As his HBO show Real Talk begins its twelfth season with higher ratings than ever—4.1 million viewers, high for a premium-cable talk show—the iconoclastic comedian and political commentator Bill Maher spoke to The Atlantic about why he likes doing comedy shows in red states, how his show is different from Jon Stewart’s, why the God of the Old Testament is “the most psychopathic character in fiction,” and why he believes most opposition to President Obama is racist.
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The NSA’s outgoing deputy director, Chris Inglis, has given a wide-ranging interview to NPR, where host Steve Inskeep asked about the practice of collecting and storing information on the telephone calls of virtually all Americans. That program requires money, manpower, and time. It is politically controversial. And a presidential review doubted that it stopped any terrorist attacks.
So has it been worth the costs? Inglis, who incidentally claims that it played a role in stopping one terrorist attack, says yes. “I think we as a nation have to ask ourselves the policy question of what risks do we want to cover,” he said. “Do we want to cover 100 percent of the risk? Or do we want to perhaps take a risk that from time to time something will get through? 9/11 was the single execution, it was the execution of a single plot with multiple threats. And about 3,000 people lost their lives that day. That’s one terrorist plot coming to fruition. If that is an acceptable cost, if we can say, we can take the risk that we’ll miss something, then we don’t need to have all of the tools that cover these various seams.”
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On Sunday, 60 Minutes aired a story about the National Security Agency. It focused in part on the role the NSA plays trying to thwart cyber attacks against the United States. It’s good that America has smart people focused on our cyber-vulnerabilities. Foreign adversaries certainly have an incentive to exploit some of them, just as the U.S. and Israel used Stuxnet to exploit vulnerabilities in Iran’s cyber-security.
What confounds me is the plot that 60 Minutes presented as one that the NSA has thwarted. In their telling, the agency may well have saved the global financial system from a viable Chinese attempt to destroy every computer in the world!
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One year ago today, the Senate Intelligence Committee voted to adopt a 6,000-page report on the CIA rendition, detention, and interrogation program that led to torture. Its contents include details on each prisoner in CIA custody, the conditions of their confinement, whether they were tortured, the intelligence they provided, and the degree to which the CIA lied about its behavior to overseers. Senator Dianne Feinstein declared it one of the most significant oversight efforts in American history, noting that it contains “startling details” and raises “critical questions.” But all these months later, the report is still being suppressed.
The Obama Administration has no valid reason to suppress the report. Its contents do not threaten national security, as evidenced by the fact that numerous figures who normally defer to the national-security state want it released with minor redactions. The most prominent of all is Vice President Joe Biden.
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Questioning the claim that Americans now are more vulnerable to terrorism, and probing its implications.
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There’s a moment in Captain Phillips, Paul Greengrass’s excruciatingly tense tale of the 2009 capture of an American ship captain by Somalian pirate, where the audience gets a rare chance to laugh. It’s probably not meant to come off this way, but after 90-ish minutes of nightmarish, shaky-cam time spent with Tom Hanks’s schlubby title character and his harried, emaciated captors, the appearance of square-jawed, capital-H Handsome Navy Seals onscreen sent at least a few of the people in my theater into titters.
The mood changes in other ways once these guys literally parachute in and then, spoiler alert, bring an end to the hostage situation. An aircraft carrier and a couple Navy destroyers assist; as Time’s Michael Crowley wrote, “you feel that the U.S. military has come to your rescue.”
Captain Phillips joins a host of recent, acclaimed, non-fiction films that leave viewers gleeful about the power of the United States’ national-security forces. Zero Dark Thirty documented the abuses, dead-ends, and bureaucratic bullshit that prolonged the hunt for Osama bin Laden, but its final third satisfyingly drove home just how smart and surgical the CIA and Seal Team 6 ended up being. Argo leapt back a few decades to show Ben Affleck’s covert agent as a personality-free avatar of competence who whisked a group of stranded Americans out of a hostile Tehran.
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The ongoing debate about the national-security state’s conduct drills down, for many participants, to this question: How much do you trust the people in charge? Do you believe they’ll reliably uphold the laws and norms of a free society? Or do you think that, permitted enough secrecy, they’ll break U.S. laws and violate rights?
For me, it isn’t a close call.
The United States needs protection from the people protecting it, always has, and always will. The character of the president isn’t the issue. Neither are the individuals running the FBI, CIA, NSA, JSOC, or the Department of Homeland Security. It wouldn’t matter if the national-security state was staffed from top to bottom with people I could hand select based on my esteem for their character.
Letting them operate in secret would still be dangerous.
That conclusion isn’t something I’ve derived in the abstract from political philosophy. The best reason to mistrust the national-security state is its track record. Abuses at the FBI, CIA, and NSA go back a long way, as any student of the J. Edgar Hoover era or the Church Committee report can attest in shocking detail. There’s no reason to think that generation was more prone to misbehave than ours. But one needn’t look to past generations to find good reasons for mistrust.
The War on Terrorism is full of them.
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Every municipal police and fire department has mastered the oldest bureaucratic budget maneuver in the book: If told to cut your budget slightly, don’t eliminate unneeded positions, buy less fancy office furniture, or delay buying new cars and equipment.
Just announce the closure of an entire police or fire station.
As the Chicago Tribune reported not long ago, “‘Everybody on the City Council is in favor of facilities consolidation until they start to talk about the police station in their neighborhood,’ said Ald. Ricardo Munoz, 22nd, who added that he would fight attempts to close the station in his ward.”
Since protecting citizens’ lives is the first duty of government, public-safety functions are usually the last to feel the effects of tightened budgets. This is especially true at the federal level, where cuts to the defense budget are generally portrayed as assaults on the nation’s very existence. There are a variety of reasons to tread softly on any sort of defense cuts: You only get to err by under-defending the country once. The battlefield edge today, and even more so in the future is a product of advanced—and expensive—technologies. Those who put their lives on the line for the rest of us deserve the best equipment and protective gear, and the most reasonable pay and benefits, that we can afford.
But does that mean that we cannot cut the defense budget without short-changing national security? To hear some tell it the answer is “no.” But the Defense Department is part of the same government that most Americans abjure for its inefficiency, waste, and fraud. In fact, you can find just about everything that’s wrong with government in the defense budget. Oklahoma Republican Senator Tom Coburn, no liberal, has derided the Pentagon as the “Department of Everything” for its wide-ranging activities.
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Inside the House of Representatives, there is an internal communications system designed specifically for members and their staffs. It’s a legacy product from when members used to send each other physical interoffice mail, addressed “Dear Colleague.”
The “e-Dear Colleague” system now exists as an intranet database of messages that can be searched by topic, and as a kind of listserv on official doings for the 435 representatives’ offices. With so many people on it, the volume of email is high, which is why when there’s an important intelligence briefing for members of Congress, staffers are formally notified directly by their party leaders in the House.
Except in August, according to Rep. Justin Amash, when something extraordinary happened. An important national-security document the libertarian Michigan Republican and some of his colleagues on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence had been trying to see for some time was made available to all members on less than 24 hours’ notice by the Intelligence Committee chair, with a viewing scheduled for when they were supposed to be voting, and on the very day Congress was set to begin its five-week summer recess. And the email went out through the “e-Dear Colleague” system, where it was buried.
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If a major attack incapacitated the president, Congress, or Supreme Court, the nation would have no way to replace them — despite 12 years of warnings.
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