Perlstein’s readers by claiming that the editors of Security States “keep squandering credibility by selling themselves to the highest defense-contractor bidder.” “Keep“? One month of sponsorship constitutes editors who “keep squandering credibility,” with the entirely unsupported suggestion that they continue to “sell themselves” to “the highest defense-contractor bidder”? Again, there is no evidence whatsoever that any sponsorship occurred beyond the month of October. There is no evidence whatsoever that there was any sponsor other than Northrop Grumman for that one month. And yet, we are supposed to believe that the editors of Security States are engaged in the continuing practice of “squandering credibility by selling themselves to the highest defense-contractor bidder.” Joseph McCarthy would be proud of this bit of demagoguery.

For guess what else Security States publishes? A piece, during that golden month underwritten by Northrop Grumman, headlined “Armed Robots: Banning Autonomous Weapons Systems Isn’t the Answer.” In it, authors Matthew Waxman and Kenneth Anderson, two members of the right-wing Hoover Institution Task Force on National Security and Law, argue that armed drones “programmed under certain circumstances to select and fire at some targets entirely on their own” are “not inherently unethical and unlawful, and they can be made to serve the ends of law on the battlefield…through existing normative framework,” and that to “preemptively ban the development and use of autonomous weapons systems” would be “unnecessary and dangerous.”

Now, for all I know, they have a point. (It sounds nuts to me, but hey, I’m not the expert.) And I’m sure these cats are sincere in their belief. But I’d still trust them more if the conclusions weren’t so, um, salubrious to a certain corporate sponsor. For a global ban on drones that deal death via artificial intelligence algorithms would be pretty damned inconvenient for a company racing to complete something called the X-47B, “also known as as the Unmanned Combat Air System Demonstrator (UCAS-D),” according to the breathless prose of the tech site CNet this past month. The X-47B, CNet continues, “has put a gleam in the Pentagon’s eye about someday equipping carrier strike forces with autonomous aircraft.”

That would be very sort of aircraft that Lawfare/TNR says don’t need no stinking regulation.

This is getting tiresome, but I guess I have to repeat myself: Again, Lawfare and TNR both separately disclosed the sponsorship. Readers were put on notice that there was a sponsor. They could judge for themselves whether or not they could trust the writing coming from the joint project. And I’ll repeat another thing as well: If Perlstein doesn’t like corporate sponsors and advertisers, why does he write for the Nation, which runs ads on its own site? Here is the Nation’s advertising policy. It states that “we reserve (and exercise) the right to attack [advertisers] in our editorial columns.” It further states that advertising is accepted “not to further the views of The Nation but to help pay the costs of publishing. We start, therefore, with the presumption that we will accept advertising even if the views expressed are repugnant to those of the editors.” If the Nation can accept advertising in order to pay the costs of publishing, and if it can assure readers that it will attack advertisers in editorial columns while taking their money, then I see no reason why Lawfare, TNR or Security States cannot disclose and take sponsorship.

More blather from Perlstein like the excerpt immediately above (and other excerpts above that) can be responded to with the paragraph immediately above, so let me skip down to the following. As you read it, bear in mind that it takes us twenty-six paragraphs before we get to it:

At this point, let me cop to it. It was wrong of me to write piece entitled, “Why Is The New Republic Taking Money From an NSA Contractor to Run Defenses of the NSA?” That was unfair. Much more accurate would have been to write, “Did The New Republic Take Money From a Drone Manufacturer that Wanted It To Run Defenses of Drones?”

About effing time that we get Perlstein to “cop” to an error. He could and should have “copped” to other errors, listed above. We also get the following:

The timing was certainly auspicious: last autumn was precisely when Northrop Grumman would want Lawfare’s small but influential band of readers to be thinking warm thoughts about its drone program—especially the ones on Congressional staffs. Another of their unmanned planes, the Global Hawk, was slated by the Pentagon for termination in January of 2012. According to an AllGov.com report, “The Air Force determined that Global Hawk cost too much and was too limited in its ability to fly during stormy weather, among other reasons for killing the drone.” (Originally budgeted at $35 million each, each plane will now cost an estimated $220 million.) Then Northrop “made it rain on Congress to the tune of $31 million in lobbying spending since the beginning of 2012, and in return Congress has passed legislation ordering the Air Force to purchase the arms maker’s RQ-4 Global Hawk.”

There is no evidence here of causation here, or collusion—just the appearance of impropriety. But Wittes doesn’t believe in the appearance of impropriety, does he? “I sincerely wish we did and look forward to working with them (or other companies) in the future.” What kind of serious scholar says that???

Yawn. There isn’t even the appearance of impropriety here. There is no evidence that anything Northrop Grumman did affected the writing done by Security States, or by Lawfare or TNR in their separate capacities. By now, it should be clear to even the most addled that Perlstein has been wasting the time of his readers.

I would discuss the rest of Perlstein’s piece, but mine is reaching 3800 words, and frankly, I’m bored. Perlstein goes on to allege that the NSA likes doing podcasts with Lawfare (who cares?), he says that he accepts Jack Goldsmith’s statement that Goldsmith has not been paid for any of his posts at Lawfare, while still trying desperately to claim that there is something wrong with accepting a sponsorship that was (I have to repeat this again) fully disclosed, and he reveals that Benjamin Wittes is advertised to on the Internet by defense contractors, “[w]hich I guess in the end sort of proves my point” (it really doesn’t, because as is abundantly clear, Perlstein has no point). So much for the “worse” that we were promised way back at the beginning of this post; the only “worse” that we have learned is that Rick Perlstein can’t think his way out of a wet paper bag, and he has no journalistic integrity to speak of.

DISCLOSURE: I have cited and written favorably about Lawfare in the past. I have also had one of my essays called “thoughtful” by Jack Goldsmith, and I have guest-posted for Lawfare as well. I have not been paid a penny for any of these writings by Northrop Grumman, the Nation, Lawfare, the Lawfare Institute, TNR, George Soros, the Koch brothers, or any other person, non-profit, corporation, small business, church, synagogue, mosque, interplanetary federation or other entity whatsoever. Additionally, Rick Perlstein and I are fellow alums of the University of Chicago, a fact that I am rather ashamed to disclose, because it means that I am associated with Perlstein in some small way.

UPDATE: As it turns out, the very WayBack web archive that Perlstein cites indicates quite clearly that Northrop Grumman’s advertisement appeared on the Security States website. So we have yet more evidence that Perlstein is incapable of performing competent research. Either that, or Perlstein knew that the Northrop Grumman advertisement appeared on Security States and could be found via the WayBack archives, but chose to hide this fact from his readers.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,764 other followers

%d bloggers like this: