Friday, June 6, 2014

The NSA's Illegality Is Not Excused by Results

The Snowden revelations told us that our leaders have been lying to us while breaking the law.  Their justification is that they are doing it to protect us.  But are they?

The Stasi comparison I hear frequently is overblown, but there are some parallels.  The Stasi relied on an elaborate network of informants; one of the main points was to put doubt into the minds of every citizen as to whom she could trust.  The NSA relies on electronic data gathering, and wants you to trust Verizon, Google, et al so as to make its job easier.  The Stasi's goal was the perpetuation of a dictatorial state.  The NSA serves an elected President.  The Stasi was brutally efficient; the NSA is comparatively feckless (more on this later).  However, both the Stasi and the NSA are large bureaucracies with their own organizational imperatives.  They both had rogue agents.  Both lied constantly and out of habit to their own people in pursuit of what they considered a higher goal than truth or freedom or rule of law.  The Stasi is, I think, more a useful example of what the NSA might become than an accurate description of what it is.  It doesn't hurt to keep it in mind when we talk about this subject.

What bothers me the most, and I'm surprised so few others mention this, is how poorly the US security apparatus performed with all these tools when it counted.  Let's talk about the Boston Marathon bombing.  It is the only real terrorist plot undertaken since the programs in question were in operation and the NSA, FBI, CIA, etc. missed it completely, despite being informed twice by Russia that Tamerlan Tsarnaev was in communication with jihadis.  We now know that the NSA had access to metadata on every web query and every phone call made by the plotters, who bought pressure cookers, remote control devices, and fireworks, and used bomb-making instructions from the al-Qaeda online publication Inspire.  Stopping events like the Boston Marathon bombing is the main (for many, the sole) justification for the heavy hand of NSA/FBI in the US, and they were seemingly oblivious to the plot.  Subsequent events have not inspired confidence either:  the family was allowed to leave and the father alleged repeated FBI interviews with Tamerlan; and an important witness (Todashev) was killed by the FBI under highly suspicious circumstances.  (The agent who did the killing has been receiving disability payments of over $50k a year after a brief, troubled stint--including pleading the Fifth during a corruption trial--on the Oakland Police Department.  Fills you with confidence in the FBI, doesn't it?)  So, fellow citizens, even if the capabilities the NSA has are reasonable, are our security agencies capable of using them properly?  Have they shown themselves to be honest and competent guardians of the public safety, or have they lied, chiseled, killed, and blundered while terrorists went about their business right under their noses?

Which brings us to Snowden.  He's given us a priceless opportunity to reexamine the pact we made with our government when it comes to security.  The lying phase is over:  we know they've been denying the truth for years, hoodwinking Congress, the public, and judges.  The judges at least get it:  ruling after ruling has slapped down the government's case.  Congress is angry, but won't act unless the public is on their side.  The public has been conditioned to fear terrorists, and been fed a steady diet of phony terror plot "stings" to keep them fat and happy.  The Boston bombing does not seem to have led us to draw the obvious conclusions about the honesty and competence* of the NSA/FBI/CIA/etc.  Obama, the Constitutional law professor who is theoretically in charge, presided over this colossal fuckup but doesn't appear in the least perturbed about what it means.  It's up to us, and we don't seem to be up to facing reality either.

*  Lest I get a lecture about not tarring the entire staff of the security agencies because of the failings of a few, remember that those few were at the top (e.g. Clapper) and at the scene when the bad shit went down (McFarlane).  Living in the DC area, I know/knew many FBI and intelligence agency personnel.  They're nice people on a personal level.  But the really nice soccer dad was a high-ranking agent at Waco, and we all know what happened there.  The point is that we can have an agency staffed with smart, dedicated people who believe they're doing the best they can to safeguard the US but who are collectively virtually useless--sometimes worse than useless--because there's bad leadership, no oversight, no honesty, no regard for the rule of law, and no consequences for failure.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Oooh, it’s a “Washington Takeover!”

Anti Net-Neutrality folks are running a set of ads warning that net neutrality would mean a “Washington takeover” of the internet.

Never mind that the internet was invented by the government, and that net neutrality, far from being any kind of “takeover” would actually enhance competition and internet access for American.

Instead, I just want to say, why is a “Washington takeover” considered automatically a bad thing? (well, I know why, because of the hard work of decades of right-wing demagoguery)

I want Washington to “takeover” certain things. I kind of like the “Washington takeover” of national defense, the national park system, child labor laws, consumer protection regulation, and civil rights laws. And more recently, the “Washington takeover” of Wall Street and GM (as unpopular as the bailouts were) was the only thing that saved this country from a second Great Depression.
The jury’s still out on the so-called “Washington takeover” of health care, but I’m pretty optimistic the mild set of regulations that were part of health care reform will certainly do better to bring quality health care to more people then the unregulated private insurance industry did.

I have philosophical appreciation for libertarianism, but in the real world, it is like communism — something that is appealing in theory but can never work in practice because of human nature.

I don’t think the government can – or should – do everything. Economic innovation belongs to the private sector. But making the rules and enforcing them do belong to the government.

I am glad a private company called Apple invented the iPhone. The government never could have. But I am also glad that the government is regulating the frequency spectrum the iPhone uses and making sure the internet traffic that flows to it is treated fairly.

(this post was cross-posted from my personal blog, Red Letter Day)

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Lest We Forget

Like many people, I was stunned on April 19th, 1995 to hear about the truck bombing of the Federal Building in Oklahoma City. I also figured that it was the work of a foreign agent. The 1st bombing of the World Trade Center was still fresh in my mind, and the idea of a terrorist cell trying a kind of soft target attack in a place like Oklahoma City.

I was surprised to find out that this attack was the work of Americans. And it could happen again. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which has been monitoring the radical right for decades, "Patriot" groups are back.

I can see why. Much like the 1990s, America is under the leadership of what by American standards is a more liberal government. What makes things different now is that the "liberal" President is African-American. If the idea that a member of a right-wing outgroup sitting in the White House wasn't bad enough, the fact that Obama got such strong support from younger people could be seen by those on the right as a sign that their ideas are losing support with the next generation.

These events could be leading to the notion that can lead people to turn to rebellion and revolt. The idea that the political process has failed them. For the right, it may be more a case that their ideas have lost resonance with the American people. The elections of 2006 and 2008 should have sent a message that right-wing ideas need to change to reflect an America that is more diverse, tolerant and urban.

But rather than change their ideas, the right has turned to tactics of obstruction and fear. The "Town Hall Mobs" and "Tea Party" movement are both examples of these tactics. With FOX News seeming to provide factual backup for the rhetoric of folks like Glen Beck and Rush Limbaugh, these ideas are echoed and amplified.

The "Patriot" and other armed movements, some of which will be ironically gathering in DC on the 19th for a rally, represent this fear taken to it's highest levels. The idea that the American Government would turn on its own people, ludicrous as it may seem to most Americans, seems plausible to those who buy into the rhetoric of people like the Hutaree Militia.

Is another Oklahoma City likely to happen, perhaps not. But the incident in Texas, where a tax protester crashed a plane into an IRS building, the shootings at the Holocaust Museum, or the killing of the doctor in Kansas show that the ideas that fueled the Oklahoma City bombers may be alive, well, and perhaps even in some form, part of the ideas of the American Right. Even one of the Hutaree's legal counsel said that statements their leader made on tape were no worse than what was heard from the mainstream right. A statement made to rationalize a groups efforts to start a revolution should perhaps be seen as a warning.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

The Price Of Failure?

I volunteered to do some phone banking tomorrow (March 15th) in support of Obama's Health Insurance Reform Package. I have other things I could be doing, but see this as something I need to do.

I'm not really thrilled at what I see as a "starter kit" that has been watered down to make points with allies of the Insurance, Drug and likely even the low-wage service sector; McDonalds, Wal-Mart, etc. But as Rick Smith said on his program today, it's better than what we have and could be a base to build on.

But I also see what the price of failure could be. The main one is the boost this will give to the obstructionists of the GOP, their media allies and of course, their followers. Limbaugh, Beck and their loyal teabaggers would see this, rightly so, as a major victory. The letdown this would give to the Democrats, especially the young people who don't seem to get that politics isn't an every four-year event, would likely set the stage for more obstructionist Republicans running and likely winning.

But perhaps the group who stand the most to gain from the defeat are corporations and their CEO's. As defeat of reform would be a demonstration of the power that corps hold. Through their support of the Tea Partiers, the town hall mobs, and advertising on programs like Beck and Limbaugh, combined with their newly expanded political power, other corporate interests could easily follow suit. Energy policy would be derailed by campaigns from the oil, natural gas, and auto industries. The low-wage service sector would put efforts into killing the Employee Free Choice Act.

So, I urge all of you, please check out Organizing For America, sign up for a phone bank etc. Do we really want to see Beck, Limbaugh and their corporate handlers win?

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Still A Lot Of Game Left

As a sports fan, there's nothing more frustrating when your team, seeming to have all the pieces together, can't seem to do anything. What's even worse, is when the opposition utilizes this to their advantage. Very often, it takes a big play to wake things up.

What happened in Massachusetts is just that big play. I can imagine there's a lot of panic on both the progressive and Democratic side, and that panic is just what Beck, Limbaugh, FOX News(?), and the teabaggers and town hall mobs are hoping for.

But it's still early, and there's no need to panic. Instead, all that I see necessary is to regroup a bit.

To start with, Obama needs to get back to basics a bit. Even those who rely on AM-Radio and it's cable affiliate for news and opinion realize that the 2008 election was a referendum on the economy. Making job creation and economic growth key points of the agenda for 2010 could go a long way in getting a few small victories for Obama as well as showing how the GOP continues to let corporations and CEOs set their agenda.

Next, Obama needs to get his "ground game" going. Somehow, the young volunteers, who put tireless effort into getting him elected, need to be reactivated to help advance his agenda. The GOP, since they lack any new ideas, will likely make any legislation seem like a campaign. These activists could provide a strong counter to the AM-Radio and FOX News nation that works at the bidding of the GOP and their handlers.

Which brings up the need for communication. The GOP has Beck, Limbaugh and FOX News to tell their followers what and how to think. What Obama needs to do is tap into the web as a way to get the truth to his supporters and point out the lies and fear that have been the tools of the right. Also the web, much as it was during the election, can be a way to co-ordinate activism.

There also may be a need to make some changes at the party leadership. Bring people in who are closer to the model that won the Democrats Congress in 06, and the White House in 2008. Would Howard Dean accept his old job back? Would Obama be willing to look to MoveOn or United For Peace and Justice for party leaders.

Finally, sometimes you gotta take what you can get. On the Health Reform bill, as controversial and as distasteful as it may be, it may be better to reconcile the bill and sign it. As most of us remember what happened after the last attempt to reform Health Care failed.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Israel and Palestine

There's a thread on the board in which some members are making (I hope) facetious suggestions about solutions to the problems in Israel and Palestine. (Why is it that 'Mideast' has become shorthand for this tiny area?) I understand the frustration and impatience of those who are thoroughly sick of the seeming inability of the governments and people there to act like reasonable adults. What Genesis sang in "Blood on the Rooftops" three decades ago is still true for many of us:
Let's skip the news boy (I'll make some tea)
Arabs and Jews boy (too much for me)
They get me confused boy (puts me off to sleep)
And the thing I hate - Oh Lord!
Is staying up late, to watch some debate,
on some nation's fate

But as Obama pointed out in his excellent Cairo speech last week, the road to good relations with nations dominated by Muslims runs through Israel and Palestine. So, I'll make some tea, but not skip the Arabs and Jews this time, and make some serious suggestions for going forward.

Chili chocolate tea--pretty good. Okay, the "mideast":

1) Security is a perfectly reasonable concern of the Israelis, and it's not negotiable. They're surrounded by hostile Arab nations. Yes, yes, I understand the hostility, but there is no way the Israelis will or should rely on the good will of their neighbors. Their neighbors hate their guts. The US has to formalize the implied security guarantee of our patronage with a treaty that obligates us to come to the defense of Israel if attacked. It's the only guarantee strong enough to induce them to make the concessions I'll describe below which are a necessary part of the deal. The UN should make similar guarantees, but that may take a while and is less important anyway, the UN being what it is.

2) Israel has to give up its nuclear weapons. There is no way we have the standing to demand that Iran or anyone else stop trying to get the bomb while Israel has over a hundred warheads and the capability to deliver them as far as Teheran. Obama was brilliant to have brought this up in Cairo. It's a key point that has repercussions all over the world.

3) Justice for the Palestinians has finally got to happen. The past can't be erased. Reparations are not going to be paid. But the occupation must end, and the settlements be dismantled or Palestine be adequately compensated for them, in the judgment of the Palestinians. Any settlements over the 1967 border are illegal. The Washington Post ran an editorial recently advocating for "natural growth" for established settlements. That's bullshit. Say your neighbor, at gunpoint, appropriated part of your yard for a shed. He keeps expanding his shed--"natural growth"--to accommodate more lawn equipment. When the subject of compensation comes up, he talks about giving you part of his yard. If you would rather have that land than the land he stole, then fine. But if you don't like that deal, and he isn't willing to accept any alternatives you propose, then he needs to give you back all your land, however uncomfortable it is for the thief. It's not as though the "settlers" didn't know they were moving into stolen land. That was the whole point for most of them--they figured it was their duty to take the land away from its legal owners for the higher purpose of reclaiming the promised land. But their continued presence can only be allowed if the Palestinians agree to adequate compensation in land and perhaps money. If they don't agree, the settlers have to go, or no treaty and no deal. I would hope that an arrangement could be made for some of the more populous settlements, but there are no guarantees and the Israelis need to accept that.

That's all I got for now. Jerusalem can be shared or split; I don't see it as the main issue. Palestine needs to be an independent state, presumably getting a big hand up from its Arab brethren who have been crying crocodile tears and using the Palestinian refugees as cheap expendable labor. I see no reason why it couldn't be at least as successful as the Arab autocracies
in the area like Syria, Jordan, and Egypt.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The Best Never Rest

A recent thread on the notion of "American Exceptionalism" on the Turn Left Interactive forum got me to thinking about patriotism, nationalism and the need for nations to raise their game.

First, I think that the notion of nationalism is becoming an outmoded notion. The idea that any nation can exist above the rest of world is incompatible with a world that is more interconnected than ever before. In a world where economic crisis resonate across the globe, and people from any corner of the globe can communicate at a moments notice, the idea of any nation being above all seems like a relic of a past. Now the fact that that past is one of absolute rule may explain why this notion is so dear to the Right Wing of so many countries, including the US.

So where does that leave patriotism? There's nothing at all wrong with having pride in ones country, but one also needs to be looking at ways that one's country can elevate its game.

Champion teams and athletes know this need; The Pittsburgh Steelers are scouting the players they wish to draft to fill gaps and prepare to defend their Super Bowl championship, North Carolina and UConn will be visiting camps and clinics in search of young men and women to set themselves up to retain their NCAA Basketball titles. A nation needs to do much the same.

But for those on the right, there doesn't seem to be a belief that anything needs to be done. They stand there and howl, "We're number 1" and pound their chests. Countries that question or criticize us are shouted down or made to be an enemy.

The left takes a different look at things. They look at where a country may lag behind it's neighbors and allies.

For me, the two areas I see the United States needing work are sustainability and secularity.

I look at America and I see a country that has created a culture of consumption. Much of the current economic crisis has possible roots in a notion that we Americans need to have more and more. This wasn't how our country was, generations ago, we lived more within our means and in communities that supported each other, we practiced thrift too. There are places in the world, especially in Scandinavia, that seem to still have this notion as part of their culture. Recent hard times in the US has seen a return to these values a bit, but I wonder what will happen where prosperity returns.

I also find it odd that a country that has been fighting religious fundamentalists seems to be in the grip of fundamentalists. The debates over gay marriage, stem cells and evolution all make us seem backwards to our fellow industrialized nations that have embraced science, tolerance and what Karen Armstrong calls 'Secular Modernity'.

But there is one thing that Americans truly can take pride in--our energy. This is a nation that was started by an act of dissent against the leading imperial power of its day. And we've kept that spirit alive; when a region of our country decided that keeping a race in bondage was an economic necessity, others rose up to abolish the practice, when many of those same people codified discrimination, those affected joined with others to gain rights to vote, among other rights, when one of our leaders and his cadre decided to use fear to justify empire, the people rebuilt a movement that has made strides to getting America back on the road to rejoining the world as a whole.

Is America the best country in the world? In some ways, yes, but we're a work in progress, and need to look to where we need to make that progress.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Norm Coleman: We Need Activist Judges So I Can Win This Damn Lawsuit

When a Republican lawyer starts arguing that his case has created legal "penumbras" (yes, a direct quote) around certain laws, and that His Corrupt Highness Al Franken "would have you sit in a vacuum, strictly interpreting a statute," you know up has finally become down and liberal Jews really do control the weather.

A historical footnote: let's all remember that "penumbras" are official Republican no-noes ever since Griswold v. Connecticut, still their favorite Exhibit A in supposed judicial overreach.

15 Yards For Excessive Celebration

Seriously, the Republicans are partying over Judd Gregg backing out as though they've won a major victory. What's the big deal? It reminds me of a backup tight end wiggling his package and taunting the safety, only to have the safety point to the scoreboard where it's now 45-10.

Elderly Abuse Prevention: To Their Credit, Most Republicans Voted Yes

Being from the great state of Arizona has its perks. Our driver's licenses, thanks to a deregulation kick a few years back, don't expire until we're 65. We grow up with a natural tan. We usually have a healthy respect for the outdoors. We're in spitting distance of both California and Mexico without the high cost of living or the rampant fraud. We have the Grand Canyon.

Unfortunately, we also have Trent Franks and Jeff Flake, who joined 23 other brave souls in the House to vote against -- I kid you not -- funding an elderly abuse prevention program.
The House took up H.R. 448, the Elder Abuse Protection Act, which would establish specialized elder abuse prosecution and research programs to aid victims, and would provide training to prosecutors and other law enforcement personnel related to elder abuse prevention and protection, and establish programs to provide for emergency crisis response teams to combat elder abuse. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Joe Sestak (D-PA), passed on a 397-25 vote. [roll call 62] All members of the Nevada Congressional delegation voted in favor the measure. Our neighbors to the south may be interested to know that Congressman Flake (R-AZ) and Congressman Franks (R-AZ) were among the lonely 25 voting in opposition.
When a granny-kicker joke is actually on point, you know we've lost the battle that day.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Obama and the Stimulus Bill: A Muddled Tale

I'll have many occasions to praise Obama rather than bury him, but over at the boards we've been having a somewhat heated discussion about his handling of the stimulus bill and I felt like I should fire the first salvo here.

I think his problem was that he didn't understand at the outset that he had to sell this thing. The idea that he let the House go about its business in the awkward way that it did in order to lay some kind of groundwork for a grand final outcome in the Senate. . . I just don't buy that he controls the weather to quite that extent. He didn't get publicly involved in the slightest until very recently. Obama, like everyone, has flaws, and I think we shouldn't be blind to the fact that he's a little conceited about his own ability to get things done. The final bill will be pretty good -- Paul Krugman's pleas for much more spending notwithstanding -- but look at what he's given up for no apparent reason other than chasing the grand bipartisan compromise he's always talked about in such glowing terms:

$40 billion State Fiscal Stabilization
$16 billion School Construction
$1.25 billion project-based rental
$2.25 billion Neighborhood Stabilization (Eliminate)
$1.2 billion in Retrofiting Project 8 Housing
$7.5 billion of State Incentive Grants
$3.5 billion Higher Ed Construction (Eliminated)
$2 billion broadband
$1 billion Head Start/Early Start
$5.8 billion Health Prevention Activity
$2 billion HIT Grants
$1 billion Energy Loan Guarantees
$4.5 billion GSA
$3.5 billion Federal Bldgs Greening
$100 million FSA modernization
$50 million CSERES Research
$65 million Watershed Rehab
$30 million SD Salaries
$100 million Distance Learning
$98 million School Nutrition
$50 million aquaculture
$100 million NIST
$100 million NOAA
$100 million Law Enforcement Wireless
$50 million Detention Trustee
$25 million Marshalls Construction
$100 million FBI Construction
$300 million Federal Prisons
$300 million BYRNE Formula
$140 million BYRNE Competitive
$10 million State and Local Law Enforcement
$50 million NASA
$50 million Aeronautics
$50 million Exploration
$50 million Cross Agency Support
$200 million NSF
$100 million Science
$89 million GSA Operations
$300 million Fed Hybrid Vehicles
$50 million from DHS
$200 million TSA
$122 million for Coast Guard Cutters, modifies use
$25 million Fish and Wildlife
$55 million Historic Preservation
$20 million working capital fund
$200 million Superfund
$165 million Forest Svc Capital Improvement
$90 million State & Private Wildlife Fire Management
$75 million Smithsonian
$600 million Title I (NCLB)

There are a lot of good-sounding construction and science programs being shredded or eliminated in that list.

As I wrote on the board, I think Obama failed to anticipate the type, scope or magnitude of the Republican resistance. I don't put all the blame solely on his shoulders, but there's a difference between the best bill he could have passed and the best "bipartisan" bill he could have passed. The country is still very ready to see him take charge. Instead I think he believed all along that this would be fairly easy and that he wouldn't need to get his hands dirty. These initiatives, most of which are uncontroversially good ideas, were sacrificed on the altar of his unpreparedness and his desire to look like he's working with all sides no matter the cost. That's my read.

Yes, this bill will do plenty of good. But the way it was handled didn't inspire me. Obama looked to be content letting the thing go to Hell only to realize he had to make an appearance at the eleventh hour. I don't think he planned this all along. I think it's important to take note of how this bill went down when we're looking for clues to explain both his successes and his shortcomings in the months and even years ahead. He seems like someone who learns lessons from experience but also someone who genuinely believes his way is best even when everyone is telling him otherwise. We'll have to wait and see which tendency wins out, but that doesn't mean we should stay quiet or passive in the meantime.

Maybe, in the end, we'll all call this the useful mugging Obama needed to see what he's really up against. I just wish it hadn't taken place on such an important bill in a way that made him seem so unprepared. As even David Brooks observed in his latest column (which I won't link to), Obama had little impact on the bill's evolution as it proceeded. That's the real source of my confusion. Why did he hang back?

Friday, December 19, 2008

One Man's Take On The Cabinet Picks

I know they haven't taken office yet, but it's not too early to have formed a few opinions, so here's my take on the Obama cabinet, now more or less complete. I'm treating rank incompetence or outright venality as an F, so forgive me if it seems like I'm grading on a curve. I can't give someone an F just because they're not Mother Jones.

Labor, Hilda Solis -- I can say, from my dealings with her and her office as a journalist, that she's seriously, ass-kickingly good. She pays attention to the street-level details that most Congressmen snooze their way right past, especially where obscure concepts like environmental justice are concerned (the idea that pollution disproportionately affects the poor, which is true pretty much everywhere). So she gets an A. More here.

Veterans Affairs, Eric Shinseki -- An easy A. Not only does Obama give the last laugh to Paul Wolfowitz's whipping boy, he finds a decorated military man whose first priority is the troops rather than contractors or the fun of war or the neoconservative agenda.

HHS, Tom Daschle -- Another A. Daschle will sell Obama's health care plan to the Senate like no one else could, and he'll make sure the final version is as good as it can get. He's become a geniune wonk on the issue since leaving Congress, and it seems pretty clear that he was the consensus best choice. Howard Dean would have been an interesting pick, and I still think he also would have made a good Labor secretary, but Daschle will do an excellent job.

Defense, Robert Gates -- I know Daily Kos was kind of pissed about this, because it supposedly reinforces the "Republicans are tougher" mantra, but it was the smartest thing Obama could have done at this point. Gates has famously done a good job of cleaning up Rumsfeld's gigantic mess, and military continuity is key in 2009 if only to give Obama cover while he tries to fix the economy. (If he'd brought in someone like Wesley Clark, on the other hand, I think you'd see more nitpicking and second-guessing in Congress and the media, fairly or not). Gates will be gone in a year and we'll be able to talk about a longer-term pick then. Until that day, I give this an A-. I'd give an A for an outside-the-box pick who nonetheless silenced the critics from day one, and who promised to cut back on military spending, but I'm not sure where you'd find anyone like that. As with the financial meltdown and the Treasury pick (see below), we need to think about the short term first.

HUD, Shaun Donovan -- B+, from what I've read. More information here. It's a little hard to judge without knowing more of the nitty-gritty, but he's obviously eminently qualified and seems to have good ideas.

Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano -- Somewhere between a B+ and an A-. She understands the need for immigration reform of the not-racist variety, and she cares about the fate of immigrants and border populations, which is a huge step up from Michael "The Undertaker" Chertoff and his non-existent agenda. Hopefully she can get the various agencies under her umbrella working together better, and from seeing her in action in Arizona, she can definitely pull it off. She's just the right kind of tough: serious without being off-putting, smart without being superior, personable without being a pushover. I think she could actually do a lot of good in the next four years.

Treasury, Tim Geithner -- Hard to say until we see him in action, but I'd give him a B. Everyone agrees he's solid and has the needed expertise. I know he's "one of the people" who steered the economy where it is in the first place, but his role in the real screwups never seemed to be central and he's obviously committed to fixing it rather than dawdling or covering his ass. A really transformational figure would have been great, but we need triage first.

Attorney General, Eric Holder -- About a B. His apparent priorities are good: he's against the death penalty and joined an amicus brief in favor of DC's city-wide gun ban (which the courts overturned, as we know). He's represented a few turds in private practice (Chiquita Foods, Merck) but from what I've seen and heard of him, his legal and political instincts are worth our trust until he proves otherwise. His main job will be to restore the peoples' trust in the department and the staff's trust in the higher-ups, and I think he'll do well.

Commerce, Bill Richardson -- Right now, a B. I'm not sure what good the Commerce Secretary can do independent of the president's wishes, frankly. Richardson is there because he's good at shaking hands and doling out jobs and largesse in a friendly way, which is what a president wants in his chief commercial point man. The department is a weird hodgepodge of employment stimulus, patent oversight, NOAA (yeah, NOAA), the National Institute of Standards & Technology, minority employment programs, the census. . . It's a real grab bag. In general, this is a glad-handing, business-savvy post where you need more personality than brains, and Richardson is ideally suited to it for that reason.

EPA, Lisa Jackson -- She has such a limited profile that I'm tempted not to give a grade, but I'll give this one a B- for now. That may seem low, but there were a lot of better candidates out there. Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a premier outlet for governmental whistleblowers, thinks she's a bad choice, although one of their reasons (the federal EPA took over some Superfund cleanups in New Jersey) is disingenuous because it happens in a lot of states. The Sierra Club thinks she was a good choice, but they like the totally uninspiring Vilsack for Ag too so their opinion isn't of enormous value. We'll have to wait and see. I would have picked someone like Jan Schakowsky, a Rep. from Illinois, who sits on the House environment subcommittee of Energy & Commerce and is a big ally of the progressive wing of the party.

Agriculture, Tom Vilsack -- Meh. B- as well. He's not going to completely screw the pooch, but there are a lot of environmental as well as economic issues that Ag needs to sort out, and while somone like Vilsack probably knows the agriculture "players" just fine, he doesn't strike me as a guy blowing in on the west wind with a lot of fresh ideas. There's little reason to think that on his watch, the Ag department will set out rules for fully sustainable agriculture, and that's what we need right now. It's also unclear what he and Obama will do about ethanol, and I wish they'd talk more about what a big piece of the environmental puzzle ag reform is going to be.

Interior, Ken Salazar -- Gotta give this a C+. Raul Grijalva from Arizona would have been a clearly superior choice from an environmental standpoint. Salazar is a conservative Democrat and no watchdog of the mining industry in Colorado. He's worked with environmental groups on mitigating the worst abuses they bring to his attention, but he's nothing like the new sheriff the department needs (or Grijalva would have been).

Energy, Steven Chu -- Mixed: A- for policy, C for personality. The guy is basically a genius, and clearly knows what needs to be done on global warming, but he's also got more than a whiff of scandal about him that I don't like and could end up embarrassing Obama unnecessarily. He accepted unusual and unreported honoraria from the University of California, and his partnership with BP (already on hold when he was announced) could be viewed as a greenwash, although I'm not convinced he completely sold out. I think he could end up being a great mind on alternative energy but a potentially indifferent manager of the department's various other responsibilities, including the nuclear weapons stockpile and the environmentally disastrous national labs. He's probably one of the best choices Obama could have made for the post, but he comes with a few risks.

State, Hillary Clinton -- I honestly don't know, not because I like or don't like Hillary but because I don't know what Obama's priorities will be and how she'll carry them out. The job, although everyone thinks of it as a marquee post, is basically to be the president's traveling salesman, and doesn't allow for a lot of day-to-day freelancing the way a lot of other departments demand of their managers.

Transportation, Ray LaHood -- NA/Impossible to grade. The story line emerging is that he was picked because his part of Illinois is undergoing massive highway renovation and he understands the need for the scale of infrastructure Obama is proposing, plus he's a fairly moderate and non-crazy Republican to grease the skids in Congress on certain things. And he's good friends with Rahm Emanuel, which should help further. But still, kind of bizarre.

Education, Arne Duncan -- NA. Someone else, maybe Bently, will have to weigh in here. I don't know what the Education secretary does for a living. Duncan seems like a smart guy, but whether he's suited for the role Obama will ask him to play, I'm unqualified to say. E. J. Dionne has a fairly in-depth look at this question here.