Commentary Magazine


Posts For: May 21, 2013

Doesn’t Know Math But Can Count to Five

Lois Lerner seemed to have gotten her proverbial 15 minutes of fame after being the first one to let slip the news that the Internal Revenue Service had targeted conservative groups when determining the nonprofit status of organizations during a conference call with reporters May 10. Before the nation began to even fully digest the enormity of this scandal, they had a good laugh at the IRS official’s expense because in answer to a question about the percentage of groups that had been unfairly treated she responded, “I’m not good at math.” That earned her a moment of derision in what has now become a classic Jon Stewart rant on Comedy Central, as he noted that both her “apology” and her inability to do simple arithmetic undermined the credibility of the party of big government as well as that of the tax agency.

But while Lerner may not know math, she can count to five. We learned this afternoon that when she answers her subpoena to testify about the affair before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, she would invoke her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination and refuse to answer questions posed by Congress. The agency that once was best known for being used to nail criminals like Al Capone, who could not be successfully prosecuted for their violent crimes but were vulnerable because they didn’t pay enough taxes, is now going to have a top official acting like a mafia button man on the hot seat.

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Lois Lerner seemed to have gotten her proverbial 15 minutes of fame after being the first one to let slip the news that the Internal Revenue Service had targeted conservative groups when determining the nonprofit status of organizations during a conference call with reporters May 10. Before the nation began to even fully digest the enormity of this scandal, they had a good laugh at the IRS official’s expense because in answer to a question about the percentage of groups that had been unfairly treated she responded, “I’m not good at math.” That earned her a moment of derision in what has now become a classic Jon Stewart rant on Comedy Central, as he noted that both her “apology” and her inability to do simple arithmetic undermined the credibility of the party of big government as well as that of the tax agency.

But while Lerner may not know math, she can count to five. We learned this afternoon that when she answers her subpoena to testify about the affair before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, she would invoke her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination and refuse to answer questions posed by Congress. The agency that once was best known for being used to nail criminals like Al Capone, who could not be successfully prosecuted for their violent crimes but were vulnerable because they didn’t pay enough taxes, is now going to have a top official acting like a mafia button man on the hot seat.

Let’s concede that Lerner is well within her rights in pleading the fifth since she, as much as anyone involved in this disaster, is very much in legal peril for countenancing if not abetting blatantly illegal behavior by government personnel even if we are now told that she eventually attempted to broaden the discrimination to all groups, rather than just Tea Partiers.

It should also be conceded that an outright refusal to testify is, in some ways, a lot more honest than what we’ve heard from her boss Steven Miller both last week and today, as he continued to claim that he didn’t lie to Congress last year when he told them targeting wasn’t going on. The same goes for his predecessor Douglas Shulman, who also assured Congress nothing like that was happening even though an investigation of this behavior was already going on. Their assurances that they hadn’t told anyone in the Treasury Department about any of this are also suspicious. Especially since we are also informed, as the New York Times reports, that Deputy Treasury Secretary Neal S. Wolin “learned of the inspector general’s audit into the targeting effort in the summer of 2012.” Congress will be curious about what, if anything, he did with that information that somehow remained secret during the presidential campaign.

What we hope to eventually learn is what Miller, Shulman and Lerner seem unable or unwilling to tell us: who ordered IRS personnel to do the targeting and why they did it. Up until now all we’ve gotten from the agency and its defenders are stories about overwork, understaffing and incompetence that are worse than no explanation at all.

Unless we get some straight answers to the contrary, there is no reason for anyone to avoid thinking about connecting the dots between the demonization of the Tea Party and other conservatives groups by the administration and the liberal media and the IRS actions. The spectacle of Ms. Lerner channeling the testimony of one of Jimmy Hoffa’s criminal associates while being pressed by the young Bobby Kennedy when she appears before Congress tomorrow will be a sobering moment for an administration and a liberal movement that has doubled down in recent years on its determination to expand the scope and the power of the federal government and its most intrusive agency.

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What Barbara Buono’s Ad Says About Chris Christie’s Popularity

When Chris Christie retained his high approval numbers into 2013, it threw a wrench into the plans and expectations of the New Jersey Democratic Party. Because Christie was something of a political novice (he served as a county freeholder in the 1990s), they thought he might stumble early on. He didn’t. Because he started off taking on a pervasive New Jersey institution in the public education unions, they hoped he would prove too divisive for blue Jersey. He didn’t. Because, despite Christie’s fundraising, his party failed to make gains in the state legislature’s midterm elections, it looked as if he was running out of steam. He wasn’t.

So a gubernatorial election that was supposed to be celebrity Mayor Cory Booker’s perfectly timed transition out of Newark and into the governor’s mansion instead looked liked an intimidating challenge–especially in a state where high-level Democrats are rarely challenged. So Booker seems to have decided to move over to the Senate, to take Frank Lautenberg’s seat. But a Lautenberg retirement was supposed to clear the way for Congressman Frank Pallone, who would now face an uphill battle against Booker. And who will run against Christie on the Democratic ticket? It will be State Senator Barbara Buono, who has just put out an ad taking a self-deprecating shot at her own lack of name ID:

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When Chris Christie retained his high approval numbers into 2013, it threw a wrench into the plans and expectations of the New Jersey Democratic Party. Because Christie was something of a political novice (he served as a county freeholder in the 1990s), they thought he might stumble early on. He didn’t. Because he started off taking on a pervasive New Jersey institution in the public education unions, they hoped he would prove too divisive for blue Jersey. He didn’t. Because, despite Christie’s fundraising, his party failed to make gains in the state legislature’s midterm elections, it looked as if he was running out of steam. He wasn’t.

So a gubernatorial election that was supposed to be celebrity Mayor Cory Booker’s perfectly timed transition out of Newark and into the governor’s mansion instead looked liked an intimidating challenge–especially in a state where high-level Democrats are rarely challenged. So Booker seems to have decided to move over to the Senate, to take Frank Lautenberg’s seat. But a Lautenberg retirement was supposed to clear the way for Congressman Frank Pallone, who would now face an uphill battle against Booker. And who will run against Christie on the Democratic ticket? It will be State Senator Barbara Buono, who has just put out an ad taking a self-deprecating shot at her own lack of name ID:

 

This situation, in which the New Jersey Democrats can’t field a candidate voters have heard of to run for governor, was simply unthinkable just a few years ago, when Jon Corzine was in office and Booker was waiting in the wings. Incidentally, Buono had a close brush with Christie previously when it seemed likely that Corzine would pick Buono to run as his lieutenant governor against Christie in 2009. Corzine passed on Buono in part because of her perceived ambition to be governor, which would have taken the Democratic Party machine out of the process of choosing Corzine’s successor and, most of all, stood in Booker’s way.

Ironically, almost a decade ago Buono opposed a plan that would have enabled Corzine to ascend to the governor’s mansion right away after Jim McGreevey’s resignation, because it would have allowed the state Democratic machine to go over the heads of the voters and the local party organizations. And that connection, unfortunately for Buono, brings us to the one reason voters outside her district may know of her. In 2009, the New York Times reported Corzine’s choice for lieutenant governor this way:

For days, it had appeared certain that Mr. Corzine would choose State Senator Barbara Buono of Metuchen, an expert on the state budget. But Ms. Buono was a protégée of former Senator John Lynch, whom Mr. Christie sent to jail for taking bribes.

As background, Lynch was a state senator and longtime mayor of New Brunswick, the county seat of Middlesex County, in which Buono’s district is located. He was also, as the Times story notes, corrupt. But the Times’s characterization of Buono’s relationship to Lynch isn’t quite fair. First of all, not to excuse anyone’s association with John Lynch, but in New Jersey–as in many states, I’m sure–with regard to party bigwigs, there are protégées and then there are protégées. In one sense, almost anyone in state politics in the dominant party would fall into that category at least superficially, as no one can really advance very far without the right approval. Then there are those who fall under the classic understanding of the term, with much closer professional ties to party bigwigs.

Buono stood up to Lynch twice (if not more). The first time was when she ran against Lynch’s handpicked candidate and won–her victory was at least a temporary defeat for Lynch. The second time was the aforementioned plan to benefit Corzine’s ambitions; it was Lynch’s plan. It’s also quite possible that that helped cost her the lieutenant governorship nod in 2009.

Because of all that, Buono can make a credible case that she is the former kind of protégée, if at all, and not the better connected kind. She can also make the case that she’s received scant assistance from the party machine to take her shot at Christie. But that will change, because the New Jersey Democrats will not abandon a gubernatorial campaign. And Buono’s relative independence from her party–and it is relative, not significant or absolute–is unlikely to benefit her in a general election. Not being corrupt is a low bar to clear (though unfortunately not low enough in Jersey) and might have been enough to beat Christie in 2009, but it’s less of an advantage against a popular incumbent of either party.

Additionally, beyond the humor of her first ad, it’s an acknowledgement that no one with any name recognition had any desire to challenge Christie. That will only serve to reinforce the existing narrative centered on Christie’s popularity.

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A Jew, a Christian, and a Muslim Walk Into a Bar…

No, I’m not going to tell a religious joke here on the blog, but I will staunchly defend anyone’s right to poke fun or criticize religion (or anything else) on the pretext of free speech. Defending religious sensibility, however, has become the latest front in a war pursued by diverse politicians to curtail free speech.

There has been much attention, for example, on efforts by leaders of Muslim states—from Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to Indonesia’s Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to Afghanistan’s Hamid Karzai—to outlaw Islamophobia which, despite its name, has less to do with “fear” of Islam and more to do with constraining an internal debate about some of its more noxious interpretations.

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No, I’m not going to tell a religious joke here on the blog, but I will staunchly defend anyone’s right to poke fun or criticize religion (or anything else) on the pretext of free speech. Defending religious sensibility, however, has become the latest front in a war pursued by diverse politicians to curtail free speech.

There has been much attention, for example, on efforts by leaders of Muslim states—from Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to Indonesia’s Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to Afghanistan’s Hamid Karzai—to outlaw Islamophobia which, despite its name, has less to do with “fear” of Islam and more to do with constraining an internal debate about some of its more noxious interpretations.

It would be wrong to single out leaders of majority-Muslim states for seeking to muzzle criticism and parody of religion at the expense of free speech or open debate. According to Russia’s Channel One (as translated by the Open Source Center), Russian parliamentarians have again approved a ramped-up anti-blasphemy law:

If the bill makes it through both houses of parliament and is then signed into law by Putin, those suspected of breaching its provisions will be liable to criminal prosecution. Those found guilty of “behavior in public that shows clear disrespect for society and is aimed at offending religious feelings” will face a fine of up to R3,000 (just under 100 dollars) or up to one year in prison. If the offense occurs in a place of worship, the maximum penalty will be a fine of R5,000 (just over 150 dollars) or up to three years in prison.”

It was an earlier iteration of this blasphemy law that Russian President Vladimir Putin used to send members of the Russian punk band Pussy Riot to prison. Pussy Riot’s performance might not be my cup of tea—and their staging it impromptu in a cathedral certainly demonstrates bad taste—but bad taste is often a characteristic of youth.

The assault on free speech is not simply an Islamist problem, but now goes much deeper. It is simply the latest tactic for autocrats to achieve their desired result of muzzling speech and individual liberty. The fact that the erosion of rights is conducted in the name of tolerance and other buzzwords of the human rights community shows both how cynical autocrats have become and how politicized the human rights community is today. The tyranny of political correctness is far from defeated.

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Does Development Really Bring Security?

Critics of U.S. involvement in both Iraq and Afghanistan often make two mutually exclusive points. The first is that the wars have been tremendously costly, and the second is that the means to win security is through development.

Had the Iraq war ended soon after Saddam’s ouster—and had the Bush administration not abandoned its initial plans to withdraw after 90 days—then the cost of that war would have been tremendously reduced both in terms of blood and treasure. Iraq has made great strides in the decade since Saddam’s ouster, but most of the development in both southern and northern Iraq has more to do with the fact that Saddam is gone than with American investment. The billions spent on development (including the cost of providing those aid workers with security) have produced little if anything.

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Critics of U.S. involvement in both Iraq and Afghanistan often make two mutually exclusive points. The first is that the wars have been tremendously costly, and the second is that the means to win security is through development.

Had the Iraq war ended soon after Saddam’s ouster—and had the Bush administration not abandoned its initial plans to withdraw after 90 days—then the cost of that war would have been tremendously reduced both in terms of blood and treasure. Iraq has made great strides in the decade since Saddam’s ouster, but most of the development in both southern and northern Iraq has more to do with the fact that Saddam is gone than with American investment. The billions spent on development (including the cost of providing those aid workers with security) have produced little if anything.

Nevertheless, soft power or peace through development remains the mantra of too many in the U.S. aid community or for that matter, among our European partners. The problem is that there’s no evidence that investment in development is worth it. What caught my eye was this report, from the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR). In short, two USAID-funded hospitals seem unsustainable, and several others likely won’t be able to function at true capacity. In recent months, SIGAR has released a number of damning reports allegedly leading to efforts by some in the administration to muzzle it.

USAID has spent billions of dollars in conflict zones. The U.S. aid community maintains a dashboard that purports to demonstrate bang for the buck. Alas, it never achieves that goal. Take this explanation of USAID investment in Iraq, for example. Stating that money will be applied toward a certain goal does not equate with wise investment. Nor is there evidence that flooding a country with cash improves security. Indeed, Afghanistan proves quite the opposite: USAID might brag about building roads and bridges, but Afghan villagers often beg to be left off the network so as to avoid the resulting land grabs by corrupt government, security and Afghan National Army officials. As a second order effect, local villagers sometimes seek protection in the Taliban, as the very Afghans who are supposed to guard USAID bridges and roads are the ones who seek to confiscate land and livelihood. Terrorism might be a tragedy for a handful of families when bombs kill or maim loved ones, but corruption is a cancer that impacts millions and too often USAID fuels that corruption.

As the Afghanistan conflict winds down and joins the Iraq campaign in something distinctly different from nation-building, some serious introspection is long past due about what benefits if any are derived from aid as it is currently managed. This is not a reason to dispense with aid entirely. But the idea that a multi-billion dollar, bureaucracy-bloated organization is the best way to promote development is questionable at best. Nor should the conventional wisdom that aid contributes to security be accepted as fact. It is long past time for USAID to prove that its investments are worth their cost. Perhaps the lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan should not be that the cost of regime change is too high to bear, but rather than the development welfare that accompanies it is the problem. Perhaps it’s time to rebuild the infrastructure of U.S. foreign assistance from scratch.

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RE: Apple Does Its Duty

I guess Senator Rand Paul reads Contentions. At least his opening statement tracks what I wrote this morning exactly.

He said, for instance, “I am offended by the spectacle of dragging in here executives from an American company that is not doing anything illegal. If anyone should be on trial here, it should be Congress.”

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I guess Senator Rand Paul reads Contentions. At least his opening statement tracks what I wrote this morning exactly.

He said, for instance, “I am offended by the spectacle of dragging in here executives from an American company that is not doing anything illegal. If anyone should be on trial here, it should be Congress.”

It seems the hearing on Apple’s tax avoidance didn’t go exactly as planned, with other Republicans chiming in on the country’s appalling tax code and Apple executives making good suggestions on how to fix it.

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The Scandals and ObamaCare

The New York Times is worried about the IRS scandal–but not for the reasons that have alarmed most Americans. Since the paper actually encouraged the government to target conservative organizations for prejudicial treatment last year, its response to the outrageous conduct that even the White House condemned has been somewhat equivocal, rather than expressing the fears that others feel about the tax agency involving itself in partisan politics. What they’re really scared about, though, is the possibility that anger about the IRS and big government in general that this and other administration scandals have engendered will make it more difficult to implement ObamaCare. Though the Times’s editorial page is usually wrong about most issues, they’re right on target on this score.

That’s exactly why congressional Republicans shouldn’t back away from the idea of attempting to separate the IRS from the role the bill has them playing in rolling out this vast expansion of government power. Similarly, they should also investigate the efforts of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to shake down corporations in order to get them to contribute to a campaign to pressure people to enroll in the act’s health exchanges.

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The New York Times is worried about the IRS scandal–but not for the reasons that have alarmed most Americans. Since the paper actually encouraged the government to target conservative organizations for prejudicial treatment last year, its response to the outrageous conduct that even the White House condemned has been somewhat equivocal, rather than expressing the fears that others feel about the tax agency involving itself in partisan politics. What they’re really scared about, though, is the possibility that anger about the IRS and big government in general that this and other administration scandals have engendered will make it more difficult to implement ObamaCare. Though the Times’s editorial page is usually wrong about most issues, they’re right on target on this score.

That’s exactly why congressional Republicans shouldn’t back away from the idea of attempting to separate the IRS from the role the bill has them playing in rolling out this vast expansion of government power. Similarly, they should also investigate the efforts of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to shake down corporations in order to get them to contribute to a campaign to pressure people to enroll in the act’s health exchanges.

The IRS is tasked by the poorly named Affordable Care Act to scour the tax returns of citizens and businesses to determine which Americans will be fined for failing to buy insurance. Given the fact that the same person who presided over the IRS department that engaged in political targeting is now tasked with running the ObamaCare inquisition, Republicans would do well to not just ask about that appointment but to separate the tax agency from the health care boondoggle. Indeed, after provoking the justified derision of the country for their three-dozen futile attempts to repeal ObamaCare, the GOP should seize on this issue as a way to engage more than just conservative partisans in the need to rethink the bill.

A government that can’t be trusted to handle the processing of tax exemption applications without using political criteria that just happens to conform with the president’s prejudices and which spies on journalists with impunity simply isn’t capable of pulling off what is already a health care fiasco in a fair manner.

In that context, Sebelius’s outrageous stunt in which companies are being strong-armed to pay for ObamaCare propaganda is another reason why Congress must step in. The Enroll America campaign is merely a new branch of the same old Obama campaign fundraising machine. The spectacle of current and former government officials shaking down private businesses to pay for ads portraying the president’s signature legislation as a panacea is more than unseemly. It is a scandal in its own right that crosses a line that shouldn’t even be approached. Yet the Times thinks it’s all worth it because shoving ObamaCare down the nation’s throat is worth any moral or ethical compromise.

This shows again that, contrary to the pleas of the Times and other liberal organs, the spate of scandals isn’t a distraction from implementing the president’s second-term agenda. They are a reminder that the connection between these ethical shortcomings and the president’s big government to-do list is a good reason to slow down the rush toward health care Armageddon. 

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A New Front in the War on Journalists?

As I noted earlier today, the government’s treatment of Fox News reporter James Rosen betrayed the Obama administration’s unhinged obsession with targeting journalists. But as troubling as that is, the problem goes deeper than the attempt by the Department of Justice to eviscerate the First Amendment. The news that one of the reporters who had been aggressively covering the Benghazi scandal had her computer tampered with should alarm more than just her fellow scribes. So, too, should the increasingly shrill attacks from the president’s cheering section on other journalists who have been following the stories about government misconduct.

As Politico reports:

Sharyl Attkisson, the Emmy-award winning CBS News investigative reporter, says that her personal and work computers have been compromised and are under investigation.

“I can confirm that an intrusion of my computers has been under some investigation on my end for some months but I’m not prepared to make an allegation against a specific entity today as I’ve been patient and methodical about this matter,” Attkisson told POLITICO on Tuesday. “I need to check with my attorney and CBS to get their recommendations on info we make public.”

In an earlier interview with WPHT Philadelphia, Attkisson said that though she did not know the full details of the intrusion, “there could be some relationship between these things and what’s happened to James [Rosen].”

Like the IRS’s targeting of Tea Party and other conservative groups, this incident illustrates the old line that said just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you. After what happened to the Associated Press and Rosen, no one should be dismissing out of hand the notion that what’s going on with Attkisson is a matter of foul play.

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As I noted earlier today, the government’s treatment of Fox News reporter James Rosen betrayed the Obama administration’s unhinged obsession with targeting journalists. But as troubling as that is, the problem goes deeper than the attempt by the Department of Justice to eviscerate the First Amendment. The news that one of the reporters who had been aggressively covering the Benghazi scandal had her computer tampered with should alarm more than just her fellow scribes. So, too, should the increasingly shrill attacks from the president’s cheering section on other journalists who have been following the stories about government misconduct.

As Politico reports:

Sharyl Attkisson, the Emmy-award winning CBS News investigative reporter, says that her personal and work computers have been compromised and are under investigation.

“I can confirm that an intrusion of my computers has been under some investigation on my end for some months but I’m not prepared to make an allegation against a specific entity today as I’ve been patient and methodical about this matter,” Attkisson told POLITICO on Tuesday. “I need to check with my attorney and CBS to get their recommendations on info we make public.”

In an earlier interview with WPHT Philadelphia, Attkisson said that though she did not know the full details of the intrusion, “there could be some relationship between these things and what’s happened to James [Rosen].”

Like the IRS’s targeting of Tea Party and other conservative groups, this incident illustrates the old line that said just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you. After what happened to the Associated Press and Rosen, no one should be dismissing out of hand the notion that what’s going on with Attkisson is a matter of foul play.

While that doesn’t allow us to jump to conclusions, let’s also understand what we’ve been witnessing in the last week as the president’s supporters reeled in the face of a deluge of scandals that they are trying desperately to minimize or dismiss as the figment of conservative imaginations. The widespread sliming of ABC News’s Jonathan Karl—who followed up the reporting of the Weekly Standard’s Stephen Hayes on the Benghazi emails—by the left is part of this equation. In particular, the misleading and vicious attacks by the left-wing groups Media Matters and FAIR on Karl tells us a lot about the way the president’s supporters view the stakes in this debate. They aren’t interested in winning a debate. They want to silence opposing views.

Liberals mocked Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s claims over the weekend that the president and his staff have instilled “a culture of intimidation” throughout the government that can be linked to the IRS scandal. But the connection isn’t just to the outrageous behavior of the IRS, for which we’ve yet to receive an answer to the question of who ordered the targeting and why they did it. The blithe manner with which the Department of Justice has spied on journalists and the willingness to smear anyone who calls out the White House on any of these manners is a symptom of what really is a latter-day version of Nixonian tactics.

Some may consider it self-serving that even the liberal mainstream press is undergoing what Jonah Goldberg wittily referred to as their own version of the “Arab Spring,” as so many have finally awoken to the fact that the Obama administration is ensnared in a web of deceptions. The out-of-control nature of the president’s belief in big government isn’t just about taking over health care, it’s also about expanding the reach of the federal leviathan into every aspect of public life in ways that chill the practice of journalism and undermine our freedoms. Make fun of these newly-minted Obama skeptics all you want. The attack on the free press represents a fundamental threat to our democracy. 

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The Danger and Rampant Corruption of Traffic Light Cameras

The ongoing IRS scandal has struck such a nerve with the public because it is a clear example of a prying, ever-present government abusing its revenue-raising power and succumbing to the temptation of easy corruption. There are few things more outrageous with regard to the government’s ability to fund its own corrupt practices–but the latest scandal out of Florida may be one of those cases.

Media Trackers points to this investigation by Florida’s WTSP-St. Petersburg 10 News, which notes that the Florida Department of Transportation instituted a particularly dangerous way to wring more money out of motorists, and crossed federal standards to do so. At issue are the traffic light cameras, an unsafe plague on roadways rife with corruption across the country. The cameras are installed to catch motorists violating traffic rules, but the lawbreakers are usually on the other side of the cameras. From WTSP:

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The ongoing IRS scandal has struck such a nerve with the public because it is a clear example of a prying, ever-present government abusing its revenue-raising power and succumbing to the temptation of easy corruption. There are few things more outrageous with regard to the government’s ability to fund its own corrupt practices–but the latest scandal out of Florida may be one of those cases.

Media Trackers points to this investigation by Florida’s WTSP-St. Petersburg 10 News, which notes that the Florida Department of Transportation instituted a particularly dangerous way to wring more money out of motorists, and crossed federal standards to do so. At issue are the traffic light cameras, an unsafe plague on roadways rife with corruption across the country. The cameras are installed to catch motorists violating traffic rules, but the lawbreakers are usually on the other side of the cameras. From WTSP:

The 10 News Investigators discovered the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) quietly changed the state’s policy on yellow intervals in 2011, reducing the minimum below federal recommendations. The rule change was followed by engineers, both from FDOT and local municipalities, collaborating to shorten the length of yellow lights at key intersections, specifically those with red light cameras (RLCs).

While yellow light times were reduced by mere fractions of a second, research indicates a half-second reduction in the interval can double the number of RLC citations — and the revenue they create. The 10 News investigation stemmed from a December discovery of a dangerously short yellow light in Hernando County. After the story aired, the county promised to re-time all of its intersections, and the 10 News Investigators promised to dig into yellow light timing all across Tampa Bay.

The practice of reducing yellow light times without notifying motorists was blamed for at least one recent traffic death near Tampa, which prompted further investigation. The danger of the traffic light cameras–even without manipulating light times–is nothing new. As the Star-Ledger reported a few months ago, a study in New Jersey found that the installation of traffic light cameras resulted in increased accidents at those intersections, including a 20-percent rise in rear-end collisions.

Aside from the life-threatening risk to motorists and passengers in those accidents, the Star-Ledger noted that according to the study the “crash severity cost,” which calculates the cost of property and vehicle damage, as well as medical care for the crash victims and the expense to the municipality of emergency response, increased by about $1.2 million. The cameras are putting lives at risk every day, so why use them? Back to WTSP:

Red light cameras generated more than $100 million in revenue last year in approximately 70 Florida communities, with 52.5 percent of the revenue going to the state. The rest is divided by cities, counties, and the camera companies. In 2013, the cameras are on pace to generate $120 million.

“Red light cameras are a for-profit business between cities and camera companies and the state,” said James Walker, executive director of the nonprofit National Motorists Association.

They are a cash cow. But a “for-profit business between cities and camera companies” that incentivizes making the roads more dangerous for citizens doesn’t sound like a particularly ethical undertaking for the government. As it turns out, “ethical” is not a word often associated with how the traffic cameras are operated. As Holman Jenkins recently explained in the Wall Street Journal, the cameras have become a sleazy new form of taxation, and “When governments are engaged in sleazy new forms of taxation, sleaze happens.”

Jenkins points out that if you’re looking for corruption, Chicago is a good place to start–and in fact the Chicago traffic light camera regime has been engulfed in a graft scandal. Jenkins noted that in Baltimore, traffic light cameras were ticketing motionless vehicles, and have come under fire in Los Angeles and New York as well. “Ticket-racketeering has been, let’s just say, a contending motivation with safety since the automobile age was born,” Jenkins writes.

Even if Florida DOT officials don’t read out-of-state newspapers, they still can’t claim they weren’t warned, as WTSP makes clear:

Numerous U.S. Dept. of Transportation (USDOT) documents provide guidance to municipalities on how to install and operate RLC intersections. But FDOT and Florida communities are by-and-large ignoring those recommendations when it comes to yellow light intervals.

USDOT/Federal Highway Administration (FHA) report said cities should not use speed limit in the yellow interval equation because it results “in more red light violations and higher crash rates.”

Traffic light cameras aren’t about safety, because they diminish the safety of motorists. They are about money. And the fact that they are rife with corruption and deceit, and increase their financial gain by scamming drivers into unnecessary risks makes them, in many cases, morally indistinguishable from outright theft.

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U.S. Must Exploit Hezbollah’s Vulnerability

At the beginning of the Syrian civil war, many of Bashar Assad’s longtime allies were wary of openly supporting a discredited dictator who was slaughtering his own people. Hamas, which had long maintained a headquarters in Damascus, quietly sulked out of town. Hezbollah, which is tied by an umbilical cord of supplies to Damascus, kept its distance too. But with the Assad regime showing signs of hanging on after more than two years of combat, Hezbollah, and its patrons in Iran, have been more open in their support for the regime. Hundreds of Hezbollah fighters are now fighting alongside Syrian troops in the critical battle for the town of Qusayr near the major city of Homs. Dozens of “martyrs” are coming home to Lebanon in body bags.

By thus raising the stakes in Syria, Hezbollah is leaving itself open to serious blowback. Its credibility in Lebanon has always depended on its posture as an anti-Israel force; its prestige soared when it chased the IDF out of southern Lebanon in 2000 and when it stood up to Israeli attacks in 2006. But now in Syria, Hezbollah fighters are battling not the “accursed” Jews but fellow Muslims who are determined to rid their country of an unelected and unpopular leader.

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At the beginning of the Syrian civil war, many of Bashar Assad’s longtime allies were wary of openly supporting a discredited dictator who was slaughtering his own people. Hamas, which had long maintained a headquarters in Damascus, quietly sulked out of town. Hezbollah, which is tied by an umbilical cord of supplies to Damascus, kept its distance too. But with the Assad regime showing signs of hanging on after more than two years of combat, Hezbollah, and its patrons in Iran, have been more open in their support for the regime. Hundreds of Hezbollah fighters are now fighting alongside Syrian troops in the critical battle for the town of Qusayr near the major city of Homs. Dozens of “martyrs” are coming home to Lebanon in body bags.

By thus raising the stakes in Syria, Hezbollah is leaving itself open to serious blowback. Its credibility in Lebanon has always depended on its posture as an anti-Israel force; its prestige soared when it chased the IDF out of southern Lebanon in 2000 and when it stood up to Israeli attacks in 2006. But now in Syria, Hezbollah fighters are battling not the “accursed” Jews but fellow Muslims who are determined to rid their country of an unelected and unpopular leader.

Hezbollah is thus suffering a loss of credibility and prestige, especially among the Sunni majority in the Arab world which sympathizes with the largely Sunni Syrian insurgency battling against a minority Alawite regime. Hezbollah is seen not as a pan-Arab army but as a sectarian, pro-Shiite force. That is a vulnerability that the U.S. and its allies should exploit to try to loosen Hezbollah’s death grip on Lebanese politics.

In this regard it would help enormously if Hezbollah were not successful in its efforts to keep the Assad regime in power. A failed intervention in Syria would do tremendous damage to its standing in Lebanon, while a successful intervention would allow it to maintain its grip on power by safeguarding the arms pipeline flowing from Tehran via Damascus.

That makes it all the more imperative that the U.S. do more to ensure that Hezbollah loses in Syria–not only by providing arms to vetted rebel factions but also by employing our airpower to ground Assad’s air force and thus removing a crucial regime advantage. Time is slipping away as Assad recovers on the battlefield. If we don’t act now, the Tehran-Damascus-Bekaa axis (the Bekaa Valley is the birthplace of Hezbollah) could emerge stronger than ever.

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Don’t Neglect Afghan Air Support

I recently spent a week in Afghanistan, traveling around the country, from Kabul to Kandahar and Helmand. One of my biggest takeaways was that the Afghan army is now at the forefront of the fight and doing a good job on the whole. But it still needs important “enablers” that only the U.S. can provide, the most important being airpower. Not so much aircraft for close air support–i.e. dropping bombs and missiles on enemy fighters–but aircraft for evacuation of casualties.

The Washington Post has a good article today by reporter Kevin Sieff showing how the Afghan army’s lack of its own medevac aircraft has consigned soldiers to death after suffering what should been a relatively minor wound, which helps to account for its high fatality rate. Evacuations by road are often dangerous and time-consuming–and patients arrive at a hospital long after the “golden hour” when their chances of survival are the highest. (The Afghan army also needs to work on developing its system of military hospitals which, needless to say, are not nearly as far advanced as those of the U.S. Armed Forces.)

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I recently spent a week in Afghanistan, traveling around the country, from Kabul to Kandahar and Helmand. One of my biggest takeaways was that the Afghan army is now at the forefront of the fight and doing a good job on the whole. But it still needs important “enablers” that only the U.S. can provide, the most important being airpower. Not so much aircraft for close air support–i.e. dropping bombs and missiles on enemy fighters–but aircraft for evacuation of casualties.

The Washington Post has a good article today by reporter Kevin Sieff showing how the Afghan army’s lack of its own medevac aircraft has consigned soldiers to death after suffering what should been a relatively minor wound, which helps to account for its high fatality rate. Evacuations by road are often dangerous and time-consuming–and patients arrive at a hospital long after the “golden hour” when their chances of survival are the highest. (The Afghan army also needs to work on developing its system of military hospitals which, needless to say, are not nearly as far advanced as those of the U.S. Armed Forces.)

As the Post article points out, this is not merely a humanitarian issue–it affects the willingness of the Afghan army to fight hard. Sieff writes that lack of medevac capability–U.S. forces now will generally not send a helicopter to evacuate wounded unless an American adviser is present–”has prompted a crisis of confidence in many Afghan units. Some commanders worry that troops might be less willing to put their lives at risk knowing that they lack once-dependable medical support.”

Given that Afghanistan will have a functioning air force until 2017 at the earliest, the U.S. will need to continue providing some medevac capability to keep the Afghan army in the fight. That is a small price to pay for having Afghan soldiers take the risks that American soldiers will no longer be forced to face in order to beat our mutual enemies in the Taliban and the Haqqani Network.

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The Limbaugh Theorem

Earlier this week I wrote a piece about how Barack Obama was criticizing “Washington’s priorities” and the IRS scandal, as if he had not been president for the past four years and four months. There is something brazen and audacious in even attempting something like this. I speculated that Mr. Obama is unable to take responsibility for the problems that have occurred on his watch for reasons rooted in cognitive dissonance (failures cannot possibly happen on the watch of the Great and Mighty Obama). He is engaged in what psychiatrists call disassociation.

A friend alerted me to the fact that a version of this analysis had already been offered up by Rush Limbaugh, who in the aftermath of the 2012 election was trying to make sense of the president’s ability to escape responsibility for his multiple failures. Why did polls show massive dissatisfaction with the country’s direction while at the same time supporting Mr. Obama’s agenda?

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Earlier this week I wrote a piece about how Barack Obama was criticizing “Washington’s priorities” and the IRS scandal, as if he had not been president for the past four years and four months. There is something brazen and audacious in even attempting something like this. I speculated that Mr. Obama is unable to take responsibility for the problems that have occurred on his watch for reasons rooted in cognitive dissonance (failures cannot possibly happen on the watch of the Great and Mighty Obama). He is engaged in what psychiatrists call disassociation.

A friend alerted me to the fact that a version of this analysis had already been offered up by Rush Limbaugh, who in the aftermath of the 2012 election was trying to make sense of the president’s ability to escape responsibility for his multiple failures. Why did polls show massive dissatisfaction with the country’s direction while at the same time supporting Mr. Obama’s agenda?

This gave rise to what Rush calls the Limbaugh Theorem, which is that Obama has mastered the ability to always be seen as “opposing everything that’s happening, even the things he is causing to happen. He is on a perpetual campaign.” A variation of the Limbaugh Theorem can be seen in the unfolding scandals now buffeting the administration. According to Rush, “[Obama] gets away with everything precisely by appearing to have no involvement with it … He gets away with not being tied to [the IRS scandal] like he’s not tied to the jobs numbers, he’s not tied to the debt, he’s not tied to the economy. He’s not tied to anything going wrong.”

It seems to me the Limbaugh Theorem is on the mark, that Limbaugh once again got it right and got it early. Mr. Obama has shown a remarkable, Houdini-like ability to escape accountability for his mistakes. Part of the explanation for this undoubtedly has to do with an unprecedented bias in the press and how they choose to frame stories. Part of it may also have to do with what is known as “low information voters.” But the fact that the American people have allowed the president to escape responsibility for his failed policies time and again is clearly problematic. The question is whether Obama can replicate in his second term what he did in his first. I hope not, and in the end I believe the truth will out. But it’s not foreordained, and we’ll find out soon enough. 

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Apple Does Its Duty

The New York Times is in a state of the highest dudgeon this morning as it reported that, “Even as Apple became the nation’s most profitable technology company, it avoided billions in taxes in the United States and around the world through a web of subsidiaries so complex it spanned continents and went beyond anything most experts had ever seen, Congressional investigators disclosed on Monday.”

It made this the lead story, not the terrible tragedy in Oklahoma. It even devoted the Quote of the Day to the story, quoting a law professor, “There is a technical term economists like to use for behavior like this. Unbelievable chutzpah.”

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The New York Times is in a state of the highest dudgeon this morning as it reported that, “Even as Apple became the nation’s most profitable technology company, it avoided billions in taxes in the United States and around the world through a web of subsidiaries so complex it spanned continents and went beyond anything most experts had ever seen, Congressional investigators disclosed on Monday.”

It made this the lead story, not the terrible tragedy in Oklahoma. It even devoted the Quote of the Day to the story, quoting a law professor, “There is a technical term economists like to use for behavior like this. Unbelievable chutzpah.”

Timothy D. Cook, Apple’s chief executive, will testify today at a Senate hearing, a hearing the Times expects to be “explosive.” The whole tenor of the article is that Apple did something wrong, that it’s a “greedy corporation” that dodged paying its fair share.

But the Times admits that, “Investigators have not accused Apple of breaking any laws and the company is hardly the only American multinational to face scrutiny for using complex corporate structures and tax havens to sidestep taxes.” In other words, Apple management lived up to its fiduciary duty to its stockholders to minimize the amount of taxes it pays to various governments. Outrageous!

The problem lies not with Apple, but with out-of-date corporate tax law that needs to be overhauled from top to bottom to take into account the new integrated global economy. All Apple did was make the problem obvious. This is not unlike the situation in the late 19th century when industrial corporations of unprecedented size arose and the laws needed to govern the new situation took years to develop. Standard Oil didn’t break any laws; it showed what laws were needed.

Undoubtedly, the senators before whom Mr. Cook will testify today will be in the same state of high dudgeon as the Times, and will beat up on him pretty bad. But instead, they should thank Mr. Cook for making the Senate’s duty plain: Rewrite the corporate tax laws.

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Obama’s Hypocritical War on Reporters

Revelations about the Justice Department’s spying on the Associated Press already had the media up in arms, but the news of yet another instance of the government cracking down on journalists seems to have woken much of the country to the truth about the administration’s disregard for freedom of the press. On Sunday the Washington Post reported that Fox News chief Washington correspondent (and COMMENTARY contributor) James Rosen was subjected to having his emails read and phone tapped in the course of an investigation of an alleged leak of classified information about North Korea.

Following similar action against the Associated Press, there can be no denying the chilling effect the snooping on journalists has on the ability of the press to do its job in a democracy. Indeed, the Rosen case ought to be a bridge too far for even those who understand that the government has a legitimate interest in preventing leaks. The egregious nature of the accusation against Rosen that he was a “co-conspirator” in what amounts to a charge of espionage, along with the government consultant who allegedly gave him information to report, betrays a lack of respect for journalists and journalism. It also shows a willingness to disregard the law that protects professional news gatherers from this kind of harassment.

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Revelations about the Justice Department’s spying on the Associated Press already had the media up in arms, but the news of yet another instance of the government cracking down on journalists seems to have woken much of the country to the truth about the administration’s disregard for freedom of the press. On Sunday the Washington Post reported that Fox News chief Washington correspondent (and COMMENTARY contributor) James Rosen was subjected to having his emails read and phone tapped in the course of an investigation of an alleged leak of classified information about North Korea.

Following similar action against the Associated Press, there can be no denying the chilling effect the snooping on journalists has on the ability of the press to do its job in a democracy. Indeed, the Rosen case ought to be a bridge too far for even those who understand that the government has a legitimate interest in preventing leaks. The egregious nature of the accusation against Rosen that he was a “co-conspirator” in what amounts to a charge of espionage, along with the government consultant who allegedly gave him information to report, betrays a lack of respect for journalists and journalism. It also shows a willingness to disregard the law that protects professional news gatherers from this kind of harassment.

What appears to have happened to Rosen is different from the AP case, in that unlike that fishing expedition that exposed more than 100 journalists to the revelation of their sources as well as invasions of their privacy, this investigation is limited to the Fox News reporter. The leak, which is supposed to have happened in 2009, concerned a report by Rosen that stated sources inside North Korea had informed the United States that Pyongyang would respond to United Nations sanctions with more nuclear tests.

But the notion that Rosen was an “abettor and/or co-conspirator” of Stephen Jin-Woo Kim, the alleged source of the leak, is an absurdity. The Post story said that according to the FBI, Rubin’s efforts to gain Kim’s confidence and to get him to give him information about the threat from North Korea “broke the law.” But the practices that the article described are not the product of a “covert” or “intelligence” operation. They are what journalists do every day in Washington and everywhere else as they seek to inform the public. There is no law against publishing classified information, so the government sought to use the Espionage Act to punish Rosen and his source. But treating journalists as spies renders the First Amendment protections of the press null and void. When the U.S. government behaves in this fashion it is saying in effect that there is no difference between the constitutional democracy led by Barack Obama and the authoritarian regime of Russia’s Vladimir Putin. Say what you will about a dictator like Putin, but at least we are spared having his spokesman claim that he is a defender of a free and “unfettered” press while defending those who spy on reporters.

There is a legitimate public interest in keeping genuine classified information —as opposed to the mass of material that is merely labeled “classified”—secret. But what appears to be going on here is an administration campaign to both chill the press and to intimidate whistle-blowers and others inside the government. It also seems as if the administration is seeking to criminalize the normal give and take between journalists and officials that is the life’s blood of a free press.

But the problems don’t stop there. The targeting of a leading Fox News reporter as far back as 2009 at a time when, as Kirsten Powers notes today in the Daily Beast, the administration was doing its best to delegitimize the cable news channel makes one wonder if the Justice Department was taking its cue from its political masters when it sought to make an example of Rosen.

Another disturbing element of this topic is what appears to be the selective nature of the administration’s war on reporters.

Conservatives were angry last year when leaks about top-secret programs like the Stuxnet computer virus aimed at Iran’s nuclear program seemed to be part of an administration strategy to bolster the president’s reputation during an election year. The memory of the calls for investigations of those leaks now leads some of Obama’s defenders to decry what they see as hypocrisy on the right about their umbrage about the AP case. But the problem here is not the principle of leaking but whether the government is only prosecuting those leaks that did not suit the White House’s political interests.

Though the Justice Department has pursued more of these cases in the last four years than all of Obama’s predecessors combined, we have yet to learn of a leaker inside the White House doing the perp walk or one of the West Wing’s favorite outlets for such leaks being given the same treatment as the AP or Fox’s Rosen.

Once Kim has his day in court (which the Post says will be sometime in 2014), we’ll have a better idea of where the truth lies in this case, though the notion that Rosen’s reporting endangered national security strikes most observers, including liberal pundits who hate Fox, as lacking even a shred of credibility. But, as with the other leak investigations, the draconian efforts to make it harder for reporters to do their jobs seems to be part of a culture of intimidation that runs rampant in this administration. If President Obama really believes in protecting a free press he must act now to stop the Department of Justice from snooping on journalists in this manner. If not, he and his mouthpiece Jay Carney should stop pretending they have any respect for the Constitution. 

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Turkey-PKK Peace Will Fail

On March 21, 2013, the imprisoned Kurdish leader Abdullah Öcalan released a letter to his supporters in the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) calling on them to lay down their arms, and for PKK fighters to withdraw to Iraq. The first group of PKK fighters has now heeded his call, and other groups are on the way. At President Obama’s joint press conference last week with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Obama praised the Turkish-Kurdish peace process:

And I want to take this opportunity to commend you and the Turkish people for your courage in seeking an historic and peaceful resolution of the PKK violence that has plagued Turkey for so long. And just as the United States has stood with you in your long search for security, we will support efforts in Turkey to uphold the rule of law and good governance and human rights for all.

Obama may be optimistic, but if the Turks believe that PKK withdrawal was the end-all and be-all of any peace process, they are sorely mistaken.

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On March 21, 2013, the imprisoned Kurdish leader Abdullah Öcalan released a letter to his supporters in the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) calling on them to lay down their arms, and for PKK fighters to withdraw to Iraq. The first group of PKK fighters has now heeded his call, and other groups are on the way. At President Obama’s joint press conference last week with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Obama praised the Turkish-Kurdish peace process:

And I want to take this opportunity to commend you and the Turkish people for your courage in seeking an historic and peaceful resolution of the PKK violence that has plagued Turkey for so long. And just as the United States has stood with you in your long search for security, we will support efforts in Turkey to uphold the rule of law and good governance and human rights for all.

Obama may be optimistic, but if the Turks believe that PKK withdrawal was the end-all and be-all of any peace process, they are sorely mistaken.

Over the past two weeks, I have had the opportunity to speak to a number of officials close to the PKK in both Brussels and some from the region who are visiting Washington, D.C. For many years, I had avoided contact with the PKK but, because the Turks now talk openly to the group and have thus legitimized them as the indispensable partner, it seems silly that American officials would also not engage with them, even if I have reservations about their internal organization and past activities. At any rate, all my interlocutors emphasize that Öcalan seeks not territorial readjustments or outright Kurdish secession from Turkey, but rather they expect to be equal partners inside a reformed Turkish state.

What would this mean in practice? Over the nearly 30 years of conflict, two Turkish institutions in particular have targeted the PKK and their sympathizers: The Turkish General Staff and the Milli İstihbarat Teşkilatı (MIT), Turkey’s intelligence service. The questions Kurds and Turks must ask is whether the Turkish government is willing to enable PKK supporters to serve in decision-making capacities in both the Turkish military and MIT. If the answer to that is no, then the Turkish government is effectively asking the PKK to lay down its arms in exchange for no substantive reforms. After all, the Kurdish fight has not been simply to listen to Kurdish music on the radio or learn Kurdish in schools, but has been a battle for functional autonomy. And for those Turks who would say that the PKK are criminals—and do not represent Turkey’s Kurds—that may once have been plausible, but since Erdoğan has put the imprisoned Öcalan on a pedestal, he has made the PKK leader the pivotal man.

Whether the talks succeed or, more likely, fail, Öcalan is now the undisputed leader of Turkey’s Kurds. The reaction of his followers to the fact that Erdoğan is unwilling to implement all but the most superficial reconciliation will probably neither be non-violent nor limited to the traditional Kurdish cities of Diyarbakir, Van, or Urfa. Erdoğan may soon discover that the price of insincere talks is quite high indeed.

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Milestone for Unmanned Aircraft

Last week came word that the U.S.S. George H.W. Bush, an aircraft carrier on which I had the honor of spending two weeks nearly two years ago, would be testing Northrop-Grumman’s X-47B, an unmanned combat aviation vehicle. The Navy has now released photos and video of the X-47B both launching from the Bush, and also conducting a touch-and-go.

There is little good news coming from the military today, with cutbacks, self-inflicted sequestration wounds, and the looming loss of capability dominating headlines. That the Navy is testing successfully the X-47B on carriers is a good sign. Launching from a carrier is one thing; a “touch-and-go” is something entirely else, as planes—manned or unmanned—must take into account ocean swell and deal with what, in effect, is a constantly moving runway.

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Last week came word that the U.S.S. George H.W. Bush, an aircraft carrier on which I had the honor of spending two weeks nearly two years ago, would be testing Northrop-Grumman’s X-47B, an unmanned combat aviation vehicle. The Navy has now released photos and video of the X-47B both launching from the Bush, and also conducting a touch-and-go.

There is little good news coming from the military today, with cutbacks, self-inflicted sequestration wounds, and the looming loss of capability dominating headlines. That the Navy is testing successfully the X-47B on carriers is a good sign. Launching from a carrier is one thing; a “touch-and-go” is something entirely else, as planes—manned or unmanned—must take into account ocean swell and deal with what, in effect, is a constantly moving runway.

If tests to “trap” the X-47B (landing by catching the wire on deck) in the coming weeks are likewise successful, observers will get a glance of the next generation Navy. Let us hope that, even if the X-47B successfully passes all of it tests, we will still have the political leadership to understand how important the ability to project force anywhere on Earth remains for U.S. national security.

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