Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

Enough about civil liberties already. Here's a really bizarre and yet amusingly pitiful story currently taking shape in Greece. In fact, the Greek town of Kalamata, which until today Talking Points had only known through the eponymously named (and quite tasty) olives. Anyway, the British press is full of the story of twelve British and two Dutch 'plane-spotters' being held on charges of espionage in one of Greece's nastiest jails.

What the hell is a plane-spotter?

Good question!!! I didn't know either. So let me try to hook you up.

From what I can tell from this article in the Times of London, this one from the Telegraph, this one from the BBC, and others, plane-spotting is a popular hobby in Europe, which involves middle-aged, primarily male, oafs hanging out at air shows and military bases, watching planes take off and land, and taking pictures. If you're a guy and you've been through junior high you probably immediately understand the phenomena.

Anyway, apparently this is a big thing in Europe - plane-spotting, that is. But no one does it in Greece. And even though these guys were invited to come to some air show or something by Greek authorities, the Greeks wigged out and arrested them for spying on the Greek Air Force.

Who these guys would be spying for and who would care about whatever they were able to see of the crack Greek Air Force isn't really clear. But apparently the Greeks are pretty pissed about it and they're leaving the luckless plane-spotters to rot in some awful Greek prison while the matter winds it way through the courts.

You've got to feel sorry for these hapless boneheads whose gee-whiz vacation has turned into a softball, farcical version of 1978's chilling hit Midnight Express. But the British press is playing the drama like some Victorian set-piece with steadfast Brits keeping a stiff upper lip in the face of captivity by benighted barbarians. Here's one piece about how one of the plane-spotter's wives is holding up through the ordeal ("Sad wait for plane spotter's wife").

Talking about her imprisoned husband (pictured opposite), Perdita Norris tells the BBC: "We've been to Greece together many times. Peter loved everything Greek. At home, we'd have Greek salad, we'd buy Greek honey, Greek yoghurt, feta cheese. Now he doesn't want to know anything about the country. He says he'll never come back here, and I won't either."

By phone last night, her husband told her the group was "keeping up their 'true British grit'".

You can't make this stuff up.

If you want to see a road map for what the nation's politics will look like for the next several years, read this article. Mitch Daniels gave a speech Wednesday at the National Press Club and said, in essence, that we'll be running deficits at least till 2005. That is, if we're lucky.

Daniels' answer is to cut spending on various government programs, primarily social programs, and to put other programs -- like Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security, farm aid, etc. -- up for yearly votes and thus, potentially, yearly cuts. Daniels says Congress's willingness to move in this direction will be a test of whether elected officials can "govern as adults should in a time of crisis and urgency."

We've already noted, at various points, Mr. Daniels' inordinate propensity for knowingly, publicly making statements contrary to fact. (Look, one link won't do in this case. Here's a couple more (one and two.))

The problem with Daniels' analysis is that adults take responsibility for their actions, something he himself seems congenitally unable to do. Daniels' implicit argument seems to be that so much has happened in the last few months that whatever you might have said about the tax cut, now it's just old news. But this overlooks a pretty obvious point. There are three reasons the economy is moving back into deficits. The economic slowdown/recession, the totality of the effects of the 9/11 attacks, and the Bush tax cut.

We can argue about which is first, second, and third in order of importance. But these are the three factors. Two of them are beyond our control: the business cycle and murderous terrorist attacks from abroad. One is a conscious and deliberate public policy decision. Policy is always the part of the equation we can change and manipulate. The vicissitudes of fortune are the ones we can't. In other words, the tax cut is the one decision we could have made differently. It's the one part of the equation that someone has to answer for.

And of course don't forget that, according to Daniels, reducing the surplus was the aim of the tax cut.

I just wanted to pull the surplus down to zero, Daniels seems to be saying, then all this other stuff came along and dragged us into deficits. It's not my fault!

I'm just glad we're in the responsibility era now. Otherwise, where would we be?

You may have read in this article in the New York Observer that Conrad Black (the Canadian facsimile of Rupert Murdoch) and some other investors are putting up money for a new New York City daily that's going to go by the name of the New York Sun.

The new neo-con-ish paper is going to be edited by Seth Lipsky and Ira Stoll (the guy who runs smartertimes.com), which is all to the good since these are two sharp, exciting (and in Ira's case, young) editor/writers. I mean, after all, I'm always up for a new conservative New York daily that might be willing to let me write token-lib columns -- after all, that's how I make part of my living.

The only problem I see is this: the Observer says the "group of investors including Mr. Black intends to spend up to $15 million to launch" the new paper.

To which I can only say: are you kidding?

Don't get me wrong. I'd love to see this thing succeed. But $15 million sounds like chump change to me. I mean, not to divulge any secrets or anything. But I was once involved in a much, much, much smaller venture and we got ... well, let's say a similar amount of money to take the thing bi-monthly. Now we had this small matter of having virtually no advertising and ... well, look, I just can't get into all this. But the point is this: if you're talking about a real daily paper and not just a novelty sheet, "up to $15 million" sounds pretty thin to me.

Not to mention the fact that the newspaper and magazine publishing biz is already in terrible shape.

Is Labour selling out the plane-spotters?

(Yo Talking Points! What the &#$% is a plane-spotter? See this earlier post. And why the @#$% should I care? There I can't help ya.)

When last we left these sad-sack Brits they were facing at least another ten days in a Greek slammer on suspicion of espionage. Now, according to this article from the BBC, the British government has said that the luckless plane-spotters "must face justice" and that the "the judicial process should be allowed to take its course." So basically Foreign Secretary Jack Straw and the Foreign Office aren't going to try to muscle the Greeks.

But Shadow (i.e., Conservative wannabe) Foreign Secretary Michael Ancram is accusing the government of not doing enough to spring the plane-spotters from their Greek captivity.

Actually, Ancram sort of has a point, I guess. Back in the day, Great Britain used to make and unmake small-time countries like Greece with one hand tied behind its back. (Note: I said small time countries, not cultures, peoples, nations, etc. So don't give me any grief!) But these days the Greeks won't even give any respect to Britain's plane-spotters!

Ancram is actually like an Earl, I think. (And not the bogus kind, like the way Maggie Thatcher is now a Baroness. But the real thing.) So obviously, given his lineage, this sort of lese majesté is going to be a particular bummer for him.

Oh Britannia!

Here's a nice, short piece - with a 'what-goes around-comes-around' angle - about why Otto Reich's nomination to be under secretary of state for the western hemisphere is almost certainly toast, done-for, kaput. Short run-down: support for anti-Castro terrorism no longer flies in the post-9/11 world.

Well, it's official: we're in a recession and the recession began in March 2001.

That's the headline in today's New York Times ("Economists Make It Official: U.S. Is in Recession") and many other papers around the country. "The group of economists that tracks business cycles," writes Richard Stevenson in the Times, "made official today what has been apparent to laid-off workers and struggling businesses for months: the longest economic expansion on record gave way earlier this year to the first recession in a decade and the 10th since World War II."

Only it's not official. The report is the product of a standing committee of the National Bureau of Economic Research, a quite well-respected but also quite private organization of academic and private sector economists - facts which are readily available on the NBER's website.

The Washington Post managed this one a bit better. "The U.S. economy has been in recession since March," says the Post's article, "the last month of a 10-year expansion that was the longest in U.S. history, a committee of academic economists announced yesterday."

Guys, how 'bout some fact-checking on this stuff?

This is a touchy topic. But I think it's gotta be broached. If you've seen Beneath the Veil, Saira Shah's riveting and courageous documentary about women under Taliban rule (running on CNN in the United States) you certainly remember the horrific images of a burqa-clad woman being publicly executed in a soccer stadium in Kabul. A reference to the video even made it into President Bush's recent speech at the United Nations.

In the context of the documentary you get the impression that the woman was being executed for going burqa-less, or schooling young women, or perhaps some sexual infraction the Taliban would have no patience for. You also get the impression this is a common occurrence.

But it turns out she was being executed for braining her husband with a hammer while he slept. And the execution, which took place in November 1999 (three years after the Taliban took power), was also the first time a woman had been executed under Taliban rule.

Don't get me wrong. The images are horrific. And the reality no less so: a crude, public death by gunfire - a gruesome spectacle after what I'm sure was a rather inadequate trial. I'm an ambivalent opponent of capital punishment. So I don't think people should be executed at all. But I couldn't help thinking at least a little differently about this one incident after I learned a bit more about the case.

The Taliban are such a rotten, barbaric crew that there's no shortage of reasons to despise them and root them out. And I'm not going to lose a lot of sleep thinking they got a bad rap for this woman's execution. But a little more context in this case was really in order.

I thought the last post was pretty clear about whether I agreed with using military tribunals to mete out punishment to people who might well be 'terrorists' but who couldn't be accused of any specific and definable crime. But I've gotten a few emails asking. So apparently it wasn't as clear as I thought.

The short answer is, 'no' I don't agree with it.

But if readers noted a tinge of ambivalence in what I wrote, it's because I think the problem is a serious one. What do we do if hundreds of hardened, bin Laden-worshipping Al Qaeda fighters fall into our hands? And what if we don't have any evidence of specific crimes they've committed? What do we do? Just send them on their way? That hardly seems wise. Especially given all the trouble, carnage and expense we've undertaken to destroy Al Qaeda.

But it's a question we may soon have to confront.

That's a real dilemma and I'm not sure what the solution is. I just don't think hiding whatever we decide to do with them behind the cloak of non-rule of law, drumhead courts is the way to proceed. But since this is the only situation in which military tribunals would seem to be highly useful, I speculated that this exigency might be precisely what they're intended for.

And by the way, here's another rock-solid column by Bill Safire on the military tribunal question. It turns out the trial of those Nazi saboteurs so frequently mentioned in defense of the Bush order may actually be an object lesson in why military tribunals are not such a hot idea. And by the way, if my recollection serves, the Nazi saboteur Safire mentions - the one who turned the crew in - was one of the two who escaped the chair. I think he got life. Which under the circumstances actually seems a bit harsh.

As noted before, I find it hard to sustain the argument that military tribunals are necessary to try terrorists who might under normal circumstances have been tried in civilian courts. But there is another possibility, another scenario, in which I can imagine the government might find them quite useful ...

Let's start with a question. Does anyone know what law it would be that the military tribunals would administer? As in, the US Code administered in the federal courts? The Uniform Code of Military Justice? I'm not a lawyer. But my layman's reading of the order tells me that this is left pretty vague and probably for the Secretary of Defense or the tribunals themselves to devise.

Section 1, subsection E says those called before military tribunals will be "tried for violations of the laws of war and other applicable laws..." The next subsection (F) says it is "not practicable to apply ... the principles of law and the rules of evidence generally recognized in the trial of criminal cases in the United States district courts."

Again, it sounds to me like these military tribunals are designed not just to give the government tons of leeway on the procedure end but on the law end as well.

And perhaps here's why.

We've heard a lot recently about these non-Afghan fighters (Pakistanis, Chechens, Saudis, etc.) holding out in places like Kunduz - many of whom are actually linked to Al Qaeda. For present heuristic purposes at least, let's assume these are hardcore, well-trained, well-indoctrinated terrorists - which indeed many of them are. In many cases we won't have any evidence of specific terrorist acts these guys (for once, I think we can say 'guys' with some confidence) have committed. In many instances, they may well not even have committed any particular terrorist act or crime - yet.

So what to do with them? Under American law, maybe not much. One can easily imagine a situation in which it wouldn't so much be hard to convict them in our courts, but impossible even to prosecute them, because they couldn't be shown to have committed any definable or specific crime which our law recognizes.

This is a problem which, for better or worse, military tribunals might be quite well-equipped to handle. American law - in fact the rule of law generally - looks not at what you are but what you've done. Military tribunals might be useful for doing the opposite.

It now seems increasingly clear, with a little reflection and after some more voices have chimed in, that President Bush's executive order creating military tribunals is profoundly ill-conceived. What damns it now is not so much the essence of the matter - the actual tribunals, which damn themselves sufficiently - but the outlying facts.

Consider a few ...

First, the fact that the order is wildly and recklessly overdrawn, when this is precisely the sort of order you'd want to draw quite narrowly. Anyone who is not a United States citizen can be bumped out of the civilian courts and into the ersatz military tribunal system on the simple say-so of the president. That is, almost by definition, arbitrary.

Second, not only did the president not call upon the Congress to enact legislation creating the tribunals, he also didn't announce his intention to issue the order (even if informally) ahead of time - something that would have allowed some de facto consultation and comment.

The best argument for the tribunals is the need to safeguard intelligence assets. But upon examination, the federal courts seem to have ample protections already in place to achieve that end.

The more irascible sort of conservative will likely see this sort of argument as liberal carping or out-of-touch civil libertarian fastidiousnes that disqualifies the arguer as someone not up to the challenge of facing the terrorist threat. But as we noted a week or so back, the issue is necessity. And there looks to be little here.

Coming up next, what military tribunals might really be for.