Sep 172014

Today the US House of Representatives voted to support President Obama’s plans to assist certain “vetted” groups in Syria who are fighting the Islamic State.

ISIS is in some ways a threat, and I think that our foreign policy ought to oppose the group at every turn. But I fear that this vote will turn out to be a missed opportunity to combat a far larger threat. Congress just missed an opportunity to put the brakes on the country’s post-2001 protean and never-ending faux-existential crisis responses to terrorist groups, and the associated and inevitable domestic rule-of-law violations that are always justified by spurious government appeals to “national security.” These are the only real existential threats in any way associated with ISIS. This vote does nothing to reduce these threats, because it expresses support for vague executive branch actions against a group whose threat to the national security of the US has been overhyped.

I agree with those who oppose aiding anti-ISIS groups for the very pragmatic reasons that it’s unlikely to work, or if it does, that the victorious groups in Syria or Iraq won’t be much better than ISIS itself. I agree with those who are skeptical about our commitment to fighting ISIS, when at the same time we seem unwilling to actively confront Saudi Arabia or Qatar about those nations’ aiding and abetting of ISIS.

But those reasons pale in comparison to what I think will be the consequences of this Congressional declaration of support for an Obama administration that is pursuing active military operations against ISIS. I fear that this vote will be cited by the Administration when it gets caught assassinating an American citizen that may have traveled to Syria to fight with ISIS forces. I don’t doubt that this vote will be cited by the Administration the next time it acts to stop a lawsuit in its tracks on grounds of “national security” because, somehow, our operations against ISIS may or may not have been related, somehow.

This lack of respect for the rule of law in the name of national security is not a context in which the Congress ought to lightly approve of the executive branch’s deepening our involvement in an overseas conflict against a foe that at most poses only a dubious threat to this country’s security (a threat to some of its ‘interests’, maybe, but not a threat to its security).

Instead, Congress could have strengthened the distinction between wartime and peacetime that has been blurred by the pseudo “war” on terror by not voting to support a vague plan to provide “assistance” to armed forces in Syria that have been “vetted” by some unspecified criteria, as Justin Amash describes the amendment that was just passed. Instead, we have another expression of Congress in support of American involvement in a military response to an overhyped threat. Since 9/11, we’ve seen how two successive administrations have used these conflicts as excuses for violating the rule of law in the name of national security. This vote missed a small opportunity to change this behavior.


May 062014

I’m going to reiterate one of the major reasons why I oppose the government’s bulk suspicionless domestic surveillance programs revealed by Edward Snowden and others. I’m talking about something different but inseparable from important issues of constitutionality, statutory legality, effectiveness, and intrusiveness that are debated almost ad nauseam among lawyers, journalists, politicians, and nat sec personnel.

I’m talking about context. The context of the erosion of the rule of law.

It matters to me that this surveillance has been initiated and concealed in the context of a so-called “war on terror” that has already precipitated many other reprehensible government behaviors that even many defenders of the NSA’s programs are reluctant to defend.

When I consider these other government actions, such as the Iraq war and the manipulative public relations campaign (lies) waged by the executive branch in preparation for that war, and when I consider the regimes of indefinite detention and assassination-by-drone embraced by both the Bush and Obama administrations and subjected to essentially zero public oversight, I am much less likely to believe that the government will not abuse these surveillance powers that it now claims are so necessary to protect us from terrorists.

If the overall context of these domestic surveillance revelations was one in which the rule of law was held in high esteem and scrupulously observed, things might be different. But instead, consider the context in which we actually find ourselves: apart from specific instances of flagrant disregard for the rule of law (see e.g. the disgraces at Abu Ghraib and the lawyerly cover-up that featured Jay Bybee’s torture memos, the legal embarrassments perpetuated by John Yoo, and the immediate rejection by the newly-elected Obama administration of any suggestion that anyone who played fast-and-loose with the law under the G.W. Bush administration should be made to answer for themselves, let alone pay any actual penalties), we are told that since we are “at war” that that the rules are different.

Specifically, that since Congress passed the AUMF, we are told that the executive branch is now operating not under a peacetime legal regime, but under some vague “wartime” regime that grants it much more leeway, but that remains ill-defined and which continues to rely almost continuously on post-hoc legal justifications and concealment of its actions from the public. We are not told why Barack Obama authorizes drone strikes that routinely kill people in Pakistan. Never mind that we have not declared war on Pakistan (or on Yemen, where we also repeatedly assassinate people with drones). Never mind that the identity of the killed is often kept secret (they were “militants”) in the face of routine allegations by third parties that many of the people killed were civilians. Forget about Abdulrahman Al-Awlaki. Forget about the detainees in Guantanamo and about the likely fact that they’ve been tortured and the known fact that they’re being held indefinitely. Focus instead on this pseudo-wartime legal regime that we all seem to take for granted.

When will we know when it ends? When will “terror” be defeated? When will be able to return to the peacetime, constitutionally-governed legal regime that would presumably require far more transparency and inter-branch checks on executive power than what we’ve seen since the AUMF? Answer: we don’t have a fucking clue.

And that’s why I don’t have faith or trust in the NSA, the FBI, or the government in general that it won’t abuse the historically unprecedented regime of bulk suspicionless surveillance that we are asked to accept in the name of this vague “war” on terror.

Faith and trust, I admit, are idiosyncratic emotions, and the defenders of the NSA can choose for themselves to trust, to believe, and to hope for a better future through unleashing the benevolent powers of people like John Brennan and the rest of the Obama administrations nat sec apparatus.

But that seems a bit too credulous for me. I like the rule of law and I want it back.

If you like the current surveillance regime and want to keep it, repeal the AUMF and disclaim any pretentions to some vague “wartime” legal regime. If you like the AUMF and think we’re still at “war”, then don’t try to defend secret blanket surveillance by arguing that it’s all legal under statutes and the Constitution — why would you need to? It’s war, bud, and the only real crime in war is to lose.

Postscript: I would appreciate not distracting ourselves with debates about the character or motivations of Glenn Greenwald or Edward Snowden — irrelevant! We’ll stipulate if you wish that both are smelly turds! Now let’s focus on the questions at hand and move on!

And let’s focus for a few moments on the rule of law in this country, not on Vladimir Putin or on what happens in Russia — irrelevant! Putin is a he-man dictator who is 1000 times more masculine than Obama! So stipulated! Move on!

Apr 122014

The Squak Mountain race that Evergreen Trail Runs puts on every April is one of my favorites.

It has a beautiful hilly mostly-single-track course with a few fast flats and some flowy downhills. It has a wonderful technical section where you can barely see the trail on account of its being overgrown with ferns and moss that hide slippery rocks and bundles of roots with feet-sized holes between them. There are fallen tree trunks that you have to climb over, and tree trunks that you should probably duck under. And the view! Well, this is Seattle, and so there really isn’t any view. But that’s because it’s blocked by a forest of beautiful big fir trees.

The organization and the volunteers are stellar. If you’re reasonable about it, Roger Michel still lets you run his races with your dog. So even if, on race day, you don’t have your dog with you, chances are you’ll encounter someone else’s dog during the race. Running is always better with a dog.

Squak is one of the best trail/mountain races around, and I encourage everyone to try it sometime. There is a 12K, half, full marathon, and 50K, so pick your distance and try not to break your ankle or dislocate anything.

This year I did the half marathon for the second time and finished an unofficial (as of race-day afternoon) 15th. I believe I may have gotten third in my age group. It was a competitive year with 3 or 4 guys running under the old course record (and some guy named Justin Houck did an insane 1:32), so place-wise I’m pretty happy with where I ended up. I felt pretty strong for most of the race. I didn’t fall on my face once. It was, in general, a rousing success. But as after every race, there were a few things I wanted to have done better. My arbitrary goal beforehand was to finish in less than 2 hours, and I finished in 2:04:55.2 which is arbitrarily 4:55.2 too slow. I did the first big climb and all the descents really well, but the climbs near the end had me a bit strung out. You know that feeling you get when your heart rate goes above 200 and you shift over to anaerobic metabolism?  It was like that.

For most of the race I was by myself, except for a spell during the middle when I was running with a guy named Josh. He probably has a bunch of natural talent, because I got the impression he hadn’t been doing a lot of focused training and hadn’t done a trail race since the late George H.W. Bush administration. Anyway, he was great and I hope he continues to race because he’ll probably kick a lot of ass.

Squak was my first race of the year, and I thought it went well. I think I’m a better mountain runner than when I did this race two years ago, and I think the changes I’m making this year in my training are making me faster.  Those changes are primarily 1) greater variety in intensity and distance of my training runs, and 2) occasional group runs with the Rocky Mountain Runners in Boulder (a dog-friendly group of fast motherfuckers). I’m trying to adhere to Matt Carpenter’s advice this season: make your hard days hard and your easy days easy. I think it’s working.

Check back later for some pictures. Until then, my race per the Suunto.


Jan 182014

Should reporter James Risen have to testify in the government’s criminal case against former CIA agent Jeffrey Sterling? Law professor Eric Posner thinks that he should.

Sterling is accused of leaking confidential information about a botched CIA plot to sabotage an Iranian nuclear reactor, and is suspected of being a source for a chapter in Risen’s book. If the government can compel Risen to testify that Sterling was his source, Sterling will almost certainly be convicted, and reporters like Risen will almost certainly find fewer people willing to talk to them about confidential information. This is one reason why Risen is so reluctant to testify — his work as an investigative reporter depends heavily on his promise to sources that he won’t reveal their identities. Risen is arguing that the Supreme Court should create a privilege for reporters from testifying in criminal cases about the identity of their sources.

Eric Posner thinks Risen should lose that argument. Posner describes a world of deeply untrustworthy journalists and governments beleaguered with leaks. He concludes that in this world it makes no sense to hobble government prosecutions of dastardly leakers with grants of privilege to scurrilous reporters who want to indiscriminately disclose even the most valuable of secret programs. Although Posner does acknowledge that “a balance must be struck” between government secrecy and the need to inform the public of government wrongdoing, he seems convinced that rules favoring the work of investigative reporters will strike the wrong balance.

I must confess that I don’t recognize the world Posner apparently thinks we’re living in.

In the world I’m living in, the government has cloaked in secrecy far too much of what it does. If it has a problem with leaks, this is almost entirely the result of trying to keep secret wide-ranging programs that demand public discussion and consent if we are going to pretend that we live in a representative democracy. This includes the NSA bulk surveillance programs revealed by Edward Snowden; it includes the Iraq and Afghanistan war logs revealed by Chelsea Manning.  These leaks may be a problem for a government prone to excessive secrecy. They are the opposite for the health of our republic.

In the world I’m living in, journalists may indeed have failed to earn our trust, but not by indiscriminately disclosing valuable secret government programs, but by uncritically repeating what they’re told by government officials. I would call Posner’s attention back to the buildup to the Iraq war when journalists routinely repeated official claims that turned out to be untrue and deeply misleading. For me, any bad reputation journalists may have earned is the result of their failing to do their job and acting as stenographers and propagandists for the government.

With these background perceptions about the world we’re living in, I read Posner’s arguments and reject (almost) all of them. It may still be true that Risen ought not to have any privilege from testifying, but only if we actually do what Posner suggests as an alternative to excessive secrecy (but that I suspect he won’t be vigorously arguing for as soon as the Supreme Court declines Risen’s request).

Posner argues that because the act of disclosing classified information is a crime, it makes no sense to allow journalists who receive the leaked information to refuse to testify in prosecutions of these crimes. Worse, Posner seems to argue that we ought to be thankful that the government has chosen not to prosecute journalists for aiding and abetting these crimes.

I’d be happy to agree if only we lived in a world where journalism and leaking classified information were the same act (which they aren’t), or if we lived in a nation whose legal, political, and cultural traditions did not recognize the value of a free press (which they do), or if the idea of limits on the ability of the government to prosecute crimes was an alien concept (it isn’t), or if the only way to protect ourselves from terrorism was to live in a police state (it’s not).

Posner tries to persuade us that the press has “not earned our trust” by pointing to episodes of the press publishing information that the government wanted withheld (a 2005 article about the NSA, and a 2006 article about a Treasury Department program to monitor international monetary transfers). But this supports Posner’s argument only if one shares Posner’s worldview, and believes as Posner appears to believe based on his arguments in this article that the government should be the final arbiter of what gets published and what doesn’t. Posner says nothing about how or whether those disclosures were actually harmful, but I wish he would. Otherwise his examples just show that we still have an independent press in this country that — sometimes — doesn’t do what the government wants it to do. I remain thankful for that.

I suppose Posner might want to say that these leaks revealed no government wrongdoing, and that therefore they were leaks “that ought to be plugged.” But  it is far from clear that the programs Posner refers to revealed no wrongdoing. Furthermore, excessive classification and secrecy, even of activities that do not obviously violate the law, can themselves constitute “wrongdoing” when they become as ubiquitous as our government’s national-security obsessed programs have become.

Posner writes: “Leaking has also become such a problem because the government needs a vast unwieldy bureaucracy to supply the level of protection from terrorism that the public demands.” I will only say that invoking “public demand” as a justification for keeping secrets from the public might not be the most effective way of defending secrecy. How do we know that the public “demands” protection that they aren’t permitted to know about?

Posner does make one decent argument at the end of his post:

A reporter’s privilege that makes it harder for the government to prevent leaks just means that the government will redouble the screening, training, and monitoring. If it succeeds, we’ll have as little of the “free flow of newsworthy information” as we ever did, except at much greater cost to the taxpayer with ever more complicated, redundant, and awkward bureaucratic controls

He suggests instead a rule that leakers ought to be allowed to defend themselves by showing that they acted in the public interest by disclosing “grave wrongdoing.” Posner here acknowledges that “a balance must be struck” between the government’s need to keep some secrets and the public’s need for protection from government wrongdoing enabled by excessive secrecy. I agree. But the problem is that now we have neither the rule Posner suggests nor the reporter’s privilege that Posner dislikes. Right now, the balance between government secrecy and government accountability is tilted too far toward secrecy.

In this world, I think the reporter’s privilege Risen is seeking would improve the status quo.

Jan 082014

WARNING: This post is about my trail running goals for 2014 and contains some musings about how I’m going to achieve them. Most of you are probably not interested, and that’s… healthy.

BUT FOR THOSE WHO ARE (Hi Mom!), here’s the deal. The 2014 season will be my third trail-racing season, and I think that means that I ought to start shooting at some loftier goals. I have two years of trail running behind me. I think this constitutes a reasonable base of fitness from which I can start to try for some race performances that I would consider “good.”

South Table Mtn trail, Nov '13

So how’s that for specificity?  In the past when I’ve started a race, my goal was usually to get in a good workout, not finish last, and learn something about racing. I think these were very appropriate goals for my first two seasons, where the risk was that I wouldn’t be patient enough and would fail to understand that success isn’t built on one or two good training runs, and that you can’t reach your potential in one or two months or even years. Facing my third season, I think the time is right to put that base fitness to work and aim for something else in races.

I’d like to have some really good races this year where I do well against my past performances and against the field in general, depending on the race and on the field. So for example, concerning my two goal races for 2014:

Pikes Peak Marathon: I’d like to finish in under 6 hours. This would improve on my best time of 6:23 back when I was 28 years old (but when I was doing the race rather…. casually). I think this is actually a very modest goal, as it would require me to cut 43 minutes off last year’s time, 20 of which were spent sitting on a bench at Barr Camp trying not to throw up. Considering that my training for last year’s race included only one descent of Barr Trail and only one ascent, I think there’s plenty of room for better race-specific training this year.

The Rut 50K: Another race I’m repeating this year. Last year was a pleasant disaster (I felt miserable the whole time but somehow enjoyed it and finished), so there’s a lot of room to improve. I’m going to spend more time at Big Sky prior to the race and do runs on the course with my dog. The goal is to finish in the middle third of the field. Since the field might be dramatically different from last year on account of the Rut’s inclusion on the Skyrunner world series calendar, there’s a lot of uncertainty about this goal.

Two other races I’m repeating from past years are the Illinois Marathon and the Squak Half Marathon. No specific goals for these other than that I want to run them hard, and that I’m committed to finishing the Illinois Marathon this time (last year I dropped after 18 miles without any regrets, as it was purely a training run).

In order to race better in 2014, I’m going to rely on two major adjustments to the training regimen. First, I’m going to vary the intensity and length of my workouts more. Last season I was doing too many 1.5 -hour runs over similar terrain, without much variation. This year, I plan to run shorter, faster, longer, etc. over the course of each week and month to avoid doing the same workout over and over.

Second, I’m going to increase my volume. I need to do some 5-hour runs in training and not just in races. I’m going to do more Pikes Peak ascents and descents. Maybe a training round-trip or two.

So for the first time, I’m going to be disappointed if I don’t have some substantially better racing performances this season. It’s about time to raise the bar.

Pup licks on Green Mtn