Eugene Robinson Live

Jun 25, 2013

Live chat with Eugene Robinson about his latest columns and political news.

Hello, everybody, and welcome to our weekly chat. And wow, what a week! Edward Snowden is still on the lam and doing his best Jason Bourne imitation, without the action sequences. I don't recall the transit lounge at Sheremetyevo Airport as being that comfortable, but I guess it beats most prison cells. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court is rolling out decision after decision -- yesterday, questioning but upholding affirmative action; today, striking down a key part of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Tomorrow, we'll have the DOMA and Prop. 8 decisions on gay marriage. In just a little while, President Obama will announce the steps he intends to take unilaterally to mitigate climate change. And it's only, what, Tuesday? Let's catch our collective breath -- and get started.

After SCOTUS struck down Section 4 of the VRA, I fear this going to give carte blanche to states to make voting even more difficult than it is in a chunk of states. What's your take on it?

First, clearly this was an example of judicial activism, not restraint; the court substituted its own fact-finding and wisdom for that of Congress. But since I'd be pleased if the court did a similar thing tomorrow by striking down the Defense of Marriage Act, I can't claim to be against all judicial activism. My view is that if the court found fault with use of the Section 4 map, it could have expanded the pre-clearance requirement to the whole country. Given the attempts to limit the minority vote in states such as Ohio and Pennsylvania, the rest of the nation could use a little scrutiny of the kind that has made such a big difference in the South.

I'm a die-hard liberal, but shouldn't we really force Congress to update the law every 40 years or so? Is that too much to ask?

Not in a world with a functioning U.S. Congress. But in the real world, Congress had the chance to update the law just a few years ago and reauthorized it pretty much as is. Do you really think Congress is going to redraw the map, as the court recommends? I don't.

Do you think the real motivation of affirmative action opponents is to remove opportunities for people of different racists to interact? Do many of these opponents wish we could go back to the days of segregated schools?

No, I think they just don't recognize the advantages some kids have -- or the disadvantages faced by others. They don't see, for example, that "legacy" admissions are one of the most potent forms of affirmative action.

What's your big fear over the voting rights? You need an ID to buy alcohol. You need an ID to get a prescription. You need an ID to cash a check. Wouldn't it make sense to have an ID to vote? Unless of course you're a fan of fraudulent voting.

I've been consistent on this point: Show me that fraudulent voting of this kind is a problem, and then we can talk. So far, no on has taken me up on that.

You mean like Black Panthers bullying white voters in Philly, right?

Uh, no. In 2008 there were three guys in costume at one polling station. Not even Fox News could manage to find anyone who was intimidated from voting by these clowns. In 2012 only one of the guys showed up, and he was working as a marshal, sans costume. Come on.

Before Edward Snowden could leave Hong Kong, the Chinese government reportedly downloaded the information on his four laptop computers. Does this mean that the Chinese now have my metadata too? I dislike that idea even more than I do the NSA's collecting it.

I wouldn't like that, either, but no worries. There's no way the metadata that the NSA has been collecting would fit on four laptops. It's reasaonable to ask, though, whether information about other secret programs -- which Snowden apparently has -- was shared with, or snatched by, the Chinese government. The Wikileaks people say no. But you'd think the Chinese would be curious, wouldn't you?

With increased leaks like that of Snowden and Julian Assange, shouldn't the vetting process for government contractors and employees be reviewed? The economy isn't fully recovered, and surely there are better fits for unfilled positions?

Yeah, I think we can all agree that the Booz Allen Hamilton personnel system failed in this case. And I think there are important questions about the extent to which we outsource government work in general.

Obama's Amateur Hour has given the great old show a bad name. Leading from behind and pushing the "reset" button with Russia have given us Syria and Snowden's globe-trotting with nary a bit of support from China, Putin or anyone else. Oh, for the days when this great nation was respected because "folks" (that word O uses to describe terrorists) thought it might be a mistake not to work with the U.S. Now they have learned that their actions have no downside from this floundering Administration.

Your Ted Mack reference dates you (and, gulp, me) to an era when the United States could basically just tell other countries what to do -- at least, those outside of the Soviet bloc. That's not the case anymore, and while I've disagreed with some things President Obama has done, basically I think he has done a good job of outlining a new U.S. foreign policy for a new and very different century. I agree only about the overuse of "folks" -- I didn't like it when President George W. Bush used that word all the time, and I don't like hearing it from Obama, either. 

GOP State Senator leader Mike Turzai is the one who actually crowed to his fellow Republicans over how PA's. Voter ID act would deliver the Keystone State's electoral college votes to Romney in 2012. Fortunately, this enraged enough Pennsylvania voters to defeat Romney. Our best hope is to get the vote out again in 2014, in order to return the House of Representatives to a Democratic majority.

It will be interesting to see whether the surge in African American voting we saw in 2012 can be replicated in 2014, a midterm election. That would send the important message that efforts to suppress the minority vote have become counterproductive.

Booz Allen Hamilton's personnel system had no say whatsoever in the clearance Snowden had. Contractors go through the exact same clearance process as government employees do, and oftentimes it takes contractors even longer to get cleared than govvies. A contractor is no more or less likely to disclose info like this than a military member (see:Bradley Manning) or a govvie (see: most of the spying cases in recent years).

Well, Booz Allen did hire the guy. Is the company not willing to take any responsibility for its hiring decisions? If not, why use the firm? Why shouldn't the NSA do its own hiring?

Did you read your colleague Dana Milbank's latest column, re SCOTUS Associate Justice Samuel Alito's juvenile behavior? I realize there's no term-limits or recall procedure for him, but is there some way that Chief Justice John Roberts can make him behave in public? Alito's really an embarrassment to the robes.

I would hope that Chief Justice Roberts or one of the senior justices would pull him aside and have a chat about deportment and decorum.

Campus is shut down here at GU. Some criticize the president, but unilateral or not, we have to start somewhere. Naysayers who state that it's a drop in the bucket without developing nations such as China miss the point--without a workable example and plan forward, it won't change. Wasn't it Einstein who said that the definition of insanity is doing the same things and expecting different results? Or, perhaps, "if nothing changes, nothing changes?"

I'm very happy that President Obama is taking executive action on the climate change issue. Officials in China are starting to feel a real sense of urgency about climate change, and I think there's some danger of our falling behind in the race for new energy technology. Now is the time.

Well, one advantage of outsourcing is that private sector employees can be fired if they commit massive breaches of ethics, such as using the tyrannical IRS to stifle political opposition.

What those IRA employees did was clearly wrong, but you do realize that no group was actually stifled, right? I mean, except maybe one progressive group whose nonprofit application was actually denied. 

Sure, they can take responsibility for the hiring decisions. But they didn't grant him the clearance. And the contracting, as I'm sure you know, is not as simple as "why don't they hire their own." It tends to be political, based on whether we want smaller govt or bigger govt. Jobs still need to be done. Are there some that we could do without? Sure, probably. But don't dog on all just because of a few...

I guess I'm kind of dogging on the system. I'm sure that some contracting makes sense. But if the only aim is to create the illusion that government is smaller than it really is, how does that serve the public interest? 

Gene, neither party seems especially eager to discuss it, but Edward Snowden is a by-product (and, arguably, an inevitable one) of a defense/intel-industrial complex which has ballooned almost to almost cartoonish proportions since 9/11. And is a significant contributor to the huge debt/deficits we're always hearing about. Any chance that we'll see any scrutiny of that entire system here? (And I'm talking contractors *and* the army of GS13s/14s/15s that have come on-board too.)

The excellent series we ran last year, Top Secret America, should be required reading for those interested in the Snowden saga. We're created a whole shadow world that very few Americans know anything about.

Do you think Snowden really thought about what would happen after he leaked the info? Is he happy staying at the Moscow airport for days? And if he does make it to Ecuador he's stuck there for the rest of his life, dependent on that govt for living. Is Julian Assange stuck at the Ecuador embassy in London - like he can't leave the grounds or he faces arrest? Maybe they should have read "Man Without a Country' first before facing decades of self-enforced exile.

It does look as if Snowden didn't really think through his escape plan. Hong Kong was a brilliant first step, but the Moscow airport seems to have been a rash decision. There are worse places to end up than Ecuador -- one of them being the Ecuadorian embassy in London. 

Or, as I like to call it, profiteering at taxpayer expense.

That's an unkind way of putting it. But to justify the profit a firm like Booz Allen is making, we'd better be getting big savings in efficiency, flexibility, productivity. Are we?

Can you tell me what the screeners missed and should have seen, but that we know now that in hindsight should have eliminated Snowden from having a clearance? Aside from the obvious theft of information, of course.

Aside from stealing all the NSA's secrets, he's been a model employee! Seriously, did anyone make a serious attempt to scrub his online writings? Much of his internet life was conducted under pseudonyms, but still. Isn't the NSA supposed to be good at this sort of thing?


And with that, friends, my time is up. Thanks for participating, and I'll see you again next week!

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Eugene Robinson
Eugene Robinson is an Associate Editor and twice-weekly columnist for The Washington Post. His column appears on Tuesdays and Fridays. In a 25-year career at The Post, Robinson has been city hall reporter, city editor, foreign correspondent in Buenos Aires and London, foreign editor, and assistant managing editor in charge of the paper's award-winning Style section. In 2005, he started writing a column for the Op-Ed page. He is the author of "Coal to Cream: A Black Man's Journey Beyond Color to an Affirmation of Race" (1999) and "Last Dance in Havana" (2004). Robinson is a member of the National Association of Black Journalists and has received numerous journalism awards.
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