More on the new atheist-accommodationist split

As I wrote last week, quite a scuffle has broken out between the so-called ‘accommodationists’ (who feel that we should not offend ‘liberal’ religious people by pointing out that science and religion are incompatible) and the so-called ‘new atheists’ (who feel that this accommodationist strategy has been pursued for a long time with no success and should be abandoned).

New atheists like Richard Dawkins, Jerry Coyne, P.Z. Myers, and others have argued that there is no justification for the belief that science and religion are compatible, and that professional science organizations like the National Academy of Science, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the National Center for Science Education should refrain from making statements to that effect and stick to simply advocating good science, avoiding all questions of religion altogether. The undoubted fact that there are many scientists who are religious and that there are many religious people who support science (and oppose fundamentalist versions of religion) only provides support for the uncontroversial idea that it is possible for people to simultaneously hold contradictory views in their minds, nothing more.
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Why people believe in god-1: The fog of theological language

As regular readers of this blog know, I am an atheist. I hope it is clear what I believe: I believe that the material world governed by natural laws is all that exists, and I reject all things supernatural, which includes the soul, ghosts and spirits, the afterlife, reincarnation, any form of spiritualism, and so on. In the process, I have argued strongly that there is absolutely no reason to believe that god exists and that to do so is irrational, driven either by childhood indoctrination, psychological need, or both.
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On wealth-2

(Part 1 can be seen here.)

One of the odd things that I have found about America is how many people are willing to fight to protect the interests of the very wealthy, even though they themselves are nowhere close to attaining that level of income, and where the efforts by a few to acquires such wealth adversely affects them. Some are willing to defend the rampant greed that resulted in practices the led to the recent financial collapse. “Joe the Plumber”, “Tito the Builder” and others like them were notable figures during the last election campign that belonged to this category. During the recent tea parties protesting Obama’s tax policies, a demonstrator was asked whether he earned more than $250,000. When he said that he earned much, much less, he was asked why he was protesting since his taxes would be lowered. He said that he hoped to become wealthy some day and thus was looking out for his future interests, however unlikely that may be.
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On wealth-1

In writing the series of posts on spreading the wealth and on financial frauds, I started musing on what wealth is and what it means to different people. For many people, becoming wealthy is seen as a desirable goal, an end in itself. Our media is soaked in wealth-porn, the endless regaling of how much wealthy people earn and the details of their lifestyles.

It seems to me that there are three pathways to becoming wealthy: inheriting wealth, acquiring wealth as a byproduct of trying to reach some other goal, and actively seeking it for its own sake because it is important to you.

There is not much one can say about the first category. One either has rich relatives who die leaving you their money, or one hasn’t.

The second type of person is like that of some artists, like J. K. Rowling the creator of the phenomenally successful Harry Potter books, who achieve massive and unexpected success. My guess is that what drives such people is similar to what drives academics, they want to do something for its own sake and seek above all to produce a successful work of art that is recognized as such. Commercial success is very welcome but is not the primary goal. Evidence for this lies in the fact that such people usually do not stop creating new works even when they have no financial reason to continue working. It is the very rare author or actor or painter or musician who stops producing new work simply because they have made lots of money. For such people their primary goal is to produce something they are proud of and is valued by their knowledgeable peers.

There is a subset of this second category that consists of inventors. Such people like Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Bill Gates, and Steve Jobs are similar to artists in that they are trying to create something new. But at the same time, they necessarily must have a business orientation since their idea is to produce something useful and valuable, not a work of art, and the main yardstick by which that is measured is by selling a lot of it. So making a lot of money is an important measure of whether they have produced something of value. This is different from an academic or artist or poet who can be considered a success while still not being rich.

The third type of person is one for whom making a lot of money is the primary goal in life and it does not matter to them how they achieve it. Such people are willing to spend their entire lives doing something they dislike as long as it enables them to become rich. They tend to view life as a competition and the winner is the person who dies with the most money. They may, in the course of making money, produce something of value and merit, but their primary goal is to be rich. So for them, it does not really matter if they became so by producing a better widget or creating a chain of stores or winning the lottery. Those are just the means to the end of becoming wealthy.

This is why I will never be wealthy. I do not have rich relatives and can expect no inheritance. I do not do the kind of work that is likely to make a lot of money as a side effect. But most crucially, I simply have no desire to be wealthy. While I will of course work to make a living and to “put food on my family” (in George W. Bush’s memorable words), I simply cannot see myself doing something just for the sake of making a lot of money.

There are a very few occasions when I think it would be nice to have a lot of money. When I travel on long airline flights, I sometimes have to get to my coach seat by passing through the first and business class sections. When I see the comfortable and spacious seats they have compared to my cramped one, I think how nice it must be to be able to easily afford to pay the extra thousands of dollars for that luxury. But then I realize that in order to be able to be able to splurge for those few hours of comfort on a plane, I would have to work at a job I dislike on a daily basis all my life. That would not be a good trade-off.

In order to become rich for its own sake, you must be willing to spend a lot of time at it. If you want to become a successful investor in the stock market (say) you have to study the market and company reports and the business world and so on. The catch is that you would have to devote a lot of time towards this and that is something I have no wish to do.

What would be the point? My preferred lifestyle is one that is very simple. I don’t much like to travel to exotic places or stay at fancy hotels or resorts, eat at expensive restaurants (or eat out at all for that matter), go to shows and concerts, etc. I like to live what others might consider a really boring life: reading, writing, thinking, and spending time with friends. My idea of a great weekend or holiday is when I have no place that I must go to and nothing that I must do. If I were to sacrifice my time and other interests to make a lot of money, I would have lost more than I gained.

POST SCRIPT: Signs of the times

Kodak announces that after 74 years it is is discontinuing production of Kodachrome film due to the public shift to digital photography.

Don’t tell Paul Simon, he’s going to be really upset.

The new atheists vs. the accommodationists

An interesting discussion has broken out between those scientists and philosophers of science (labeled ‘accommodationists’) who seek to form alliances with religious believers by finding common ground between science and religion, and those who think that such an exercise is a waste of time, that scientific and religious viewpoints are fundamentally incompatible, and that what the accomodationists are doing is trying to make religious beliefs intellectually respectable by covering it with a veneer of highly dubious interpretations of science.
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Reflections on Hong Kong

Last month I had the privilege of visiting Hong Kong for the first time to do some consulting work. The universities there are shifting from the British model of a narrowly focused three-year degree to the American model of a four-year degree, with broader educational goals and more general education courses, and they had invited me because of my familiarity with implementing such changes.
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On torture-24: What happens next?

(For previous posts on torture, see here.)

For the last post in this long and admittedly depressing series, I want to tie up some loose ends.

What Dahlia Lithwik and Phillipe Sands point out, and which this series of posts has examined in great detail, is that the discussion on whether the US committed torture is over. There is no question about it and anyone who keeps saying that it didn’t is ignorant, lying, or relying upon a convoluted reading of history and the definition of torture. At the very least, such people should be willing to agree on the issue being examined by the International Criminal Court, which “is the first permanent, treaty based, international criminal court established to help end impunity for the perpetrators of the most serious crimes of concern to the international community.”

Lithwik and Sands point to a highly significant statement given on January 13, 2009, just before Obama took office, by someone intimately aware of what is going on in Guantanamo. Susan Crawford was the convening authority of the military commissions at Guantanamo Bay.

Crawford, a retired judge who served as general counsel for the Army during the Reagan administration and as Pentagon inspector general, is hardly the kind of hippie moonbat Cheney would like to poke fun at. And that’s why everything changed this morning when the Washington Post published a front-page interview by Bob Woodward, in which Crawford stated without equivocation that the treatment of alleged 20th Sept. 11 hijacker Mohammed al-Qahtani at Guantanamo Bay was “torture.”

Crawford also told Woodward that the charges against al-Qahtani were dropped because he was tortured. This has devastating consequences for the Bush administration’s entire rationale for the new techniques of interrogation: that they would make the United States safer by producing intelligence and keeping dangerous individuals off the streets. We now know they do neither. The torture produced no useful information from al-Qahtani, and the cruelty heaped upon him will make it more difficult, if not impossible, to justify his long-term incarceration.

There is a third major consequence to the Crawford interview: Her principle objection to detainee abuse is not ephemeral or spiritual, but a damning indictment of the impact it will have on American troops and the prospects for America’s authority abroad: “If we tolerate this and allow it, then how can we object when our servicemen and women, or others in foreign service, are captured and subjected to the same techniques? How can we complain? Where is our moral authority to complain? Well, we may have lost it.”

Whether torture occurred and who was responsible will no longer be issues behind which senior members of the administration and their lawyers and policymakers can hide. The only real issue now is: What happens next?

The answer to that question takes you to a very different place when the act is torture, as Crawford says it is. Under the 1984 Torture Convention, its 146 state parties (including the United States) are under an obligation to “ensure that all acts of torture are offences under its criminal law.” These states must take any person alleged to have committed torture (or been complicit or participated in an act of torture) who is present in their territories into custody. The convention allows no exceptions, as Sen. Pinochet discovered in 1998. The state party to the Torture Convention must then submit the case to its competent authorities for prosecution or extradition for prosecution in another country.

Torture is one of those cases where we seem to be even less enlightened now than we were in the past when it comes to judging our own actions with at least some impartiality.

In 1901 a US army major was sentenced to 10 years hard labor for waterboarding a Philippine insurgent. Similarly, water boarding was designated as illegal by U.S. generals in Vietnam 40 years ago and a US soldier who waterboarded a Vietnamese prisoner was court-martialed. But now, far from taking action against torturers, we dispute whether these acts are even torture. We excuse and even praise torturers and those who support and authorize torture by saying they acted ‘in good faith’ or ‘in the interests of the nation’. (By coincidence, yesterday’s Sunday Doonesbury cartoon dealt with this.)

We have sunk a long way in the last 100 years. We can only go up from here.

POST SCRIPT: Documentary on torture

Those who have stuck with me through this long series on torture may also want to watch the three-part documentary Torturing Democracy put out by the National Security Archive.

On torture-23: So now what?

(For previous posts on torture, see here.)

None of the architects of the Bush/Cheney torture administration has been called to account, at least so far, for their actions. Of the authors of the infamous memos from the Office of Legal Counsel authorizing torture, one is now a professor of law at the University of California, Berkeley (John Yoo) while the other is now an Appeals Court judge (Jay Bybee).

Of the others who were deeply involved in approving these policies (Bush, Cheney, Condoleeza Rice, Alberto Gonzalez, John Ashcroft, David Addington), none appear to be under any threat of even investigation in the US, let along prosecution for their actions. This means that other countries may feel obliged to take action since torture is a crime against humanity that is not protected by national boundaries. Spain has taken an interest in possible prosecutions against six people (John Yoo, Jay Bybee, David Addington, Alberto Gonzales, William Haynes, and Douglas Feith) and if, as I hope, they carry it through, then any of them could be arrested and extradited to Spain is they set foot in any of the 24 countries that are parties to European extradition conventions.

But in the US such concerns about law and justice are viewed as quaint and casually dismissed, with the so-called ‘war on terror’ being used as a ‘get out of jail free’ card to excuse each and every atrocity. The rot is deep with Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia minimizing the evil of torture by trivializing it saying, “I suppose it’s the same thing about so-called torture. Is it really so easy to determine that smacking someone in the face to determine where he has hidden the bomb that is about to blow up Los Angeles is prohibited in the constitution?”

Even the children of suspects are being used as part of the torture techniques. The number of deaths of detainees while undergoing ‘questioning’ in US custody is another underreported scandal. Glenn Greenwald tells the stories of some of them.

Because of their deep involvement in torture, the US is now categorized by other countries as one that practices torture, although many are reluctant to say so publicly. A manual on torture awareness put out by the Canadian government and given to its diplomats was accidentally released to the press. It puts US as one of the countries on a torture watch list. Other countries on the list include Afghanistan, China, Iran, Israel, Mexico, Saudi Arabia and Syria.

Despite his campaign promises to bring back a respect for the rule of law, what is becoming clear is that Obama is weaseling out of his own obligation to uphold the law and has no intention of taking any action against those who instituted torture practices. So he too becomes complicit in the torture policies of the Bush/Cheney regime. Mark Danner says that there is bipartisan complicity in torture, with the Democrats quaking at fears that by opposing torture, they would be seen as coddling terrorists:

Republicans from Dick Cheney on down have been unflagging in their arguments that these “enhanced interrogation techniques . . . were absolutely crucial” to preventing “a major-casualty attack.” This argument, still strongly supported by a great many Americans, is deeply pernicious, for it holds that it is impossible to protect the country without breaking the law. It says that the professed principles of the United States, if genuinely adhered to, doom the country to defeat. It reduces our ideals and laws to a national decoration, to be discarded at the first sign of danger.

This is why torture is at its heart a political scandal and why its resolution lies in destroying the thing done, not the people who did it. It is this idea of torture that must be destroyed: torture as a badge worn proudly to prove oneself willing to ‘do anything” to protect the country.

The only way to gain the moral high ground is to abide by the rule of law and prosecute those who break it, especially in the case of vicious and unconscionable crimes like torture. Glenn Greenwald argues why we should not make excuses for torture and points out that in Britain, pressure is building on the government to investigate and take action on the allegations of torture.

That’s because torture is illegal in Britain, as it is in the United States. But unlike the United States: Britain hasn’t completely abandoned the idea that even political officials must be accountable when they commit crimes; their political discourse isn’t dominated and infected by the subservient government-defending likes of David Ignatius, Ruth Marcus, David Broder and Stuart Taylor demanding that government officials be free to commit even serious war crimes with total impunity; and they don’t have “opposition leaders” who are so afraid of their own shadows and/or so supportive of torture that they remain mute in the face of such allegations. To the contrary, demands for criminal investigations into these episodes of torture (including demands for war crimes investigations from conservatives) span the political spectrum in Britain.

Ray McGovern suggests that pressure may be slowly building here on Obama to have some accountability.

We can only hope. At the very least, we can start, as Phillipe Sands recommends, by releasing all the torture documents, including videos. Secrecy inevitably leads to abuses.

POST SCRIPT: The Ventures

Was there anyone in my generation who did not dream of wanting to play like The Ventures, with their pure, clean guitar sound and the driving, pulsating drums? Bob Bogle, one of the founders, died two days ago.

Here they are in their early days with Wipe Out:

And later they shed the clean-cut look but kept the same music with Tequila:

People probably are most familiar with the theme from the TV series Hawaii Five-O:

Book review: In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan

Some time ago, I wrote a series of posts on the politics of food where I examined some of the ideas in Michael Pollan’s 2006 book The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Pollan has come out with a new book in 2008 titled In Defense of Food that was triggered by the response to the first book. People kept asking him what he recommended they should eat, now that he had exposed the adverse impacts on our food and health of the industrial food complex dominated by agribusiness.

He said that by posing that very question, people revealed the extent that what he calls the ‘Western’ diet has divorced people from their roots when it comes to food. In most cultures, he argues, food decisions are largely determined by tradition in the form of their cuisines. Food is seen as serving many purposes, such as taste and aesthetics. Food is something to be savored, to give pleasure in addition to nourishment. It is in the west that people obsess about what they eat and look to ‘experts’ to guide them, and he suggests that this, paradoxically, is why people in the west are so unhealthy.

He begins his book with three pieces of advice, encapsulated in just seven words. “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

The advantages of the last two suggestions are fairly self-evident, though he does elaborate on them in the book. It is the first that requires some explaining. What does he mean by “Eat food”? What else do we do?

What he means is that a lot of what passes for food these days is really a kind of quasi-food product. Today’s stores are filled with processed foods that are far removed from the basic foods and ingredients that traditional cultures would recognize as food, and this development has been bad for us. He says that this is a result of the success of what he calls the ideology of ‘nutritionism’ promoted by the ‘nutritional-industrial complex’. Using the methodology of reductionism, nutrition scientists have tried to reduce our bodily needs to a set of nutrients and this has led to viewing foods as sources of specific nutrients.

Seen this way, each food item is seen as a delivery vehicle for one or more nutrients. This explains why in the US diets lurch from one fad to another as this or that nutrient is identified as good or bad for you. We now talk fluently in the language of carbohydrates, proteins, vitamins, antioxidants, transfats, cholesterol, HDL, LDL, and so on, instead of in terms like chicken or fish or specific vegetables or fruits.

Humans have co-evolved with food as complex, integrated systems, not collections of items. Our bodies know how to extract the required nutrition from real food, but it may not know how to deal with nutrients that have been removed from their natural environment. Any food item, however simple, is far more complex than the agglomeration of the few nutrients that we are currently able to identify in them.

To think that the interaction of a highly complex system like a food with another highly complex system like the human body can be reduced to the transfer of an identifiable set of nutrients, is to oversimplify on a dangerous scale. Our bodies have evolved to deal with corn but not with high-fructose corn syrup. An orange is far more than a source of vitamin C that can be dispensed with by taking a vitamin C supplement. Who knows how those things that we tend to ignore about corn and oranges (all the other identified and unidentified nutrients, along with the pulp, fiber, and the degree of dilution provided by the water) influence the way that the nutrients interact with our bodies, in ways that a pill or another food supplemented with vitamin C or high-fructose corn syrup might not?

He says that the inability of big industries after 150 years to produce infant formulas to reproduce the benefits that breast milk provides shows complex natural food is.

Pollan argues that the reductionist approach to food is marketed by the nutritional-industrial complex, aided by scientists, the media, and even health organizations, who can repeatedly use the alleged benefit of this or that single component to market new processed quasi-foods.

Pollan makes some practical suggestions for how to fight this tendency and eat more healthily:

  • don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food if she saw it in a store;
  • avoid foods that contain more than five ingredients, have ingredients that are unfamiliar, unpronounceable, or that include high-fructose corn syrup;
  • avoid food products that make health claims;
  • as far as possible avoid supermarkets for food and buy directly from the growers via farmer’s markets and the like;
  • and if you have to use supermarkets, buy from the periphery of the store (where real food such as produce, meats, and dairy are to be found) and avoid the center where all the processed food is.

Most importantly, he says that you won’t go far wrong if you simply cook your own food and not eat pre-cooked food.

Michael Pollan is a good writer and In Defense of Food is a terrific book for anyone who seeks to escape from the clutches of the industrial food machine and the nutritional-industrial complex.

POST SCRIPT: Michael Pollan on The Colbert Report

The Colbert Report Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Michael Pollan
Colbert Report Full Episodes Political Humor Keyboard Cat

It is a tribute to Colbert’s skill that some conservatives think that he is truly conservative and only pretending to be ironic.

On torture-22: Psychologists complicity in torture

(For previous posts on torture, see here.)

We see that once you allow torture as authorized and official policy, you inevitably widen the circle of people who are involved. In particular, psychologists and doctors have been deeply involved in the process, the former to devise the torture techniques and to measure the effects, and the latter to monitor the extent of the physical harm done to the victims and try and prevent death. After all, the purpose of torture is to create psychological breakdown, to get the person to confess or reveal information. Physical abuse is just a means to achieving that end.

There has been considerable controversy within the psychology and medical communities about the extent to which they have been involved in researching and constructing the torture protocols that are currently being used. After all, what does it say about the medical profession if it allows its members to be part of such a repugnant process?

But the discussion about the highly questionable role that psychologists have played in torture has not really made it into mainstream news, so much so that it became #10 of Project Censored’s list of the top 25 censored stories for 2009. One of the ignored stories it highlights appeared in 2007 in Vanity Fair magazine. Katherine Eban reports that in 2006:

a psychologist named Jean Maria Arrigo came to see me with a disturbing claim about the American Psychological Association, her profession’s 148,000-member trade group. Arrigo had sat on a specially convened A.P.A. task force that, in July 2005, had ruled that psychologists could assist in military interrogations, despite angry objections from many in the profession. The task force also determined that, in cases where international human-rights law conflicts with U.S. law, psychologists could defer to the much looser U.S. standards—what Arrigo called the “Rumsfeld definition” of humane treatment.

Arrigo and several others with her, including a representative from Physicians for Human Rights, had come to believe that the task force had been rigged—stacked with military members (6 of the 10 had ties to the armed services), monitored by observers with undisclosed conflicts of interest, and programmed to reach preordained conclusions.

Jane Mayer, author of the book The Dark Side has written about the role that even well-known psychologists have played in torture. Scott Horton summarizes one key thesis of Mayer’s book:

She traces the development of the torture techniques to the work of two contractors, Mitchell and Jessen, and disclosed the specific techniques they developed. She notes that the techniques rely heavily on a theory called “Learned Helplessness” developed by a Penn psychologist Martin Seligman, who assisted them in the process. All of this was done under the thin pretext of being a part of the SERE program. Seligman is a former president of the American Psychological Association. This helps explain why the APA alone among professional healthcare provider organizations failed to unequivocally condemn torture and mandate that its members not associate themselves with the Bush Administration techniques.

The names of military psychologists James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen come up repeatedly in discussing the involvement of psychologists in torture. They were two of the trainers in the original SERE program that was used to train US personnel to resist torture and were the ones who originally suggested in the wake of 9/11 that those same techniques be used on detainees to elicit information, although there had been no evidence that this produced anything useful. While you can make people talk, it has been seen with Abu Zubaydah and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed that what people say under torture is of little value.

Mitchell and Jessen have been defended by other military psychologists in the program like Bruce Lefevre, who argue that when it comes to advancing the interests of the US, normal ethical guidelines that call for looking after the welfare of the person in front of you can be abandoned.

Under questioning about his own role, Seligman has tried to distance himself from the charges that he actively aided in the development of torture techniques, although he allows that his work may have been used this way. He said that his research interest was in how to resist torture and that he cannot be held responsible for those who use it ways not originally intended.

The psychology community has not come out well in this shoddy episode. The American Psychological Association (APA) is the one major medical professional organization that has rejected calls to come out with a strong and unequivocal condemnation of torture and to require its members to refuse to participate with the activities in the detention centers.

Psychologist Bryant Welch, author of the book State of Confusion: Political Manipulation and the Assault on the American Mind and someone in a position to provide an insider’s view of the organization, in an article titled Torture, Political Manipulation and the American Psychological Association tries to find the answers to some key questions: “How did the APA form such an obviously close connection to the military? And why did the APA governance—the Board of Directors and the Council of Representatives—go along with the military interests? How could an organization of such bright and ethical people be rendered so incompetent to protect the profession from the horrible black eye they have given us?” He concludes that over time, the organization had become too cozy with the military and developed an anti-democratic ethos that stifled debate and criticism.

Another psychologist Stephen Soldz reveals that another former APA president Joseph Matarazzo was involved with Mitchell and Jensen’s CIA-consulting torture firm, and describes the efforts by the APA to now distance itself from the disgrace of being seen as accommodating of torture.

Jane Mayer sums up the sorry state of professional ethics:

I personally feel that the medical and psychological professionals who have used their skills to further a program designed to cause pain and suffering should be a high priority in terms of accountability. It has long been a ghastly aspect of torture, worldwide, that doctors and other medical professionals often assist. The licensing boards and professional societies are worthless, in my view, if they don’t demand serious investigations of such unethical uses of science.

Mayer is absolutely right.

POST SCRIPT: Jose Padilla vs. John Yoo

Last Friday, Federal District Court Judge Jeffrey S. White (who incidentally was appointed to the bench by George W. Bush) refused to dismiss Jose Padilla’s civil lawsuit against John Yoo, as requested by the latter. Padilla has alleged that Yoo’s torture memos were instrumental in causing the abuse Padilla received and thus Yoo had violated his constitutional rights.

Obama’s justice department defended Yoo’s argument that the president’s war powers meant that the judiciary had no oversight. In other words, the current justice department agrees with the despicable Bush doctrine that the president can do what pretty much what he likes with detainees.

In his ruling, the judge outlines the case that Yoo and the Obama justice department is trying to make:

First, Yoo contends that the courts should not review the designation of Padilla as an enemy combatant because Congress passed the Authorization for Use of Military Force Joint Resolution, authorizing the President to make such a designation, and thereby relegated the issue of designation specifically to the legislative and the executive branches of government. Second, Yoo contends that the Court should show the proper deference to executive discretion in times of war. Next, Yoo contends that the Court should abstain from reviewing the alleged constitutional violations presented in this matter because the claims necessarily would uncover government secrets, thereby threatening national security. Lastly, Yoo argues the courts should deny review of this matter because the allegations involve issues relating to foreign affairs and foreign relations, matters specifically designated to control by the coordinate branches of government.

The judge rejected these arguments and ruled that the case against Yoo can now continue. See Glenn Greenwald (as usual) for more details.