• The New State Department Report on Hillary’s Email, and Why it Matters

    May 27, 2016 // 7 Comments

    Tags: , ,
    Posted in: Democracy, Embassy/State, Questions for Clinton

    Trump_&_Clinton





    The State Department Inspector General’s (IG) investigation report leaked out a day early on May 25 makes a number of significant points. These matter, and need to be considered by anyone voting in November.



    What’s in the IG Report

    — Neither Clinton nor any of her senior staff would participate in the IG’s investigation.

    — Clinton never sought approval, legal or technical, for her unprecedented private email system.

    — IT staffers and others at State warned her against it.

    — Had she sought approval, the State Department would not have granted it.

    — Clinton violated Federal Records laws.

    — Clinton did not turn over all of her work-related emails. Several (unclassified) were quoted in the IG report that had never been released.

    — Clinton violated State Department policies and guidelines in place at the time, even as the State Department enforced those on the rank-and-file.

    — IT staff at the State Department who raised concerns internally were falsely told the server was approved and ordered to not discuss it further.

    — Clinton’s use of a non-standard email account caused many of her emails to not reach their recipients inside State, and ended up instead in Spam.

    — State Department staffers not in Clinton’s inner circle aware of her private email address could not communicate with the head of their agency.

    — His State Department bosses did not know their employee, Bryan Pagliano, was simultaneously working directly for Clinton maintaining her private server.

    — The server came under severe enough hacker attacks that its administrator had to physically unplug it to prevent intrusions.

    The question of classified material handling is, by agreement, being left by State to the FBI, and is thus not addressed in the IG report.

    All of that is in the report. I’ve read the whole thing, and if you do not believe my summary, above, or wonder what specific laws and regulations are being cited, you can also read the whole thing and learn for yourself.



    What Matters

    — For the first time, a set of actual facts of Clinton’s actions and decisions have been laid out by an independent, government entity. The IG was appointed by Obama and his report is dispassionate. No one can realistically claim this is a hit job. Sources are cited and laws footnoted.

    — Clinton did break Federal Records laws and violate State Department regulations that her organization held others to.

    — Despite repeated promises of transparency and cooperation, neither Hillary nor any of her senior staff would agree to participate in the IG’s investigation. Former Sectaries of State Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell and Madeleine Albright did participate fully and voluntarily in the investigation. Clinton alone did not.

    — Clinton never sought approval, and ignored advice to stop what she was doing. She ran the server with no oversight. With no oversight, the only check on Clinton was Clinton herself.

    — That lack of oversights extended to potential destruction of evidence. It was Clinton alone who determined which emails to turn over to the State Department as “work related” and which to delete, some 30,000. It was Clinton who made the decision to then try and wipe the server clean. It is unclear whether or not the FBI can forensically retrieve and review those 30,000 deleted emails.

    Simply put, what she did wasn’t supposed to be done.



    Why It Matters

    — Hillary Clinton lied when she claimed her actions were approved. She lied when she said there were no regulations in place at the time of her server decisions. She lied when she said she broke no laws. She lied when she said this all was a Republican hit job. She lied when she said she would cooperate with any investigation.

    — Hillary Clinton covered up her actions for four years as Secretary, then another two years after she left office, and only admitted to anything after it hit the news last year.

    — Hillary Clinton asks voters to trust her with the most important job in America. She has not shown she is trustworthy.

    — Hillary Clinton asks to be America’s leader. She did not lead her State Department, and she showed contempt for its rules. She did not lead by example.

    — Hillary Clinton made clear by her actions that she believes rules that apply to others do not apply to her.

    — Hillary Clinton by her actions succeeded in hiding all of her official emails from the Freedom of Information Act for six years in open contempt for that process and the American people.

    — Hillary Clinton purposefully and willfully created a system that exempted her from the oversight applied to every other government employee.

    — Hillary Clinton alone in the entire U.S. government conducted 100% of her official business on a private email server.



    Defense?

    The other shoe has yet to drop. Though the Inspectors General from the intelligence community have stated unequivocally that Clinton did handle highly classified material on her unsecured server, the FBI report on the same matter has not yet been released.

    For those who wish to defend Clinton with the “but everybody did it” argument, Condoleezza Rice did not send any emails on any unsecured system at all. Powell and Albright sent a handful in the early days of the web. All of them cooperated in the State IG investigation. None of them ran a fully private system for four years and most importantly, none of them are asking us to trust them now running for president.

    If your support is whittle down to a sad Hillary is down to “well, she’s not Trump,” do be careful what you wish for. She’s not Trump, but she is all of the above.

    For those who wish to defend Clinton by saying “she’s not indicted,” well, actual criminality is a pretty low bar to set for the most important job in America. Also, the FBI has yet to release its report which may point to actual national security violations.

    And lastly, it is not about crime per se, but about trust and judgement.



    BONUS: If Bernie Sanders will not discuss any of this publically, he does not want to be president.




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  • My Dreams Seek Revenge: Hiroshima

    May 26, 2016 // 9 Comments

    Tags: ,
    Posted in: Military

    Stillman-Hiroshima-690


    Unlike President Obama, who today is the first sitting president to ever visit the site of the first atomic bombing, I’ve visited Hiroshima many times while living in Japan.


    The thing that always struck me about Hiroshima was simply being there. The train pulled into the station under an announcement that you had arrived in Hiroshima. It was another stop on the bullet train’s long run from Osaka to Fukuoka, so they called out the name as if it was just another stop. I’d get off the train, step out into the sunlight — that sunlight — and I was in Hiroshima. I had the same feeling only once before, taking a bus out of Munich and having the driver announce the next stop as Dachau. Somehow such names feel wrong being said so prosaically.

    I guess no matter how many times I went to Hiroshima, I always expected something different to happen, when in fact nothing happened. There were 200,000 souls out there that no matter how much concrete and paving had been laid down could not have been buried deep enough. I couldn’t see them for the crowds of people pushing into the station, and I couldn’t hear them over the traffic noise.

    But past lives lingered. It couldn’t be helped. The mountains that form the background in the old photos are still backstopping the city. A lot of tall buildings of course now, but the Ota River delta, where thousands drowned trying to cool their bodies and extinguish their burning flesh, is right there. In that way the Japanese had of trying to make the war go away as quickly as they could once it was over, most of the bridges and streets were rebuild right where they’d been before the bomb. Same for most pubic buildings. With a map and some old photos, you could see where you where in 2016 and where you would have been in 1945.

    In August, Hiroshima is hot as hell and twice as humid. You can’t really sweat, there’s so much moisture in the air. Take a fast walk and you feel like you have asthma. But in 2016, you can duck into a McDonald’s not far from the Dome and absorb as much free air conditioning as you’d like. An American there, or in the Peace Park, is as likely to be ignored as just another tourist as he is to become the target of some nice Japanese person wanting to practice English.


    Hiroshima is an imperfect place, and one which will not easily allow you to forget the terrible things that preceeded its day of infamy.

    While grieving for the victims, many outside of Japan feel the Japanese government has yet to fully acknowledge its aggressiveness in plunging East Asia into war, preferring to portray the nation as a victim.

    Indeed, the otherwise moving Hiroshima Museum inside the Peace Park has been chastised by some as focusing too exclusively on a single day, out of a war that began years earlier and claimed millions of innocent lives at the hands of the Japanese military. The criticism is particularly sharp right now, given a rise in militarism occurring under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

    There have also been issues between Japan and Korea regarding Hiroshima. An estimated 40,000 Koreans were injured or killed in the atomic blast, many of them slave laborers kidnapped from Korea and brought to work in Hiroshima’s factories.

    The centerpiece of the Peace Park, the Memorial Cenotaph, was created as the final resting place for the ashes and bones of the bomb’s victims, many of whom were never fully identified. Under Buddhist tradition, without such interment, the souls of those men and women will never rest. Japan, however, only allowed those remains believed to be Japanese to be placed in the Memorial.


    There is still much to atone for, and much to reconcile. The U.S., above all, remains unrepentant. It was only on the 60th anniversary of the bomb that the first American Ambassador ever came to Hiroshima on an August 6th morning to pay respects. Ask most Americans about the bombing, and it would be surprising not to hear the phrase “the Japs deserved it.” There is still not enough for some, even seven decades later.

    Perhaps the oddest part of my visits to Hiroshima was always at the end. I simply got on a train, and left it all behind me.

    Or so I thought each time I tried, because at night my dreams always sought revenge. I hope the same happens to Obama.



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  • Obama in Hanoi: Vietnam Arms Embargo to Be Fully Lifted

    May 24, 2016 // 20 Comments

    Tags: ,
    Posted in: Military

    obama


    What other nation on earth would signal its intent to “bury the hatchet, and what it believes to be the start of a new relationship, other than the United States, by lifting an arms embargo?


    The United States is rescinding a decades-old ban on sales of lethal military equipment to Vietnam, President Obama announced at a news conference in Hanoi on Monday, ending what the New York Times called “one of the last legal vestiges of the Vietnam War.”

    “The decision to lift the ban was not based on China or any other considerations,” Obama said. “It was based on our desire to complete what has been a lengthy process of moving toward normalization with Vietnam.”

    So, to sum up: the sale of weapons is a sign of normalization. Appropriate, in that that is what is normal in America’s foreign relations in the 21st century. Not whether a nation is an ally or adversary per se, but whether they are a customer for our defense industry. For example, Saudi Arabia. Sure, they fund Sunni terrorism globally and played a role in the horrible events of 9/11, but they are also one of America’s most prolific buyers of weapons, and so are courted.


    As for the arms ban being “one of the last legal vestiges of the Vietnam War,” one does wonder what the Vietnamese might have say about that.

    Started under false pretenses and brutally fought for unclear purposes, America’s war on Vietnam took a terrible toll. No one really knows, but estimates of the death count on the Vietnamese side run from half a million to a million and half. That is before you include the untold numbers who continue to die or suffer birth defects due to the prolific use of defoliants like Agent Orange. While the American deaths in the war were “voluntary” in the sense that America started the war and pointlessly continued it for years, the Vietnamese had no choice.

    To now say that bygones are bygones, and seal the deal with the export of American weapons into Vietnam, seems a new low in cynicism by a fading American Empire.



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  • Poof! Our Wars are All Forgotten

    May 23, 2016 // 13 Comments

    Tags: , , ,
    Posted in: Iraq, Libya, Military, Syria

    snapchat

    One of the most popular apps these days is Snapchat. It allows the sender to set a timer for any photo dispatched via the app, so that a few seconds after the recipient opens the message, the photo is automatically deleted.

    The evidence of what you did at that party last night is seen and then disappears. POOF!


    I hope you’ll forgive me if I suggest that the Iraq-Syria War against the Islamic State (ISIS) is being conveyed to us via Snapchat. Important things happen, they appear in front of us, and then… POOF!… they’re gone. No one seems to remember them. Who cares that they’ve happened at all, when there’s a new snap already arriving for your attention? As with most of what flows through the real Snapchat, what’s of some interest at first makes no difference in the long run.

    Just because we now have terrifyingly short memories does not, however, mean that things did not happen. Despite the POOF! effect, events that genuinely mattered when it comes to the region in which Washington has, since the 1980s, been embroiled in four wars, actually did occur last week, last month, a war or two ago, or, in some cases, more than half a century in the past. What follows are just some of the things we’ve forgotten that couldn’t matter more.


    It’s a Limited Mission — POOF!

    Perhaps General David Petraeus’s all-time sharpest comment came in the earliest days of Iraq War 2.0. “Tell me how this ends,” he said, referring to the Bush administration’s invasion. At the time, he was already worried that there was no endgame.

    That question should be asked daily in Washington. It and the underlying assumption that there must be a clear scope and duration to America’s wars are too easily forgotten. It took eight long years until the last American combat troops were withdrawn from Iraq. Though there were no ticker tape parades or iconic photos of sailors smooching their gals in Times Square in 2011, the war was indeed finally over and Barack Obama’s campaign promise fulfilled…

    Until, of course, it wasn’t, and in 2014 the same president restarted the war, claiming that a genocide against the Yazidis, a group hitherto unknown to most of us and since largely forgotten, was in process. Air strikes were authorized to support a “limited” rescue mission. Then, more — limited — American military power was needed to stop the Islamic State from conquering Iraq. Then more air strikes, along with limited numbers of military advisers and trainers, were sure to wrap things up, and somehow, by May 2016, the U.S. has 5,400 military personnel, including Special Operations forces, on the ground across Iraq and Syria, with expectations that more would soon be needed, even as a massive regional air campaign drags on. That’s how Washington’s wars seem to go these days, with no real debate, no Congressional declaration, just, if we’re lucky, a news item announcing what’s happened.

    Starting wars under murky circumstances and then watching limited commitments expand exponentially is by now so ingrained in America’s global strategy that it’s barely noticed. Recall, for instance, those weapons of mass destruction that justified George W. Bush’s initial invasion of Iraq, the one that turned into eight years of occupation and “nation-building”? Or to step a couple of no-less-forgettable years further into the past, bring to mind the 2001 U.S. mission that was to quickly defeat the ragged Taliban and kill Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan. That’s now heading into its 16th year as the situation there only continues to disintegrate.

    For those who prefer an even more forgotten view of history, America’s war in Vietnam kicked into high gear thanks to then-President Lyndon Johnson’s false claim about an attack on American warships in the Gulf of Tonkin. The early stages of that war followed a path somewhat similar to the one on which we now seem to be staggering along in Iraq War 3.0 — from a limited number of advisers to the full deployment of almost all the available tools of war.

    Or for those who like to look ahead, the U.S. has just put troops back on the ground in Yemen, part of what the Pentagon is describing as “limited support” for the U.S.-backed war the Saudis and the United Arab Emirates launched in that country.

    The new story is also the old story: just as you can’t be a little pregnant, the mission never really turns out to be “limited,” and if Washington doesn’t know where the exit is, it’s going to be trapped yet again inside its own war, spinning in unpredictable and disturbing directions.


    No Boots on the Ground — POOF!

    Having steadfastly maintained since the beginning of Iraq War 3.0 that it would never put “American boots on the ground,” the Obama administration has deepened its military campaign against the Islamic State by increasing the number of Special Operations forces in Syria from 50 to 300. The administration also recently authorized the use of Apache attack helicopters, long stationed in Iraq to protect U.S. troops, as offensive weapons.

    American advisers are increasingly involved in actual fighting in Iraq, even as the U.S. deployed B-52 bombers to an air base in Qatar before promptly sending them into combat over Iraq and Syria. Another group of Marines was dispatched to help defend the American Embassy in Baghdad after the Green Zone, in the heart of that city, was recently breached by masses of protesters. Of all those moves, at least some have to qualify as “boots on the ground.”

    The word play involved in maintaining the official no-boots fiction has been a high-wire act. Following the loss of an American in Iraqi Kurdistan recently, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter labeled it a “combat death.” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest then tried to explain how an American who was not on a combat mission could be killed in combat. “He was killed, and he was killed in combat. But that was not part of his mission,” Earnest told reporters.

    Much more quietly, the U.S. surged — “surge” being the replacement word for the Vietnam-era “escalate” — the number of private contractors working in Iraq; their ranks have grown eight-fold over the past year, to the point where there are an estimated 2,000 of them working directly for the Department of Defense and 5,800 working for the Department of State inside Iraq. And don’t be too sanguine about those State Department contractors. While some of them are undoubtedly cleaning diplomatic toilets and preparing elegant receptions, many are working as military trainers, paramilitary police advisers, and force protection personnel. Even some aircraft maintenance crews and CIA paramilitaries fall under the State Department’s organizational chart.

    The new story in Iraq and Syria when it comes to boots on the ground is the old story: air power alone has never won wars, advisers and trainers never turn out to be just that, and for every soldier in the fight you need five or more support people behind him.


    We’re Winning — POOF!

    We’ve been winning in Iraq for some time now — a quarter-century of successes, from 1991’s triumphant Operation Desert Storm to 2003’s soaring Mission Accomplished moment to just about right now in the upbeat third iteration of America’s Iraq wars. But in each case, in a Snapchat version of victory, success has never seemed to catch on.

    At the end of April, for instance, Army Colonel Steve Warren, a U.S. military spokesperson, hailed the way American air power had set fire to $500 million of ISIS’s money, actual cash that its militants had apparently forgotten to disperse or hide in some reasonable place. He was similarly positive about other recent gains, including the taking of the Iraqi city of Hit, which, he swore, was “a linchpin for ISIL.” In this, he echoed the language used when ISIS-occupied Ramadi (and Baiji and Sinjar and…) fell, language undoubtedly no less useful when the next town is liberated. In the same fashion, USA Today quoted an anonymous U.S. official as saying that American actions had cut ISIS’s oil revenues by an estimated 50%, forcing them to ration fuel in some areas, while cutting pay to its fighters and support staff.

    Only a month ago, National Security Adviser Susan Rice let us know that, “day by day, mile by mile, strike by strike, we are making substantial progress. Every few days, we’re taking out another key ISIL leader, hampering ISIL’s ability to plan attacks or launch new offensives.” She even cited a poll indicating that nearly 80% of young Muslims across the Middle East are strongly opposed to that group and its caliphate.

    In the early spring, Brett McGurk, U.S. special envoy to the global coalition to counter the Islamic State, took to Twitter to assure everyone that “terrorists are now trapped and desperate on Mosul fronts.” Speaking at a security forum I attended, retired general Chuck Jacoby, the last multinational force commander for Iraq 2.0, described another sign of progress, insisting that Iraq today is a “maturing state.” On the same panel, Douglas Ollivant, a member of former Iraq commander General David Petraeus’s “brain trust of warrior-intellectuals,” talked about “streams of hope” in Iraq.

    Above all, however, there is one sign of success often invoked in relation to the war in Iraq and Syria: the body count, an infamous supposed measure of success in the Vietnam War. Washington spokespeople regularly offer stunning figures on the deaths of ISIS members, claiming that 10,000 to 25,000 Islamic State fighters have been wiped out via air strikes. The CIA has estimated that, in 2014, the Islamic State had only perhaps 20,000 to 30,000 fighters under arms. If such victory statistics are accurate, somewhere between a third and all of them should now be gone.

    Other U.S. intelligence reports, clearly working off a different set of data, suggest that there once were more than 30,000 foreign fighters in the Islamic State’s ranks. Now, the Pentagon tells us, the flow of new foreign fighters into Iraq and Syria has been staunched, dropping over the past year from roughly 2,000 to 200 a month, further incontrovertible proof of the Islamic State’s declining stature. One anonymous American official typically insisted: “We’re actually a little bit ahead of where we wanted to be.”

    Yet despite success after American success, ISIS evidently isn’t broke, or running out of fighters, or too desperate to stay in the fray, and despite all the upbeat news there are few signs of hope in the Iraqi body politic or its military.

    The new story is again a very old story: when you have to repeatedly explain how much you’re winning, you’re likely not winning much of anything at all.


    It’s Up to the Iraqis — POOF!

    From the early days of Iraq War 2.0, one key to success for Washington has been assigning the Iraqis a to-do list based on America’s foreign policy goals. They were to hold decisive elections, write a unifying Constitution, take charge of their future, share their oil with each other, share their government with each other, and then defeat al-Qaeda in Iraq, and later, the Islamic State.

    As each item failed to get done properly, it became the Iraqis’ fault that Washington hadn’t achieved its goals. A classic example was “the surge” of 2007, when the Bush administration sent in a significant number of additional troops to whip the Iraqis into shape and just plain whip al-Qaeda, and so open up the space for Shiites and Sunnis to come together in an American-sponsored state of national unity. The Iraqis, of course, screwed up the works with their sectarian politics and so lost the stunning potential gains in freedom we had won them, leaving the Americans heading for the exit.

    In Iraq War 3.0, the Obama administration again began shuffling leaders in Baghdad to suit its purposes, helping force aside once-golden boy Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, and pushing forward new golden boy Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to — you guessed it — unify Iraq. “Today, Iraqis took another major step forward in uniting their country,” National Security Adviser Susan Rice said as Abadi took office.

    Of course, unity did not transpire, thanks to Abadi, not us. “It would be disastrous,” editorialized the New York Times, “if Americans, Iraqis, and their partners were to succeed in the military campaign against the Islamic State only to have the politicians in Baghdad squander another chance to build a better future.” The Times added: “More than 13 years since Saddam Hussein’s overthrow, there’s less and less reason to be optimistic.”

    The latest Iraqi “screw-up” came on April 30th, when dissident Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr’s supporters broke into the previously sacrosanct Green Zone established by the Americans in Iraq War 2.0 and stormed Iraq’s parliament. Sadr clearly remembers his history better than most Americans. In 2004, he emboldened his militias, then fighting the U.S. military, by reminding them of how irregular forces had defeated the Americans in Vietnam. This time, he was apparently diplomatic enough not to mention that Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese 41 years ago on the day of the Green Zone incursion.

    Sadr’s supporters crossed into the enclave to protest Prime Minister Abadi’s failure to reform a disastrous government, rein in corruption (you can buy command of an entire army division and plunder its budget indefinitely for about $2 million), and provide basic services like water and electricity to Baghdadis. The tens of billions of dollars that U.S. officials spent “reconstructing” Iraq during the American occupation of 2003 to 2011 were supposed to make such services effective, but did not.

    And anything said about Iraqi governmental failures might be applied no less accurately to the Iraqi army.

    Despite the estimated $26 billion the U.S. spent training and equipping that military between 2003 and 2011, whole units broke, shed their uniforms, ditched their American equipment, and fled when faced with relatively small numbers of ISIS militants in June 2014, abandoning four northern cities, including Mosul. This, of course, created the need for yet more training, the ostensible role of many of the U.S. troops now in Iraq. Since most of the new Iraqi units are still only almost ready to fight, however, those American ground troops and generals and Special Operations forces and forward air controllers and planners and logistics personnel and close air support pilots are still needed for the fight to come.

    The inability of the U.S. to midwife a popularly supported government or a confident citizen’s army, Washington’s twin critical failures of Iraq War 2.0, may once again ensure that its latest efforts implode. Few Iraqis are left who imagine that the U.S. can be an honest broker in their country. A recent State Department report found that one-third of Iraqis believe the United States is actually supporting ISIS, while 40% are convinced that the United States is trying to destabilize Iraq for its own purposes.

    The new story is again the old story: corrupt governments imposed by an outside power fail. And in the Iraq case, every problem that can’t be remedied by aerial bombardment and Special Forces must be the Iraqis’ fault.


    Same Leadership, Same Results — POOF!

    With the last four presidents all having made war in Iraq, and little doubt that the next president will dive in, keep another forgotten aspect of Washington’s Iraq in mind: some of the same American leadership figures have been in place under both George W. Bush and Barack Obama, and they will initially still be in place when Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump enters the Oval Office.

    Start with Brett McGurk, the current special presidential envoy for the global coalition to counter ISIS. His résumé is practically a Wikipedia page for America’s Iraq, 2003-2016: Deputy Secretary of State for Iraq and Iran from August 2013 until his current appointment. Before that, Senior Advisor in the State Department for Iraq, a special advisor to the National Security Staff, Senior Advisor to Ambassadors to Iraq Ryan Crocker, Christopher Hill, and James Jeffrey. McGurk participated in President Obama’s 2009 review of Iraq policy and the transition following the U.S. military departure from Iraq. During the Bush administration, McGurk served as Director for Iraq, then as Special Assistant to the President, and also Senior Director for Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2008 McGurk was the lead negotiator with the Iraqi Government on both a long-term Strategic Framework Agreement and a Security Agreement to govern the presence of U.S. forces. He was also one of the chief Washington-based architects of The Surge, having earlier served as a legal advisor to the Coalition Provisional Authority from nearly the first shots of 2003.

    A little lower down the chain of command is Lieutenant General Sean MacFarland.  He is now leading Sunni “tribal coordination” to help defeat ISIS, as well as serving as commanding general of the Combined Joint Task Force. As a colonel back in 2006, MacFarland similarly helped organize the surge’s Anbar Sunni Awakening movement against al-Qaeda in Iraq.

    And on the ground level, you can be sure that some of the current colonels were majors in Iraq War 2.0, and some of their subordinates put their boots on the same ground they’re on now.

    In other words, the new story is the old story: some of the same people have been losing this war for Washington since 2003, with neither accountability nor culpability in play.


    What If They Gave a War and No One Remembered?

    All those American memories lost to oblivion. Such forgetfulness only allows our war makers to do yet more of the same things in Iraq and Syria, acts that someone on the ground will be forced to remember forever, perhaps under the shadow of a drone overhead.

    Placing our service people in harm’s way, spending our money in prodigious amounts, and laying the country’s credibility on the line once required at least the pretext that some national interest was at stake. Not any more. Anytime some group we don’t like threatens a group we care not so much about, the United States must act to save a proud people, stop a humanitarian crisis, take down a brutal leader, put an end to genocide, whatever will briefly engage the public and spin up some vague facsimile of war fever.

    But back to Snapchat. It turns out that while the app was carefully designed to make whatever is transmitted quickly disappear, some clever folks have since found ways to preserve the information. If only the same could be said of our Snapchat wars. How soon we forget. Until the next time…



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  • U.S. Set to Deploy (More) Ground Troops to Libya

    May 21, 2016 // 17 Comments

    Tags: , ,
    Posted in: Libya, Military




    The decision by President Obama, egged on by his then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, to depose Libya’s long-time leader Muammar Qaddafi in 2011, led to near-complete chaos inside a country that had been otherwise stable since the 1960s.


    This lead directly to the tragedy at Benghazi, a massive flow of weapons out of Libya into Syria and elsewhere, the spread of violence into neighboring Mali and French intervention there, and turned Libya into an ungoverned space and a new haven for ISIS and other terrorists.

    Not content with that, the U.S. is about to double-down on the mess with the deployment of additional troops on the ground.


    The U.S. military’s top general said Thursday the Libyan government is in a “period of intense dialogue” that could soon lead to an agreement in which U.S. military advisers will be deployed there to assist in the fight against the Islamic State.

    “There’s a lot of activity going on underneath the surface,” said Marine General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “We’re just not ready to deploy capabilities yet because there hasn’t been an agreement. But frankly, any day that could happen.”

    There is interest among some NATO nations in participating in the mission, Dunford said, but the specifics of who and what would be involved remain unclear. “Unclear” and “Interest” when used in that way typically mean the U.S. will be going it more or less alone, with maybe a smattering of British and French thrown in for political/PR purposes.

    “There will be a long-term mission in Libya,” Dunford said.


    U.S. Special Operations troops have been deployed in the Libyan cities of Misrata and Benghazi since late last year, though the Pentagon only officially admitted that recently. The U.S. has conducted sporadic air strikes into Libya over the past few months.

    The advising mission will be complicated by political issues. Libyan Prime Minister Fayez Sarraj’s “government” that the U.S. thinks it will be supporting in Libya has not yet been accepted by existing rival “governments” in Libya. For Sarraj to hold power, he will require support from militias in Misrata and forces loyal to General Khalifa Hifter, a former Libyan military officer who launched his own war inside the country in 2014.

    The Misrata militias and the Hifter militias have fought one another from time to time, and uniting them behind a third party seems a difficult task.


    NOTE: If you chose to get in bed with the Devil, well, don’t be surprised if you get screwed.



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    Copyright © 2015. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!

  • Hidden Mics as Part of Government Surveillance Program

    May 19, 2016 // 9 Comments

    Tags: , , ,
    Posted in: Police State, Post-Constitution America

    NSA-golden-nugget-slide


    In another example of multi-dimensional clash among the Fourth Amendment, privacy, technology and the surveillance state, hidden microphones that are part of a broad, public clandestine government surveillance program that has been operating around the San Francisco Bay Area have been exposed.


    The FBI planted listening devices at bus stops and other public places trying to prove real estate investors in San Mateo and Alameda counties are guilty of bid rigging and fraud. FBI agents were previously caught hiding microphones inside light fixtures and at public spaces outside an Oakland Courthouse, between March 2010 and January 2011.

    The apparent goal of the feds was to catch the defendants in their impromptu conversations following court sessions.


    At issue is the Fourth Amendment’s guarantee against unwarranted search, which includes electronic “search,” and the concept that one has no expectation of privacy in a public place. The legal argument is that by choosing voluntarily to enter a public space, such a courtroom or bus stop, one gives up one’s Fourth Amendment rights. In the government’s interpretation, their actions are roughly the equivalent of overhearing a conversation on street corner waiting for a light to change.

    The lawyer for one of the accused real estate investors will ask the judge to throw out the recordings. “Speaking in a public place does not mean that the individual has no reasonable expectation of privacy. Private communication in a public place qualifies as a protected ‘oral communication’ and therefore may not be intercepted without judicial authorization.”


    In addition to the Constitutional issues in the real estate case, the broad use of public surveillance devices also touches on the question of other people who may be swept up alongside the original targets. For example, the FBI’s interpretation means if its microphones inadvertently pick up conversation relating to another alleged crime, they would be free to use that as evidence in court as well.

    The use of microphones, coupled with technologies such as voice recognition (to identify a person) and keyword recognition (to identify specific terms of interest electronically) means that what appears to be a one-dimensional listening device can actually function within a web of technology to enable broad-spectrum surveillance of masses of people in public spaces.


    (The “Golden Nugget” slide above is provided by the NSA, courtesy of former employee Edward Snowden)

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    Copyright © 2015. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!

  • The Police State and License Plate Scanners

    May 18, 2016 // 17 Comments

    Tags: , ,
    Posted in: Democracy, Police State, Post-Constitution America

    google car

    One of the latest tools for violating our privacy and creating the American police state are license plate scanners.

    Watching You

    This technology allows the police to cruise through a city at normal speed and photographically gather images of vehicle license plates, along with geolocation data. This is all stored, and can easily be used to create a record of everywhere your car has been. Coupled with cellphone and WiFi data being collected along with its own geodata, and tied to things like tracked credit card activity, emails and the now-ubiquitous public surveillance cameras, it is very, very easy for law enforcement to know where you are, where you have been and have a pretty good idea of what you were doing.

    Run that same process for lots and lots of people, and you can also tell who spent time with who.


    Vigilant Solutions

    Expand that process nationwide and you truly have a police state.

    How to do that? Contact a private company called Vigilant Solutions. They collect license plate scanning information from multiple police departments as well as their own network of private plate scanners and facial recognition/facial cataloging technology and then sell it in database form to law enforcement.

    The Vigilant database is massive, with over 2.2 billion location data points, and it is growing by almost a million data points per day. The database means, for example, that the New York police can now monitor you and your car whether you live in New York, Miami, Chicago, Los Angeles, or elsewhere.

    The database also boasts a full suite data analytics tools which allow police officers to track cars historically or in real time, conduct a virtual stakeout, figure out which cars are commonly seen in close proximity to each other, and predict likely locations to find a car.

    Data, once collected, can exist forever. Whatever it is being used for now, it will also be available for other uses in the future, enhanced by new exploitive technology.

    As Vigilant puts it on its website, “Data is cumbersome; intelligence is actionable.”


    Let’s Google It

    All that is quite dangerous enough. However, the latest wrinkle is that the police in at least one city are going as far as disguising their license plate scanning vehicle as an innocent Google Maps truck. You don’t even know your location information is being gathered this way.

    Matt Blaze, a University of Pennsylvania computer and information science professor, noticed an SUV tucked away in the shadows of the Philadelphia Convention Center, bearing a logo for Google Maps. Blaze, based on his profession, also identified mounted on top of the vehicle two high-powered license plate reader cameras. To the average passerby, it might appear to be a Google street view vehicle.

    After initially denying it, the Philly cops eventually admitted the van was their’s, but refused further comment.

    “We can confirm that this is not a Google Maps car, and that we are currently looking into the matter,” a Google spokesperson said. She would not elaborate as to whether the company was concerned that law enforcement was using a vehicle with warrantless surveillance technology while pretending to be a Google vehicle.


    It is impossible to escape this network of warrantless search and still live in society. Our cars, our phone, our credit cards and our very faces have been corrupted by a police state into tools of surveillance.




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  • Kurd Fighter in Iraq Destroys U.S.-Made Turkish Helo With Russian-Model Missile

    May 16, 2016 // 18 Comments

    Tags: , ,
    Posted in: Iraq, Libya, Military

    pkk

    There’s no past in Washington. There is no sense that actions taken today will exist past today, even though in reality they often echo for decades.


    A video making the rounds online shows a fighter from a Kurdish group known as Kurdish Workers Party, or, more commonly, the PKK. Using what appears to be a Russian model shoulder fired portable air-to-air missile, the fighter is shooting down a Turkish military, American-made Cobra attack helicopter.

    The attack helo is made by the United States and supplied to NATO ally Turkey;

    The missile is of Russian design but could have been made and could have come from nearly anywhere in Eastern Europe. However, such weapons were flooded into the Middle East after the United States deposed Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi. Many such weapons simply entered the black market when the Libyan army more or less dissolved, but many appear to have been sent into the Middle East by the CIA as part of a broader anti-ISIS strategy. Some say one of the functions of the CIA station overrun in Benghazi was to a facilitate that process.

    Turkey and the United States official consider the PKK a terrorist organization. Many believe the U.S. surreptitiously supplies the PKK weapons in their fight against Islamic State. Turkey is a U.S. NATO ally who is engaged in active war against PKK.

    The U.S. supports Kurdish forces in their fight against Islamic State. The PKK is not officially supported, but anyone who believes the PKK and the “official” Kurdish militias are not coordinated parts of the same entity is either a fool or works in Washington. Or both; the Venn diagram is nearly two overlapping circles.

    The primary motivator of the Kurdish fight against ISIS is to push them out of northern Iraq and Syria to help create an independent nation of Kurdistan. This would dissolve the nation now known as Iraq. One of America’s stated goals is to preserve a unified Iraq.

    The U.S. supports NATO ally Turkey in a fight against Islamic State. Turkey allows the U.S. to fly drones and other aircraft out of its air bases, but also allows ISIS foreign fighters to cross its border into Syria one way, and ISIS oil to reach market by crossing the border the other way.


    If you can understand how all of those things can be simultaneously both true acts of the foreign policy of the United States, you are not a fool and you do not work in Washington. Or both; the Venn diagram is nearly two overlapping circles.




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  • Another Way the Rich Get Richer: Their Parents Give Them Obscene Amounts of Money Nearly Tax-Free

    May 13, 2016 // 14 Comments

    Tags: , ,
    Posted in: Economy, Post-Constitution America

    money


    It’d be great if we were all self-made men, like Citizen Trump.

    Of course, his self-making, like that of many wealthy people, is based in large part on a wealthy parent giving him a ton of money. Why work for a living when you can just hang around drinking single malt until daddy dies and leaves you his money?

    Trump’s papa left an estate valued at between $100 and $300 million in 1999. A nice start for a career in real estate for Don and his siblings.



    Getting All the Monies

    Now the idea that parents should be able to leave their money to their kids is all A-OK. That the hyper-wealthy can do it with little or no significant tax is not OK. It is one of the prime drivers of future economic inequality in the U.S. Absent a change in the law that will happen when pigs fly into a snowy hell, rich kids will only get richer, and then pass on their buckaroos to their heirs. They’ll have all the monies.

    In the words of one economist, even though the American dream is pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, we’ve made ample room in it for people whose boots are handed down.



    How Estate Taxes Work

    The first $5.43 million per heir is fully exempt from any tax. Spread the money around to siblings, spouses, kids and grandkids, and you can shield a bundle from tax easily. In fact, that system means 99.8 percent of all estates owe no estate tax at all. There is no reason the exemption has to be $5.43 million except to favor the wealthy, and there should be an overall cap on how much can be shielded from tax to prevent fake families from splitting things all up.

    For the small number of estates actually subject to some taxes, those taxes of course are due only on the portion of an estate’s value that exceeds the exemption level. So, a $6 million estate would owe estate taxes on only $570,000. Except that heirs can often shield a larger portion of the estate from taxation through deductions, loopholes and discounts written into the tax code. So, while the on-paper tax rate for estates is 40 percent, most pay about 16 percent in reality.



    It’s Complicated

    As an example of the complexity of estate planning-tax avoiding available to the rich, consider the grantor retained annuity trust. The estate owner puts money into a trust designed to repay the estate the initial amount plus interest at a rate set by the Treasury, typically over two years. If the investment — typically stock — rises in value any more than the Treasury rate, the gain goes to an heir tax-free. If the investment doesn’t rise in value, the full amount still goes back to the estate. Such techniques have been described as a “heads I win, tails we tie” bet.



    A Reasonable Idea

    If inheritances could be taxed reasonably, enough money would trickle down the legs of the rich that some societal benefits would accrue.

    Unfortunately, all three Republicans in the presidential race promise to abolish the estate tax altogether. Hillary and Bernie offer only weak promises of reform, focused on rolling the tax back to its (higher) 2009 levels. But they’ll need Congressional approval for that, so, no.

    It will be no surprise that American estate taxes are well below average among the countries in the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development.

    I know, I know, math and numbers are hard. So here it is in very simple words: by not fairly taxing the estates of the wealthy, we are locking in our staggering economic inequality for future generations.


    FUN FACT: The wealthiest ten percent of Americans takes home about half of all income. The richest 0.1 percent holds 22 percent of the country’s wealth.




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  • U.S. Officials Ask How ISIS Got So Many Toyota Trucks

    May 12, 2016 // 14 Comments

    Tags: ,
    Posted in: Iraq, Syria

    toyota-350x180


    It is perhaps the most vexing of questions: why is it that whenever you see photos or video of ISIS driving around in their Mad Max-esque technicals with black flags, the vehicle seems to always be a Toyota?

    Does Uber require its drivers moonlighting for ISIS to use Toyotas instead of black town cars? Does Toyota pay ISIS a promotional/product placement fee? Does Craigslist Iraq (no freaking way, there is a Craigslist for Iraq) just have a huge Toyota subsection? Is Toyota secretly supporting ISIS?


    Those very questions are on the minds of America’s crack anti-terror warriors.

    U.S. officials are indeed inquiring why ISIS has acquired a large number of Toyota vehicles, ABC News reports on a slow day when no one on TV at least is calling the president the N-word. Toyota-made pickup trucks and sport-utility vehicles have been featured prominently in a number of ISIS propaganda videos used in Iraq, Syria, and Libya, according to ABC. Vehicles shown include the Hilux and the Land Cruiser.

    “ISIS has used these vehicles in order to engage in military-type activities, terror activities, and the like,” former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Mark Wallace, apparently the only ex-government official who picked up over the weekend for a quote, told ABC News. “But in nearly every ISIS video, they show a fleet – a convoy of Toyota vehicles and that’s very concerning to us.”


    Is Wallace saying to ISIS they better “buy American?” Is Wallace in the tank for ISIS? I don’t know.

    Anyway, Toyota said in a statement to Autoblog that it has a strict policy not to sell vehicles to groups who may use them for terrorism, but notes that it can’t control if its vehicles are re-sold, stolen, or repurposed after they leave dealerships.

    So, jot that down, ISIS people reading this. If you roll into your local Toyota dealership and, along with the rustproofing, extended warranty and upgraded sound system, you also ask for a 20mm cannon to be mounted in the back, the dealer may balk, or at least try and talk you into the Bitcoin payment plan.

    “We are committed to complying fully with the laws and regulations of each country or region where we operate, and require our dealers and distributors to do the same,” Toyota’s statement says. “We are supporting the U.S. Treasury Department’s broader inquiry into international supply chains and the flow of capital and goods in the Middle East.”


    BONUS: The actual answer is there are just a whole lot of Japanese vehicles in the Middle East. The Japanese have opened a bunch of dealerships there for one. The other reason is that people in Japan trade-in vehicles regularly on newer models, and the used car market there is weak. So, Japanese cars are exported en masse to the Middle East, Southeast Asia, even North Korea, to basically dump them for at least some profit. And so now you know…



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  • Twitter ‘Blocks’ Intel Agencies From Tweet-Mining Service

    May 11, 2016 // 7 Comments

    Tags: , , , ,
    Posted in: Democracy, NSA, Police State, Post-Constitution America

    twitter-bird-white-on-blue



    Or have they?

    Twitter claims it does not want intelligence agencies using a Tweet-mining service for surveillance purposes. The company recently restated its “longstanding” policy of preventing a company called Dataminr from selling information to intelligence agencies that want to monitor Tweets.


    “Dataminr uses public Tweets to sell breaking news alerts to media organizations, corporations and government agencies,” a spokesman for Twitter said in a statement. “We have never authorized Dataminr or any third party to sell data to a government or intelligence agency for surveillance purposes. This is a longstanding policy, not a new development.”


    There are multiple issues worth unpacking here.

    — The reality-to-b*llshit level on this is very high. Twitter sounds nicely righteous, but the whole affair is one FBI front company signing up with Dataminr away from being meaningless.

    — In fact, Dataminr retains its contract with the Department of Homeland Security, which it classifies as something other than an intel agency.

    — Can Twitter actually stop Dataminr from gathering information about Tweets? Not really, as Dataminr uses public Tweets to do its work. It seems Twitter just asked Dataminr nicely to stop. And how many other companies out there are doing the same thing?

    — Small world: The CIA’s own non-profit investment arm, In-Q-Tel, is a Dataminr investor. And Twitter itself is an investor in Dataminr.



    But questions about the actual impact of Twitter’s statements aside, the worst thing about all this is that Americans are now fully dependent on corporate good deeds for the protection of their privacy. Yes, yes, we all “choose” to use social media, as we choose to use smartphones and have bank accounts and fly to Chicago. But c’mon, absent moving off the grid next to the Unabomber’s old cabin, how realistic is it for surveillance zealots to keep hiding behind the choice argument?

    And for those familiar with the actual definition of fascism, collusion between the state and corporate interests, welcome to your latest piece of evidence. We have only has much privacy as Twitter and the government agree we may have.


    Sample Dataminr screen:




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  • U.S. Can’t Say Whether or Not $759 Million Spent on Education in Afghanistan Helped Anything

    May 10, 2016 // 14 Comments

    Tags: ,
    Posted in: Afghanistan, Economy, Embassy/State, Military, PRT Life

    Afghanistan Still

    If at where you work you spent $759 million on something, and then told your boss you have no idea if anything was accomplished, and that the little data you do have is probably fraudulent, how might that work out for you?

    If you are the U.S. government in Afghanistan, you would actually have no problem at all. Just another day at the tip of freedom’s spear, pouring taxpayer cash-a-roni down freedom’s money hole.

    The ever-weary Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR), chronicling U.S. government hearts and minds spending in Afghanistan over the last 15 years, issued a new audit on Department of Defense, State Department and USAID’s $759 million “investment” in primary and secondary education in Afghanistan. Here’s what they found:

    — While USAID had a defined strategy for primary and secondary education in Afghanistan, DOD and State did not. They just spent money here and there without adult oversight.

    — DOD, State, and USAID have not adequately assessed their efforts to support education in Afghanistan. DOD did not assess the effectiveness of its education efforts, and State only evaluated self-selected individual programs. Same for USAID.

    — Without such comprehensive assessments, DOD, State, and USAID are unable to determine the impact that the $759 million they have spent has had in improving Afghan education. They agencies do, however, continue to spend more money anyway.

    — In 2014, USAID cited Afghan government data showing increased student enrollment from 900,000 students in 2002 to a whopping million in 2013 as evidence of overall progress in the sector. Unfortunately, USAID cannot verify whether or not the Afghan data is reliable. In fact, both the Afghan Ministry of Education itself and independent assessments have raised significant concern that the education data is not true.



    Interest from the American public remains at exactly zero, because we don’t need no education about where our government spends our money.

    BONUS: Anyone’s town out there in America that would not benefit from a handful of cash out of that $759 million spent on Afghan schools? Flint? Newark? Philly? Bueller? Anyone?




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  • Secret Service Handcuffs The First Amendment

    May 9, 2016 // 8 Comments

    Tags: , ,
    Posted in: Democracy, Police State, Post-Constitution America

    First_amendment_area_Muir_Woods

    Thomas Jefferson said that an informed citizenry is critical to a democracy, and with that as a cornerstone the Founders wrote freedom of the press into the First Amendment to the Constitution.


    The most basic of ideas at play is that the government should in no way be allowed to control what information the press can report to the people, and cannot place restrictions on journalists. One of the principal characteristics of any fascist state is the control of information, and thus the press is always seen as a check on government power that needs to be stomped on. Ask any surviving journalist in North Korea, or Saudi Arabia.


    And so it is with terror we learn the United States Secret Service, in the name of security, is for the first time in our Republic’s history running background checks on thousands of journalists who plan to report from this summer’s Republican and Democratic Party nominating conventions.

    Journalists who don’t pass the security screening process, for which of course there are no publicly-stated criteria and which has no system of appeal, will be denied credentials to cover the GOP convention in Cleveland, and the Democrats’ in Philadelphia. As the Daily Beast writes, this is the government deciding who can and can’t be a journalist, and through that process, heavily influencing what will be reported. Happytime government stenographers from CNN? Step right in, sir. Investigative, real journalists from The Intercept? Um, maybe not. Will a journalist from an “un-American” news source such as The Daily Worker be denied simply based on affiliation?


    Oh, the issues are many.

    For example, security clearances are typically denied to persons with an arrest record. Will that also apply to journalists who have been arrested in protest situations while exercising one or more of their First Amendment rights? Drug use is also often a negative indicator for a security clearance, so does that mean a person busted for a loose joint in college may not report from inside the convention hall?

    The Secret Service denies that a protest arrest will lead to a denial, though admits that arrests for assault, or domestic violence, charges could. At issue is that such arrests can cover a very broad spectrum of behavior, determined at a very local level. For example, imagine an African-American falsely charged with assault in some mean Texas backwater. Note also, as in most security clearance processes, the standard is an arrest, not necessarily a conviction.

    Obtaining security clearances also involves the “voluntary” turning over of personal information to the government, to often include associations, employment history, professional affiliations, fingerprints, financials and the like. If a journalist wishes not to hand over that information to the Secret Service, does that automatically bar him/her from playing his mandated role of informing the public? Apparently it does.

    There is also the question of control of all that personal information. The Secret Services states on its website that it has a contract with the Ardian Group, a private contractor, “to capture that Personally Identifiable Information for credentialing production” (though the Service itself makes the actual yes or no decision to allow access.)


    In a widely distributed “Dear Colleagues” letter, John Stanton, Washington bureau chief of BuzzFeed, asked the capper question: “Should the Secret Service have jurisdiction over the First Amendment?”



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  • Sesame Street: Video Tells Kids How to Deal with a Parent in Prison

    May 7, 2016 // 4 Comments

    Tags: ,
    Posted in: Democracy, Police State, Post-Constitution America

    sesame

    Incarceration of Americans has reached a point of commonality such that the children’s educational program Sesame Street has made a video telling kids about it, and offering some ideas on how to deal with it.

    The video shows the host making the sad Muppet feel better by explaining that her father also went to jail, and teaches kids words like “incarcerate” and “law” that they may hear around the house when dad’s not around. The full video talks about writing letters, dealing with absence, seeing other children with both parents, and making prison visits and the rules for doing that. The broad message is classic Sesame Street: you are not alone in your problems, so reach out.

    The whole thing is part of Sesame Street’s new initiative, Little Children, Big Challenges, aiming at talking about the grownup issues of a tough world that can’t help but find their way into children’s lives. Other videos touch on divorce, death, hospitalization and issues affecting military families. You can see clips from most of them on YouTube.

    Maybe one day they can do one about living under constant government surveillance, or being denied healthcare. What are a world we are making for our children to deal with.





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  • Film Review: National Bird Looks Deeply in the Drone War’s Abyss

    May 6, 2016 // 5 Comments

    Tags: , ,
    Posted in: Afghanistan

    national bird



    It is terrifying even in the quiet moments; it is most terrifying in the quietest moments.


    National Bird, a new documentary by filmmaker Sonia Kennebeck, co-produced with Errol Morris and Wim Wenders, is a deep, multilayered, look into America’s drone wars, a tactic which became a strategy which became a post-9/11 policy. To many in Iraq, Afghanistan and throughout the world, America’s new national symbol is not the bald eagle, but a gray shadow overhead armed with Hellfire missiles.

    The Silence

    Scattered throughout the documentary are silent images from drones and aerial cameras, sweeping, hypnotic vistas taken from above both Afghan villages and American suburbs. The message could not be more clear: the tools used over there can just as easily be used over here, not merely for surveillance (as is already happening in America) but perhaps one day soon to send violence down from the sky. Violence sudden, sharp, complete and anonymous.



    The Americans

    The anonymity of that violence comes at a price, in this case in the minds of the Americans who decide who lives and dies. National Bird presents three brave whistleblowers, two former uniformed Air Force veterans (Lisa Ling, Heather Linebaugh) and a former civilian intelligence analyst (Dan), people who have broken cover to tell the world what happens behind the scenes of the drone war. There are elements of “old hat” here, chilling in that we have grown used to hearing that drone strikes kill more innocents than terrorists, that the people who make war justify their actions by calling their victims hajjis and ragheads, that America draws often naive young people into its national security state on the false promises of hollow patriotism and turns them into assassins.

    Heather suffers from crippling PTSD. Lisa is compelled to travel to Afghanistan with a humanitarian group to reclaim part of her soul. Dan is in hiding as an Espionage Act investigation unfolds around him. A sobering side to this all is the presence of the whistleblowers’ attorney, Jesselyn Radack, who currently also helps defend Edward Snowden. Radack ties the actions of the drone whistleblowers into the larger post-9/11 narrative of retributive prosecutions and government attempts to hide the truth of America’s War on Terror from everyone but its victims.



    The Afghans

    The final layer of National Bird is what may be some of the first interviews with innocents who have suffered directly from drone attacks. The film interviews at length members of an Afghan extended family attacked from the air in a case of mistaken targeting even the Department of Defense now acknowledges.

    The family members speak six years after the fact as if still in shock. Here’s a boy who shows off his leg stump. Here’s a woman who lost her husband, the boy’s father, in the same attack. Here is another father discussing the loss of his own child. In a critical piece of storytelling, National Bird does not seek to trivialize the deaths in Afghanistan by weighing them against the psychological trauma suffered by the Americans, but rather shows the loss to everyone done in our names.

    National Bird is in limited film festival release, most recently at Tribeca in New York, before moving wider theatrical release in the U.S. this fall.



    (Full disclosure: Jesselyn Radack helped represent me in my own whistleblower fight against the U.S. Department of State in 2012)




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  • Tor Developer Created Malware for FBI to Hack Tor Users

    May 5, 2016 // 6 Comments

    Tags: , ,
    Posted in: Democracy, NSA, Police State, Post-Constitution America

    tor

    Espionage works like this: identify a target who has the info you need. Determine what he wants to cooperate (usually money.) Be sure to appeal to his vanity and/or patriotism. Create a situation where he can never go back to his old life, and give him a path forward where it favors his ongoing cooperation in a new life. Recruit him, because you own him.

    The FBI appears to have run a very successful, very classic, textbook recruitment on the guy above, Matt Edman, to use his insider-knowledge to defeat one of the best encryption/privacy software tools available. Aloha, privacy, and f*ck you, Fourth Amendment rights against unwarranted search and seizure.

    Edman is a former Tor Project developer who created malware for the FBI that allows agents to unmask users of the anonymity software.



    Tor is part of a software project that allows users to browse the web and send messages anonymously. In addition to interfacing with encryption, the basic way Tor works is by bouncing your info packets from server to server around the Internet, such that each server knows only a little bit about where the info originated. If you somehow break the chain, you can only trace it back so far, if at all. Tor uses various front ends, graphic user interfaces that make it very easy for non-tech people to use.

    Tor is used by (a small number of) bad guys, but it is also used by journalists to protect sources, democracy advocates in dangerous countries, and simply people choosing to exercise their rights to privacy because they are in fact entitled to do so and don’t need a reason to do so. Freedom and all that. It is up to me if I want to lock the door to my home and close the blinds, not anyone else.



    Our boy Edman worked closely with the FBI to customize, configure, test, and deploy malware he called “Cornhusker” to collect identifying information on Tor users. The malware is also known as Torsploit. Cornhusker used a Flash application to deliver a user’s real Internet Protocol (IP) address to an FBI server outside the Tor network. Cornhusker was placed on three servers owned by a Nebraska man who ran multiple child pornography websites.


    We all hate child pornographers and we all would like to see them crammed up Satan’s butthole to suffocate in a most terrible way. But at the same time, we should all hate the loss of our precious rights. Malware has a tendency to find its way into places it should not be, including into the hands of really bad dictators and crooks, and even if we fully trusted the FBI to only use its Tor-cracking tools for good, the danger is there.

    And of course we cannot trust the FBI to use its Tor-cracking tools only for good. If Tor can be taken away from a few bad actors, then it can be taken away from all of us. Our choice to browse the web privately and responsibly is stripped from us. Encryption and tools like Tor are like any tool, even guns, in that they can be used for good or for evil. You never want to throw the baby out with the bathwater, especially when fundamental Constitutional rights are at stake.


    Rough and unpleasant as it is to accept, the broad, society-wide danger of the loss of those fundamental rights in the long run out-shadows the tragedy of child pornography.



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  • Suspect Held in Solitary for Seven Months for Forgetting Hard Drive Passwords

    May 4, 2016 // 4 Comments

    Tags: , ,
    Posted in: Democracy, Police State, Post-Constitution America

    rawls

    Innocent until proven guilty? Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination? Hah! Not if you forget your passwords, in Post-Constitutional America.


    Former Philadelphia Police Sergeant Francis Rawls, above, has spent the past seven months in solitary confinement without conviction because passwords he entered for investigators failed to decrypt his hard drives, seized in connection with a child porn investigation. Rawls says he’s forgotten the correct passwords and so can’t decrypt the drives and provide the cops with evidence that he possessed child porn.

    For “failure to cooperate with the investigation,” Rawls has been locked up. He spends 22 and a half hours a day in a cell.


    In addition to claiming he cannot remember the passwords, Rawls maintains he doesn’t have to unlock his computer because of his Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate himself. The idea is that the search warrant covered the physical hard drives, not any passwords. If Rawls were to give up the passwords involuntarily and the drives contained kiddie porn, he would have effectively been compelled to admit his guilt.

    Last year, following online surveillance, law enforcement agents raided Rawls’ home and seized two external hard drives and other computer gear. Rawls told officers he had “encryption on his computer” and refused to supply them with passwords. Investigators obtained an order compelling Rawls to turn over passwords. A new judge then found that order to be unconstitutional, writing Rawls “has properly invoked the Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination when indicating that he would neither perform the act of decrypting the electronic devices, seized by the Commonwealth, nor provide the passwords to the Grand Jury for the electronic devices.”

    Following that judge’s ruling, investigators then went to federal court, where they used the 1789 All Writs Act — the same law the Department of Justice recently tried to use against Apple to try to force the company to unlock an iPhone — to compel Rawls to turn over his encryption keys.

    The judge ordered Rawls to be “remanded to the custody of the United States Marshals to be incarcerated until such time that he fully complies with the order to provide his encryption passwords to investigators.” In other words, the judge ordered Rawls locked up until he gave up. Built into the judge’s decision is the implication that Rawls is lying when he says he forgot the passwords.


    A federal court has previously ruled that compelled forfeiture of encryption passwords is unconstitutional: In 2012, the 11th Circuit Court reversed an order that would compel a suspect to give up his encryption passwords on drives investigators suspected contained child pornography.

    Rawls, pending his appeal, continues to be held in solitary confinement even though he hasn’t been charged with a crime.


    BONUS: I get that if Rawls is a pedophile he should be locked away. The thing is he has not been convicted of anything, and is simply invoking some of the most basic Constitutional rights available to Americans. And, as with free speech for people like the Nazis or the KKK, the real test of our commitment to those rights is not in the easy cases, but in the tough ones.


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  • Happy bin Laden Day! CIA ‘Live Tweets’ bin Laden Killing to Celebrate Fifth Anniversary

    May 3, 2016 // 5 Comments

    Tags: , , ,
    Posted in: Afghanistan, Iraq, Military

    bin laden


    Hey everyone, Happy bin Laden Day! It was five years ago May 2 that “we” got bin Laden. How did you celebrate?


    For the CIA, marking the anniversary of the killing of Osama bin Laden was as simple as fake live tweeting the raid by SEAL Team Six on the Al-Qaeda founder’s compound in Pakistan. Using the hashtag #UBLRaid, the CIA blasted out updates of the May 2011 strike as if it was unfolding in real time, all so we could savor the sweet, sweet taste of revenge which brought back to life everyone killed on 9/11.


    Tweets included the now famous picture of President Barack Obama and other high-ranking U.S. officials watching matters unfold from the White House’s Situation Room.

    1:51 pm EDT – Helicopters depart from Afghanistan for compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, read one tweet.

    3:30 pm EDT – 2 helicopters descend on compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. 1 crashes, but assault continues without delay or injury, read another.

    That was followed just minutes later by: 3:39 pm EDT – Usama Bin Ladin found on third floor and killed.

    Think about how much has changed since that momentous day. In 2011 the U.S. was at war in Iraq and Afghanistan, facing the threat of a vicious global terror organization that had already killed Americans. Oh, wait, that looks just like 2016, only now we are also at war in Syria, too, still at war in Afghanistan (16 years in!) and back at war in Iraq. And al Qaeda is known as ISIS, and the Homeland remains a jittery mess on the verge of electing either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, both of whom have enthusiastically endorsed lots more war in the Middle East.

    It’s as if Nothing. Has. Changed.

    Anyway, the CIA’s anniversary tweets open up the idea of live tweeting other American victories. How about a minute-by-minute live tweet of a waterboarding session? Or maybe, for a really special date, a live tweet on August 6 of the Hiroshima bombing?



    BONUS: Proving we have learned absolutely nothing, amid the bin Laden tweetstorm, CIA chief John Brennan said Sunday that taking out the head of Islamic State would have a “great impact.”

    “If we got Baghdadi, I think it would have a great impact on the organization. And it will be felt by them,” he said.



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  • Could This Be Donald Trump’s Vice Presidential Pick?

    May 2, 2016 // 14 Comments

    Tags: , ,
    Posted in: 2016, Questions for Clinton

    joni ernst

    Meet Joni Ernst. Could she be Donald Trump’s choice for Vice President?


    The main attributes of a vice president are to balance the ticket, help raise money and then step back for four/eight years until it is her turn to run. You want someone good, but not too good, especially if you have an ego the size of Trump’s.

    And with Hillary Clinton as the likely Democratic nominee, a woman VP on the Republican ticket would be no small advantage. Ernst is the first woman to represent Iowa in the United States Congress and the first female veteran to serve –from any state — in the Senate. Those kinds of things will pull a lot of the air out of Hillary’s calls to empower women in politics.

    The Washington Post calls Joni Ernst, currently the Republican senator from Iowa, “a breakout star of the 2014 midterm election with her plain-spoken populism.” That matches some of Trump’s appeal, and plays well to the populism that fuels the Sanders campaign.

    Ernst has been critical of Trump’s comments about women, which could be a smart way to make Trump appear more open-minded, and pull in additional female votes. He could also use Ernst’s criticism to soften his comments going forward, explaining she has helped him better see the error of his ways.



    Ernst also aligns well with Trump and Republican positions.

    She’s proposed eliminating the Internal Revenue Service, the Department of Education, and the Environmental Protection Agency to cut federal spending. She wants to eliminate the Department of Education “not just because it would save taxpayer dollars, but because I do believe our children are better educated when it’s coming from the state.” She is also no friend of Planned Parenthood, another signature Republican issue. In 2014, Ernst delivered the official GOP rebuttal to President Obama’s State of the Union Address.

    And a bonus — Ernst is a good friend of the Koch Brothers, and her being on the ticket could help them feel better about a President Trump. A lot of Koch money flowed into Ernst’s Senate campaign via the Koch-backed consulting firm Aegis Strategic. The brothers are known to be wary of Trump, and having one of their own people in the White House would go a long way to garnering their support.


    Keep an eye on Joni Ernst. She might make for some very smart politics by a guy who says he knows a good deal when he sees one.

    (NOTE to long-time We Meant Well readers. This article is a prediction, not an endorsement. We’ll return to our regular programming soon.)



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  • My Earthquake in Japan

    April 30, 2016 // 7 Comments

    Tags: , ,
    Posted in: Other Ideas

    earthquake


    My heart goes out to everyone in Japan and in Ecuador affected by the recent series of terrible earthquakes. I was once where you are. My story isn’t meant to trivialize or generalize anyone else’s; it’s just mine.


    It is the sound I remember as much as the shaking — a train roaring under the ground, a zipper larger than a river untangling itself, a tremendous noise made by the living rock underneath us shifting. The earth/the apartment building/the room/the bed began moving up and down, all adding to the sound. My wife, seven months pregnant with our second child, began screaming. I began screaming. I was thrown from my bed. At 5:46 in the morning on January 17, 1995, in Nishinomiya, Japan, outside Kobe, my world changed, what came to be known as the Great Hanshin earthquake.

    I crawled to my four year old’s bedside, the floor still moving to make the trip of two or three yards uphill. I had not heard her scream. She was motionless on her futon, a heavy lamp knocked from the dresser on to the floor and I had that moment no parent should ever have that single flash of white and heat that lasted that ten hours the one second move to her side took me forever.

    She was alright, I was alright, but it took me years, and much help, to fully know that. She’s in her 20’s now and I still look at her in a different way sometimes.

    Stop now, wherever you are, and listen to everything around you made by the 21st century. Refrigerator hum, traffic noise, computer fan, water running, everything around you and try to subtract each away until you find yourself in the kind of silence that must have dominated life before technology. Everything was suddenly silent. The earthquake had taken the current century away in an instant, no water, no electricity, nothing able to move outside.


    My apartment was about three quarters of a mile from the collapsed highway that became something of a symbol of the quake:



    Outside the silence was bigger than inside, and I saw smoke columns in the distance and a home down the street collapsed. Traditional Japanese homes are built with heavy tile roofs on top of relatively spindly wooden frames. I don’t know why. I learned later that a lack of pressure-treated wood building products in older homes meant that termites were common, and so the structure holding up that heavy roof literally crumbled to dust with the shaking. The roof sat, more or less intact, on top of a pile of rubble; in a more comical mood, you could see it as that scene from the Wizard of Oz that claims the first wicked witch. Underneath the roof was everything that had been inside. We knew them as the Tanaka family. Mr. Tanaka and I had adjacent plots in the community garden, though we never really exchanged more than a few words of greeting and weather prediction. Guy could never get his damn tomatoes right, never more than hard, red stones really.


    While many things about such natural violence are universal, some are likely very much something a part of Japan.

    Moving off to the shopping street in search of bottled water and batteries an hour after the quake, I saw many stores were destroyed. Some were flattened, others just had windows and doors blown out. But there was no looting, just growing lines of Japanese shuffling through the dust, many in bedclothing, to join a line forming at the convenience store. The damn 7-11 had not only survived the quake, it was open. The lone minimum wage employee stood at the cash register, everything in the store thrown on to the floor around him. He was wearing his uniform, a little trickle of blood down the side of his head.

    The line had formed spontaneously, naturally, and the boy was shouting for everyone please to only buy a small amount so that there would be some for everyone. That’s what happened. When my turn came, I put two liters of water and a handful of batteries on the counter, and handed over the only cash I had on me. The clerk apologized that he could not make change, took my money, and wrote out a little note with my name and his, saying the store owed me and would pay up once things got back to order.

    Neighborhood people gathered in little knots because it seemed like what we should do. We exchanged information and luckily most were OK. We waited for someone — the police, the fire department, the army — to arrive and tell us what to do. When no one showed up, people left in ones and twos to clean up apartments and homes. Knowing we had a young child, a neighbor brought over some bottled juice she claimed she did not need.


    By day three or four the roads had been cleared enough and a few trains started back into service such that my wife and daughter could self-evacuate to a relative’s home far enough away. A doctor there pronounced both healthy. I stayed behind to work, the commute stretching to hours, and leading me to move into my office and sleep on the floor for a few weeks. Around me, centered in the city of Kobe, 6,434 people had died.

    It took a very long time for things to get back to what even then we dubbed the new normal. No one understood how long it would take, and a sense of frustration set in, a sense of wanting it all to be over.

    The water came back on, the emergency services engaged, things reopened and kids returned to school. My second child was born, and life went on. That spring I went to turn over the soil and get started back in the community garden.

    There was that good feeling of renewal, the moist smell of the earth ready. There was the empty plot where Mr. Tanaka was never really able to get his tomatoes to grow right.




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  • ‘Snowden’ Movie Trailer: Can Oliver Stone Make Whistleblowing Suspenseful?

    April 29, 2016 // 20 Comments

    Tags: ,
    Posted in: Democracy, NSA, Police State, Post-Constitution America




    Of course he can. Have a look at the latest trailer for the upcoming Oliver Stone movie, SNOWDEN, due out in September.

    The Edward Snowden story is many things, but at some level, well apart from politics, it is a helluva thriller. Think of it: a young programmer, at great personal risk, figures out a way to gain access to a vast trove of very highly classified documents from one of America’s most secret agencies. He then discovers a way to beat all of NSA’s security to smuggle that information out of secure facilities. With the Feds no doubt on his heals, he finds his way to a foreign country, meets up with journalists, and reveals to Americans (and the world) that their own government has been illegally spying on them — reading their emails, listening to their calls, looking in their very bedrooms via hijacked webcams — for years. He then successfully eludes the full resources of the U.S. government and settles into a new life in Russia.

    So if that isn’t suspenseful, then not much can be.


    And it is hard to imagine a filmmaker more equipped to handle this story than Oliver Stone. Stone’s work has been all about creating narratives, often narratives contradictory to the mainstream, around significant historical and social events (Wall Street, W. Platoon, JFK). Snowden’s story may have found its natural storyteller.

    The trailer looks good, and shows a movie that is structured as a thriller, but one with a larger message. This film looks to be an excellent addition to the conversations about the changes he brought to the United States, and the world.



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  • Capitalism Without the Das Capital: Welcome to Uber’s Gig Economy

    April 28, 2016 // 8 Comments

    Tags: , ,
    Posted in: #99Percent, Economy, Minimum Wage

    uber

    One of the defining aspects of traditional capitalism is that the Capitalist, that one percent guy from the Monopoly game with the top hat, spats and monocle, invests capital. That investment, in land, a factory, an oil well, creates value (the monies) for him, and jobs for the rest of us.



    Capitalism 101

    The idea is that because the Capitalist risks his money/capital, he is assuming the greater risk and thus deserves the greater gain. This has been the way things have worked since feudal lords controlled land and allowed sharecroppers to keep pennies on the dollar they earned for him, on through to when people built factories and opened stores.

    Traditional capitalism is that stuff you slept through in Econ 101. Risk gain, employment, jobs, whatevers unless you live off an allowance from Daddy.

    Until the arrival of the gig economy.



    The Gig Economy

    For those who are living off an allowance from Daddy, or are one of the eleven Americans who still hold a traditional “job” where you do stuff, get paid a regular salary not tied to how many sneakers you sew each day, and receive those “benefits” you once heard grandpa speak of, the gig economy is where you work piecemeal, get paid a few table scraps and have no benefits or job security because you really don’t work for anyone.

    These “gigs” are almost always performing low-level services, such as delivering food to or driving around people much wealthier than you. Those people cannot be bothered to walk to a restaurant or pilot a motor vehicle or clean up their kids’/doggies’ poo, so you do it because you don’t have many other options in hope of earning something more than minimum wage.

    The gig economy is sometimes also known as the 1099 economy, after the IRS form used to report non-employee earnings, or the on-demand economy based on the way people get or don’t get opportunities to work. No one knows how big this shadow economy is, given the shifting nature of the work and the cash payments sometimes involved. But it is big and it is growing.

    The less-discussed game changer of the gig economy is that traditional capitalists no longer need to put much money at risk at all. In fact the companies behind the gig economy, the people who run Uber and the others, are economically viable because they offload their cost of capital — the investment and depreciation on cars and the cost of keeping a driver fed and healthy — onto the drivers, who are only willing to accept such a bad deal because the labor market sucks. See how that works?

    And if that’s not problem enough, the cheaper wages paid (for example, by Uber) to drivers, and thus the cheaper rides, also drive business with capital structures which make social sense out of business. They can’t compete with “drive your car into the ground, make whatever you might get along the way while we cash in.”

    And when you talk about driving these days, you’re talking about Uber.



    Uber Costs

    Uber has succeeded in almost completely pushing its operating costs (absent the relatively small investment needed to run the app and backoffice) down to people who often can’t afford it but are lured into trying because the alternatives seem even lower paying.

    To drive for Uber, you need a late model car, in great shape, with four doors. It doesn’t have to be a black sedan, but if it isn’t Uber will exclude you from a number of ride requests.

    So where does someone without a lot of money get a late model black sedan? If they can afford it, they buy one, but that means laying out a lot of money and taking on some heavy credit up front. More than likely, however, what a budding Uber driver does is lease his black sedan from an Uber-suggested third party contractor. You’ll find them right on the Uber website. They’ll take an average $500 deposit to sign you into a three year lease running $300 a month. So that all adds up to a capital investment by the driver of $11,300 over three years.

    Next capital cost to the driver is insurance, expensive insurance, because the cheap minimum stuff you buy off the TV ads is not going to cover you driving passengers around. Don’t worry, though, as Uber will sell you just what you need, albeit at $4,600 a year. That works out to $13,800 for three years.

    And, hey, driver, you need to pay for licensing, gas, maintenance, fines, regular car washes, depreciation of your vehicle and all the other stuff. Over three years, let’s call it $5,000.

    So overall, the cost for you to get a job with Uber is about $30,100 over three years. If you don’t have the cash on hand, and need to borrow it, add on 13% interest or more if using a credit card, maybe more for second-level sources for people who don’t qualify for good credit.

    But wait — many jurisdictions are now demanding additional licenses from Uber drivers, claiming they are operating a business. One of the more extreme plans under consideration is in Newark, New Jersey. The city is looking at a $500 annual fee to operate in the city, $1,000 additional license to pick up and drop off passengers at the airport and Newark Penn Station, and a $1.5 million insurance coverage requirement.

    If the driver fails to make any of those payments, s/he instantly becomes unemployed, unable to pay enough to have a job to earn enough to pay for that job. This is, in economic terms, an extractive process — a third party takes profit, leaves the true costs of capital to the workers, and when they fail, to society who will need to step in and provide food benefits as a last resort.



    Uber Risks

    In addition to having to raise their own capital to essentially buy themselves a job driving for Uber, drivers face risks far above the simple “risk” associated with any “investment.”

    In addition to the obvious risks of accidents, bad reviews, and good/bad weather that cuts the number of people seeking rides, perhaps the biggest financial risk to any driver is Uber itself.

    Imagine a situation where there are 10 riders in a city, and ten Uber drivers. For argument’s sake, let’s say each driver gets one fare a night. Uber makes money on its 27% share of 10 rides. Now, increase the number of Uber drivers to 100 (which makes getting a ride easier and faster for quicker profit for Uber and protects Uber when drivers quit) while the number of rides stays at 10. That means 90 drivers make nothing each night. Independent of the number of drivers, Uber still makes the same money on its share of 10 rides.

    In 2015, Uber doubled the number of drivers in the U.S. As of October 2015, the company had 327,000 active drivers, more than doubling the 160,000 that gave rides in 2014. Some of the new drivers are absorbed by growth in ridership, some are not.

    The other risk is that Uber sets prices, which vary even though the driver’s costs do not. For example, in order to theoretically boast ridership, Uber lowered prices in New York City such that individual drivers saw an average decline in payouts of 15%. The company also experimented with rate cuts in 99 other North American cities.



    Uber Pool

    UberPool is a new service where multiple customers headed the same way can “share” a car.

    Imagine two Uber drivers each carrying a single passenger along the same route which results in a fare of $11. After Uber takes its brokerage cut as well as its “safety fee” (even though the company still has the poorest driver background checks in the taxi industry), each driver ends up with $8 each in pocket, while Uber ends up with $6, a 27% commission for Uber.

    Now along comes UberPool, and these same two serial riders get picked up by a single driver. Since UberPool offers passengers a substantial discount for sharing a ride, that means each passenger now pays $6 (in this example). After Uber takes its commission, including the safety fee, the payout to the driver is $4 for each passenger, or a total of $8. So the driver makes the same amount, but Uber’s take of the overall $12 for this ride is also $4 – a 33% overall commission. So Uber makes a higher percent on UberPool rides, yet the driver makes about the same amount.

    Money

    The other side of financial risk is financial return, what you get after investing capital. For Uber drivers, there is no realistic average. Take a look at one of the many online driver forums and you’ll see a range of claimed payouts so wide (from sub-minimum wage to thousands a week) that it is of no real value. Here is at least one reasonable breakdown of costs and payouts.

    Leaving aside the forum posters who are just lying for whatever reason, the variables of driving for Uber are such that averages are not really possible. One of the few variables under the driver’s control is number of hours worked, and many of those who claim high weekly payouts also claim to drive 12 or more hours a day. Leaving aside the not inconsequential question of whether you feel it’s safe to catch those guys 11.5 hours into their shift, it leaves the economic question of how many hours a week it takes in the gig economy to earn a decent living.

    The New World Order

    Unlike conventional labor, where one starts at zero on day one and begins earning money, or traditional self-employment where in return for capital investment one keeps 100% of the profits, the gig economy’s main point is that people working for places like Uber start behind, maybe $10,000 in the hole after they secure a car, insurance and all the rest. Uber, however, begins profiting from the driver’s labor immediately, and loses nothing when the driver is pushed aside.

    All of the gain, none of the risk, in the New Economy where people pay for their own jobs.

    What other business is there where the Capitalist takes almost no risk, invests no capital, and pushes all that down on his workers alone, while raking in money? Oh, rights, pimps. Welcome to the gig economy.




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  • Is This What’s in Those 28 Pages? And Does it Matter?

    April 27, 2016 // 24 Comments

    Tags: , , ,
    Posted in: NSA, Post-Constitution America

    Bush-Saudi-Arabia


    Did the CIA meet with some of the 9/11 hijackers ahead of the attacks on New York? Did the Saudi government help finance those hijackers? Someone knows the answers, and soon, you might know as well.


    This Summer?

    James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, told the New York Times the so-called “28 pages,” a still-classified section from the official report of the Joint Inquiry into Intelligence Community Activities Before and After the Terrorist Attacks of September 11, 2001, may be released to the public as early as this summer. The full 838-page report, minus those pages, was published in December 2002.

    The pages detail Saudi Arabia involvement in funding the 9/11 hijackers, and were classified by then-President George W. Bush.

    So what do they say?


    The 28 Pages

    Richard Clarke is the former National Coordinator for Security, Infrastructure Protection and Counterterrorism for the United States. He is best-known for trying to warn the George W. Bush administration that a terror attack was imminent in the days preceding 9/11. As late as a July 5, 2001, White House meeting with the FAA, the Coast Guard, the FBI, Secret Service and the INS, Clarke stated that “something really spectacular is going to happen here, and it’s going to happen soon.”

    Here’s what Clarke said at a security forum held this week in New York about what those 28 pages will reveal:

    — 9/11 hijackers and Saudi citizens (15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis) Khalid Al-Midhar and Nawaq Al Hamzi met in San Diego with several other Saudis, including one who may have been a Saudi intelligence agent and another who was both an al Qaeda sympathizer and an employee of the Saudi Consulate in Los Angeles.

    — The CIA also made contact with Midhar and Hamzi in San Diego, and unsuccessfully tried to “turn them,” i.e., recruit them to work for the United States. The CIA did not inform the FBI or others of this action until just before 9/11. (In a 2009 interview, Clarke speculated that the CIA would have used Saudi intelligence as an intermediary to approach the two al-Qaeda operatives.)

    — The 28 pages may include speculation that the Saudi Ministry of Islamic Affairs funded mosques and other locations in the U.S. used by al Qaeda as meeting places and for recruitment.

    — The rumors that Saudi charities and/or the spouse of then-Saudi ambassador to the United States Bandar bin Sultan (who went on to be director general of the Saudi Intelligence Agency from 2012 to 2014) directly funded the 9/11 hijackers per se are “overblown,” according to Clarke.

    However, elements of Saudi charities and the ambassador himself did regularly provide funding to various Saudi citizens in the United States, for example, those needing money for medical care. It is possible that the 9/11 hijackers defrauded Saudi sources to obtain funds, but less clear that any Saudi government official knowingly funded persons for the purpose of committing 9/11.

    Alongside Clapper, Clarke too believes the 28 pages will be released to the public within the next five to six weeks.

    Others have suggested more clear ties between the hijackers and the Saudis, including multiple pre-9/11 phone calls between one of the hijackers’ handlers in San Diego and the Saudi Embassy, and the transfer of some $130,000 from Bandar’s family checking account to yet another of the hijackers’ Saudi handlers in San Diego.


    Not the What, But the Why

    Should the full 28 pages be released, there will no doubt be enormous emphasis placed on what they say, specifically the degree to which they implicate elements of Saudi Arabia and/or the Saudi royal family in funding or supporting the 9/11 hijackers. If the CIA contact with some of the hijackers is confirmed, that will be explosive.

    But as pointed out in Oliver Stone’s movie JFK (below), after the what is the why, and that answer has the potential to affect the future, not just document the past.


    — Why were the pages classified in the first place (who benefited?) and why did they stay classified now into a second administration, some 15 years after the events they discuss took place?

    — Why did the United States allow officials of the Saudi Ministry of Islamic Affairs to work in the U.S. under diplomatic status? That Ministry’s existence goes back to the 1991 Gulf War. The presence of American troops in Saudi Arabia was a shattering event in the country’s history, calling into question the bargain between the royal family and the Wahhabi clerics, whose blessing allows the Saud family to rule. In 1992, a group of the country’s most prominent religious leaders issued the Memorandum of Advice, which implicitly threatened a clerical coup.

    The royal family, shaken by the threat to its rule, accommodated most of the clerics’ demands, giving them more control over Saudi society. One of their directives called for the creation of a Ministry of Islamic Affairs, which would be given offices in Saudi embassies and consulates. As the journalist Philip Shenon writes, citing John Lehman, the former Secretary of the Navy and a 9/11 commissioner, “it was well-known in intelligence circles that the Islamic affairs office functioned as the Saudis’ ‘fifth column’ in support of Muslim extremists.”

    Only one official in the Ministry of Islamic Affairs inside the U.S., Fahad al-Thumairy, was stripped of his diplomatic visa and deported because of suspected ties to terrorists. That was in 2002.


    — Why does the U.S. still allow allow officials of the Saudi Ministry of Islamic Affairs to work in the U.S. under diplomatic status?

    — Why did the American government not arrest Omar al-Bayoumi, a Saudi national and employee of the Saudi aviation-services company Dallah Avco. Although he drew a salary, according to the New Yorker he apparently never did any actual work for the company during the seven years he spent in America. Bayoumi was in frequent contact with the Saudi Embassy and with the consulate in Los Angeles; he was widely considered in the Arab expat community to be a Saudi spy, though the Saudi government has denied that he was.

    — Why did the CIA not reveal its contacts with the two 9/11 hijackers? Who benefited?




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  • The U.S. Is Dropping Bombs Faster Than It Can Make Them

    April 26, 2016 // 15 Comments

    Tags: ,
    Posted in: Afghanistan, Iraq, Military, Syria

    B1-B_Lancer_and_cluster_bombs

    Like about 90% of the news today, this would be terrific satire, if it wasn’t true.


    America is dropping so many bombs on ISIS that the country is in danger of running out.

    “We’re expending munitions faster than we can replenish them,” said Air Force Chief of Staff General Mark Welsh. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter has asked Congress to include funding for 45,000 “smart bombs” in the Defense Department’s 2017 budget. But it could take a while to rebuild the stockpile.

    “The U.S. maintains a pretty steady inventory of bombs and missiles,” says one aerospace and defense policy analyst. “But 2.5 years of fighting ISIS and continued bombing in Afghanistan have exceeded weapons-use projections.”

    Operation Inherent Resolve, the U.S.’ military intervention against Islamic State, strikes ISIS targets with laser- and GPS-guided bombs, Joint Direct Attack Munition bombs, Joint Standoff Weapons, and air-to-ground missiles, such as the Hellfire. Per unit price tags on these munitions range from around $25,000 to close to $400,000. In the early days of the Syrian campaign the Navy fired multiple Tomahawk cruise missiles, which go for about $1 million a piece.

    But bombs away, the overall cost of the fight against Islamic State in dollars is staggering; more than $2.7 billion so far, with the average daily cost around $11 million.

    Since the June 2014 start of Inherent Resolve, the U.S. and its coalition partners have flown 9,041 sorties, 5,959 in Iraq and 3,082 in Syria. More are launched every day. The U.S. claims it has killed between 10,000 and 25,000 Islamic State fighters, quite a spread, but still, if accurate (which is doubtful), at best only a couple of bad guys per bombing run.

    Not particularly efficient on the face of it, but — as Obama administration officials often emphasize — this is a “long war.”

    The CIA estimated Islamic State had perhaps 20,000 to 30,000 fighters under arms in 2014. So somewhere between a third of them and all of them should now be gone. Evidently not, since recent estimates of Islamic State militants remain in that 20,000 to 30,000 range as 2016 began.

    Somebody in Washington better do the math on this one.



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  • Contractor Hired Former African Child Soldiers to Guard U.S. Forces in Iraq

    April 25, 2016 // 8 Comments

    Tags: , ,
    Posted in: Embassy/State, Iraq, Military

    child merc

    A defense contractor hired mercenaries from Africa for $16 a day to guard American bases in Iraq, with one of the company’s former directors saying no checks were made on whether those hired were former child soldiers.

    The director of Aegis Defense Services between 2005 and 2015, said contractors recruited from countries such as Sierra Leone to reduce costs for the U.S. occupation in Iraq. He said none of the estimated 2,500 boys recruited from Sierra Leone were checked to see if they were former child soldiers who had been forced to fight in the country’s civil war.

    They were considered merely cheaper options to fulfill contracts to defend U.S. bases in Iraq, enabling Aegis to realize higher profits.

    Aegis had contracts from the U.S. government worth hundreds of millions of dollars to protect bases in Iraq. It originally employed UK, U.S. and Nepalese mercenaries, but broadened its recruitment in 2011 to include Africans as a cost-cutting/profit raising measure.

    I am saddened to say the use of children in this capacity in Iraq was an open secret. The guards at the forward operating base where I was located in 2009-2010 were obviously very, very young, often carrying weapons nearly their own height. They were kept isolated and segregated from the Americans so the two groups could not speak, ensuring the secret was nominally kept as everyone looked the other way.

    That child soldiers were present in this capacity was (to my knowledge, first) mentioned in my 2011 book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People (in the chapter titled “Tribes.”) Our military children happened to be from Uganda, not Sierra Leone, suggesting the practice was wide spread.

    In some happy news, in 2010, the mercs guarding the U.S. embassy in Baghdad were primarily from Peru, and appeared to be all adults.

    BONUS: The recruitment of African mercenaries and, more specifically, former child soldiers, is the subject of a new documentary (video clip, below) by Mads Ellesoe, a Danish journalist who spent two years researching the subject.




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  • Watch Bruce Springsteen Sing “Thunder Road” Through the Years

    April 23, 2016 // 1 Comment

    Tags:
    Posted in: Other Ideas






    One of the things that defines great art is not only that it hangs around for a long time, that people still want to see a play hundreds of years after it was first performed or read a book that was written thousands of years ago, but that that art morphs and develops alongside our own lives changing, not only staying relevant, but becoming more relevant as we ourselves change.

    And so to Bruce Springsteen and, in this case, Thunder Road. The amazing supercut you see above spans 41 years of Bruce performing the same song, seamlessly arranged in chronological order. There’s Bruce in the 1970s all young and brash, there’s the buffed up Bruce of the 80s, the introspective Bruce of the 90s forward. Along the way E Street Band members come and go, most notably Clarence Clemons (RIP) and newcomers like Nils Lofgren and Springsteen’s wife. The presence of the latter in the band speaks much to the changes of time.


    But there is also that song.

    I’m gonna play the old guy card here and say I was in high school when I first heard Thunder Road. Living outside Cleveland, Ohio, we found Born to Run on our radio a bit earlier than most folks outside of the Jersey Shore itself. At a time in my life when music was dominated by pop garbage and metal (both have their place), here was a song that put into words what I wasn’t able to do myself: the need to get out of a town full of losers, the promise of talking a pretty girl into climbing into your car and taking off to, well, anywhere, that sense of something out there you needed to see.

    Some 40 years later, I still listen to Thunder Road, having left that town, seen some of what there was to see, but at the same time knowing maybe I’m not that young anymore, and that there are some roads I am probably just not going to get down. In an era of cynical politics, the line about waiting on a savior to rise from the streets rings strong, yet also sad.

    I think I can hear it in Bruce’s lyrics, I’m certain I can see it on his face and hear it in his voice, and I’m glad he stays (virtually) on the ride with me, desperate and hopeful at the same time.




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  • Won’t Paying for Bernie’s Healthcare Make Us Pay Higher Taxes Like in Europe?

    April 22, 2016 // 8 Comments

    Tags: , ,
    Posted in: Minimum Wage, Post-Constitution America



    Won’t paying for Bernie’s healthcare make us pay higher taxes like in Europe?

    Not likely. Here’s what Hillary doesn’t want to tell you.


    Free or very low-cost universal health care is available to citizens of all the countries marked in green, below, as well as China, North Korea, Thailand and Vietnam, left off for some reason:


    You’ll see the U.S. stands alone. Somehow our nation, alone among industrialized nations and some not so industrialized, has yet to figure out how to find a why to provide affordable healthcare for all of its citizens.

    One of the arguments posited is that the U.S. is too big for some poncy European system to work, but of course China and Russia are bigger. Another is that quality of care suffers, but people in Japan have some of the longest life spans in the world, and things are pretty good across Europe.

    But the argument that seems to stick best in America is that such “utopian” healthcare schemes are simply too expensive, that taxes over there are so much higher than in America.

    So keeping in mind that most of the places that offer free or very low-cost universal health care also offer free or very low-cost college (how’s it feel that a degree at Podunk State U costs more than Oxford University — about $12,000 a year for UK and EU students?),

    And, most of those other countries have dollar-adjusted higher minimum wages. And they save extraordinary amounts of money that in the U.S. end up being spent on social welfare and public health for people who are unhealthy because they can’t afford to see a doctor.



    But let’s look at some tax figures:

    Oops. The average U.S. income tax rate is actually higher than some of those places.


    And of course in the U.S., in addition to federal income tax, we also pay state and sometimes city tax. And Social Security/Medicare tax of 7.65% And property tax, sales tax and taxes/surcharges on cell phones, airports, hotels, restaurant meals and on and on. And of course other countries also have other taxes; the point is Americans are already paying a lot of taxes and getting damn little in return.

    And on top of that, we also pay (those who can afford it…) for health insurance. For 2012, the annual premiums for employer-sponsored family health coverage averaged $15,745, up 4% from 2010, with workers on average paying $4,316 toward the cost of their coverage. And of course those premiums paid do not include deductibles and co-pays.

    And prescription medicine costs. Americans pay more for drugs than anyone in the world. Drug prices in the United States are often up to 10 times more expensive than in almost all other developed countries.


    And that is how Bernie Sanders comes to the conclusion that even if taxes rise, the single-payer health care system he proposes would save an average American family of four almost $6,000 per year.

    Think about it. Doctor’s orders!




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  • Thousands of Americans Are Hungry Because of Post-Prison Release Laws

    April 21, 2016 // 6 Comments

    Tags: , ,
    Posted in: Democracy, Minimum Wage, Post-Constitution America

    snap



    Food stamps are for hungry people, which we should not have in America. There are of course cheaters, just like there are wealthy people who cheat on their taxes. The tax cheats won’t starve to death, or see their children go hungry, but released drug felons in many states will.

    It used to be that when you served your time for a crime, your “debt to society” was considered paid, and you were ready to re-enter society. But for many released drug felons, the punishment continues long after they leave jail.


    The felony drug ban is a Congressional-mandated lifetime restriction on Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF; note the word family there) and food stamps (SNAP) for anyone convicted of a state or federal drug felony, unless states opt out. In states where the ban applies, a person released from a prison sentence are denied basic assistance at a time of extreme vulnerability.

    A study by The Sentencing Project found that in the 12 states that impose the lifetime ban, an estimated 180,000 women alone are impacted. If you include the other 24 states that impose a partial ban, the number of people affected is significantly higher. And since law enforcement is happily conducted with racial bias, people of color are disproportionately denied assistance.


    The felony drug ban can be traced back to the 1990s, when politicians of both parties sought political gain by getting “tough on crime.” Senator Phil Gramm , the sponsor of the ban, argued that “we ought not to give people welfare benefits who are violating the nation’s drug laws.” After just two minutes of floor debate, the measure was adopted by unanimous consent as part of the 1996 welfare “reform” legislation.

    Of course there are other post-prison punishments on felons. The most significant is that few employers will hire an ex-felon, and more employers than ever now run mandatory background checks even for lousy minimum wage jobs.  Pell grants are not available for felons, and most schools will deny them financial aid, ensuring most can’t receive the education they need to get back on their feet. Men and women with prior drug convictions are also typically denied public housing and other benefits. A lot of banks won’t deal with a felon.


    Now, let’s see a show of hands out there.

    Who thinks making a man or woman unemployed, hungry, potentially homeless and without a chance at education is going to reduce the chances s/he won’t recommit a crime? Nope, it’s just damn mean and stupid.



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  • North Korea Election Monitors Leave New York in Disgust (Satire?)

    April 20, 2016 // 6 Comments

    Tags: , , ,
    Posted in: 2016, Democracy, Post-Constitution America




    A team of North Korean election monitors left New York City in disgust, claiming that democracy was “dead to them.”


    Following a long series of primary election issues across the United States, where local scams, manipulated caucuses and voter disenfranchisement ran wild, the United Nations requested the North Koreans provide a team of election monitors (above) to oversee the highly-contested New York primary. In choosing North Korea for the job, UN officials cited the “great similarities between the North Korean and American systems.”

    “You people make me sick,” said team leader Kim Young Hee, spitting onto a homeless man living inside LaGuardia Airport who was clawing at his socks for nourishment. “All we hear on your stupid Voice of America shortwave broadcasts and smuggled laser discs of old American Idol shows is democracy this, democracy that from you capitalist pigs. Then we arrive and what do we find? A paper ballot-based voting system right out of the 1950s, run by ignorant old people who have no experience, little training and too much free time. In Pyongyang, they’d be working in the uranium mines, not hassling first-time voters and African-Americans!”


    Comrade Kim went on to cite the unequal application of voter ID laws, the way polling sites were shifted around without notice, and the fact that some 150,000 registered voters in New York were left off the polling lists and were thus unable to vote. He also could not score Hamilton tickets after being promised by a guy in the men’s room “he’d be right back with change”, but said he would leave that out of his report to the UN.

    “And all this when less than half of your eligible voters even bother to show up? In North Korea, we have 100% voter turnout every election, and stuff runs like clockwork. The Party would be locking up whole families of the officials involved in this kind of clusterfutz. Now, I’ll admit, we have only one candidate running like your Republicans do, but seriously, you’re America, the people who found a way through your ‘fast food’ to feed the masses even cheaper than we do in North Korea. Jeez people, you don’t have this computerized yet? Hell, we do, using a 286 Gateway PC running a pirated copy of DOS 4.0. Losers.”


    Wiping a healthy dollop of dog crap off his shoe after having set foot on a New York sidewalk (“I’d eat the bastard for that if we were back home”) Comrade Kim reminded his American handlers that if for some reason Dear Leader Trump lost in November, he’d always be welcome in Pyongyang.



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  • Why Don’t the Candidates Talk About Afghanistan?

    April 19, 2016 // 13 Comments

    Tags: ,
    Posted in: 2016, Afghanistan, PRT Life

    Local Afghan

    Heading into its sixteenth year, with no endpoint in sight, America’s longest war is its least talked about.


    Afghanistan has not come up in any Republican or Democratic debate, except perhaps as one of a list of countries where Islamic State must be destroyed (left out is the reality that no Islamic State existed in 2001 when the U.S. invaded Afghanistan to defeat the Taliban, who, by the way, are still not defeated.)

    For her part, the only mention of Afghanistan from Hillary Clinton is a vague statement last year of support for Barack Obama’s decision to keep 5,500 troops in Afghanistan when he leaves the White House in 2017. Bernie Sanders’ web site has a long series of statement-lets that generally say things have not worked out well in Afghanistan, but stays away from much of a stance.

    Republican front runner Donald Trump, least at first, was more honest on the situation. “We made a terrible mistake getting involved there in the first place. We had real brilliant thinkers that didn’t know what the hell they were doing. And it’s a mess. It’s a mess. And at this point, you probably have to stay because that thing will collapse about two seconds after they leave. Just as I said that Iraq was going to collapse after we leave.”

    However, once it was clear no one wanted to handle the truth, Trump quickly walked his statement back, denying that he had characterized U.S. entry into Afghanistan as a mistake and said he had only talked about Iraq.


    As the United States appears prepared for an indefinite presence in Afghanistan, what really is the situation on the ground 15 years in?

    The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, John Sopko, had a few thoughts on what has been achieved in those years, all at the cost of an estimated 149,000 Afghan deaths, alongside 3,515 American/Coalition deaths. No one really knows how much the U.S. has spent in dollars on the war, but one reasonable guess is $685 billion.


    Sopko, in remarks recently at Harvard University “The Perilous State of Afghan Reconstruction: Lessons from Fifteen Years” said:

    — Conditions are not, to put it mildly, what we would hope to see 15 years into a counterinsurgency and nation-building campaign.

    — Large parts of Afghanistan are effectively off-limits to foreign personnel.

    — Other consequences of insecurity are less headline-grabbing, but are still evil omens for the future of a desperately poor and largely illiterate country. Late last month, a spokesman for the Afghan Ministry of Education was quoted as saying 714 schools have been closed and more than 2.5 million children were being denied schooling, mainly because of the war.

    — Bombings, raids, ambushes, land mines, and temporary seizures of key points can all serve to undermine the government’s credibility and affect security force and popular morale.

    — Security is where most of the U.S. reconstruction funding has gone, about 61% of the $113 billion Congress has appropriated since fiscal year 2002, or $68 billion.

    — As a result of the U.S. military draw down in Afghanistan, the Department of Defense has lost much of its ability to collect reliable information on Afghan security capability and effectiveness. We continue to rely on Afghan reporting on unit strengths, a concern because the rolls may contain thousands of “ghost” personnel whose costs we pay and whose absence distorts realistic assessments of Afghan capabilities.

    — Fifteen years into an unfinished work of funding and fighting, we must indeed ask, “What went wrong?” Citing instances of full or partial failures, is part of the answer. But no catalog of imperfections captures the full palette of pathologies or root causes.



    A lot of chew on there. Perhaps at some point the media, the voters, or the next debate moderators might inquire of the candidates what their current thoughts are.




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