Are Employees of the CIA above the law?

Update:  CNN’s Peter Bergen points out all the flaws in Dick Cheney’s logic here.

Over the last few days there have been a plethora of conservative commentaries that range in their argument from Dick Cheney accusing the Obama administration of a political vendetta to The Wall Street Journal repeatedly arguing that the prosecutions are just wrong headed (such as this one) to Debra J. Saunders in the SF Chronicle, arguing that the employees in question should be pardoned.  There are at least two problems with the arguments now appearing on the street:

  1. In all cases, torturer sympathizers seem to forget that we, the American People, don’t actually know what happened yet.  That is what an investigation is for.
  2. In some cases, the argument seems to be that members of the CIA who were acting on orders should be shielded by the fact they were just following orders.  We tried people and convicted them, not withstanding that defense, in Nuremberg.  They were known as Nazis.  We as a society need to send a message that no one is above the law.  It may take years to catch up with people who have been politically shielded from their crimes, but they will be brought to justice.
  3. According to the CIA, torture has been shown to be unreliable.

That leaves the argument that the current investigation by the Justice Department is politically motivated.  I would have to say that if one’s politics require one to believe that torture is illegal and immoral, then the answer is yes.  Our morality throughout the world has been called into question.  Do we condone the torturing of human beings?  What, then, separates us from those we accuse of being evil?

On the other hand, I do not see any evidence that this is some sort of game of political Gotcha.  While Debra Saunders writes that General Holder has in the past been inconsistent in his views when it comes to pardons, that means nothing in the context of a factual investigation.

As to Mr. Cheney, let him speak.  He may, at best, be shielded by the fact that the vice president cannot order anyone in the executive branch outside his own staff to do anything.  He would be the wrong person to go after, anyway.  If President Bush ordered a crime to be committed, let him be held accountable, assuming a crime was committed.

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Ground Southwest?

AirplaneThis Monday’s Wall Street Journal reports that Southwest Airlines has been flying 82 planes for years with parts of unknown quality in potentially critical locations.  The report states that the pieces in question are supposed to “protect movable panels on the rear of the wings from hot engine exhaust.”  That’s an obfuscated way of saying that the parts protect the aircraft’s flaps. Flaps are deployed at both takeoff and landing.  If those fail, several bad things can happen:

  • If flaps on one wing fail to extend as expected, when the other side deploys, the plane could pitch.
  • If the flaps on both sides fail to deploy, the plane will not slow to a normal landing speed.
  • In the most unlikely event that the integrity of the flaps themselves fails, all manner of bad things could happen.

Most failure modes involving flaps are probably recoverable in and of themselves. However, these sorts of failures happen close to ground, leaving little time to react to problems.

The authors write in the article, however, that, “Both Southwest and FAA agree that the parts, some of which have been on the planes for up to three years without causing apparent problems, don’t pose an imminent hazard.”

While it’s good that they’ve not spotted a failure, many failures go undetected for years, during which metal fatigue sets in.  Often there are indications of impending failure, such as cracks.  Southwest has indicated that they will increase their inspections between now and the time the parts are replaced.

Here’s the rub: because the construction method of these parts is untested, one wonders whether inspections are sufficient to mitigate the problem.  This leaves the FAA with a dilemna: make life miseerable for hundreds of thousands of passengers while SWA corrects the problem or take a risk with the lives of a few hundred people.

One way or another, SWA should face a stiff penalty for putting travelers at risk, and forcing the FAA into this situation.

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France Eliminates Sunday Work Restrictions

Bureau of EconomicsThe Wall Street Journal reported this week that the French government has relaxed restrictions on requiring retailers to close on Sundays.  Americans will find this strange but most European countries are rather quiet places on Sundays, where many retailers are closed.  This of course dates back to a time when one was expected to go to church and pray on Sundays, but now it is taken more simply as a day of rest.

Having lived in both the U.S. and Switzerland, I can say that there is something to both having to plan ahead one day so that you’ll have food for Sunday (and breakfast for Monday), as well, as something to be said for not running around one day per week.

Obviously this sounds rather paternalistic on the part of the governments, and it does originate from people who call themselves Fathers, but there is another side to who gets to play daddy.  Someone, I think it was George Stephanopoulos, joked early in the Clinton administration, “If you didn’t work 14 hours on Saturday, don’t even bother showing up on Sunday.”  The National Sleep Foundation conducted a survey that shows the average American works 46 hours per week, trying to compete with his or her neighbor, and our neighbors to the South, and China, and everyone else.  Employers are the new Fathers in this world of globalization.  Perhaps such laws pose a limit on employee productivity, and perhaps that’s just as well.

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Not so fast on Cheney…

This LA Times Editorial discusses the complexities of the situation.  In a nutshell, it’s not clear that the program had advanced to the point to where it triggered a Congressional notification.  Furthermore, if the program was, as is being reported, designed to take out Al Qaida chiefs, the idea that we would not have had such a program is unbelievable, itself.

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Dick Cheney Orders CIA to not inform Congress?

The news media is reporting a story that former Vice President Dick Cheny ordered the CIA to not inform Congress about a secret, and presumably controversial, program.  While there are almost no details about what the program is, there are, nevertheless a few interesting items of note.

First and foremost, constitutionally, outside his personal staff, the vice president of the United States has no authority to order anyone to do anything.  That doesn’t stop the president from delegating power to him or anyone else, and if all we are reading about is true, it demonstrates the enormous amount of trust President Bush placed in Mr. Cheney, and the disdain Mr. Cheney had for the democratic process, and for Congress.  Perhaps he would say that he was protecting America’s security by withholding such information, but in the end we have to ask what sort of a government we had that he could do this and get away with it.

Supposedly, the program in question has to do with some form of surveillance.  When the Director of CIA discovered the program, he reportedly terminated it immediately and reported its existence to Congress.  Any such breathtaking speed within the halls of government indicates that someone didn’t want to be stained with illegal activity.  And hence this calls for an immediate investigation of what the program was, who had the authority to authorize it, and if it was illegal, who had the responsibility to stop it.

And if the program was illegal, someone must go to jail, preferably multiple someones, both from the civil and appointed/elected ranks.  This is important so that civil service employees can’t simply say that they were following orders, and so that current and future politicos know that they cannot get away with violating peoples’ civil rights, and that their day to face justice will come.

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