The Dark Side

Jane Mayer’s book on the torture regime of the Bush administration is a must-read for anyone interested in politics, civil liberties, war on terror.

I guess you could figure out that I was reading The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How The War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals by my recent blogging on torture.

This is a must-read book by Jane Mayer. It follows the torture story meticulously and focuses on how the policy developed. It is clear from the book that there were some major villains in the Bush administration who pushed for torture and got their way most of the time. John Yoo, David Addington and others shut the actual officials who were supposed to make national security policy (at the subcabinet level) out. However, the cabinet principals don’t come out looking good. They were either indifferent or supportive of the euphemism “enhanced interrogation techniques”, properly known as torture.

While there are several people mentioned in the book who tried to stop torture by the US government, there were also lots and lots of bad guys, lawyers who wrote or approved torture memos, military, civilian and CIA personnel who approved, condoned, supervised or actually tortured suspected or actual terrorists and intelligence, military and law enforcement who consumed the results of torture investigations. There are times when I feel like the Obama administration should release the names and deeds of all those people, anyone who was in any way involved with the torture policy. I know it’s not going to happen and isn’t really fair either.

What should be done is to release all the information about US actions and policy with regards to torture. For example, the thousands of pages of the CIA Inspector General’s May 2004 report.

The Audacity of Hope

I read Obama’s book about his political program during the election and inauguration.

I don’t usually read books by politicians, especially about current politics. However, being an Obama supporter and volunteer, I thought I should read his book, The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream.

I had already read Dreams From My Father and loved Obama’s writing style. The Audacity of Hope is also written well. Of course, I liked Dreams From My Father better, but that’s because of its subject of autobiography and identity.

The Audacity of Hope was written when Barack Obama was a US Senator and I started reading it a bit before the election. I finished it around inauguration time. As to why I didn’t read it earlier? I got it early in 2008 but then most of my spare time was consumed by the election campaign. I started the book only when I went to Pakistan for a couple of weeks in October.

In this book, Obama explains his views and his political program. Having followed his career since his keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic convention, I was familiar with a lot of his views. But two things still stood out. One is how Obama is actually fairly moderate. The other is Obama’s tendency to give an honest airing to conservative views and even agreeing partly before arguing for his liberal viewpoint on any issue. This quality, the so-called post-partisanship, was evident throughout the book.

Torture, Prosecution, CIA and Public

Torture is what keeps me up, it’s what’s on my mind. I am afraid that it’s a policy that while discarded now will return another day as the country is almost equally divided on its use.

I have been knee deep in torture recently. No, I haven’t been tortured nor have I tortured anyone. I have been reading about torture. I recently wrote about torture in my review of Taxi to the Dark Side where I collected links to my previous writings on the subject as well. I also discussed US public opinion about torture a few months ago.

With the recent release of the OLC torture memos, the torture debate has restarted again. There have been calls for prosecuting those who carried out the torture and/or those who made the policy decisions. Obama has called for looking forward instead of backward (imagine if every criminal had the same attitude). Senator McCain is against investigating torture or prosecuting anyone.

I am generally of the opinion that if the state must fall it must fall but we should get to the truth. However, after reading a lot about torture I have a distinct feeling that there is not going to be any prosecutions and even if there are, the chances of acquittal are very high. I find myself agreeing with most of the points Tyler Cowen makes against prosecution. The public opinion just isn’t there against torture (more on this in a bit). Hence, I believe it is more important to build a consensus against torture than to prosecute, as Matt Yglesias argues.

This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t do anything. For starters, we should make sure that the architects of the torture policy, like George Bush, Dick Cheney, David Addington, John Yoo, Jay Bybee, etc. are kept far from the levers of power. Therefore, I support efforts to impeach Jay Bybee, former head of OLC and currently a judge on the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. Also, we need a commission or some other mechanism to make public all the details about torture as practiced during the Bush era.

There are some who think that it was the higher echelons of the Bush administration that was responsible for torture. I think it’s clear now that this is wrong. Democratic leaders might not have ordered the torture (or “enhanced interrogation”) but some of them knew about it and some even approved. Similarly, other Western governments or their intelligence agencies were complicit, directly or indirectly, in renditions, torture, black sites, or sharing intelligence.

While there were courageous people in the military, government and civil society who opposed torture and did try to stop such practices, there were also a lot of others, lawyers, military commanders, CIA personnel and others, who were fully complicit in requesting, approving and implementing torture. I am about to finish reading Jane Mayer’s The Dark Side and it makes the case in detail. See, for example, former CIA counterterrorism official Michael Scheuer’s response or Condi Rice’s defense of imperial powers for the President.

That’s why I found the case of abolishing the CIA to be worth considering. CIA has a history of illegal activities (see Family Jewels and Church Committee Report and Iran-Contra report). Spencer Ackerman argues against abolition of CIA, but I found Quincy Adams and Matt Yglesias more convincing.

As for arguments about torture and its efficacy, I think torture is wrong regardless of whether it can yield any useful information or not. It is possible for torture to extract true information, though typically there’ll be lots of false confessions as well. However, it’s inhuman and morally wrong and that’s why we shouldn’t do it. As Obama said recently:

waterboarding violates our ideals and our values. I do believe that it is torture. […] And that’s why I put an end to these practices. I am absolutely convinced that it was the right thing to do — not because there might not have been information that was yielded by these various detainees who were subjected to this treatment, but because we could have gotten this information in other ways — in ways that were consistent with our values, in ways that were consistent with who we are.

I agree wholeheartedly with Kevin Drum’s reasons for opposing torture.

I don’t care about the Geneva Conventions or U.S. law. I don’t care about the difference between torture and “harsh treatment.” I don’t care about the difference between uniformed combatants and terrorists. I don’t care whether it “works.” I oppose torture regardless of the current state of the law; I oppose even moderate abuse of helpless detainees; I oppose abuse of criminal suspects and religious heretics as much as I oppose it during wartime; and I oppose it even if it produces useful information.

The whole point of civilization is as much moral advancement as it is physical and technological advancement. But that moral progress comes slowly and very, very tenuously. In the United States alone, it took centuries to decide that slavery was evil, that children shouldn’t be allowed to work 12-hour days on power looms, and that police shouldn’t be allowed to beat confessions out of suspects.

On other things there’s no consensus yet. Like it or not, we still make war, and so does the rest of the world. But at least until recently, there was a consensus that torture is wrong. Full stop. It was the practice of tyrants and barbarians. But like all moral progress, the consensus on torture is tenuous, and the only way to hold on to it — the only way to expand it — is by insisting absolutely and without exception that we not allow ourselves to backslide. Human nature being what it is — savage, vengeful, and tribal — the temptations are just too great. Small exceptions will inevitably grow into big ones, big ones into routine ones, and the progress of centuries is undone in an eye blink.

Let’s look at recent polls about torture and investigation.

In the NBC/WSJ poll, 50% disapprove of Obama ordering the closing of Guantanamo detainee prison and 53% disapprove of the release of the OLC torture memos. 53% think that the Bush administration used torture while 30% say that they didn’t. 46% say that the harsh interrogation helped the US extract information while 42% think it hurt the US by undermining its moral authority. And only 33% want a criminal investigation of the Bush torture policy.

In the Washington Post/ABC News poll, 53% support Obama’s release of the torture memos. 48% think there are cases when torture should be considered and 51% support an investigation of the treatment of detainees.

In a Gallup poll, 51% favor an investigation of harsh interrogation techniques used by the Bush administration, but 55% think such treatment of terrorism suspects was justified.

30%, seem to agree with Cheney’s position that the ends justified the means and that no investigation is necessary. Nearly as many (25%), though, would appear to side with many congressional Democrats who say the techniques should not have been used and an investigation is warranted. Twenty-three percent think the techniques were warranted yet still favor an investigation, while 10% think the methods should not have been used but nevertheless oppose an official inquiry.

66% of Democrats favor an investigation while only 48% of independents and 37% of Republicans do. 39% of Democrats think use of harsh interrogation techniques on terrorism suspects were justified while 55% of independents and 80% of Republicans agree.

In the New York Times/CBS News poll, 37% say waterboarding and other aggressive techniques are sometimes justified to extract information from a suspected terrorist while 46% disagree. Interestingly, only 16% of African Americans think they are justified. Only 71% consider waterboarding to be torture. 34% want Congress to investigate torture and warrantless wiretapping. 47% want to keep the Gitmo prison while 44% want to close it.

As you can see, there is some variation in these surveys. Nate Silver and Andrew Gelman try to explain why that is. While support for torture investigation varies from 33% to 51% in the various polls, the other numbers are a bit more consistent. The country seems to be almost equally divided on whether the torture memos should have been released and whether the Gitmo prison should be closed. Those who think torture is sometimes or always justified seem to vary from 37% to 55% while opposition to torture never reaches majority status either.

Looking at my previous writing on public opinion about torture, there doesn’t seem to have been any big change in public opinion in the US.

Finally, Pew did a survey about torture breaking down the numbers by religion, attending church, political party, etc.

Often justified Sometimes justified Rarely justified Never justified
Total US 15% 34% 22% 25%
White evangelicals 18% 44% 17% 16%
White non-Hispanic Catholics 19% 32% 27% 20%
White mainline Protestants 15% 31% 22% 31%
Unaffiliated 15% 25% 29% 26%
Attend religious services at least weekly 16% 38% 19% 25%
Attend religious services monthly 18% 33% 23% 23%
Attend religious services seldom or never 12% 30% 27% 26%
Republican 15% 49% 21% 14%
Independent 19% 35% 23% 19%
Democrats 12% 24% 22% 38%

Only a quarter of Americans are against torture under all conditions. This is astounding, but even worse is that only one of six white evangelicals and one in seven Republicans thinks torture is never justified. Even if we are generous and add up the numbers for those who think torture is rarely justified to the “never justified” ones, only 47% of Americans are against the use of torture. But only one-third of white evangelicals and 35% of Republicans are opposed to torture. I guess we could call these people the American Taliban.

While the Pope has come out against torture, among his followers American White Catholics a bare majority believes torture is often or sometimes justified. I wonder if any priest will deny communion to these torture-supporters.

The only groups (among those listed) with a majority who think torture is never or rarely justified are White mainline Protestants (53%), the unaffiliated (55%), those who seldom or never attend religious services (53%) and Democrats (60%). It’s disappointing that even these numbers are so low.

It can be argued that this support of torture by the religious is not a result of their being religious but rather due to the fact that those who are more religious are more likely to be Republicans in the US. I would agree with that, however, if religion can’t even get the deeply religious to oppose such an inhuman practice as torture, what use is such religion?

Georgia Senate Runoff Analysis

Why did Jim Martin lose so badly in the runoff when he had done so well in the general election?

This is the last in my series analyzing the 2008 election in the state of Georgia. I looked at statewide numbers in my first article. The next article looked at county level results and also racial polarization. In the 3rd article, I analyzed the results in Fulton county and specifically the precincts in which our team of Obama volunteers worked.

Georgia has a law according to which a winning candidate needs 50% + 1 of the votes cast, otherwise there is a runoff election between the top two candidates. In the general election on November 4, incumbent Republican Senator Saxby Chambliss failed to get 50% and thus was forced into a runoff with the Democratic candidate Jim Martin. Interestingly, this was the second runoff for Jim Martin this year since he had won in a runoff election in the Democratic primary too after no one got 50% in the crowded filed of Democratic Senate candidates in the primary election.

I did not work for the Jim Martin campaign and in fact was fairly certain that he would lose the runoff because Georgia is still a Republican state and there are a lot more habitual Republican voters here than Democratic ones. The Obama campaign had done a good job of registering voters and then bringing the sporadic voters out to vote for the general election, but there was no way that could be repeated for a runoff. Also, from our voter contact when we were volunteering for the Obama campaign, we knew that Sarah Palin was quite popular among Republicans here, perhaps more than John McCain (McCain got 31.6% of the vote and came in 2nd behind Huckabee and barely ahead of Romney in the Feb 5 primary.)

Chambliss Martin Total
Votes % Votes % Votes
General 1,867,090 49.75% 1,757,419 46.83% 3,752,577
Runoff 1,226,730 57.46% 908,222 42.54% 2,134,952

As you can see, a lot less people voted in the runoff than in the general election. Let’s look at the voter retention rate, i.e. the number of votes for a candidate in the runoff as a proportion of the votes in the general election.

Chambliss Martin Total
Vote Retention 65.7% 51.7% 56.9%

While only about 57% of the voters in the general voted in the runoff, they were not evenly distributed between the parties. Democrat Jim Martin barely managed to get half of his voters to pull the lever for him again while Republican Saxby Chambliss was successful with almost two-thirds of his voters. This is why the Republican margin increased from 2.92% on November 4 to 14.92% on December 2.

Let’s plot the percentage of votes the two candidates got in each county in the general and the runoff elections. The circles represent individual counties and their area is proportional to the number of registered voters in that county.

Chambliss percent general vs runoff

Martin percent general vs runoff

Chambliss performed better in all counties and Martin performed worse in almost all in the runoff when compared with the general election.

Another way to look at the data is to compare the vote retention rates for Chambliss and Martin.

Vote retention Chambliss vs Martin

Chambliss got about 60-70% of his general election vote in most counties, especially the more populous counties while Martin only got 45-60% in most. The only counties close to parity in terms of vote retention were really small.

I was wondering whether there was any pattern to the vote retention in terms of partisanship. So I plotted the Chambliss and Martin retention rates against the percentage in that county that voted for Obama on November 4.

Martin vote retention vs Obama vote

This is a slight upward trend as the counties get more Democratic. However it is still very low.

Chambliss vote retention vs Obama vote

We see much less of a pattern here.

Georgia Election Analysis III

Today I dig deeper into the Presidential election results in Fulton county and specifically the precincts in Alpharetta, Milton and South Atlanta where our team of Obama volunteered worked.

I did some analysis of the Presidential election in the state of Georgia in two installments. Today I’ll look at Fulton county where I live as well as the specific precincts in Alpharetta, Milton and South Atlanta where our team worked as volunteers for the Obama campaign.

Year D R Turnout %Turnout
2000 57.53% 39.68% 264,276 65.06%
2004 59.35% 39.99% 330,791 74.15%
2008 67.07% 32.09% 405,531 73.11%

There was a 15.3% swing towards Obama in Fulton county compared to Kerry in 2004. The turnout, based on the number of registered voters, stayed constant from 2004 to 2008. However, if we use the voting age population estimates (VAP) for Fulton county, we get the following turnout rates:

Year Turnout based on VAP
2000 42.30%
2004 48.00%
2008 52.72%

This shows a bigger turnout in 2008. One reason for the discrepancy between the turnout in the first table and this one is that the Obama campaign focused a lot on voter registration this year and thus got more people registered.

Also, please note that the VAP turnout estimate is probably lower than the real turnout which should be calculated as a proportion of the voting eligible population.

Out of the 3,924,440 votes cast for President in Georgia this year, 2,084,179 (or 53.11%) were cast during advance/early voting or by absentee mail-in. In Fulton county, 184,240 votes (45.42%) were cast early, absentee or provisional out of a total of 405,628 votes cast. This is very unusual for Georgia and Fulton as can be seen in the table below for Fulton county. (This shows the numbers for the 2004 general election for President, the 2006 election for Governor, the 2008 Presidential Primary on Super Tuesday and the 2008 general Presidential election.)

Year Absentee/Early/Provisional votes
2004 Prez 12.68%
2006 Gov 11.76%
2008 Prez Primary 7.65%
2008 Prez 45.42%

In the 2008 general election, the Obama campaign tried to get everyone to vote early. The effect of this can be seen in the early voting numbers in Fulton county where Obama had a 49.5% lead in early voting compared to a 22.9% lead on polling day itself.

The large numbers of early voters have complicated my precinct level analysis. The precinct level data does not include early or absentee votes which are listed separately as one per county. Still let’s see what we can conclude for our precincts.

For the Get Out the Vote (GOTV) campaign in October and then the first four days of November, we were based in the South Atlanta precincts, 12E1, 12J and 12T, which are just north of Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson Airport. These precincts are heavily Democratic (more than 90%) but there are a lot of sporadic voters there. So the main task was to get the vote out.

Election 12E1 12J 12T
Voted %Turnout Voted %Turnout Voted %Turnout
2004 518 49.5% 1024 59.7% 566 62.3%
2006 224 22.1% 473 29.2% 581 35.8%
2008 Primary 280 27.5% 564 34.6% 609 39.1%
2008 747 55.1% 1,360 67.3% 1,232 68.0%

Thus, turnout as a percentage of registered voters increased from 57.4% to 64.3% while actual number of people who voted in these three precincts increased from 2,108 to 3,339, a 58% increase in the number of voters. Compare this 58% increase to a 22.6% increase over the whole of Fulton county and a 19.6% increase over all of Georgia. I am actually pleased at these numbers and I am sure all of our Obama team would be too.

Let’s now look at the precincts in Alpharetta and Milton where we made the most calls, starting in August, for identifying voters, persuading them and then getting them out to vote. The table below shows the Republican advantage over Democrats. For the 2008 Presidential Primary, I added the votes for all the Republican Presidential candidates together and did the same for the Democrats. Let’s take the example of ML01A in the 2008 general election, McCain got 73.5% and Obama got 25.3%, which means a Republican advantage of 73.5-25.3=48.2%.

Precinct 2006 2008 Primary 2008
AP07B +66.0% +33.2% +40.9%
ML01A +64.0% +34.4% +48.2%
ML02A +67.4% +40.8% +62.6%
ML02B +68.0% +45.2% +57.5%
ML03 +66.9% +45.7% +59.5%
ML04 +65.2% +38.5% +56.5%
ML05 +48.9% +14.9% +37.7%
ML06 +29.9% -11.4% +8.2%
ML07 +65.1% +41.8% +52.0%

I couldn’t find the data for the 2004 Presidential election for the Milton (MLxx) precincts but AP07B had a 42.9% Republican advantage in 2004.

Before I opine on those results, let’s look at the turnout (as a percentage of registered voters) in these precincts:

Precinct 2008 Turnout
AP07B 44.6%
ML01A 44.6%
ML02A 55.3%
ML02B 55.3%
ML03 52.5%
ML04 44.7%
ML05 44.2%
ML06 41.9%
ML07 54.2%

We already know that about half of Georgia and Fulton county voters voted early. The early voters are not listed in the last two tables for the Alpharetta/Milton precincts because they are not reported that way by Fulton county. Looking at the election day turnout for Milton, it seems that fewer than half of the voters voted early.

Because we only have the vote breakdown by party for those who voted in person at their polling location on November 4 and a significant number of voters had voted early in 2008, we cannot really say what the margin between McCain and Obama was in Alpharetta and Milton. There is no reason to believe that the early voters had the same partisan distribution as those on election day. In fact, there is reason to believe that the early voters were more likely to be Obama supporters. The Obama campaign had been working hard asking people to vote early. Also, in the whole of Fulton county, Obama had a 49.5% advantage in early voting compared to a 22.9% advantage on polling day. Thus, the very large Republican margin in the Milton precincts in 2008 is most likely not correct. I can say with certainty that McCain won all those precincts except ML06 but probably with a somewhat smaller margin. Even then, Republicans had a huge advantage here in North Fulton. Unfortunately, we don’t have any way of finding out whether our team was able to reduce that Republican advantage or not.

Next: A look at the Senate runoff between Jim Martin and Saxby Chambliss.

Georgia: Battleground

Georgia has been reliably Republican for a while now. But this election is different. There’s a 1 in 3 (or more) chance that Obama might win tomorrow.

I have been really busy recently and haven’t had time to blog. Volunteering for the Obama campaign has been fun but also kept me busy. We had phonebanking events every day last week with one at our home on Friday. Then on Saturday and Sunday, we went door to door contacting voters in South Atlanta to go out and vote on Tuesday. That’s also what we are doing today.

So how did Georgia become competitive? In 2000, Bush won Georgia 55%-43% and in 2004 increased the margin to 58%-41%. But in 2008, you can see for yourself:

Georgia is now a battleground state. McCain is leading Obama by only 1.7% here according to Pollster which “averages” all polls. Also, the betting market Intrade has Obama winning Georgia at 27.5%.

In addition, in 2004 African Americans were 27.2% of registered voters and contributed 25.4% of the votes. According to the latest voter registration statistics, African Americans are now 29.9% of registered voters.

In early voting since September 22, we have had 2,020,839 voters already cast their votes, which is 61.5% of the total number of votes cast (3,285,140) in 2004. Assuming a turnout of 80% (higher than 77% in 2004), this would mean that 43.9% have already voted. Among these early voters, African Americans comprised 34.9% of the total. We are hoping that African American turnout remains high even on Election Day tomorrow and puts Barack Obama over the top in Georgia.

Electoral Vote Predictors

There are so many sites predicting the results of the Presidential, Senate and House elections, some using statistical techniques, others their intuition. Here are some of my favorites.

Being a political junkie means I follow polls and electoral projections. Add to it the nerd factor and I love to see all sorts of prediction algorithms used to figure out the electoral votes for Obama and McCain.

The best such site is which is very comprehensive and now with their flash applications very customizable too. You can even embed their poll trend graphs on your own website. They use LOESS local regression to calculate the current vote share for the candidates.

In 2004, I discovered which is run by Andrew Tanenbaum who I knew because of his Computer Science textbooks.

Click for

I like the Princeton Election Consortium site because not only do they provide details of their methods but also their code.

FiveThirtyEight weights pollsters by reliability and also takes into account the demographics of each state for their projection.

RealClear Politics averages recent polls to arrive at their electoral map.

Andrea Moro uses statistical simulations to assign the winner for each state.

Finally, 3BlueDudes has a huge list of election projection websites.