Thursday, April 30, 2009

Just in time to pre-empt the M-ATV contract announcement ...

(Marine Corps Commandant James T.) Conway said that instead of pursuing a new line of vehicles, he asked engineers to look at modifying a current version of the MRAP with an independent wheel suspension. A prototype has been tested with good results, he said.
No need for the M-ATV after all?

I'll keep looking for the contract announcement under the presumption that M-ATV offers more than the in-theater modifications can deliver.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Rachel Maddow, Guantanamo and Dr. Han S. Park

Earlier today I followed a link provided by a liberal/leftist message board participant that would supposedly show why torture is bad (mmm-kay?). Or, more properly, why waterboarding three terrorists up through 2005 or so is a bad idea.

The link led to a segment from Rachel Maddow's NBC news/opinion show. During the segment, Maddow tried to make the less-than-novel case that the failure of the U.S. to be nice to detainees would justify mistreatment of Americans by other nations.

They key illustration in the segment came via anecdote from Han S. Park, a professor from the University of Georgia who, for some reason, is able to travel with relative freedom between the U.S. and North Korea. Perhaps it is because Kim Jong-il enjoys hearing Park's criticisms of the North Korea regime. Or maybe Park is an incredible suck up. Or something somewhere in between.

So by now I'm curious about this Park guy. He is apparently not a representative of the U.S. government. What does he represent?

Park offers some powerful clues in his writing. He advocates a new international relationship paradigm called the peace regime:
In a peace regime, differences are accepted and respected, domination is replaced by coordination, accommodation is favored over assimilation, and ultimately, dialogue is used as the only instrument for its creation. A peace regime requires a culture of diversity and relativism. We must have faith in dialogue and compromise. These norms are essential elements of democracy. One might ask: Can we and should we accommodate terrorist behavior in the name of harmony and accommodation? Certainly not! Terrorism should be allowed no room in a civilized world. However, our efforts to eliminate terrorism should never resort to the instrument of a security regime, i.e., physical coercion through military or economic sanction. In the post-Cold War era, neither has worked.
With all due respect to Park's PhD., this "peace regime" thing is obviously self-contradictory by his own description. "(D)ifferences are accepted and respected" (except terrorist behaviors!). "A peace regime requires a culture of diversity and relativism," though terrorists are just a little too diverse as well as being absolutely wrong--in a relative way, no doubt.

Park is incoherent in a way that it seems only highly paid liberal college professors can achieve.

One might ask, however, what does this have to do with the importance of his anecdote?

That is a good question, and I do not wish to overplay Park's nuttiness in addressing the issue. Even if the anecdote was reliably transmitted, so what? Our enemies are always going to seize on anything they can in order to justify their actions or improve their bargaining power. North Korea had established its own reputation for brutal treatment of prisoners long before the first terrorist detainee set foot in the relatively comfy confines of Gitmo.

Thus, the notion that the treatment of detainees at Gitmo puts prisoners in North Korea at greater risk is ridiculous on its face, even if it is patently predictable that other nations would make a special effort to remind the world of the supposed sins of the U.S. in justifying their own misdeeds.

But given Park's political outlook, there is reason for suspicion of his account simply because it serves his purposes to offer a report along these lines. Did MSNBC take any steps to corroborate Park's claim?

I doubt it.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Disinformation on waterboarding from The New York Times

In past entries on waterboarding I've demonstrated various ways in which the media, including The New York Times, have provided bad information.

Yesterday's edition provides yet another outstanding example of disinformative journalism from Brian Stelter. I do not see where the story is marked as "news analysis," but plainly it fails to qualify as news reporting in the legendary tradition of the Gray Lady.

It is instructive to note the Times' presentation of this story. Here is how the story links from a different page (online edition):

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How ’07 ABC Interview Tilted a Torture Debate

An official’s claim that waterboarding yielded quick results was widely repeated, but has now been discredited.

How ’07 ABC Interview Tilted a Torture Debate

blog it

The official's claim that waterboarding produced "quick results" has been discredited, supposedly.

Now on to the story and its headline.
How ’07 ABC Interview Tilted a Torture Debate
What type of objective data could ever justify that headline? I have no idea, other than the Times is reporting somebody's opinion about it without crediting that entity in the headline. In this case, the opinion seems to be that of the reporter/news analyst.
On Dec. 10, John Kiriakou, a former C.I.A. officer who had participated in the capture of the suspected terrorist Abu Zubaydah in Pakistan in 2002, appeared on ABC News to say that while he considered waterboarding a form of torture, the technique worked and yielded results very quickly.
Keep your eye on the pea. Kiriacou said that waterboarding yielded results "very quickly," and supposedly that is the claim that we will see discredited.
Mr. Zubaydah started to cooperate after being waterboarded for “probably 30, 35 seconds,” Mr. Kiriakou told the ABC reporter Brian Ross. “From that day on he answered every question.”
Keep your eye on the pea. If Zubaydah gave information within a day of being waterboarded for 30 to 35 seconds, then Kiriacou's claim that waterboarding worked quickly has good support. Whether that one instance of waterboarding continued "(f)rom that day on" is not a measure of how quickly it worked but a measure of the enduring effectiveness of that one session.
His claims — unverified at the time, but repeated by dozens of broadcasts, blogs and newspapers — have been sharply contradicted by a newly declassified Justice Department memo that said waterboarding had been used on Mr. Zubaydah “at least 83 times.”
If Zubaydah was waterboarded 83 times, then it contradicts the notion that he was waterboarded once and cooperated happily ever after. But do Kiriacou's claims that waterboarding worked quickly and resulted in actionable intelligence suffer at all? We have no evidence from Stelter to that effect.

But he presses that point nonetheless in his subsequent paragraph:
Some critics say that the now-discredited information shared by Mr. Kiriakou and other sources heightened the public perception of waterboarding as an effective interrogation technique.
In addition to the pea, let us keep our attention on what has actually been discredited (the notion that one waterboarding session led to enduring cooperation). Supposing that the discredited portions of Kiriacou's testimony did heighten public perception of the effectiveness of waterboarding (this news report has offered us no evidence that is the case except for the opinion of "some" anonymous "critics"). Of note, the remainder of the paragraph gives us a quotation from former Human Rights Watch lawyer John Sifton to the effect that Kiriacou's statements "sanitized" waterboarding.

Is the issue supposed to be the effectiveness or the harshness? Does somebody need to instruct the Times' writers and editors regarding the organization of information into appropriate groups?

After spending a few paragraphs on the historical context of Kiriacou's news appearances, Stelter apparently returns to the issue of discredited information from Kiriacou, but our pea remains out of view:
At the time, Mr. Kiriakou appeared to lend credibility to the prior press reports that quoted anonymous former government employees who had implied that waterboarding was used sparingly.
If only a handful of terrorist suspects were waterboarded, then that is using waterboarding sparingly. Minus quotations from or at least identification of the "prior press reports," we have little reason to trust that Stelter is not putting one over on us. Put nicely, his is not a compelling argument.

Stelter himself seems to lose track of the pea for a couple of paragraphs, one featuring a quotation about the "fiendishness" of the CIA, before providing another relevant tidbit about Kiraicou:
Mr. Kiriakou refused an interview request last week. In a statement to ABC, he said he was aware only of Mr. Zubaydah’s being waterboarded “on one occasion.”
As noted above, the number of times waterboarding was performed is irrelevant to how quickly it works, unless it is alleged that it resulted in no useful information until after it had been used many times and presumably over a longer period of time. Stelter has the pea under the shells, and they're moving briskly over the course of his story.

Oh, and about that "sparingly" thing--Stelter gets back to that in paragraph 17:
Paul Gimigliano, a C.I.A. spokesman, said: “This agency did not publicly disclose the frequency with which the waterboard was used, noting only that it was employed with three detainees. If reporters got that wrong, they weren’t misled from here.”
Good point, Gimigliano.

But Stelter is back to discredited claims, albeit he seems to have lost track of which claims were discredited and which have not:

In the days after Mr. Kiriakou’s media blitz, his claims were repeated by an array of other outlets. For instance, the Fox News anchor Chris Wallace cited the 35 seconds claim to ask a congressman whether the interrogation program was “really so bad.”Months later the claims continued to be amplified; the National Review editor Jonah Goldberg used Mr. Kiriakou’s assertions in a column last year to argue that the waterboarding was “right and certainly defensible.”

Are we supposed to conclude that if Zubaydah was waterboarded on over 80 occasions then it is irrelevant how long each session lasted?

Mark Danner, a journalist who has written extensively about the covert program for The New York Review of Books, said the news reports had fed the idea that brutal interrogations could instantly glean information about terrorist plans.
And Danner may well be right. But was he talking about mere collection of information that may or may not be reliable information, or was he talking about instant access to reliable information? The latter would very probably represent a poor understanding of the process. The former does not appear to have been brought to serious doubt. Stelter fails his duty as a reporter by leaving the issue unclear.
“There was a completely mistaken impression put about that this technique was not cruel because it could break detainees so quickly,” (Danner) said.
That impression certainly did not come from Kiriacou, who stated plainly that he felt waterboarding was torture. The examples Stelter provides from media reports through this point of the story concern not whether the technique was cruel but whether it was effective and whether or not it should be legal. After all, even the U.S. Constitution bars only "cruel and unusual" punishment. Cruel may be Constitutional and legal.

The rest of the story meanders around various opinions of waterboarding. In effect, Stelter has lost track of his own pea.

That's OK. I was paying attention on his behalf.

The story provides reasonable evidence that some information implied in Kiriacou's testimony was misleading. That is, that one session of waterboarding produced enduring cooperation from the detainee in question.

The "pea," the idea that waterboarding produced quick results and actionable intelligence, was never addressed in the story except obliquely and unconvincingly.

Likewise, the notion that that the Kiriacou interviews "tilted" the debate in some significant way is not established in anything akin to the sense we might expect in a news story. Instead, we get a generalized paraphrase of anonymous sources and the statement from one activist expressing that opinion without any objective data in support.

All in all, an excellent excuse to once again use the tag "journalists reporting badly."

Monday, April 27, 2009

Were you there when they crucified the lord?

I think I know what the artist was getting at with his painting.

Obama pulls back the curtain on the misdeeds of the White House (read: Bush).

The crown of thorns and outstretched arms evocative of Christ? The artist doesn't see Obama as any messiah. He's just saying that the Right will crucify the innocent Lamb of Government.
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Saturday, April 25, 2009

Grading PolitiFact: Obama and the Venezuelan threat (Updated)

It is unbecoming for a fact check operation to do more floundering than Mrs. Paul's and Gorton's combined. But such is the case with PolitiFact, jointly staffed by The St. Petersburg Times and Congressional Quarterly (see Update, below).

The latest journalistic snafu involved President Obama's actions at the Summit of the Americas.

Fact-checking the Fact checkers

The issue:

During a press conference, Barack Obama was asked about his chummy treatment of U.S. critic and Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez. Obama responded that Venezuela's military budget was considerably smaller than that of the U.S. and that he didn't think his behavior with Chavez jeopardized U.S. interests.

The statement, with abundant context along with some added bold emphasis:

Q During the campaign you were criticized by some within your own party for perhaps not being able to be tough on foreign policy matters. Now you've had this friendly interaction with Mr. Chavez. Are you concerned at all about how this might be perceived back in the U.S. as perhaps being soft? Already one senator is calling this friendly interaction irresponsible. And as a quick follow-up, if I may, when you got the book from Mr. Chavez, what did you really think? (Laughter.)

THE PRESIDENT: I think it was a nice gesture to give me a book; I'm a reader. And you're right, we had this debate throughout the campaign, and the whole notion was, is that somehow if we showed courtesy or opened up dialogue with governments that had previously been hostile to us, that that somehow would be a sign of weakness. The American people didn't buy it. And there's a good reason the American people didn't buy it -- because it doesn't make sense.

You take a country like Venezuela -- I have great differences with Hugo Chavez on matters of economic policy and matters of foreign policy. His rhetoric directed at the United States has been inflammatory. There have been instances in which we've seen Venezuela interfere with some of the -- some of the countries that surround Venezuela in ways that I think are a source of concern.

On the other hand, Venezuela is a country whose defense budget is probably 1/600th of the United States'. They own Citgo. It's unlikely that as a consequence of me shaking hands or having a polite conversation with Mr. Chavez that we are endangering the strategic interests of the United States. I don't think anybody can find any evidence that that would do so. Even within this imaginative crowd, I think you would be hard-pressed to paint a scenario in which U.S. interests would be damaged as a consequence of us having a more constructive relationship with Venezuela.

So if the question, Dan, is, how does this play politically, I don't know. One of the benefits of my campaign and how I've been trying to operate as President is I don't worry about the politics -- I try to figure out what's right in terms of American interests, and on this one I think I'm right.


The fact checkers:

Robert Farley (writer)
Angie Drobnic Holan (researcher)
Bill Adair (editor)


Once again, we have an initial mystery as to why this statement is worthy of fact-checking at all. As with Rush Limbaugh's statement about Washington's speeches and Obama's comparison between lightning strike and prosecution of companies that hire illegals, this seems like a case of exaggeration for emphasis, also known as hyperbole.

For some reason, however, the issue piqued interest at PolitiFact:
Chavez has significantly increased the Venezuelan defense budget in recent years, and so we wondered about the 1/600th figure.
The Venezuelan military buildup explains skepticism about the literal numbers, but it doesn't do much to explain why normal figures of speech get treated as factual claims without any apparent recognition of those figures of speech.

To make the 10 paragraph story short, Venezuela's defense budget is "about 1/215th" the size of the U.S. defense budget. So the literal statement is incorrect. In the earlier cases of hyperbole, this resulted in the statement receiving the Truth-O-Meter rating of "False."

But not this time.

Once again, PolitiFact plays its shell game with the literal meaning and what they take as the overall point:
So, yes, Obama's numbers were a little off. We're not going to ding him too hard for that, though, as his overall point is correct.

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Mostly True

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And what was that overall point, again? My best guess suggests the answer comes from the second paragraph:
In a press conference after the summit, on April 19, 2009, Obama dismissed those critics, saying the Venezuelan military is not consequential enough to worry about.
If that was Obama's real point then he is an idiot. Think about it. How much is the Taliban paying for its military hardware? How much cash did AQI spend during the pre-surge dark period of the Iraq War? Expense is no good measure of the threat posed by a military branch. And, as the PolitiFact analysis should have shown, Venezuela's actions on the military front do make it a threat to U.S. interests in South America. Venezuela might have little difficulty making a puppet out of Bolivia or of helping to destabilize our allies in Colombia.

Bottom line, there are no aspects of Obama's statement amenable to normal fact checking. The real point of his statement concerned the importance of his appearance of offering weak responses to our enemies abroad. Obama essentially stated that he is not concerned about the political appearances of making nice with Hugo Chavez. But apparently he only meant the domestic political scene, because a very good argument can be made that the appearance of weakness such as Obama offered at the Summit of the Americas can produce adverse political consequences. The easiest example probably comes from President Kennedy's meeting with Nikita Khrushchev in 1961.

The two leaders met at the beginning of June. There was no clear agenda. On the first day they spoke about the world in general and about issues of war, peace. and revolution, failing to connect on almost any level. A Russian his­torian has written that Khrushchev had then "the complete confidence of a man riding on the crest of history." Kennedy was astonished at how strongly the Soviet leader came at him. At the end of the first day, aides of Khrushchev asked his opinion of Kennedy as a statesman. Khrushchev waved his hand dismissively, saying that Kennedy was no match for Eisenhower.
(Richard L. Langhill, Saint Martin's College)
Many political scientists and historians link the Vienna meeting to Khrushchev's subsequent provocation of placing Soviet missiles in Cuba.

Certainly Chavez does not have Khrushchev's resources at his disposal, but if the new millenium has taught us anything it is the threat posed by asymmetrical warfare. Obama's response to the question from CNN was as weak as his performance at the Summit of the Americas--and the world was watching both.

The Grades:

With precious little fact checking to assess, I can really only grade the team on its choice of subject matter.

Robert Farley: F
Angie Drobnic Holan: F
Bill Adair: F

I assume that Adair controlled the decision to publish this nonsense. The weight of the grade for the others, under that assumption, is negligible.


The PolitiFact site says that CQ staffers helped during the 2008 presidential campaign. That would make Times staffers solely responsible for content until CQ folks start to help out again.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Looking forward to a new "Legend of the Left"

My spider sense is tingling with respect to newspaper reports about the DOJ enhanced interrogation timeline.

The new timeline shows that Rice played a greater role than she admitted last fall in written testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee.
(, via the AP)

I haven't had any success finding the written testimony Rice gave to the Senate Armed Services Committee--the testimony that supposedly doesn't agree with Attorney General Eric Holder's account.

I'd like to see more cards on the table with respect to this story. I trust Rice over Holder and I trust the press hardly at all.

This whole situation is likely to cause more Legends of the Left such as the belief that comments from the Bush administration increased the percentage of people who felt that Iraq and Saddam Hussein were involved in the 9-11 attacks. And the national press will be largely at fault.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Belated minor rant on Lowry Park Zoo (Updated)

During a trip to Lowry Park Zoo earlier this year, I enjoyed a sightseeing tour of the Hillsborough River.

It was a blast, and was generally fun and informative.

However, one botched factoid has gently gnawed at me ever since.

The tour guide mentioned the American crocodile and its supposedly aggressive nature compared to the American alligator.

But that is just wrong. Growing up in Florida, I made it my business to learn something about Florida wildlife. That included the American crocodile, and every bit of reading I remember on the subject called the creature shy, reclusive, and generally non-aggressive toward humans.

Michael Cherkiss, a wildlife biologist with the University of Florida, says the crocs were listed as endangered in 1975.

"In the past two years, due to their recovery of several hundred animals now to approximately 1,500 to 2,000, they've been down-listed to threatened," he said.

Their recovery is partly because they've found a prime habitat and breeding area at the Turkey Point nuclear plant in the state's south - a spot with plenty of water and few humans.

Mr Cherkiss says Florida is the only place where crocodiles and alligators live in the same location.

But he says the American crocodile isn't as dangerous as its Australian cousin.

"The American crocodile doesn't get anywhere near as big as the salties. They are much smaller. Sort of a large crocodile is probably 14, 15 feet and that is a rare occurrence," he said.

"American crocodiles, also are called the sweetheart of the crocodiles. They are very shy and timid and they are not very aggressive towards people at all.

(ABC Australia)

A Massachusetts news source failed to even find a documented attack on a human by an American crocodile:
American crocodiles have never made a documented attack on a human in the U.S. Here, it's domestic pets that more often become crocodile food.
More often than never, that is.


Apparently some attacks have been documented in Mexico and elsewhere. It remains that the information given during the tour was incorrect. And my statement about the story was incorrect as well, since the story stipulated "in the U.S."

The Weekly Standard calls PolitiFact on another faulty entry

Working at this blog part time as I do, I allow plenty of opportunities for commentary to slide.

A recent PolitiFact entry about the economic impact of the cap and trade carbon tax raised red flags for me, but I realized that my incomplete grasp of the economics involved would make it hard for me to evaluate the PolitiFact analysis without a disproportionate time investment.

So the biggest of hat tips to the good folks at The Weekly Standard, who kept after the expert source used by PolitiFact and undermined the foundation for their Truth-O-Meter rating ("Pants on Fire").

The explanation is sufficiently technical so that I suggest reading the account at the Standard. But the response from representatives of PolitiFact is worth quoting and noting.

After corresponding with Reilly, I contacted Politifact's reporter Alexander Lane and editor Bill Adair to ask if they would correct their report that the GOP's estimate of cap and trade's cost is a "pants on fire" falsehood.

Lane wrote in an email: "The detail of my piece that you think needs correcting seems to be in flux...". The "detail" to which he referred was Reilly's admission that the real cost per household would be $800--not $215 per household as Politifact originally reported.

The story goes on to recount other instances of apparent carelessness in the PolitiFact entry, then reports another exchange with PolitiFact:
When I asked Bill Adair over the phone last week if Politifact would correct its report, he didn't answer the question and ended our conversation by saying: "You're getting me at a really bad time. I would love to talk about this any time tomorrow." Adair did not reply to further inquiries.
Of course not. He was probably busy editing more shoddy fact-checking and preparing for the Pulitzer Prize party.

M-ATV contracts coming in late April

Crain's reports that Navistar's protest delayed the M-ATV contract decision(s), originally due this week. Contracts are expected by the end of the month.

I don't have a favorite, but I see the Force Protection Cheetah as a long shot because the the company's difficulty in competing for contracts now that bigger companies are competing seriously for these contracts.

Though I suppose Oshkosh hasn't exactly covered itself with glory in the various MRAP competitions, either.

OK, I suppose I do have a favorite. It would surprise me the least if the BAE M-ATV (the Valanx lookalike) won the competition.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The "I Can't Wait" department (Updated)

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Please visit the St. Petersburg Times' PolitiFact page for Prizewinning stories. Winning stories will be posted here when available.

PolitiFact received a Pulitzer Prize in 2009 for the category of national reporting.

If evidence apart from Katie Couric's Pulitzer were needed that the prize has acquired MOL the meaning of a Grammy Award (the judges like you!), perhaps this award to PolitiFact cements the case. Right now it's a bit hard to tell, because it isn't clear what content the awarding jury used as its criteria for judgment. I have located abundant examples of shockingly poor journalism from PolitiFact, but that is not to say that a good number of its entries were not good examples of journalism.

The link provided at back to the Times' Web site does not appear to have any specifically indentified "Prizewinning stories."

I look forward to seeing the winning stories posted at


Oct 14, 2009: Lo and behold, the prize-winning stories are now identified!

Monday, April 20, 2009

NYT able to reveal that science confirms that human life does not begin at conception

A hat tip to the CFI forum for bringing a New York Times story about New York's new Roman Catholic archbishop to my attention.

I was dumbfounded by the following statement from the story:
He did not refer to it, but there is conflict between Catholic dogma and scientific conventions on several fronts, including the medical definition of brain death, the legal definition of the beginning of human life and the ethics of embryonic stem cell research.
Apparently the graph was supposed to invoke our trust in science in opposition to Roman Catholic doctrines.

Though that may work with some, the statement actually just makes the writer and editor look stupid.

Science agrees with Roman Catholic doctrine regarding the beginning of human life, and both probably conflict with the legal definition. The legal definition, when it comes down to it, will be an ethical construct, and science does not inform us regarding ethics or morality except with respect to descriptive norms. That is, it can tell us what people regard as moral but not whether or not their beliefs about morality are correct.

The same goes for the ethics of embryonic stem cell research. The ethics of stem cell research do not stem from science.

Now, the brain-death issue I wasn't sure about at first. I hadn't read about the Vatican's stance on that one. But upon looking into it, it seems that the Roman Catholic concern conflicts not at all with science but simply takes note of potential ethical dilemmas such as the harvesting of organs from living bodies that have experienced brain death.

Perhaps there is some critical distinction between science per se and "scientific convention" where the latter simply represents the behavior of scientists.

Performing dangerous experiments on living human beings, for example, is not forbidden by science. Science could learn quite a bit from human experimentation, as a matter of fact. And it has been done in the past, thus representiing "scientific convention" at certain times and locations, at least.

But why belabor the point? The Times was simply stupid to allow such ignorance to go to print.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

The SPT bemoans "affront to voters"

A bylineless editorial from The St. Petersburg Times this week criticized GOP lawmakers in Florida for making certain types of personal identification unsuitable for confirming one's identity at the polls and for moving to make public referendum more difficult.

Those moves were supposedly an "affront to voters."

The editorial is an affront to readers of the newspaper, unless they happen to possess the type of ideological bias that might qualify them for a place on the editorial board.

It is not an affront to voters to require identification. Yes, it arguably shrinks the number of votes for Democrats. It affects primarily those who take their voting rights so lightly that they don't bother to obtain legally required identification. It also affects those who might not be eligible to vote. Responsible voters from either party should not expend too much worry over an affront to those who either place little value on their voting rights or lack voting rights altogether.

The Times' statement on the power of referendum was so priceless that I half expect it to turn up in a credit card advertisement:
The bill would make it harder for a citizens' referendum to reach the ballot and easier for elected officials to keep one off.
Why is it bad to make it harder for a citizens' referendum to reach the ballot? Our anonymous editor doesn't say. And who should decide whether a citizens' referendum ought to reach the ballot? If the decision is based on the law, then elected officials effectively decide which referenda make the ballot and which do not. The end effect is a step backward from direct democracy, a system the framers of our federal Constitution found abhorrent for its vulnerability to mob influence, and an affirmation of representative government. The latter, coincidentally, was the form of government the framers explicitly advocated.

The Republican form of government? An affront to voters in the eyes of the Times.

Anybody with me in getting a referendum on the ballot to liquidate the Times? Perhaps it would make an effective point with the editors of that port-listing publication.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Grading PolitiFact: Bilirakis & the DHS "Rightwing Extremism" report

Fact-checking the Fact checkers

The issue:

Rep. Gus Bilirakis issued a press release offering comment on the recent "Rightwing Extremism" report from the Department of Homeland Security:
I am disturbed and personally offended by the Department of Homeland Security’s view that returning military veterans and gun owners are likely to commit terrorist acts.

“Federal homeland security officials should focus on specific, verifiable, and actionable intelligence to stop potential terrorist threats to our country. Instead the Department is engaging in political and ideological profiling of people who fought to keep our country safe from terrorism, uphold our nation’s immigration laws, and protect our Constitutional right to keep and bear arms. It troubles me that the Department has specifically avoided talking about foreign terrorism but seems more than willing to insult our nation’s heroes returning from battle.

“As Ranking Member of the Homeland Security Committee’s Subcommittee on Management, Investigations, and Oversight, I will work to ensure that the Department aggressively pursues all appropriate efforts to stop terrorism here at home, regardless of what political or ideological beliefs individuals may hold.”
(, bold emphasis added)
Did Bilirakis accurately represent the views of the Department of Homeland Security? Or at least the contents of the report?

The fact checkers:
  • Angie Drobnic Holan (writer, researcher)
  • Bill Adair (editor)

Drobnic starts her evaluation of Bilirakis' claim with opinion-laden background:
Conservative groups have been sounding an alarm about a leaked report from the Department of Homeland Security they say portrays veterans and gun owners as likely terrorists.
I keep track of conservative buzz, and the buzz surrounding the DHS report was much broader than any emphasis on veterans and gun owners. The report also suggests that various conservative ideological positions are worthy of being monitored by the authorities. The gun ownership and veteran issues were simply two good examples of the ham-handedness of the report. The "alarm" was primarily criticism of what seems at first blush to be a political document coming from the DHS.

So what about those veterans and gun-owners?
The report was not supposed to be publicly available ("No portion . . . should be released to the media, the general public or over non-secure Internet servers"). But somehow, it got released and is now widely available on the Web. (Read it for yourself here.)
This information seems irrelevant. NSA surveillance methods were leaked even though the information was classified. It wasn't relevant to criticisms of those methods whether or not people were supposed to know about it. The DHS report was not classified. Right at the top of the document it says "Unclassified//For Official Use Only"). Perhaps the reader is supposed to be suspicious of the whole episode since the information was leaked. Drobnic would know for sure.

Drobnic then spends six paragraphs highlighting the portions of the report she found relevant to the conservative complaint cited earlier.

After that, she takes three paragraphs to deal with a side issue, which I will take up after assigning grades.

Eight more paragraphs primarily offered readers the view of Janet Napolitano, Obama's DHS secretary.

After all the to-do, Drobnic dumps on us the following conclusion:
This brings us back to Bilirakis' claim that DHS thinks that "returning military veterans and gun owners are likely to commit terrorist acts." This is a distortion of what the report actually said. The report said that rightwing extremists would try to recruit veterans, and that they would try to use gun control legislation as a "radicalization" tool. That's very different. We rate his statement Barely True.
Drobnic may have somehow overlooked the summary section of the report; certainly there is no mention in her work of the portion of the report ("key findings:") most consonant with Bilirakis' description:
(U//FOUO) The possible passage of new restrictions on firearms and the return of military veterans facing significant challenges reintegrating into their communities could lead to the potential emergence of terrorist groups or lone wolf extremists capable of carrying out violent attacks.
(Rightwing Extremism: Current Economic and Political Climate Fueling Resurgence in Radicalization and Recruitment)
If the above is not a statement ascribing an increased probability of terrorist organization by gun owners and military veterans (those facing "significant challenges," anyway), then the statement is effectively meaningless. We might as well say that the onset of the autumn season could lead devotees of the art of pumpkin-carving to form terrorist groups or turn into lone wolf extremists capable of carrying out violent acts. As if pumpkin carving isn't violent enough already.

Now that the reader is familiar with the key part of the report omitted by Drobnic, let us go through the steps she should have taken in evaluating Bilirakis' statement.

First, we evaluate the statement itself in terms of authorial intent, and then in terms of plausible reader interpretation. Bilirakis' words lend themselves primarily to two differing interpretations.

1) The DHS report suggests that veterans/gun owners generally are probabilistically likely (greater than 50 percent) to perform terrorist acts.
2) The DHS report suggests that veterans/gun owners generally are more likely than those in the general population to perform terrorist acts.

The first understanding is absurd on its face. Nobody would expect that roughly half or more of U.S. military veterans would engage in terrorist activity. Neither is it reasonable to see that as Bilirakis' intent.

The latter interpretation (2) is likely, and as noted above it is the apparent meaning of the "key findings" portion of the report. Drobnic does perform a valuable service in directing attention to the portion of the report that ought to have supported the key finding, but in this case it happens that the key finding remains unsupported. The supposition that gun owners and veterans facing challenges would serve as potential recruits to the point of justifying the key finding is just that: a supposition.

Contrary to Drobnic's conclusion, Bilirakis does have specific justification from the document for his statement. He can't be fairly ruled worse than "Mostly True," for it is not his fault that the DHS report mismatches its key findings with its supporting evidence.

Another disgraceful performance by PolitiFact.

The Grades:

Angie Drobnic Holan: F
Bill Adair: F


Drobnic made additional mistakes outside the stated focus of the PolitiFact entry.

The first error was relatively subtle:
The report was not supposed to be publicly available ("No portion . . . should be released to the media, the general public or over non-secure Internet servers").
There were two types of information in the report. One type was "For Office Use Only," where those portions were tagged with "FOUO." The second category of information was "Law Enforcement Sensitive" information, duly tagged with "LES."

Drobnic was correct in stating that the report was not supposed to be pubicly available, but offered a quotation taken inappropriately out of context in support of the claim. The statement she quoted did not apply to the portion of the report most relevant to the Bilirakis press release. That was tagged with "FOUO," not "LES."

The second error concerned the supposedly mitigating existence of a DHS report on left wing extremism:

Countering claims that the DHS is targeting conservatives is the fact that the department issued a similar report on leftwing groups a few months previously.

"Leftwing Extremists Likely to Increase Use of Cyber Attacks over the Coming Decade," issued Jan. 26, 2009 (six days after Obama took office), said leftwing extremists include "radical elements of the anarchist, animal rights, or environmental movements" who are "willing to violate the law to achieve their objectives."

First, even if the DHS was specifically targeting leftwing extremists, it would not effectively counter the claim that the report in question targets conservatives. It is not as though targeting one is antithetical to targeting the other.

Second, the reports differ markedly in tenor. The report on leftwing extremism bases its claims on evidence rather than supposition, and deals particularly with one aspect of leftwing extremism as per the title: "Leftwing Extremists Likely to Increase Use of Cyber Attacks over the Coming Decade." The descriptions impugn those associated with those groups rather than casting suspicion on a mass group of people supposedly ripe for recruitment by extremists.

The report on leftwing extremists carries the same warnings against public release as the one about rightwing extremism. It is a wonder that Drobnic neglected to mention it in the former case. In short, the report on leftwing extremism does little if anything to mitigate the content of the report that Bilirakis condemned.

April 20, 2009: "Gus" Bilirakis, not Michael Bilirakis. The latter no longer serves in Congress.
April 21, 2009: Corrected for AP style on a few points

Friday, April 17, 2009

Link to Justice Department memos on interrogation techniques

The link goes to The New York Times and a hat tip goes to Power Line.

Though it is a bad idea to reveal interrogation techniques, the documents may prove useful in exposing the hysteria of some of the criticisms of Bush administration policy. An example follows.

The linked document offers a description of waterboarding. To no surprise on my part, the description in the memo differs from the ones Judge Evan Wallach used in his oft-cited legal criticism ("Drop by Drop: Forgetting The History of Water Torture in U.S. Courts") of the technique:
One investigator describes water-boarding as a technique "in which a prisoner is stripped, shackled and submerged in water until he begins to lose consciousness." Another current source says that in water-boarding "a prisoner is strapped down, forcibly pushed under water and made to believe he might drown." The similarity is startling, given the opprobrium occasioned by its application to American military personnel. Furthermore, it is striking because, as discussed at length below, it bears a stark resemblance to conduct by American troops in the Philippine insurgency following the Spanish-American War, just over a hundred years ago.
The similarity, it turns out, is startling because it doesn't exist as described.

Incidentally, the two citations Wallach used for his descriptions of waterboarding both came from stories in The New York Times.

Will we see a correction?

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Pentagon amends M-ATV solicitation--answer to Navistar objection?

InsideDefense reports (subscription only!) that the M-ATV solicitation has been amended to more specifically define "hull breach."

This, of course, will fuel speculation that the amendment follows from Navistar's recent protest of the M-ATV competition.

Consider this post part of the vanguard of that speculation. I don't know if the InsideDefense report makes the connection, by the way.

Are Obama and Gore killing the auto industry?

American auto makers have plenty of problems. Bad labor agreements, dodgy consumer credit and economic uncertainty have no doubt contributed in their own ways to weak auto sales.

I suggest one more factor: Hope 'n Change in the era of global warming.

"But wait a second," you're thinking. "Hope and Change are going to make the auto companies successful."

Yeah, right. Hear me out.

We're going to build our economy on a new foundation. We'll turn to alternative energy sources.

Anybody see that in the current crop of automobiles?

Well, there's the hybrid ... but it's now pretty much common knowledge that hybrid technology isn't really the answer as things now stand. Hybrids are a bit like projection televisions. They offer a certain advantage (marginally better gas mileage for hybrids, larger screen size for projection televisions), but they both represent transitional technologies. A few years after big screen projection televisions hit the market nobody wanted them any longer because they're bulkier and offer an inferior picture compared to plasma and LCD machines.

And hybrids cost. People do not want to pay out the nose to drive the equivalent of next year's projection television. They don't.

Compounding the problem for auto makers, people don't want to buy non-hybrids either. Neither type of vehicle appears to fit the vision of the near-to-distant future. Popular culture has set our expectations to the point where we regard the traditional automobile as dinosaur-in-waiting.

If my analysis is on track, auto sales are now driven by those blindly seeing green (those who haven't caught on that hybrids aren't the answer and won't save them money) and those who just happen to need a new car and who won't buy used. I can imagine that some retirees won't care whether their next car fits the vision of the future since the future for them is now, in effect.

A climate that allows for traditional (that is, relatively inexpensive) internal combustion engine cars to fit the vision of the future will enable auto makers to sell cars.

It's almost that simple.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Navistar withdraws M-ATV protest

So reports The Wall Street Journal via Dow Jones newswires.

The story says that Navistar stock jumped when the news hit. That pretty much completes a demonstration of the way Wall Street reacts to rumors and incomplete information.

Supposedly the objection addressed a technicality, and Navistar worked it out with the Pentagon without making any details public.

If Navistar's stock rose above its pre-protest baseline, I can think of one reason why, all else being equal.

Supposing capable management, Navistar took a risk in protesting the selection process. They would presumably know that stock would take a hit. That risk makes sense if the resolved technicality offers a measurable advantage to the Navistar bid.

Then again, as somebody once said, where stupidity is the simplest explanation for risky behavior, stick with it.

Grading PolitiFact: Limbaugh and the Hyperbole Police

clipped from

The Truth-O-Meter Says:


"You can't read a speech by George Washington . . . without hearing him reference God, the Almighty."

Rush Limbaugh on Wednesday, April 8th, 2009 in a radio broadcast

blog it

When I first offered my general critique of PolitiFact, the fact-checking operation run by The St. Petersburg Times with Congressional Quarterly, I lambasted them along non-partisan lines for rating Barack Obama (not president at the time) "False" regarding a fairly obvious case of hyperbole.

PolitiFact has resumed its role as the Hyperbole Police
by attacking a recent statement by Rush Limbaugh as "False."

Here's what Limbaugh said:
Now, you've got people who want to conform and not cause any ripples, "Oh, yeah, yeah, we're not a Christian nation, Judeo-Christian ethic, we are a lot of different religions here. We're bound by our common values." You can't read a speech by George Washington, you can't read his inaugural address, you cannot read them without hearing him reference God, the Almighty, and how this nation owes its existence to God and our thanks to God for the vision in founding this nation with people treated as he made them, the yearning spirit to be free and so forth. There has been a constant attack since to disabuse people of the notion that this nation has a religious founding and from that religion springs morality and our basic understanding of where freedom comes from. It's got religious roots and people are threatened by religious roots because they're threatened by religious people.
Now let's look at the Hyperbole Police Report:
To see whether you indeed "can't read a speech by George Washington" without seeing a reference to God, we checked Washington's most noteworthy speeches, starting with his two inaugural addresses, since Limbaugh mentioned those specifically.
This is simply unworthy of being called fact-checking.

First, Limbaugh's statement was obvious hyperbole. Second, he did not limit his statement to references to God. Third, Washington's second inaugural address was only "noteworthy" for its extreme brevity (check the afterword at the end of this post). Fourth, Limbaugh did not mention a plurality of inaugural addresses. In the latter case, charitable reading suggests that the more relevant inaugural address be taken as the speaker's subject.
So clearly Limbaugh was wrong that you can't read a Washington speech without seeing a reference to God.
Right, just like Barack Obama was "wrong" that law enforcement against employers who hire illegals was less likely than a lightning strike. Sheesh.

This piece by Alexander Lane (edited by Bill Adair) continues the PolitiFact tradition of flip-flopping the emphasis on a statement's wooden-literal meaning as opposed to its intended meaning in context. Fact-checking worthy of the name takes the author's intent to heart as well as the message the audience is likely to receive.

Lane did not stop with grading hyperbole false, however. He blathered on to the point of finding another straw man to topple:
It's also worth noting, given Limbaugh's larger point that Washington's religious views support the idea that the U.S. is a Christian nation, that Washington was hardly a devout Christian.
Don't let the above fool you. Lane isn't interested in Limbaugh's underlying argument, which dealt with the relationship between religion and indvidual rights. Whether Washington was devout or not doesn't touch Limbaugh's real point. Lane takes PolitiFact readers for a ride, trying to sell the notion that Washington was a Deist. As one of his key evidences, Lane quotes retired professor John Ferling on the founding fathers:
"They thought in terms of there being a Supreme Creator who created life and the universe but then didn't intrude in things from that point on."
Ferling's words hint at a blind spot in his knowledge of religion, or at least logic. The statements of the supposedly deistic founding fathers, including those of Washington, often appeal to the Creator for continued protection. Does that make any sense to ask of a hands-off deity? Ferling appears to be one of those who project a modern flavor of deism back on the founding fathers. Yes, they emphasized morality, and they often sustained doubts about the divinity of Christ. But the point, from Limbaugh's point of view, was on the agreed basis for the individual rights: the hand of the Creator.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
(Declaration of Independence)
Instead of seeing Limbaugh's point about the role of government in protecting individual rights on the basis of religious presuppositions, Lane takes the moon-gravity leap to the idea that Limbaugh was claiming that Washington was quite the Christian. No kidding.
So Washington wasn't nearly the devout Christian that Limbaugh suggested he was and he did not refer to God in all his speeches as the talk show host claimed. We find Limbaugh's claim is False.
What a blinkin' waste of time. Limbaugh did not at all sugggest that Washington was a devout Christian.

Lane's grade: F
Adair's grade: F


Better late than never with the afterword.

Was Washington's second inaugural speech "noteworthy"? Was it significant that he neglected to mention God or related issues in that speech? As noted in the preceding reply to PolitiFact, the speech was notable primarily for shortness. And that is easy to prove by simply including the entire speech in the afterword:

FELLOW-CITIZENS: I am again called upon by the voice of my country to execute the functions of its Chief Magistrate. When the occasion proper for it shall arrive, I shall endeavor to express the high sense I entertain of this distinguished honor, and of the confidence which has been reposed in me by the people of united America.

Previous to the execution of any official act of the President the Constitution requires an oath of office. This oath I am now about to take, and in your presence: That if it shall be found during my administration of the Government I have in any instance violated willingly or knowingly the injunctions thereof, I may (beside incurring constitutional punishment) be subject to the upbraidings of all who are now witnesses of the present solemn ceremony.


Beyond simply proving that the speech was spectacularly short, I wanted to emphasize the apparent reason why Washington kept it brief. In his own words, from the above:
When the occasion proper for it shall arrive, I shall endeavor to express the high sense I entertain of this distinguished honor, and of the confidence which has been reposed in me by the people of united America.
Washington had apparently decided that his inauguration was not the right time for a self-indulgent speech. I would hazard a guess that Washington's words here prefigure his farewell address, as it is well known that he served with reluctance while also realizing that he was the right man for the job.

It is worth noting that the farewell address contains much of the material that Rush Limbaugh suggested was commonplace in Washington's speeches.

April 21, 2009: Updated with complete title and afterword
April 22, 2009: Supplied a previously omitted "the"

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Navistar protests M-ATV competition

Navistar International has apparently staged a protest of the M-ATV (all-terrain MRAP) competition. The grounds of the context remain unclear since Navistar successfully made it to the second round of that competition.
Navistar filed a protest of the contest with the U.S. Government Accountability Office on March 30, Michael Golden, the GAO's managing associate general counsel for procurement law, said in an interview today. The contest was under way at the time, and a GAO decision on the matter is due by July 8, he said.

Roy Wiley, spokesman for Navistar, confirmed the protest and declined to specify its legal basis because "the matter is under review."

(The Daily Herald)

Navistar's stock dropped on the announcement, according to the story. That makes sense, for one is not likely to protest a competition that one is winning handily.