Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.
--Daniel Patrick Moynihan

October 31, 2016

Can the FBI Be Trusted?

By David K. Shipler

            On a March weekend in 2004, senior fingerprint examiners were called urgently into work at the FBI crime lab in Quantico, Virginia. A print had come in from the Spanish National Police, found on a blue plastic bag of detonators discovered after ten bombs had blown up on trains in Madrid, killing 191 passengers and wounding more than 1,400. Under stress, the examiners hastily matched the print—erroneously—to Brandon Mayfield, an Oregon lawyer who had converted to Islam.
This case is worth recalling in light of the current uproar over Hillary Clinton’s emails, because it provides rare insight into the FBI’s capacity for circular reasoning and sloppy forensics—even downright intellectual dishonesty. Time and again over the years, Americans have seen that alongside the many fine FBI agents are lazy thinkers who filter evidence to suit their imagined theory of a crime, and who prejudge people based on religion and ethnicity.
The agency is less nefarious than under Director J. Edgar Hoover, when it launched covert operations against civil rights and antiwar activists, but it remains well below its mythical high standards. Given the rules-be-damned posture of its current director, James Comey, it needs to be watched closely.
Mayfield was arrested as a material witness, his reputation was shredded, his family was traumatized, and his law practice was severely damaged before he was cleared—not by the FBI but by the Spanish police, who kept insisting that the print was not a match at all. In the end, the FBI’s misdeeds cost taxpayers $2 million to settle Mayfield’s lawsuit.

October 26, 2016

Who is the Toughest of Them All?

By David K. Shipler

            The answer, which should be obvious by now, is Hillary Clinton. A good many of Donald Trump’s supporters like him for his supposed toughness, but the three presidential debates, combined with his “whining” on the campaign trail (President Obama’s word), exposed his weak-kneed nature as a vulnerable personality who couldn’t hold his own in a face-off with a foreign leader if his country’s security depended on it—which it would.
In the debates, he was easily rattled. He meandered off subject. He couldn’t muster hard facts and bring a thought to a persuasive conclusion. In a summit meeting, the likes of Vladimir Putin would eat him alive, both by flattery and stiletto argument. Trump would either give away the store, make agreements he’d later disavow, or stomp his foot in temper tantrums. Never in this campaign has he demonstrated any talent for the tricky diplomatic negotiation, despite his dubious boasts about his commercial deal-making.
By contrast, he and his fellow Republicans have given Clinton a stage to show her grit. During hours of small-minded grilling on Benghazi by Congressional Republicans, she stayed steadfast, cool, and professional. They failed to dent her armor.
Nor did she flinch when Trump, in a tactic of cruelty, used four women as props to poison the gathering for the second debate. The age-old practice of blaming the victim of sexual misdeeds, in this case the wife of the philanderer, backfired.

October 18, 2016

Trump vs. America

By David K. Shipler

            While Donald Trump reflects the worst characteristics of American society, as many have said and written, he has also emerged as the leading voice of contempt for the country he wants to lead. He doesn’t really seem to like America very much—at least the America that exists in reality: the pluralistic, multiracial, multiethnic, fair-minded America that is engaged with the broader world.
Especially as he sinks in the polls, he is flailing recklessly at the most crucial elements of pluralistic democracy. He has become the leading opponent of a free press and of an electoral process that has guaranteed smooth, peaceful transitions of power for nearly 250 years. Now that he appears to be losing, he has set out to undermine public confidence in the country’s prominent news organizations and in the election itself. And for months he has made pronouncements and promises as if he could, as president, simply dictate and overrun the separation of powers, the checks and balances that the Framers ingeniously created in the Constitution.
A pillar of American democracy is the capacity of the winners of tough campaigns to then govern. Trump could not govern, given the distrust and disgust he has sown at large in the population and among the Republican leadership in Congress. He is now trying to make it impossible for Hillary Clinton to govern as well.

October 11, 2016

Voting for the First Principle

 By David K. Shipler

            If you fear and detest Donald Trump, as well you should, but have strong aversions to Hillary Clinton, and if you value your vote as a statement of principle that neither major candidate satisfies, consider this: If you rank your principles in order of importance, the one at the top ought to be the protection of the American democracy, as flawed as it is, against the threats from within.
            The only way to vote for that First Principle is to defeat Trump, and the only certain, practical way to defeat Trump is to vote for Clinton. Not for Gary Johnson the Libertarian or Jill Stein the Green, no matter how attuned their policies are to yours. And not to stay home and abstain. Citizens who fail to vote undermine democracy, too.  
There is little need here to repeat the litany of threats that Trump presents, and which every American who has been paying attention already knows. To his autocratic impulse to ride roughshod over the constitutional system of checks and balances, to sweep away the rule of law, to foster racial and religious hatred, to invite violence against his opponent, to inspire vigilantism at the polls, can now be added his threat, if he wins, to jail his opponent, which he expressed in the second debate. This is the stuff of a banana republic, not the United States of America.
Republican leaders who were shocked, shocked, by his frat-boy, “locker-room” boasts about committing sexual assault against women were holding their fingers to the wind instead of to their brains—or their hearts.
But it is an ill wind that is strafing the country.

October 7, 2016

Dear Post Office: A Sequel

By David K. Shipler

            I bumped into L.J. Hopkins outside the post office yesterday, and he was beaming as I’ve never seen him. He’s always an affable guy, but the smile now glows. With the help of a variety of dedicated folks from many walks of life, from lobstermen to legislators to lawyers, he has won and brought victory to everyone in two small island communities off the coast of Maine.
This report of the happy ending to the story comes in response to far-flung readers who, despite having no personal connection to this tale, asked to learn the ultimate outcome after I described the problem last June. It is partly David and Goliath, partly a case study on how to move a gargantuan bureaucracy that doesn’t give a wit about the little guy.
            Six months ago, the US Postal Service decided that a convenient arrangement was no longer permissible. For nearly thirty years, L. J. had been carrying the mail for the adjacent islands of Swan’s Island and Frenchboro, along with UPS and FedEx packages, prescription medicines and engine parts that islanders needed, and groceries for the island’s only store. His mother had done the same thing for decades before him.
Every morning, L.J. drove his white van, loaded up with essentials, onto the state-run ferry on the mainland, got off on Swan’s, delivered his goods, and took an afternoon ferry home. The stuff destined for Frenchboro then got put into a seaworthy lobster boat owned by the Swan’s Island storekeeper, Brian Krafjack, who would make the run across open water to Frenchboro, weather be damned.
 This lifeline is no small matter. It helps to make the islands viable, keeps them inhabited at a time when the temptations of mainland life play on the imaginations of the younger generations. Swan’s Island has 332 year-round residents, Frenchboro, 61. L.J.’s service has helped islanders who struggle financially avoid some of the steep ferry fares they’d have to pay to spend most of a day going off for medicine or parts.