May 19, 2006

A Step Back

On May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court of the United States handed down one of the landmark decisions of the 20th century. In Brown v. Board of Education, the court unanimously declared that the Jim Crow doctrine of separate, but equal had no place in education. Separate schools, the court wrote, are inherently unequal.

The decision in Brown v. Board of Education was the culmination of years of work by endlessly persistent lawyers for the NAACP to legally dismantle segregation. It was a bit of a shock, therefore, to see news this week, nearly 52 years to the day after the Brown decision, that NAACP lawyers were back in court suing on the exact same issues.

Earlier this year, the Nebraska state legislature passed a bill that would divide the Omaha Public Schools into three smaller districts. The new districts, drawn based on geography, create separate districts with different majority populations -- one district would have mostly white students, another mostly African-American, and the third mostly Hispanic students. To be sure, the plan is far from a return to legally-enforced separation of the races in schools, but still, it set off alarms across the country that an official return to segregated education was afoot.

Adding even more intrigue to the Omaha plan is the fact that it was proposed by Nebraska's only African-American state senator, Ernie Chambers, a man once described as "the angriest black man in Nebraska." Chambers, arguing that the plan would allow black educators to control schools in black neighborhoods, received the support of 30 conservative legislators from mostly white suburbs and ranching counties to push the measure through. Despite warnings from the state attorney general of potential constitutional problems with the plan, Nebraska's governor signed the bill immediately.

The reaction from the NAACP was swift. Within a month, NAACP litigators had filed a law suit to prevent the plan from being enforced, arguing that it intentionally separates students based on race in clear violation of the Constitution.

While the constitutional merits will now be left to the courts, there can be no doubt that the Omaha plan is a direct repudiation of the Brown ideals. It not only says that separate schools are allowable, but that separate schools may actually be preferable for the African-American community. Having been proposed by a black lawmaker -- rather than a white legislator who would surely have been dismissed as racist -- the plan reflects disillusionment among some in the black community with a half-century of efforts at integration with little to show.

The tension between integration and black control of black schools captured by the Omaha plan is nothing new. Even at the time of Brown, there were those in the African-American community who argued against efforts to combine separate black and white school systems for fear of losing influence in the education of African American students. Fifty-two years later, that debate continues in Omaha.

The legacy of Brown is complex. Its goal of undoing legally-sanctioned segregation has been achieved along with many unintended, and often negative, consequences. However, efforts like the Omaha plan threaten to undo the good that Brown did accomplish. Efforts to formally divide communities along racial lines undermine all sense of a broader community. Separate school districts send the dangerous signal that working across racial lines is unnecessary and unwanted. The citizens of Omaha would be better served by efforts that recognize the common stake they all share in the future of their city.

Fortunately, Omaha's school authorities and business community recognize what is at stake. Their motto: "One City. One School District."

May 12, 2006

Missing the Forest

Just when it appeared things could not get any worse for President Bush, news came Thursday that the National Security Agency has been secretly compiling an enormous database of every phone call made in the United States. The chorus of criticism came immediately, leaving the President where he has been for quite some time: on the defensive.

While this program differs from the previously-disclosed, devastating-to-Bush warrantless eavesdropping program in that it does not involve monitoring the content of our calls -- phew! -- this newly-disclosed, devastating-to-Bush call documenting program captures many more individuals and involves monitoring purely domestic calls. In all, more than 200 million Americans have likely had their phone calls documented. That's two-thirds of the country.

As a government program, this is downright spooky. The government has set out to analyze every phone call American citizens make. Even those who assumed the worst about the government must be at least somewhat surprised to have their suspicions confirmed by such a giant Orwellian effort.

Beyond the spookiness and the obvious legal questions, my personal concern is minimal. I am not too worried that my call history will arouse much interest from the government. But this is precisely the problem. Why is the NSA wasting time and resources monitoring my calls? I am not a high value target in the war on terror and I doubt that the 100 hits a week on warrant a Plame-esque smear campaign from the White House. The vast majority of the country falls into the same innocuous category as I do. So, what exactly are they keeping track of our calls for?

Assuming the program is documenting the calls of 200 million Americans as reported, a conservative estimate would be that information on several billion calls has been collected. I understand that data mining computers are efficient, but there comes a point when less is more. Wouldn't it be smarter to expend our intelligence resources on actual threats rather than noting how often I call my wife from work?

I'm tempted to leave such matters of intelligence to intelligence experts, as those in charge of the NSA ostensibly are. However, one phrase that has been repeated too many times in the past five years is "failure of intelligence." Prior to 9/11, an FBI agent had identified one of the hijackers as suspiciously learning to fly planes, but the warning never reached a desk where action could be taken. This was a "failure of intelligence." In Iraq, Bush administration officials presented evidence of weapons programs to support the need to go to war. When the weapons programs proved nonexistent, this was a "failure of intelligence." The bungling of post-war Iraq has also been blamed on a "failure of intelligence." When intelligence fails, the results are catastrophic.

The latest phone documentation program is symptomatic of the wrongheaded intelligence practices that often lead to intelligence failures. American intelligence agencies have shown an aversion to doing the difficult work of gathering intelligence, settling instead for faster and arguably less effective means, such as torture. Casting an incredibly large net, as this call-documenting program does, ensures that the NSA will be analyzing a whole lot of useless information rather than doing the harder, but more effective work of surveilling individuals who are actual threats.

The next several weeks will see politicians from both parties denounce this program as unacceptable and an affront to our civil liberties. However, the real debate should focus less on the program's legality (or, more likely, illegality) and more on its effectiveness (or, more likely, ineffectiveness). It is bad enough that the NSA is monitoring my calls. But the real trouble is that the NSA is monitoring my calls when it could be following leads on suspicious individuals learning to fly planes. This program, I fear, is yet another "failure of intelligence" waiting to happen.

May 05, 2006

What If....?

As President Bush slogs through this spring with historically low approval ratings and Rolling Stone openly wondering if we are enduring the worst president in history (their answer: maybe), I am struck by perhaps the most interesting historical question of the nascent 21st century: What if Al Gore had won the 2000 presidential election?

We can only speculate about whether a Gore presidency would have been better or worse, but we can say with certainty that it at least would have been different, despite what Ralph Nader would have you believe.

For starters, a President Gore would encounter an entirely different landscape in Washington. With a Democrat in the White House and Republicans controlling Capitol Hill, Gore (and Republican leaders in Congress) would be forced to negotiate to find center ground on every issue, a balance that would more accurately reflect the evenly-split electorate than our current single-party government. In addition, the Republican Congress would provide the kind of presidential oversight President Bush has avoided thus far, limiting the likelihood that executive power would be abused without consequences.

In his first months, Gore would not have provided dual thumbs-in-the-eye to the international community by withdrawing the U.S. from the Kyoto protocol on global warming and the International Criminal Court. Further, Gore would not have rushed to squander the budget surpluses achieved by Bill Clinton on tax breaks disproportionately benefiting the wealthiest Americans. Thus, our standing with the international community and our record on fiscal responsibility would be in better shape.

But however Gore's presidency would have begun, there is no doubt it would have changed forever on September 11, 2001. The days immediately following the attacks, undoubtedly Bush's finest, would have tested Gore's ability to rally the nation's spirit and confront the evil of terrorism. Gore's military response in Afghanistan would probably have been similar to Bush's as the military plans for toppling the Taliban pre-dated the Bush administration. But the steps that would follow Afghanistan would best illustrate the two leaders' differences.

Gore, more respectful of international law and less willing to dismiss the Geneva Conventions as "quaint," appears less likely to condone the hands-off interrogation practices and constitutionally-questionable detentions that have brought the Bush administration embarrassment in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay. But more importantly, it is unlikely that Gore would have so quickly shifted the country's focus off Afghanistan and Al Qaeda and onto Iraq. More likely, Gore would have continued the Clinton-era Iraq policy of containment, sanctions, and targeted military strikes that we now know had prevented Saddam Hussein from getting the WMDs President Bush went to war to rid him of.

Gore, or as he was dubbed by President Bush's father, "Ozone man," would have been particularly well suited to confront the current energy crisis, having long supported conservation, higher fuel-efficiency standards, and alternate fuel sources. It is difficult to take President Bush seriously when he asks us to conserve, especially since he apparently does not believe in global warming. Gore would be a far more effective leader in ending what President Bush calls our "addiction" to foreign oil.

Of course, a Gore presidency would suffer its fair share of failures, scandals and controversies. One can envision deadlocks with the Republican Congress and outright defeats on some of Gore's pet policies on the environment. There is no way to know how Gore would have handled Hurricane Katrina or even whether Gore would have been reelected at all. And although many may disagree with President Bush's tactics in handling the war on terror, his policies have at least been successful in avoiding another catastrophic attack on American soil. We'll never know if Gore would have achieved a similar success.

Currently, Al Gore is the walking embodiment of what might have been had the American electoral process not gotten in the way. We will never really know what a Gore administration would have delivered at the outset of the 21st century or whether his policies would have been any more successful, but with the current state of President Bush's agenda, it is hard to imagine Gore being in worse shape. Ah, what if?