A gun is to shoot, and in Florida, “the rules are different here”

Some devices send out mysterious compelling signals to our brains, demanding to be used.  A toothbrush and a vacuum cleaner, not so much. But as my friend Andy Lippman observed, a TV “needs watching”.  Frodo’s ring wanted to be worn, and a gun wants to be fired at something.  There are guns and guns, and I’ve played with a fair variety of them.  A few fairly specialized types are for punching holes in paper, and others are used to break up clay ashtrays in midair, but nearly all guns are for killing animals.  Among these, some are specialized for killing people-type animals, and almost all handguns are for killing people from fairly close up; they aren’t very accurate, and it doesn’t take a powerful cartridge to register on a target.

The psychology of people who own handguns and never get to use them as they are designed to function, which is nearly all people who own handguns, is sort of a mystery to me.  If I could only clean my kitchen stove but never cooked anything to eat on it, or endlessly fixed and fussed with my car but never drove it anywhere, I think I would be deeply frustrated, but go figure.

In Florida, and IIRC some other states, the law has recently been changed to ameliorate this frustration.  In Florida you may kill anyone who’s not in an iron lung machine, or comatose, at will, as long as you do it with no-one else around and you are willing to say you were scared of your victim at the time.  Really. You can probably shoot him in the back if you say you thought he was going for a piece tucked in his belt.  Trayvon Martin was armed with Skittles, (which, to be fair, can kill you from diabetes), and George Zimmerman, who apparently spent night after night out and about with his 9mm burning a hole in his pocket, finally got to use it for what it’s supposed to do.  I’m aware of no statement of regret from Zimmerman, and it appears that he’s in good shape legally, at least for now.

I wonder how long until his piece starts asking to be fired at someone again; he still has it, so his fellow citizens are obviously down with how he’s prone to use it.  It’s important to know your friends and neighbors have your back.

Or how many more Floridians, on his good example, will start letting their Glocks and Berettas off the leash when they get a little antsy on a deserted street.



Cell phones and driving; some science ignorance that kills

Keith says he not only doesn’t use his cell phone when driving (CWD), but doesn’t talk to people when they are driving.  Good for Keith, and the NTSB, which has recommended a flat ban on using cell phones while driving, hands-free or not. Our designated ‘conservative’ columnist, Debra Saunders, weighs in with one of her typically muddled attempts to turn conservatism into less government across the board, mixes up what’s really dangerous about driving while on the phone, and confuses “not CWD” with “outlawing CWD”. She did get me to find the HLDI study from two years ago that found an accident reduction effect in states that outlawed CWD but with low statistical significance, a result she upends into “[the study] found hands-free laws did not reduce the number of car crashes in California, New York, Washington, D.C., and Connecticut.”

This is actually quite an interesting issue with superficially counterintuitive facts.  It’s not especially dangerous for a driver to chat with a passenger in a car, or to listen to the radio, or even to eat a sandwich with one hand (OK, maybe a slippery drooling Carl’s Jr. premium burger).  It’s obviously dangerous to be looking at a cellphone and texting or even dialing it (why do we still say dial such a device, and why is a circle with ten circles inscribed in it still an ideogram for a phone? but I digress) but dialing a handheld phone only takes a short time compared to the conversation, so it can’t be too important overall.

Indeed, the danger comes from the conversation, and a hands-free phone makes almost no difference. The distraction of a phone for a driver is in fact the same as the distraction from a pet or a child who demands attention without knowing what’s happening on the road, and importantly, (i) who you know doesn’t know what you’re attending to but (ii) has a strong subconscious claim on your attention whether by affection or courtesy or both.  An adult in the car can see out the windshield and understand the situation, and you know he can, so you don’t need to explain a sudden silence while you plan to steer around the mattress in your lane.  The radio’s feelings won’t be hurt if you stop paying attention for a minute.  But your conversational phone partner has none of the subconscious cues needed to let you comfortably, and instantly, tune into traffic exigencies.  So, handsfree CWD is as bad as handheld, or very close. It’s not science, but I feel distinctly impaired using a handsfree phone behind the wheel and will pull off the road if I have to be on the phone. Conjecture: handsfree (voice recognition) outgoing texting is actually not dangerous, indeed I occasionally dictate correspondence in a car and don’t feel a bit impaired.  Maybe even incoming texts and emails if they’re delivered by synthesized voice? Could video skyping from the car be OK if the camera points through the windshield?

The press release for the HLDI study points out reasons why (i) outlawing (ii) handheld CWD didn’t make much difference.  First, laws are not always enforced or obeyed.  Second, these laws probably just drove people to use handsfree devices, especially as their distinction between handheld and handsfree implicitly gave approval to the latter.  If we get this right, and try to put a stop to all cellphone use in cars, the enforcement problem for handsfree phones is quite daunting.  I’m not sure we want the highway patrol trying to make out whether a driver alone in a car is talking while both vehicles are whizzing along.  I suppose the phone company could note phone use while the user is switching towers faster than walking speed, but that would pick up passengers using their phones, and jamming calls while the engine is running is a non-starter for several reasons (I think making a 911 call to report an accident or a drunk driver is just fine, dialing and all).

In the end, the law as NTSB proposes it is probably an important action certifying society’s judgment about the behavior, but actually reducing it depends on public education and social pressure of the kind Keith nicely applies to his friends.  Friends don’t let friends drive distracted, or friends don’t distract friends while they’re driving; that sort of thing.



One out of two ain’t bad

Well, this makes sense–if we make it nearly impossible for felons to regain their right to vote, they’ll surely want to regain their right to fire weapons instead.


Dick Cheney Speaks the Truth!

Commenting yesterday on how the United States discovered Bin Laden’s whereabouts:

“I would assume that the enhanced interrogation program that we put in place produced some of the results that led to bin Laden’s ultimate capture,” said former Vice President Dick Cheney on Fox News.

That’s right!  He would assume it.  He wouldn’t try to check it out.  He wouldn’t hold his tongue if he didn’t know the details.  He wouldn’t speak to those who might actually know the facts.  He would assume it.  And then he would go on torturing people, over and over again.

And if this policy was ineffective, or worse, had catastrophic effects in terms of intelligence gathering and US diplomacy?  He would assume that it didn’t.

Gotta hand it to the guy: he’s certainly self-aware.

9/11 First Responders’ Health Care: Did Coburn Win?

Tom Coburn took 9/11 first responders hostage — and might have won.

At least that’s what TPM reports:

Dems rounded up the votes they needed to break Coburn’s filibuster earlier this week, and spent much of the morning and early afternoon negotiating with him to prevent him from delaying passage of the legislation by several days.

Coburn’s price: a reduction of the price tag from $6.2 billion to $4.2 billion.

It is December 22nd: even Tom Coburn can’t delay a bill in the Senate all by himself, past January 4th — the last legal day of the session IIRC.

What happened?  Most likely, Coburn agreed to be the stalking horse for the rest of the Republican Caucus, which was prepared to join him and perhaps sustain a filibuster.  The question was whether the GOP could have resisted media scrutiny and generated enough false talking points to run out the clock.  Finally, it decided that the answer was no — but the Democrats were worried that the answer might be yes.

Slicing the bill’s price tag meant that it extends over five years instead of ten.  Does that matter?  I would think so: a chronic illness doesn’t stop after five years because the federal funding runs out.

It’s possible, of course, that slicing the bill price made it better.  But given Coburn’s transparently mendacious excuses in the past about it — there were no hearings (false) or that it was illegitimate to consider it in a lame duck session (false and fraudulent, since the GOP had prevented it from being considered earlier), it’s hard to take an argument like this seriously.

In any event, Coburn was able to water down the bill.  Hopefully, this does not harm any of the first responders who risked themselves for his freedom.  But just remember this the next time Republicans tell you how much they care about national security.

The Southers Confirmation Debacle

This is just up at CQ. Worth the read. Nothing says politicization of homeland security like Erroll Southers’ treatment by the U.S. Senate.

Southers Says Politics Spurred His Departure

By Rob Margetta, CQ Staff

Erroll Southers set off a firestorm in the homeland security world Wednesday when the White House announced his intention to withdraw as President Obama’s nominee to head the Transportation Security Administration.

But while Washington was atwitter over Southers’ decision, the former nominee said he was feeling a sense of relief. In fact, his friends and family were throwing him an “almost confirmation party.”

“At this point, I’m just going to exhale and try to repair the remnants of my reputation that are left,” Southers told CQ Homeland Security on Wednesday evening, adding he plans to stay on as assistant chief for homeland security and intelligence at Los Angeles World Airports’ police department and continue his work in the academic field.

Southers was nominated in September, but his nomination became mired in controversy two months later when his confirmation hearings began. Some Republicans worried he might grant collective-bargaining rights to TSA employees, something they have lacked since TSA was created in 2002. The Bush administration argued that such rights would hinder the agency’s ability to respond to crises.

Later, other critics focused on an incident in the late 1980s, in which Southers accessed information in the FBI criminal database on his estranged wife’s boyfriend. In affidavits Southers submitted prior to his confirmation hearing before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee in October, and the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee in November, he said he had asked a San Diego police officer to access the FBI criminal database for information about his estranged wife’s boyfriend. However, in a letter he submitted to Senate Homeland Security after both committees approved him, Southers acknowledged that he twice conducted searches himself.

Southers says he was caught in a smear campaign aimed at racking up points in the aftermath of the attempted Dec. 25 bombing of Northwest Airlines Flight 253.

“This is about the mission,” Southers said. “I don’t care what party people are in, and I honestly don’t think al Qaeda has a map with red and blue states on it.”

The former nominee also talked about his feelings about a Democratic proposal to grant TSA employees collective-bargaining rights, provided a timeline for the FBI database incident and discussed why he dropped out of the confirmation process when Senate Democratic leadership seemed so close to pushing him through.

Q: When you announced your withdrawal from consideration, you said you had become a political “lightning rod.” Did you mean you were tired of what was happening to the political process or that you were afraid that its politicization was affecting Transportation Security Administration itself?

A: It’s actually both. First of all, TSA needs leadership. They can’t go without leadership. I’m an apolitical guy. I served a Republican governor, a Democratic president nominated me, and quite frankly if President McCain was in the White House, I would hope that he would see my qualifications the same way. I’m a counterterrorism professional. This is about terrorism to me. It was time to move on. And I didn’t know how long this was going to go on, but it had been going on for some time.

With the partisan attacks I had over collective bargaining, I’m not sure if that would have stopped had I been confirmed. So then it wouldn’t just affect me, it would have affected 61,000 people and the largest component of the Department of Homeland Security and probably the most important apparatus we have to protect our nation’s transportation system. And that was unacceptable to me. I was not going to be part of the narrative for a disaster because we got distracted by something that has nothing to do with security.

Q: Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., put a hold on your nomination, saying he was concerned you would give TSA’s security officers collective-bargaining rights. I know that’s something you didn’t take a firm stand on during your confirmation hearing. Did you have a strong feeling about that issue one way or the other? Were you waiting for the administration to make a decision on it? Did you feel the critique was fair?

A. First, it was an unfair critique. I’ll tell you the same thing I told Sen. DeMint: I come from an interdisciplinary world, and to me, the collective-bargaining issue is one which really needed to be assessed scientifically. It needed to have someone get into the organization, get through confirmation, do a top-to-bottom assessment of the organization and where it is, look at how it would affect the operational capability of the organization, do a cost-benefit analysis, and most importantly, talk to some of the 50,000 people it was going to affect. And then, at the end of the day, we could decide what might be the best way to go and make a recommendation to the secretary.

I was not predisposed one way or the other. I told the senator that. It was unacceptable to him. So a “yes” answer was going to result in a hold. A comprehensive review answer, which is what I gave, did result in a hold, and a “no” answer wasn’t an option for me, because the president specifically told one of these unions that we would consider an analysis. I don’t see how you win with that.

Q: The second reason a hold was put on your nomination was the incident with the FBI database. Sens. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., and John McCain, R-Ariz., as well as the other Republicans who placed holds on you, expressed concerns about what you presented in the affidavit before your confirmation hearing and the letter you submitted afterward. How did that discrepancy occur?

A: Let’s talk timeline. In 1987, this incident occurred where this database was accessed. And I want to be clear: It was wrong. It was a need-to-know database. I did not need to know, although I was driven by the fact that this individual was living in my home with my one-year-old son, which has not been mentioned in any media. I’m not justifying it, but I want to present the reasoning behind it.

I wrote in two questionnaires to two separate committees what I recalled from memory on this incident, which by the way I’ve never had to disclose since 1987, despite the numerous clearances I’ve obtained from the FBI. I went through the Commerce Committee, and with the exception of Sen. DeMint and [Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev.] voting against me on collective bargaining, I was successfully voted out.

On Nov. 10, I was getting ready to testify in front of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee and [ranking member Susan Collins, R-Maine] wanted more detail on the FBI letter of censure, which, by the way, is a letter of reprimand and the lowest form of discipline you can get in the FBI. I didn’t have the letter, so she asked me questions that required “yes” or “no” answers. The week after the hearing, I was reading a copy of that letter for the first time in 22 years, and when it was read to me, my own statement conflicted with what I wrote and what I testified to.

I didn’t spin it. I didn’t deny it. We called Sen. Collins and [Homeland committee Chairman Joseph I. Lieberman, I-Conn.] and said, “What I just testified to was inconsistent. It’s wrong.” She said, “I want you to write me a letter saying what was read you now in 2009 and what you said happened and you recalled happened in 1987.” I did. She received that letter, she signed off on it.

Q: I’m assuming you don’t think that Senate line of criticism was fair. Do you think the White House properly handled that situation and your confirmation process in general?”

A: I think when a person is being confirmed by the Senate, they need to ask people about everything. And trust me, they did. Was I handled properly? Well, I have never really followed anyone else through a confirmation pre-testimony, so I don’t know how it works, and, again, I’m not a political guy, so I don’t know how that works. I will say this: I tend to lean forward in my personal and professional life, and I don’t like to be rocked back on my heels, and I feel like I was on my heels more often than not.

I do believe I’m qualified. I do believe I was the best choice. I remain honored that I was nominated. And I think the politicization of this process really puts this country at risk.

Q: I was wondering about the timing of your decision. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said he was going to try to push this nomination through, possibly this week. Did you look at this and say, “I’m so close to the end of the tunnel, why not just stick with it?” If so, why did you decide against that?

A: I’m not a quitter, and other people will tell you that. I’ve been close to the end of the tunnel since November and my family had had enough. I’ve had the Los Angeles World Airports Police Department and a [University of Southern California] center of excellence on hold for seven months. . . . I didn’t want to be doing this in June. It was time for TSA to get leadership. It had been stalled for too long. I was becoming a distraction and I wanted the process to move along. It was more important for this country and this organization than my own personal need to be confirmed, which was something I had no guarantee was going to happen this week, this month or this year.

Q: You’ve said that TSA needs leadership. The tone of your confirmation process undoubtedly will influence the next nominee’s willingness to go through it. Are you concerned that future nominees will be discouraged?

A: You don’t know how many people warned me off this process, and I didn’t listen to them. Two months ago, if you’d googled my name, you would have seen a couple of references to the airport and a lot of conferences that I keynoted. Now if you google my name — I hope my daughter never has to google my name, because it’s disgusting.

I should have listened to my friends and colleagues that tried to warn me off, but I didn’t. I thought I could contribute to this country and this organization, and it’s unfortunate what people who only want to serve their country go through. But there’s no way in the world you can convince me that qualified, talented people aren’t scared off by this process. And that is unfortunate, that is a disservice to this country.

Q: TSA is an agency that’s under a lot of public scrutiny right now. Do you have any regrets that you’re not going to be there to try and help it deal with that?

A: Absolutely. We had some things that I discussed with the secretary that I felt would have at least given people . . . confidence that we were doing things that were intelligent and risk-driven. And I think within a year people would have said, “Hey, this is the right guy.” And more importantly, we would have embarked on a process, as they’ve done so successfully in London and in Israel, of educating our public, making them more aware, building in some public resilience so they become part of our security system and not just customers of the security system.

Cheney’s Assertion that Torture Works: Hillary Nails It

Why should anyone pay attention to anything Dick Cheney says?

More of this, please:

“Are you in favor of releasing the documents that Dick Cheney has been requesting be released?,” asked Rep. Rohrbacher.

“Well, it won’t surprise you, I don’t consider him a particularly reliable source of information,” responded Secretary Clinton.”

Cheney now claims that there are documents showing the efficacy of torture. Maybe there are. But consider:

1. Cheney claimed that Saddam Hussein had reconstituted nuclear weapons.

2. Cheney claimed that there were operational links between Saddam and Al-Qaeda.

3. Cheney claimed that the insurgency was in its last throes.

And he did this all on the basis of what he claimed were classified documents showing his position.

As Jane Mayer demonstrates in The Dark Side, Cheney out-and-out lied to Dick Armey — hardly the thin end of the Marxist wedge — in making the case for war in Iraq. And as Josh Marshall has pointed out, Cheney’s “leadership” of the administration’s anti-terrorism task force in 2001 and his attempt to enlist Middle Eastern leaders in favor of the Iraq War in 2002 were grotesquely incompetent.

Indeed, the question everyone should be asking now is: is there anything that Dick Cheney said about national security policy during his 8 years as Vice-President that has been shown to be true? Did any of his national security initiatives produce anything but failure and disaster?

And if not, then why should anyone pay attention to anything the man says?

Bikes, hair dryers, and MI5

Only Mark Kleiman could get to the heart of the FBI’s counter-terrorism challenges with a bike and a hair dryer. He’s quite right: the FBI’s “transformation” ain’t pretty. Just last month, a Senate report found that FBI headquarters did not meet security standards to handle classified information. The new head of intelligence at the FBI is — surprise surprise — an agent. The old head of intelligence was from another agency. FBI regs prohibit analysts from running any of the 56 US field offices. Almost none of the “field intelligence groups,” the critical units that fuse intel with action, are headed by analysts. So long as analysts aren’t good enough for the FBI, the FBI won’t be good enough to protect America.

But MI5? I’m not there yet. Our natural response whenever we have intel failures is to create a new agency.

Before 9/11, there were 12 major federal intelligence agencies. Now there are 16. That’s not even counting the 40+ state and local intelligence fusion centers. The problem used to be that intelligence was all spokes and no hub. Now it’s that there are too many hubs. When the Director of National Intelligence has to create its own coordination office, you know we’re in trouble.

In my view, the FBI’s National Security Branch should be made much more autonomous. This is a shift in mindset as well as reporting relationships and authorities. Agents working counter-terrorism need to be trained and treated as intelligence collectors, not case investigators. Analysts need to be treated as equals.

This will not be enough. In intelligence, there is so much dysfunction, so little time. But it would be a vast improvement.