A Philosopher's Blog

Perhaps Too Furious?

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on June 29, 2012
Deutsch: the fast and the furious logo

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The narrative at Fox News is that the Fast & Furious incident is Obama’s Watergate (of course, Obama has had at least three other Watergate events by Fox’s count). One problem with the way Fox describes this event is that classifying it as being on par with Watergate is hyperbole, a standard tactic at Fox (and MSNBC). In addition to the concern about the fact that such rhetoric is misleading, there is also the practical concern: what will Fox use as a point of comparison if Obama does something really bad? However, my main concern here is not to discuss Fox, but to consider whether or not the Fast and Furious scandal has been accurately presented.

In many ways, this sort of consideration is a foolish waste of time. After all, the narrative of this scandal has largely been written and the “facts” are mostly cemented in the public mind. Anything that deviates from the narrative will tend to be rejected by those who embrace the narrative and, in fact, will merely encourage them to cling more strongly to the narrative. Those who are willing to change their views in the face of new information will tend to be cast as merely following their ideology by those who are following their own ideology. As such, it is tempting to despair of ever discussing anything that might deviate from the narrative.

However, part of being a philosopher is considering that the accepted narrative might not be accurate and having a willingness to take into account new information. In the case of Fast and Furious, Fortune conducted an extensive investigation that appears to reveal facts contrary to the current political narrative. I must, of course, admit that I have largely accepted the erroneous narrative-primarily because this additional information was only recently made available.

As per the original narrative, guns purchased under ATF surveillance  ended up in the possession of criminals. However, Fortune’s investigation provides evidence that the ATF did not purposely allow guns to be trafficked illegally. In fact, it is claimed that the ATF attempted to seize weapons but it was, ironically, handicapped in its efforts by prosecutors and the existing laws covering firearms. Fortune’s investigation also reveals that the claims against the ATF include distortions, errors, partial truths and lies.

The Fortune investigation also covers the process of how right-wing bloggers and CBS escalated the story and then how Representative Issa and others used it to score political points. Interestingly, it is claimed that Obama basically yielded on this matter do as to avoid getting into a rhetorical battle about gun control (which is denied by the administration).

If these claims are true, then the accepted narrative being spun out in the media is flawed and does an injustice to the ATF and those involved. Given the general credibility of Fortune, it is worth taking the investigation seriously and this should impact the assessment of the situation. It should also serve as yet another lesson of the importance of being critical of the facts and being willing to consider new information.

If the Fortune investigation is accurate, then this makes Obama’s choice to use executive privilege even more interesting. After all, if the claims made about the ATF are accurate, then the ATF was trying to do as well as it could within the context of the existing laws and practices. That is, the ATF has been wronged by the erroneous judgments against it-including those I myself made. As such, the administration could have responded by asserting the facts and thus countered the scandal without resorting to executive privilege. After all, there would be nothing to hide.

However, the Fortune investigation does suggest why the Obama administration would have something to hide: perhaps there were discussions about how to handle this matter without getting caught up in the said rhetorical battle over gun control. After all, while Obama has only expanded gun rights, some folks have very strong beliefs that Obama is just biding his time and is waiting to attack gun rights (despite a total lack of evidence for these beliefs). As such, Obama probably wants to avoid getting tangled up in this rhetoric. If so, it is ironic that the use of executive privilege is taken as evidence that Obama is trying to hide something, perhaps some sort of conspiracy to infringe on gun rights.

Of course, it is not impossible that the administration did discuss how the existing gun laws would need to be changed to address the easy flow of arms from the US to Mexico. Such talk would, of course, be presented as attempts to infringe on gun rights. This also shows the challenge Obama faces in regards to this flow of guns. One the one horn, attempts to seriously address the problem will be seen as attempts to infringe on gun right and no doubt strongly opposed by the right. On the other horn, using weaker methods will have little or no impact and will result in condemnation from the right for failing to address the problem. In short, Obama (and the next President) would seem to be in a no win situation: anything he does to seriously address the problem would get him bashed as anti-gun and feed the conspiracy theories. Doing nothing serious about the problem gets him bashed as being weak on this matter.  Bush also faced the problem of this easy flow of guns and was not able to solve it. Obviously, whoever gets elected in 2012 will still face this problem and the challenge of solving the problem without being bashed as anti-gun.

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The Fast & The Foolish II: Executive Privelege

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on June 21, 2012
Deutsch: the fast and the furious logo

 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Back when the Fast & Furious debacle hit the media, I did a critical post on the incident. To this day, I wonder about the thinking behind that plan and had hoped that this mess would at least be sorted out a bit. While congress has decided to pursue the matter (and correctly so), the Obama administration decided to evoke executive privilege to avoid releasing certain relevant documents to congress.

While Fox News tends to flip-flop on executive privilege based on the political party of the president,  I have been consistently critical of the practice. As such, I can recycle much of what I have said in the past about this matter.

In the face of the “Fast and Furious” debacle and its handling by Attorney General Holder, President Obama has decided to invoke executive privilege.

While this alleged power to invoke executive privilege is not specified in the Constitution, the gist of it is that the President can refuse to provide the public with information that he deems as privileged. This power is often invoked in the name of national security but is also justified by the claim that a President’s minions need to be able to freely provide advice without being worried that such advice will be made public. Thus, the justification is based on consequences: such things must be kept secret for the good of the country.

From a moral standpoint this practice can be justified on utilitarian grounds. To be specific, this keeping of secrets  can be justified by appealing to the fact that this practice prevents far greater harms. Although the Obama administration has done little or nothing to show that these matters must be kept secret for the good of the nation, this moral logic is reasonable. However, the challenge lies in showing that revealing the information in the documents would do undue harm to the country and hence that the president is morally justified in keeping them secret.

If, for example, the documents contained detailed information about ongoing law enforcement operations (especially those involving undercover aspects) and releasing such information could prove harmful to these operations (and put people in danger), then it would be reasonable to keep these documents secret. However, this does not seem to be the case. Also, if the documents did contain such information, then the administration would not need to use executive privilege-they could appeal to the importance of secrecy in this case.

On the face of it, the most plausible explanation is that the documents contain information that would be harmful to or embarrassing for the administration. After all, evoking executive privilege will create the impression that there is something they want to hide and, assuming that the security hypothesis is not true, the reasonable inference is that whatever is being hidden would be more damaging than the harm done by creating this impression.

It might be countered that the administration is merely acting to assert the right of the executive branch against an intrusion by congress. While this does have some appeal, congress does appear to be acting well within its legal rights and is doing its job. As such, the president seems to be wrongly impeding congress rather than rightfully defending executive turf.

It might also be countered that this is a partisan attack on the president by the Republicans calculated to score political points. While I am sure that the Republicans would be happy to score points here, they are actually doing what they should be doing, namely investigating a law enforcement debacle and what might well be a cover up that reaches (as they say in the movies) all the way to the top. As such, the points they score will most likely be earned legitimately.

Unless the administration can provide a good reason to believe that the documents contain information that must be kept from congress for legitimate reasons, then this invocation of executive privilege is wrong and it invites people to speculate as to what sort of damaging information is contained in the documents.  It should be hoped that Obama changes his mind and releases these documents voluntarily. After all, while the president does have the right to evoke executive privilege, it is not a screen that is to be used to hide misdeeds. Naturally, if there are no misdeeds, then there would seem to be nothing worth hiding-so they should be released.  If there are misdeeds, then the president has no moral or legal right to conceal them with executive privilege.

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The Fast & the Foolish

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on December 8, 2011
English: Official portrait of United States At...

Too fast, too furious?

Most folks are probably familiar with the “Fast and Furious” gun running sting operation. The idea was that guns would be allowed to fall into criminal hands but they would have tracking devices to allow law enforcement to track them. While this sort of idea would work in the movies, it failed miserably in reality. Unless, of course, success is marked by providing criminals with guns.

Given that the plan was remarkably stupid and had seriously bad consequences, it seems reasonable that those involved should be punished appropriately. One question that is currently being addressed is how far the chain of responsibility goes.

Republicans are, not surprisingly, gunning for Attorney General Eric Holder and others in the Justice Department. They are, of course, right to push this issue and determine the extent to which the upper officials were aware of the plan and hence accountable for said plan.

If it is established that the officials in question were aware of the details of the plan (and had reason to believe it would turn out badly) then they should be held responsible for the operation to the degree that they were aware and to the degree they had the authority to control the operation.

It might be tempting to simply hold that officials are fully responsible for every action conducted by those beneath them in the chain of command. Of course, this would be absurd. After all this would make the President of the United States fully accountable for the actions of all military personnel, all the way down to the buck privates. It would also make corporate CEOs accountable for every employee (at least in terms of what they do on the job). On this view, if a private leaked secrets, then the President would be responsible. Or, if an employee of BP overcharged you for a hot dog at the store, then the CEO of BP would be accountable.

It is far more reasonable to assign responsibility based on the extent of the official’s knowledge (and also what s/he should know) and authority in the matter. In the case of Holder, while he is the Attorney General it does not follow that he can be aware of all operations and their details. The same can hold true of some of the officials under him. However, it obviously is not true of all of them and what needs to be sorted out is where the accountability for this incident legitimately ends (at least in terms of who should be punished).

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