Seizing Reform?

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Well, you can knock me over with a spotted owl feather!

Eric Holder — yes, the same leftist hack who has turned the US Attorney General’s office into the Obama Enforcement Mob — has done something for which I commend him.

The Wall Street Journal reports that the Justice Department will stop participating in asset seizures by local police. And it quotes Holder as saying that this move is only “the first step in a comprehensive review” of the feds’ asset-forfeiture program.

Local police have increasingly used the decades-old asset-seizure programs to grab cash and other assets from people in order to augment their own budgets. Asset-forfeiture laws are a powerful tool, allowing police and prosecutors to seize assets from presumed perps without a conviction, or without even a trial — indeed, without even a search warrant.

Police all over the country started to move from seizing the property of mobsters and dope dealers to seizing the property of anyone they suspected of criminality of any kind.

These laws were allegedly created with the good intention of combatting organized crime. The idea was to stop crooks from amassing huge stores of loot that would make it worthwhile for them to risk going to jail. However, seizing their property before any trial conveniently had the further advantage for police and prosecutors of making it hard for these evil criminals to prove their innocence in the courtroom, because they no longer had any money to hire good attorneys!

But, as the cliché rightly has it, the road to hell (or at least prosecutorial tyranny) is paved with good intentions.

Over the years, the feds have increasingly colluded with municipal police agencies to seize assets of presumed bad actors. These actions are called “federally adopted forfeitures.” By partnering with the feds, local cops can keep much more of what they seize than what many state laws allow. In effect, federal adoption allows local agencies to evade state laws. In these seizures, the local cops select a target, seize his assets (cash, cars, boats, jewelry, or whatever else the cops want) on suspicion of violating the law, and then invite the feds to join in. The feds will then liquidate the assets and hand over a major chunk of the money to the cops.

You could have predicted what subsequently happened. As quickly as you can utter the words “perversion of purpose by corrupt cops,” police all over the country started to move from seizing the property of mobsters and dope dealers to seizing the property of anyone they suspected of criminality of any kind — indeed, even if they had no idea what the criminality might be.

This led to an exponentially increasing explosion of seizures from the 1980s on. In the last seven years alone, there have been 55,000 such seizures, with a total booty of $3 billion — a bountiful boon to supposedly cash-strapped local police departments.

This obvious abuse of what was a dubious legal mechanism to begin with has led to a rare convergence of thought among what are normally political opponents — libertarians, modern liberal groups, and conservatives concerned about due process. The ACLU welcomed Holder’s move, as did conservative Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA). As Grassley put it, “The rule of law ought to be about protecting innocent people. Too often, we’ve seen just the opposite with civil forfeiture laws. The practice up to this point had perverse incentives.”

He added that he wanted to see exactly what Holder plans to do — not an injudicious stance to take, given Holder’s less than stellar performance in office.

The WSJ followed up its report with an editorial approving the Justice Department’s move. It notes that in those cases in which the feds “adopt” a local case, they keep 20% and give the local police the remaining 80%. That’s perverse incentive, indeed. And the Journal quotes data from the estimable Institute for Justice showing that 80% of citizens whose property is seized are never charged with any crime whatsoever.

Forget shows like the old Miami Vice; now the people targeted are mainly small-time operators, not major drug kingpins.

Of course, as the editorial rightly notes, Holder’s action just suspends federal adoptions (as opposed to ending them outright) and exempts the DEA from the suspension (as well as cases of accused child pornographers). Still, as the old saw puts it, when a pig flies, you don’t criticize it for not staying up very long.

Credit for the rising public awareness and disapproval of civil asset forfeiture must in part be given to the Washington Post, which late last year ran an extended expose of the abuses of the program. The piece obviously hit a public nerve — nearly 2,500 comments were posted online. It opens by reporting the existence of a nationwide network of cops who are in competition to see who can expropriate the greatest amounts of citizens’ assets. This private “intelligence network” even has a name: the “Black Asphalt Electronic Networking and Notification System.” It allows cops to post pictures of the loot they have confiscated and to share information about possible targets (names, addresses, social security numbers, and even distinguishing tattoos). One cop (Deputy Roy Hain) unwittingly admitted the true motives for the network when he gloated in a self-published book, “All of our home towns are sitting on a tax-liberating gold mine.” This constitutional scholar boastfully added that we should be “turning our police forces into present-day Robin Hoods.”

Superb idea, deputy! Turn street cops into just another type of hood, liberated to shake down drivers for whatever cash they can grab. How cool!

The Post found that in the nearly 62,000 seizures made since 9/11 without either indictments or even search warrants — seizures that copped $2.5 billion for the cops! — more than half were less than $9,000. In other words, forget shows like the old Miami Vice; now the people targeted are mainly small-time operators, not major drug kingpins.

After rehearsing the evolution of the forfeiture laws in some detail, the Post recounts some of the more outrageous cases of abuse by police of this self-serving power. In one case, Ming Liu, a Chinese-born naturalized US citizen, was stopped on a freeway for doing 10 mph above the posted speed limit — hardly a major crime. Ah, but Liu was carrying $75,000 of his family’s money to buy a Chinese restaurant that they had seen advertised for sale. The deputy who stopped Liu to ticket him asked for permission to search his car. Liu, with a very limited grasp of English, allowed the cop to proceed. The cop then confiscated the cash, later claiming that Liu had given contradictory stories about his plans — which, even if true, probably just reflected Liu’s inability to speak English proficiently. The deputy then hauled the hapless gent into the department’s office and called in the US Customs and Border Protection to adopt the seizure. Hey, the cash prize here was just so sweet!

Mr. Liu hired a lawyer who fought tenaciously and successfully to get the family’s precious capital back, but it still took nearly a year for the cops to disgorge it.

In another case, two Hispanic Americans were driving a rented car on a Virginia freeway when a state trooper stopped them, allegedly for speeding and tailgating. The trooper, one C.L. Murphy, was a member of the Black Asphalt network and a “top trainer” on asset seizing. In other words, the cop was primed to seize. You might say Trooper Murphy pursues his own version of Murphy’s Law.

Over the years, many states have enacted their own forfeiture programs, often with even less oversight than the federal one.

As it happened, the two men he stopped were carrying about $28,000 in cash. Why? They were carrying money donated by their evangelical congregation — of which they were both lay ministers — for the nefarious purpose of buying land in El Salvador for a church. Just the sort of monstrous mobsters from whom the police are hired to protect us!

The men consented to a car search, and Murphy naturally grabbed the cash. He ignored their explanation of why they had the money, offering the usual rationale that he didn’t buy their outrageous story because it contained “inconsistencies.” The men deny his claim.

No matter. The cop called in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to adopt the theft — excuse me, the “seizure.” However, to the profound dismay of the cop, his department of “Murphy law enforcement,” and ICE, the men fought back. They forced the ICE-local police mob to forfeit back the whole amount. But it took hiring a lawyer and fighting for months to get it.

A more recent report by Daniel Payne in The Federalist concerns an especially egregious case that occurred in Virginia. A SWAT team — a SWAT tream — was used to break up an unauthorized poker game. Yes, learning that ten guys were playing a friendly game of high-stakes poker, the local (Fairfax VA) cops sent in eight SWAT officers brandishing assault rifles. There was absolutely no evidence that any of the poker players was armed, or that they were posing a threat to anybody. Nor is poker playing itself against Virginia law (it is instead government-controlled).

What reason did the cops give for this threatening intrusion? They said that sometimes poker players have illegal weapons, and sometimes “Asian gangs” will “target” such games. How dare they! Don’t these gangs understand that only the cops should be free to target gamblers?

The real reason the cops acted is that they were able to grab the $200,000 the poker players had, of which they wound up pocketing 40%. That is quite a fine for playing an unauthorized game of poker! As Payne puts it, “Governments control gambling not to legitimize and sanitize the practice, but to extract as much money from the citizenry as they possibly can. In the state’s eyes, the fault of the poker players in Fairfax lay not in betting money on a card game, but in not pouring money into the state’s bank account while they were doing so.”

The capstone of the Post series was an insightful piece by two clearly unbiased experts, John Yoder and Brad Cates, surveying the sorry evolution of the federal asset seizure program from its inception to the present day. And friend, they should know: Yoder headed the Justice Department’s “Asset Forfeiture Office” — yes, there is a whole division of the department devoted to depriving citizens they view as criminals of their property — from 1983 to 1985, and Cates headed it from 1985 to 1989.

Their view is damning. What started as a tool to fight drug lords (and later, mobsters in general), the authors aver, only wound up corrupting prosecutors and police departments. Forfeiture started by targeting the cash put aside by dope dealers, which enabled them to prosper even after completing their jail time. In 1986 the program was expanded to include all assets of the alleged criminals purchased by money that was presumably obtained illegally (money floridly called “the fruit of the tainted tree”). This was expanded by the legislative creation of whole new classes of crimes, such as various types of money-laundering. Over 200 crimes were quickly added to the forfeiture roster.

Yoder and Cates note that over the years, many states have enacted their own forfeiture programs, often with even less oversight than the federal one. And (as noted in the aforementioned WSJ editorial), state and local law enforcement agencies and prosecutors routinely came to use asset seizure to fund their departments. As the authors note, “this led to the most extreme abuses: law enforcement efforts based upon what cash and property they could seize to fund themselves, rather than an even-handed effort to enforce the law.” As they nicely conclude, forfeiture traps are the modern analogs of the old speed traps, since they are programs for selectively taxing individuals targeted on the sly — typically minorities.

Indeed, honest sirs. We have tried in the past to reform this Frankensteinian program that has not only failed to end drug-dealing and organized crime but has turned to attack the citizens it was supposedly designed to protect. The reforms were gutted by a concerted effort of lobbyists for the local police departments. I think it is time to simply end the thing, once and for all.

Forfeiture traps are the modern analogs of the old speed traps, since they are programs for selectively taxing individuals targeted on the sly — typically minorities.

A government surely should have the power to seize the assets of a citizen — but only after that citizen has been found guilty in a court of law, and only as part of appropriate punishment. A court should have the power, upon issuing a warrant or an indictment, to order the defendant not to dispose of, convey, or hide his assets, except to pay for his legal defense. But until some jury (be it criminal or civil) finds the defendant guilty, no government agency should be allowed to take those assets.

In fine, the real poisoned tree is the authoritarian idea that property is completely unrelated to its owner, so is exempt from the presumption of innocence built into our criminal (and civil) system of law. And the fruit of that poisoned tree is and always will be corruption and the abuse of power.

I would hope that such a rule would be made into not just a federal law but a constitutional amendment. Only then will this justice-subverting monster be put to the torch.




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What Did Obama Motors Know?

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GM — known derisively as “Obama Motors” because of the crony deal it got from the Obama administration — is once again in the news . . . for a massive corporate screwup.

GM is about to be investigated by Congress in the matter of the company’s recall of 1.6 million vehicles. These vehicles had faulty ignition switches. Their malfunctions apparently led to 13 deaths. GM has lawyered up, for it will surely face many tort lawsuits, as it surely should.  Recalls are not unknown in the auto industry, but what is causing Congress to investigate is that it took GM about ten years to get around to the recall. So GM has hired the big-name lawyer who headed the investigation into the 2008 Lehman Brothers failure to be the conspicuous head of its own internal investigation.

This is called: damage control.

When GM switches fail, drivers report that their vehicles become very hard to steer, and the air bags become disabled. So not only is the likelihood of accidents increased, but the likelihood of extreme injury and death also increases dramatically.

GM employees knew about this problem as early as 2004, when reports about it were discussed in the company’s engineering division. This is according to the timeline that GM itself has released. The company is not saying whether or not its engineers asked for a recall, or when the idea of a recall was first suggested.

In a risible act of hypocrisy, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has presented the company with a list of over 100 questions it wants answered. It now appears that the NHTSA knew of the problem as early as 2007. Its people raised the issue in a meeting. But the NHTSA is refusing to answer any questions about it.

The affair has obviously brought back to the minds of investors the old GM — the one that had to be rescued at the cost of billions of taxpayer dollars.

In a lawsuit, settled last year, brought by the family of a nurse killed in a crash involving one of these faulty switches, the plaintiff’s attorney discovered that GM had an engineering team investigating the problem (found to be prevalent in small GM cars). But this was never publicized, so owners of those cars were never warned that they were at risk.

When it was announced that the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York had begun an investigation, GM shares dropped 5%, because the facts seemed to indicate not just negligence, but outright criminality.

This is just the most publicized of GM’s recent recalls. Current GM CEO Mary Barra has launched several other recalls, including one of 1.7 million higher-end vehicles (SUVs and Cadillacs) troubled by an airbag deployment wiring defect. The total number of GM vehicles recalled has now hit 4.8 million for the first quarter of 2014 — a sixfold increase from the number for all of last year. The company has issued seven major recalls in just the first three months of this year.

GM has put aside $300 million to cover immediate costs, but this is obviously not going to cover all the eventual costs. One critic has called for a fund of $1 billion. Some dealers are already reporting slower traffic in their showrooms. Meanwhile, some experts, such as corporate crisis consultant Larry Kamer, are suggesting that this crisis is a good opportunity for Ms. Barra and the “new” GM to show how much they care for customers. Kamer was a consultant for Toyota during its 2010 recall. Toyota recently settled with the U.S. Justice Department on that recall.

Barra has stepped forward to admit that the recall took too long, to offer her condolences to the families of those killed, and to announce that she has assembled a team to help the company handle and “learn from” the incident. Given that Barra was executive director of GM’s manufacturing engineering division while the deaths occurred, one is entitled to be a little skeptical of her new-found burning desire to enshrine the company as the Quality Queen of automotive technology.

As one report notes, Barra has reason to worry. The affair has obviously brought back to the minds of investors the old GM — the one that had to be rescued at the cost of billions of taxpayer dollars. The article notes that Toyota took a major hit to its image from its recall two years ago. Toyota had to pay the Justice Department $1.2 billion for misleading customers. Attorney General Holder boldly declared that the Toyota deal will “serve as a model for how we treat cases with similarly situated companies,” though he didn’t address how that relates to GM.

Here is where one gets suspicious. The feds went after Toyota with a furry when it had its recalls, although the main accusation against it — that some models had “sticky accelerators” — was never proven. When it was charged that floor mats improperly installed by one Lexus dealer in San Diego led to the death of a family, Holder turned his department loose on Toyota, and Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood loudly proclaimed that Toyota owners should be afraid for their lives.

Of course, while the feds were going after Toyota so furiously, they owned GM. This stank to heaven. However, it is now clear that even as Holder and LaHood were conducting their Obama-jihad against Toyota, their own Obama Motors was known by their own NHTSA to be killing people. Cover-ups are common in government, I suppose, but a cover-up of this magnitude, of a company that had been socialized by the self-same government, is something rare.

Given Eric Holder’s record as an ideological hack, we can laugh at the idea that his Justice Department will honesty investigate GM.

Add to this the fact that at the time a little-noticed provision of GM’s bankruptcy deal was that the “new” (i.e., socialized) GM would not be liable for the tort claims of the “old” (i.e., pre-bailout) GM. This doesn’t just hint of corruption — it reeks. It isn’t clear to what degree GM will use that shield. Law professor David Skeel thinks that while GM is legally safe in using the bankruptcy shield, it would look bad to do so — hardball to the max. And lawyers are already sidestepping the issue by filing suits alleging that the value of some GM models have been hurt, rather than going directly for personal injury tort.

So not only did the Obama administration orchestrate a crony bankruptcy that handed over assets primarily to the administration’s own financial backers, but it apparently stood by and let innocent people die without ordering appropriate recalls. This, so it could run on the election mantra, “Bin Laden is dead, and GM is alive!” Yes, GM was alive, but a number of its customers were dead.

Given Eric Holder’s record as an ideological hack, we can laugh at the idea that his Justice Department will honesty investigate GM. Perhaps what we need is a special prosecutor — somebody outside the control of Holder’s Justice — backed with enough assets to cleanse the stables of Obama Motors.




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Drugs and Hypocrisy

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Attorney General Eric Holder recently made news when he came out against mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders. Speaking to the American Bar Association, he went on to say that low-level offenders should be diverted to drug treatment and community service programs, rather than languish for years in prison. The outright release from prison of some elderly, nonviolent offenders, who presumably have been incarcerated for most of their adult lives merely because they sold or ingested substances deemed not suitable for ingestion by our rulers, was also mentioned by the AG.

The policy changes advocated by Holder are not simply long overdue. They are in fact far too timid. The War on Drugs, declared some 30 years ago, has devastated the lives of millions of individuals and families. Drug users and their families are not the only ones who have been hurt by this government campaign against individual choice and behavior. We all have suffered. By driving up the price of illegal drugs, this war has contributed directly to crime and violence in our society, as gangs and mafias vie for control of the lucrative trade, and users turn to crime to pay for their habits. Our constitutional rights have been eroded by increased surveillance, confiscation of property without due process, and other law enforcement abuses. Worst of all, we have allowed the state to dictate how we supposedly free men and women should behave in private.

About 225,000 people are sitting in state prisons for drug offenses. 60% of them are nonviolent offenders. What sort of madness is this?

Inmates in federal prisons now number 219,000. The number of federal inmates has grown by almost 800% since 1980. Almost half of these prisoners are doing time for drug-related crimes. Has Holder recognized the sheer perversity of these figures? Not really. What bothers him is the fact that the federal prison system is operating at almost 40% above officially estimated capacity. Rising prison costs have led to less spending on cops and prosecutors and various government programs connected to the War on Drugs. It’s a resource issue for Holder, rather than a matter of recognizing that a fundamental injustice is being perpetrated by the state against its own citizens. The War on Drugs was lost the day it was declared, yet 30 years later we continue to accept the casualties it creates. The AG’s response is to tweak things a bit and hope for the best.

Most legislators on Capitol Hill have welcomed Holder’s initiative, but not one that I know of has taken the bold step of calling for an end to this unwinnable war. Moreover, federal action will not affect citizens being persecuted by the individual states. About 225,000 people are sitting in state prisons for drug offenses. According to the best studies available, 60% of them are nonviolent offenders. What sort of madness is this? What words are there to describe such iniquities in our so-called free republic?

One would love to see this president, any president, come out and speak the truth on this issue. Admit what any thinking person knows — that suppressing private drug use by adults is a hopeless endeavor, with bad outcomes abounding, and that furthermore it is no business of government even to attempt to do so. What really rankles with me is that the current occupant of the Oval Office, like his two predecessors, used illegal drugs in his youth. Obama at least has been rather forthright about his drug use. Clinton, you will recall, “didn’t inhale.” Bush, well known as a drunkard in his twenties and thirties, denied using illegal drugs, but was caught admitting marijuana use in a private conversation (he almost certainly used cocaine as well). But forthright or not, how does Barack sleep at night when tens of thousands of people who behaved just as he once did have been deprived of their liberty, had their lives ruined? What sort of man can become the leader of a nation and yet remain silent in the face of such injustice?




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Jesuits, and Failed Jesuits

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Don’t you hate it when people say, “Let me be clear on one thing . . . Let me make this perfectly clear”? Don’t you think, “So, you’ve been unclear about all those other things, and you knew it, but you went on being unclear anyway?” Don’t you immediately conclude that these people are about to tell you some enormous lie?

President Nixon was always talking in the “clear” mode. He was always “making one thing perfectly clear.” Now, President Obama has become an addict to the same approach.

“So, I wanta be very clear,” he announced on June 7, “nobody’s listening to the content of people’s phone calls.” Please define “nobody,” “listening,” “content,” “people,” and “phone calls.” Surely, the government is listening to somebody’s phone calls. May we simply conclude, from Obama’s clarifying remarks, that the government is listening to your calls, and mine? Or that it would if it could, and it probably can?

This administration began with the famous self-advertisement that it would be the most “transparent” in history. Obama reiterated the claim on February 14 of this year: “This is the most transparent administration in history.” That should have been a clue to several things.

1. Anybody who uses such a cliché as “transparent” hasn’t been giving a whole lot of thought to whatever he says.

2. For Obama and company, “history” is everything they don’t know, and have no intention of looking up. That covers a lot of territory. Do you think the claim of transparency issued from a careful, or even a superficial, investigation of the forty-some presidential administrations in American history? Do you think that Obama asked someone to research the matter and find out what degree of transparency prevailed in the Buchanan administration? On what basis, do you think, can Obama assert that he is more transparent than Jefferson? Or Truman, who was always blurting things out? Or all those 19th-century presidents who walked freely around Washington, meeting strangers and talking with them, and sometimes being pelted with oranges when the conversation didn’t go so well? So much for “history.”

In the preceding paragraph I noted a number of historical facts that Obama has undoubtedly never heard of: the mouthiness of President Truman, the orange attack on President Pierce, the existence of President Buchanan. Maybe I should add the existence of strangers — persons who are neither enemies nor part of one’s official circle. I don’t think Obama has any knowledge of strangers, although they (i.e., we) are the people he is supposed to be transparent to.

It’s an expression, supposed to be interpreted as sincerity, that most closely resembles the facial contortions of a person about to have a bowel movement, and wondering what this strange phenomenon might be.

But speaking of history: impartiality impels me to deplore the absence of even the vaguest historical sense among the Republican leadership. Consider the remarks of Rep. Steve King (R-IA) at the Tea Party rally in Washington on June 19. Referring to the current spying scandals, he intoned: “This big brother has gotten a lotta creepier than George Orwell ever thought it would get.” No, Orwell thought a lot of things. Read a book, Mr. King.

3. Eventually, the most transparent administration in history would have to spend virtually all its time trying to clear things up after its constant, hilariously comic attempts to fool people.

One of the most notorious clarifiers is Attorney General Eric Holder. He has spent many moons clarifying what went on with Fast and Furious, and look at the damned thing now. And I’m sure you will recall the statement he made on May 15 in response to congressional questions about whether journalists can be prosecuted for divulging or attempting to divulge classified information: "Well, I would say this. With regard to the potential prosecution of the press for the disclosure of material, that is not something that I've ever been involved in, heard of or would think would be a wise policy. In fact, my view is quite the opposite."

Attorney General Holder, though a total moron, is a fairly accomplished liar. It’s not to his credit, of course.

This remark was emitted with a look that has become nearly universal among clarifiers in the Obama administration, from the chief clarifier on down, but is perhaps most vividly manifested by the attorney general. It’s an expression, supposed to be interpreted as sincerity, that most closely resembles the facial contortions of a person about to have a bowel movement, and wondering what this strange phenomenon might be. It’s the expression of a self-righteousness too pure to be acquainted with self-doubt, a self-righteousness now shocked to discover these strong and painful rumblings, deep inside. Can it be that the truth is coming out? If so, how can this be prevented?

Lately, truth has been coming out more quickly than usual. Only a few days were required for Holder’s May 15 testimony to be publicly falsified. Yet the truth about Fast and Furious and most of the other matters about which Holder has been questioned is still to emerge. Holder, though a total moron, is a fairly accomplished liar. It’s not to his credit, of course: he does it by being a Washington insider, known and feared by the rest of them; and by being capable of looking blank on virtually all occasions. I guess that’s easy for him.

Anyway, he is certainly a more accomplished liar than James Clapper, Director of National Intelligence. On March 12 Clapper was testifying before a committee that included Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), a prominent opponent of secret investigations of US citizens. Clapper had been given a copy of Wyden’s questions in advance. He wasn’t blindsided or bushwhacked by the senator. But look what happened.

Sen. Wyden: So what I wanted to see is if you could give me a yes or no answer to the question: Does the NSA [National Security Agency] collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?

Clapper: No, sir.

Wyden: It does not.

Clapper, massaging his forehead and trying to look profound, like a professor being pushed to the farthest corner of speculation in the field of his most abstruse research: Not wittingly. There are cases where they could inadvertently perhaps collect, but not wittingly.

Wyden: All right. Thank you. I'll have additional questions to give you in writing on that point, but I thank you for the answer.

On June 9, after an obscure employee of a government contractor informed the world of the wholly predictable truth, that the NSA collects telephone data on tens of millions of Americans, Andrea Mitchell of NBC News pressed Clapper on the exchange with Wyden. Clapper suggested that the senator's question was unfair:

First as I said, I have great respect for Senator Wyden. I thought, though in retrospect, I was asked “When are you going to start — stop beating your wife” kind of question, which is meaning not answerable necessarily by a simple yes or no. So I responded in what I thought was the most truthful, or least untruthful manner by saying no.

Clapper indicated that he didn’t think "collection" of phone data was taking place unless government officials were actually reviewing the contents of the (billions of) conversations that they have records on.

Most people, even college professors, know that “when are you going to stop beating your wife?” questions — ordinarily known as “when did you stop beating your wife?” questions — are entirely different from the kind of question Clapper was asked. But this is just one of those things that the Director of National Intelligence doesn’t know. I think that most people — all we strangers and little people out here in the dark — know more about life and human communication than Mr. Clapper does.

One thing that few people know is the word “equivocation.” It means a type of lying, as when somebody asks, “Did you go to the liquor store today?” and you answer, “No, I didn’t, and if I did, it was only unwittingly” — because the place isn’t called The Liquor Store; it’s called Ye Olde Liquor Shoppe. Equivocation isn’t just lying; it’s an especially nasty form of lying. It’s a favorite with self-righteous elitists, who think that any lie they tell is sanctioned by their cause or their position. The Jesuit order was famous for its crafty equivocations; hence the term “Jesuitical.”

Following the Clapper interview, President Obama’s press secretary told inquiring minds that Obama regarded Clapper’s answer to Sen. Wyden as “straight and direct.” This wasn’t a Jesuitical response; it was a blatant, impudent, aggressive, in yo’ face, down home stupid lie, a lie so flamboyant that no one could be expected to regard it as anything other than what I just said it was.

Obama is just such a silly guy with words. He’s always using them in a sneaky though obvious way, like a teenager who thinks that his Eddie Haskell smarm is coming across as sincerity and respect.

Now what? What are we to conclude from this? Is Obama stupider than everyone else? I wouldn’t go that far. His lie prompts the question (no, it does not beg the question — that’s something different): what hold does the intelligence community have on the president?

That is not a conspiracy-theory question. That is a political and personal question.

Ever willing to criticize myself, I am happy to say that there are two reasons for questioning the assumptions from which my question proceeds. One is the possibility that Obama is simply a leftwing proponent of government in all its forms. In his speech to the graduates of Ohio State University on May 5, he took on critics of government:

Unfortunately [he said], you’ve grown up hearing voices that incessantly warn of government as nothing more than some separate, sinister entity that’s at the root of all our problems; some of these same voices also doing their best to gum up the works. They’ll warn that tyranny is always lurking just around the corner. You should reject these voices. Because what they suggest is that our brave and creative and unique experiment in self-rule is somehow just a sham with which we can’t be trusted.

The “we,” of course, is he. But the contempt appears to be directed against all the foes of “government” — as opposed to his usual targets, such as “special interests,” non-Democratic “politicians,” Republican voters, global warming skeptics, people who cling to God and guns, etc. So maybe he believes that as soon as someone is associated with a government that is legitimate in his terms, that person can do no ill, say nothing other than what is straight and direct. If true, this would explain a lot.

The other problem with the question I asked is that Obama is just such a silly guy with words. He’s always using them in a sneaky though obvious way, like a teenager who thinks that his Eddie Haskell smarm is coming across as sincerity and respect. I picture Obama and his staff staying up late, writing his stuff out, and sharing high fives because this time they’ve really put the horsemeat in the hotdogs, and nobody else will notice.

An example. On June 17, on the Charlie Rose Show, on PBS (where else?), Obama assured every American citizen, “What I can say [pause pause pause] unequivocally [pause pause pause] is that if you are a US person, the NSA cannot listen [jabbing the air] “to your telephone calls.” In other words, you won’t be electronically raped by the federal government. Rose, of course, was hibernating too deeply to ask The President what the hell he meant by “US person.” But Obama didn’t want to say “citizen.” Why? The only explanation I can think of (and one that does not exclude nearly complete rhetorical incompetence) is that he wants all the illegal immigrants (US persons, persons present in the United States at any given millisecond of recorded time) to vote for the Democratic Party. Meanwhile, they can be spied on just the same as the rest of us; that’s democracy.

I think that almost everyone who is sentient, and aware of what Obama said, got the point, and the point is that Obama and his crew cannot be trusted with the English language. Almost everyone concluded that Obama, and whoever writes these things for him, was really talking about immigration, and that when he said that the NSA wasn’t listening to your phone calls, he meant that of course the NSA is listening to your phone calls, but the important thing is that the illegal immigrants be legalized so they can vote for all the Obamas of the future.

So when Obama says that the chief of national intelligence is straight and direct, why should I make a mystery out of it? It’s all nonsense anyway.

Postscript: Yahoo! News has finally done something good: it has tabulated White House spokesman Jay Carney’s verbal techniques for escaping public scrutiny: “Over the course of 444 briefings since taking the job, the White House press secretary has dodged a question at least 9,486 times.” This is a classic.




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Dangerous Mood Swings

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On June 27, appearing on the Hannity show, Karl Rove responded to a question about what would have happened if President Bush had set aside laws in the way in which President Obama set aside the immigration law. “All heck would have broken loose,” Rove replied.

Karl Rove is 61 years old. He was talking on the network that runs the “Red Eye” show (which, unlike the Hannity show, is pretty good once you get used to it). But he wouldn’t say the word “hell.” He said “heck” instead. And “hell” isn’t a coarse expletive. It isn’t even an expletive, really. It is rumored to be a place. Yet Rove was behaving like the clergyman whom Alexander Pope satirized 300 years ago — the “soft dean” who “never mentions hell to ears polite.”

Ordinarily, as you know, this column collects examples of verbal ineptitude, comments upon them, and weaves the commentary subtly into one thematic whole. This month, that can’t be done. There are just too many discrete (in the sense of separate) bits of wreckage flying past us. One can only gaze and marvel as they cross the eerie sky that we call modern discourse.

Look, there’s another one! Have you noticed that every single “public figure” you encounter now says “we” when he or she can’t possibly mean anything more than “I”? People of all parties do this. Ron Paul does it. Barack Obama does it. Mitt Romney does it all the time. Scott Walker, who relieved some of my worries about the future of the republic by winning his recall election in Wisconsin, does it so often and so confusedly that I can hardly stand to listen to the poor guy. It used to be that politicians were laughable because they said “I” all the time. Now they say “I” in a much more nauseating way. They use a “we” that means, simultaneously, “I am too humble to say ‘I,’” and “I am too mighty to say ‘I’ — observe the hosts that follow me.” Actually, of course, the person saying “we” is just that one strange-looking guy, standing at the bottom of the swimming pool, talking incessantly to himself.

On to the next disaster. San Francisco has just experienced a mass landing of verbal flying saucers. There exists in that city a man named Larry Brinkin. Thirty years ago, this man sued his employer, the Southern Pacific Railway, for allegedly refusing to give him three days off to mourn the death of his male lover, the same three days the company allegedly gave straight people to mourn the deaths of their spouses. Because Brinkin kept doing things like that, he was given a job as an enforcer for something called the San Francisco Human Rights Commission, which uses tax money to procure the votes of modern liberals by hunting down private individuals who allegedly treat gay people, “transgendered people,” foreign people, fat people, short people, and probably many other people in “discriminatory” ways. One of Brinkin’s accomplishments, I believe, was spending years worrying a gay bar for its alleged racial discrimination in admitting customers. A larger accomplishment is alleged to have been (sorry, I need to use “allegedly” a lot in a column like this) the invention of a phrase, “domestic partner.” Some accomplishment. Sounds more like a poodle to me.

Let me be clear. If the railway refused to give him three days off, it did an indecent thing. Discriminating against people because you look down on their race, religion, or sexuality is always indecent. But so, in my opinion, is devoting your life to demanding that other people give you stuff, or you’ll send the law after them.

Anyway. Two years ago, for the inestimable work he had done for human rights, and for retiring from his $135,000 a year city salary, Brinkin received a great public honor. The city declared a “Larry Brinkin Appreciation Week” (one day was just not enough), in recognition, it was said, of his “advocacy.” The retired civil servant, about whom you now know 100 times more than almost anyone who lived in San Francisco at the time, was pronounced by all available media a “gay icon,” a “beloved icon,” and every other kind of “icon” that can puff up a lazy text. But after June 22, San Franciscans learned, or thought they learned, a great deal more than they had known before, because on that day Brinkin was arrested for (once more allegedly — and this time the word really does deserve the emphasis), having had something to do with child pornography. He had also, allegedly, made racist remarks pertaining to the subject, although that is not illegal, even in San Francisco.

Discriminating against people because you look down on their race, religion, or sexuality is always indecent. But so is devoting your life to demanding that other people give you stuff, or you’ll send the law after them.

The charges, I am happy to say, are not the business of this column. I have no idea what really happened, or what he really did, if anything. Perhaps I will have a better idea, once the police department’s “forensic” experts complete what has turned out to be a very longterm “study” of Brinkin’s computers. And perhaps I won’t. But the verbal reactions to the matter — those are things within the interest and competence of us all. And they don’t reflect very well on the City by the Bay, which is allegedly so well supplied with intelligence and sophistication.

Icon was in every headline, as if Larry Brinkin’s picture, rendered in a Byzantine style, encrusted with jewels, and lit by votive candles, was a fixture of every church and civil-servant cubicle in Northern California. One of Brinkin’s organizational associates got media attention by saying that she was surprised by the charges, because . . . Guess why. Because he was a “consummate professional.” In the religion of the state, the corporations, and all those occupations in which people must conform to the rules of some “peer” association, professional is not the neutral term it was a mere 20 years ago. It is now a term of absolute value, a universal replacement for ”virtuous,” “admirable,” and all those other words for “morally swell.” Coupled with such terms as “consummate,” it offers prima facie grounds for sainthood, for membership in that exclusive order of men and women who have been selected by their peers for the highest forms of recognition they can imagine and bestow: a picture on the coffee room wall, a place in the Civil Servants’ Hall of Fame and Museum of Professionalism, and at last a funeral in the Executive Conference Room, where colleagues will be invited to step forward and voice their memories of how well Old So and So took care of the paperwork when SB 11-353 was working through committee.

Here’s a politician — one Bevan Duffy, a busy bee about San Francisco, and the caring soul who sponsored the Larry Brinkin Appreciation Week — responding to Brinkin’s arrest: "I have admired and respected his work for the LGBT community. . . . I respect and am confident that there will be due process." Grammar flees where professionalism reigns. Mr. Duffy respects that there will be due process.

Here’s another colleague — the “executive director” (how does that differ from “director”? — but I guess that’s a professional mystery) of the Human Rights Commission, as quoted in a report by Erin Sherbert of the SF Weekly:

We put in a call to Theresa Sparks, executive director of the Human Rights Commission, [who] told us this allegation is "beyond hard to believe."

"It's almost incredulous, there's no way I could believe such a thing," Sparks told us. "He's always been one of my heroes, and he's the epitome of human rights activist — this is [the] man who coined phrases we use in our daily language. I support Larry 100 percent, hopefully it will all come out in the investigation."

It’s not surprising that someone who can’t tell the difference between “incredulous” and “incredible” would regard Larry Brinkin as a hero of the English language. But to be a true professional, especially in a governmental or community context, one must have a grasp of all the inanities with which government workers are equipped. And what a parade of them we see here — beyond hard, one of my heroes (of whom there are, no doubt, countless thousands who are yet unsung), epitome, activist, I support, 100 percent, and that indispensable lapse from basic grammar, hopefully. Nothing more could possibly be required. But by the way, what do you think of this apostle of justice declaring that “there’s no way” she’ll believe what the evidence shows, if it doesn’t show what she already believes?

In the religion of the state, “professional” is not the neutral term it was a mere 20 years ago. It is now a term of absolute value, a universal replacement for ”virtuous,” “admirable,” and all those other words for “morally swell.”

There once was a time when a president of the United States, himself an uneducated and, some said, an illiterate man, could respond to legal opposition in a memorable and verbally accurate way. Referring to a decision written by Chief Justice Marshall, President Jackson said, “John Marshall has made his decision: now let him enforce it.”

Contrast our current Attorney General, Eric Holder (you see, now I’ve had to switch to another, unrelated track), responding to the vote by which the House of Representatives charged him with contempt of Congress. “Today’s vote,” he said, “may make good policy feeder in the eyes of some . . .” He then continued with the usual blather. But I had stopped listening. What stopped me was “feeder.” Clearly, the Attorney General has never been around a farm, or wasn’t listening when he was. And clearly, he’s not hip to ablaut, the means by which one type of word becomes another type of word by changing one of its vowels. Farm animals are sometimes fed in feeders, and the feed that some animals are fed is fodder — not feeder. But why worry about ablaut, or exposure to agricultural conditions? Like his boss, President Obama, who got through Harvard Law without discovering that there is any difference between “like” and “as,” Holder just doesn’t seem to read or listen.

But he’s nothing compared to Jerry Brown, California’s version of Joe Biden — except that he’s even worse in the words department. Brown’s utterances are commonly described as “babble,” despite the fact that their purpose is always clear: increase the power of government. His obsession right now is California High-Speed Rail, an attempt to “create jobs” for union employees by building the largest public-works project in American history, a rail line between San Francisco and Los Angeles. Two years ago, he convinced a majority of voters to approve the project. Today, even its friends concede that it will cost three times more than mentioned in the bond referendum, that it will not and cannot be high-speed, and that it may not even enter San Francisco or Los Angeles. Nevertheless, on July 6, the California legislature authorized a set of bonds for what many now regard as the Browndoggle. Ignoring the language of the referendum, which stipulated that the money should go for a high-speed train and nothing else, the solons proudly allocated billions of dollars to such things as buying new subway cars for San Francisco.

That’s the background. Here, in the foreground, babbles Jerry Brown, who on one of the many occasions on which he “argued” for “high-speed” rail, intoned: “Don’t freak cuz you got a few little taxes. Suck it in.” Brown doesn’t even know the difference between “suck it up” (a vulgar term for “endure it”) and “suck it in” (a vulgar term for faking weight loss).

Jerry Brown’s utterances are commonly described as “babble,” despite the fact that their purpose is always clear: increase the power of government.

Let’s put this in perspective. President Obama, campaigning among morons, or people he regards as morons, drops hundreds of final “g’s” in every speech he gives, and regularly converts “because” to “cuz.” You’ve heard of the hoodlum priest? This is the hoodlum president. But there are people still more vulgar than he, people who speak on serious public occasions in the language of the drug-lost: “Don’t freak out.” Some of them go so far as to omit the “out,” thereby demonstrating that they’re at least as jivy as the jiviest 65-year-old. Other public figures innocently reveal that they’ve gone through their whole lives without a basic knowledge of English-language idioms. Thus the acclaimed Spike Lee, prattling on Turner Classics (July 5) about the last scenes in On the Waterfront, and describing what happens to the Marlon Brando character: “The thugs beat him an inch within his life.” And of course the rich are always with us, in the form of politicized tycoons who lecture us about being a low-taxed people, compared to the Europeans or the Russians or somebody else. Every day of our lives, we in California hear this kind of thing from professors and pundits, politicians and thinktank fishies, despite the fact that our savage sales tax and still more savage income tax put us in the front ranks of slave labor in the United States.

All right. Let me summarize. We’re used to hillbilly talk, and drug talk, and pressure-group talk, and impudent talk, and just plain ignorant talk. Then Jerry Brown comes along, and runs all the bases: “Don’t freak cuz you got a few little taxes. Suck it in.”

Is this what wins the ballgame? What happened to the people on the other team? (No, I’m not thinking about the Republican Party. I’m thinking about people with a normal command of the English language.)

Maybe they’re suffering from the demoralizing condition that afflicts Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr. Some weeks ago, Jackson stopped showing up in Congress. For quite a while, it seems, the absence of the nine-term Congressman wasn’t noted. Then colleagues started theorizing that he was being treated for exhaustion, because of all the hard work that congressmen have to do. Others, including NBC Nightly News, entertained suspicions that Jackson was being treated for something much more serious. Finally, as reported by Rachel Hartman on Yahoo News (July 11), the nation learned the truth:

“The Congressman is receiving intensive medical treatment at a residential treatment facility for a mood disorder," Jackson's physician said in a statement provided to Yahoo News via the congressman's congressional office. "He is responding positively to treatment and is expected to make a full recovery." The statement indicated that Jackson's attending physician and treatment center "will not be disclosed in order to protect his continuing privacy."

Privacy? Jesse Jackson, Jr.? That’s funny. Continuing privacy? That’s beyond funny.

Speaker Boehner, always the man with le mot juste, may be right in taking a cautious and distant approach to Jackson’s illness: “This is an issue between he and his constituents.” And it’s good to know that President Obama isn’t the only one who has this curious way with pronouns that follow prepositions. But if you’re laughing about Jackson’s mood disorder, I’m here to tell you that the condition is real, and serious. By the time I’ve finished one of these columns, I too am ready for a residential treatment facility.




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The Fast and Furious Investigation: Quick or Dead?

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On June 28 the US House of Representatives voted 255-67 to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress for failing to provide documents subpoenaed by the Oversight and Government Reform Committee. Although the vote was largely along party lines, it still represented the first time in American history that a cabinet member has been found in contempt of Congress.

Partisan or not, the contempt vote was more than justified by the facts. The attorney general has stonewalled Congress’ investigation of Operation Fast and Furious, a crazy policy which amounted, in substance, to running guns into Mexico with the expectation that this would lead to prosecutions and the interdiction of weapons trafficked to Mexican drug cartels. One US border patrol agent has already died as a result of Fast and Furious, as have an untold number of Mexicans. Hundreds of the guns remain in the hands of criminals who will not hesitate to use them to kill people. While it should be noted that tactics resembling Fast and Furious were first employed by the Bush Justice Department, the stupidity was ratcheted up in a big way under Holder. In any case, the attorney general has provided Congress with about one tenth of the documents under subpoena, and contradictions have cropped up in his congressional testimony. The whole business stinks, and yet the scandal remains (except on the Fox News channel) for the most part under the radar screen.

On the day of the contempt vote I heard some talking head on a cable news program declare that the timing of the vote showed that the Republicans were not veryserious about pursuing their investigation. On the contrary, the vote was scheduled to coincide with what the Republicans thought would be an overturn of Obamacare by the Supreme Court — the second blow of a double whammy that would jumpstart the Republican effort to take the White House. This plan backfired when Chief Justice John Roberts found a way to declare Obamacare constitutional. The unexpected reversal of fortune for Obamacare washed the contempt vote right out the public consciousness.

It is a fact that the New York Times and the Washington Post have done little to get to the bottom of Fast and Furious. Nothing illustrates the mainstream media’s bias in favor of Obama more than its (non)response to this scandal. Even less surprising is the absence of a Democrat version of Howard Baker asking publicly “What did the attorney general (and possibly the president) know, and when did he know it?” Obama is no Nixon, but Holder might be another John Mitchell. We’ll never know for sure, because Holder, unlike Mitchell, will never wind up in the dock (the Justice Deptartment is not about to file criminal contempt charges against its own AG). So much in life depends on who you are, and even more on who your friends are.




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