• Torture and the Destruction of the Human Being Shaker Aamer by the United States

    April 15, 2014 // 4 Comments

    Tags: , ,
    Posted in: Afghanistan, Iraq, Post-Constitution America

    Somedays we have a little fun in this space, commenting on world events with a joke, some satire, a little snark. Today will not be one of those days.

    The Bush and Obama administrations have gone to extraordinary lengths to hide America’s archipelago of secret prisons and systems of torture. They at first denied any of that even existed, then used an ever-so-compliant media to call it all necessary for our security and very survival, then shaping dumb-cow public opinion with ersatz terms like enhanced interrogation to keep the word torture out of the discourse, then having the CIA destroy videos of the brutality, then imprisoning officials, such as John Kiriakou, who sought to expose it all, then refusing to hold hearings or conduct investigations, then employing black ops to try and derail even a cursory Senate report and, of this date, allowing the torturers at the CIA themselves the final word on what if anything will appear in the public version of a Senate report on torture that may or may not see the light of day anytime soon.

    The Torture of Shaker Aamer by the United States

    Yet, like a water leak that must find it’s way out from inside the dark place within your walls, some things become known. Now, we can read a psychiatrist’s report which includes, in detail, the torture enacted on just one prisoner of the United States, Shaker Aamer.

    The once-U.S. ally Northern Alliance captured Aamer in Afghanistan and sold him to the United States as an al Qaeda member. Who knows at this point who Aamer was at that time, or what he did or did not do. If you think any of that that matters, and perhaps justifies what was done to him, stop reading now. This article cannot reach you.

    What was Done to One Human

    In his own words, Aamer describes the casual way his Western jailers accepted his physical presence, and skinny confessions made under Afghan torture, as all the proof necessary to imprison him in U.S. custody from 2002 until forever. The U.S. created a world of hell that only had an entrance, not caring to conceive of an exit. In no particular order (though the full report dispassionately chronicles every act by time and location), the United States of America did the following to Aamer:

    – On more than one occasion an official of the United States threatened to rape Aamer’s five year old daughter, with one interrogator describing in explicit sexual detail his plans to destroy the child;

    – “Welcoming Parties” and “Goodbye Parties” as Aamer was transferred among U.S. facilities. Soldiers at these “parties” were encouraged and allowed to beat and kick detainees as their proclivities and desires dictated. Here’s a video of what a beating under the eyes of American soldiers looks like.

    – Aamer was made to stand for days, not allowed to sleep for days, not allowed to use the toilet and made to shit and piss on himself for days, not fed or fed minimally for days, doused with freezing water for days, over and over again. For twelve years. So far.

    – Aamer was denied medical care as his interrogators controlled his access to doctors and made care for the wounds they inflicted dependent on Aamer’s ongoing compliance and repeated “confessions.”

    – Aamer was often kept naked, and his faith exploited to humiliate him in culturally-specific ways. He witnessed a 17 year old captive of America sodomized with a rifle, and was threatened with the same.

    – At times the brutality took place for its own sake, disconnected from interrogations. At times it was the centerpiece of interrogation.

    – The torture of Aamer continues at Gitmo, for as an occasional hunger striker he is brutally force-fed.


    Torture Works

    The obsessive debate in this country over the effectiveness of torture rings eternally false: torture does indeed work. Torture is invariably about shame and vengeance, humiliation, power, and control, not gathering information. Even when left alone (especially when left alone) the torture victim is punished to imagine what form the hurt will take and just how severe it will be, almost always in the process assuming responsibility for creating his own terror. And there you have the take-away point, as briefers in Washington like to say. The real point of the torture was to torture. Over twelve years, even the thinnest rationale that Aamer was a dangerous terrorist, or had valuable information to disclose, could not exist and his abusers knew it. The only goal was to destroy Shaker Aamer.

    The combination of raw brutality, the careful, educated use of medical doctors to fine-tune the pain, the skills of psychiatrists and cultural advisors to enhance the impact of what was done worked exactly as it was intended. According to the psychiatrist who examined Aamer in detail at Guantanamo, there is little left of the man. He suffers from a broad range of psychiatric and physical horrors. In that sense, by the calculus his torturers employ, the torture was indeed successful. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan failed at great cost, al Qaeda has been reborn in Africa and greater parts of the Middle East and the U.S. has willingly transformed itself into at best a bully abroad, and a police state at home. But no mind; the full force and credit of the United States of America destroyed Shaker Aamer as revenge for all the rest, bloody proof of all the good we failed to do.

    Never Again, Always Again

    Despite the horrors of World War II, the mantra– never again– becomes today a sad joke. The scale is different this time, what, 600? 6000? men destroyed by torture not six million, but not the intent. The desire to inflict purposefully suffering by government order, the belief that such inhuman actions are legal, even necessary, differs little from one set of fascists to more modern ones. Given the secrecy the Nazis enjoyed for years, how full would the American camps be today? Kill them all, and let God sort them out is never far from the lips.

    Torture does not leave its victims, nor does it leave a nation that condones it. The ghosts don’t disappear the way the flesh and bone can be made to go away.

    The people who did this, whether the ones in the torture cell using their fists, or the ones in the White House ordering it with their pens, walk free among us. They’ll never see justice done. There will be no Nuremburg Trials for America’s evils, just a collapsing bunker in Berlin. But unlike Shaker Aamer, you are sentenced to live to see it.



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  • Did You Know We Won in Afghanistan?

    April 14, 2014 // 9 Comments

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

    You’ll be forgiven if you somehow had come to the conclusion that the U.S. has not won the 13 year war in Afghanistan.

    You might have been mislead by the constant “Blue on Green” attacks, where people in “Afghan Army Uniforms” kill their American comrades. Or that the Taliban still controls whole provinces. Or that drug exports are up since the war started. Or that Kabul is regularly attacked. Or that Afghanistan’s leaders, led by Hamid “Da’ Fresh Prince” Karzai have funneled billions of U.S. dollars into their own accounts in Dubai while flipping off ol’ Uncle Sam. Or whatever is on in Pakistan. Or that after 13 years, trillions of dollars and uncountable loss of life Afghanistan is pretty much still a dangerous, awful place unlikely to host a Spring Break parteeeee anytime prior to the Sun imploding into a black hole (namecheck: Neil Freakin’ Degrassee Tyson!)

    Why We Fight

    Anyway, forget all that because the ever-reliable Fiscal Times says we won. OK, that’s sorted. Here are some highlights from their recent victory lap article (emphasis and laugh-track added).

    First, some Fiscal Times background on the war. Forget 9/11, or bin Laden, or bases. The real reason we have been at war in Afghanistan is revealed to be:

    We are fighting an insurgency based in the Pashtuns, a majority ethnic group that has always ruled modern Afghanistan. If the Taliban regained enough support among that base, their overthrow of the Kabul would be very possible.

    Not sure how much of that insurgency was there before we arrived, or how much was born because we arrived, but at least it is not 9/11 again.

    Afghanistan Doesn’t Really Need a Strong Government

    But don’t worry, because we have an ace in the hole:

    The saving grace for us is that Afghanistan doesn’t have to have a strong central government.

    Good. Despite another recent round of “purple fingers” photos that mean Democracy! the State Department has been right all along. Their total failure to build a strong central government has been part of the plan. Crazy yes, but like a fox.

    The Afghan Local Police will Save the Day

    It gets better. Fiscal Times:

    There are recent reasons for optimism, however. One is the growth of the Afghan Local Police (ALP), which began in 2010 as a program that recruited rural Afghans to protect their own villages. The ALP has been so strategically successful that their authorization has expanded from 10,000 to 30,000 fighters (My Note: That authorization takes the form of the U.S. Congress agreeing to pay for more.) The most recent Pentagon report on the war said that the ALP was “one of the most resilient institutions in the ANSF,” or Afghan National Security Forces, with the ANSF’s highest casualty rate.

    I got nothing. If anyone believes a high casualty rate means winning, I can’t top that. Also, here’s a neat argument that the police are just another brand of lawless militia plaguing Afghanistan. Another on when the U.S. suspended training for the ALP because of too many insider attacks. Here’s one about how the ALP engages in human rights abuses such as “rape, arbitrary detentions, forcible land grabs, and other criminal acts” and how the ALP favors warlordism. Anyway, that’s all in the past now.

    Key to Victory: Use U.S. Money to Pay Off Warlords. Or Kill Them

    Moving on:

    The second necessity for victory is a responsible-looking central government with which foreign countries can interact. To be a sustainable recipient of Western aid, Afghanistan simply must have a more sympathetic government than Hamid Karzai or somewhat thuggish local power brokers. Only with a regular supply of Western aid will the Kabul government be able to bribe the regional powerbrokers to tilt towards it, and stay within our commandments. And if they don’t – if they really don’t, and flaunt it – then eventually they may have to die. An American high-end special operations capability in Afghanistan is critical not for Al-Qaeda and other transnational terrorists, but also to drop the hammer if local warlords step too far out of line.

    Leaving aside the obvious contradiction that Afghanistan doesn’t need a strong central government and Afghanistan does need a strong central government only a few paragraphs apart, Fiscal Times does get a gold star for turning the use of U.S. money to bribe warlords into paid-for cooperation into a positive thing. In most instances paying protection money to thugs is sort a dead end street (they usually keep demanding more and more money.)

    The kill them all idea is just rich. Hasn’t that sort of been the failed policy for the past 13 years? What kind of unmedicated mind can even write that stuff? I’m sure our elite special forces community is also now proud of their role as Mafia enforcers.

    Time to Declare Victory and Leave

    It is time. Thirteen years of a war that no one can even agree anymore what it is about is enough. If it helps you sleep better, sure, we won. Is that enough? Can we just stick a U.S.-funded knife into this and slink away? Syria is calling.



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  • Selfie Diplomacy Solves all Problems in Pakistan

    April 13, 2014 // 9 Comments

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




    You’ll be forgiven if you did not know that your Department of State in Pakistan hosted Social Media Summit 2014. A bunch of bloggers gathered under the wings of the U.S. embassy to discuss “Social Media for Social Change.” Panel sessions focused on perennial, go-to U.S. feel good topics such as youth activism, peace promotion, women’s empowerment, and entrepreneurship. Fun fact: those same topics form the “broad themes” of U.S. reconstruction efforts now in Afghanistan, and were our major goals in Iraq.




    You could have followed this dynamic event on Twitter via #SMS14. There you can see a sub-theme of the event, awkward selfies by white people, which count as diplomacy nowadays. That’s your American ambassador pictured there, “getting down” with “hip” youngsters prior to their initiation ceremony as Taliban recruits.

    The Summit’s Twitter output also includes the Tweet above, sent by the U.S. embassy in Kabul. If anyone can explain in the comments section exactly what the hell that Tweet means, I’ll feel much better about this whole thing.





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  • State Department Cannot Account for Six Billion of Your Tax Dollars

    April 11, 2014 // 24 Comments

    Tags: ,
    Posted in: Embassy/State, Iraq

    When I wrote my book about waste, fraud and grotesque mismanagement by the U.S. Department of State in the Iraq War Reconstruction, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, the task was at least sporting.


    State bitterly maintained at the time that its work rebuilding Iraq into a Jeffersonian democracy was successful absent the occasional car bomb, and somnolent media played along. Now the job of showing State can’t keep track of its money with both hands isn’t much more than a simple cut ‘n paste job. Let’s watch:






    The State Department’s own Office of the Inspector General (OIG) basically writes today’s article for us. In a “management alert” actually posted online, the OIG said:

    Specifically, over the past six years, OIG has identified Department of State contracts with a total value of more than $6 billion in which contract files were incomplete or could not be located at all. The failure to maintain contract files adequately creates significant financial risk and demonstrates a lack of internal control over the Department’s contract actions.

    Hilarious side note: About those six years of contract shenanigans. The State Department had been without an inspector general position for the past five years, the longest IG vacancy in the government’s history.

    Lack of Dollars and Sense from the OIG Alert

    – An audit of contracts from the U.S. embassy in Iraq revealed that contracting officials were unable to provide 33 of 115 contract files, representing $2.1 billion. Forty-eight of the 82 contract files that the embassy somehow did have on hand did not contain all required documentation for spending an additional $2.1 billion.

    – Files for a Worldwide Personal Protective Services contract Baghdad, with an estimated total cost of $1 billion, were either not accessible or complete.

    – A $52 million contract was awarded to the spouse of the employee overseeing the contract (this one?)

    – In another case, a State Department contracting officer falsified government technical review information and actually provided the contractor with internal contract pricing information, then tried to hide the $100 million contract from investigators.

    – In a separate investigation, a State Department employee allowed the payment of$792,782 to a contractor even though the contract file did not contain documents to support the payment.

    – A $2.5 million Bureau of Information Resources Management contract lacked status reports and a tally of the funds expended and remaining on the contract.

    Sloppy Contracting… Like a Fox?

    State’s horrible disregard for the most basic of accounting is likely just another sad chapter in the saga of comically inept mismanagement that underlies much of what the State Department is anymore.



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  • Walmart Supports Raising Public Food Benefits– For Its Own Profit

    April 9, 2014 // 15 Comments

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

    They say politics makes strange bedfellows. They also say poverty is just another profit opportunity, at least over at Walmart.

    Walmart supports an increase in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, i.e., food stamps) benefits, to erase the cuts Congress voted into place last fall. Does Walmart really care more about the fate of about hungry children than does Congress? Um, not really. Walmart has instead acknowledged publicly that federal cuts to food stamps are a threat to its bottom line.

    Poverty Pays

    In its required 10K filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) Walmart was oddly blunt about what the SNAP cuts may do to its bottom line:

    Our business operations are subject to numerous risks, factors and uncertainties, domestically and internationally, which are outside our control. These factors include… changes in the amount of payments made under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Plan and other public assistance plans, [and] changes in the eligibility requirements of public assistance plans.

    According to Walmart’s Chief Financial Officer Charles Holley, the company didn’t anticipate how much cuts to such programs would affect it. Reductions to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program that went into effect on November 1, 2013, ironically first day of Walmart’s fourth fiscal quarter, led to a between $1 and $36 reduction in SNAP benefits per household, or up to $460 a year. Walmart knows its customers– poor people with even less money simply can’t buy enough to keep corporate profit high.

    Follow the Money

    How much profit? While Walmart does not break out sales paid for with SNAP, it looks like big bucks.

    In a study entitled “FOOD STAMPS: Follow the Money,” researcher and public health attorney Michele Simon established:

    – In one year, nine Walmart Supercenters in Massachusetts together received more than $33 million in SNAP dollars—over four times the SNAP money spent at farmers markets nationwide;

    – In two years, Walmart received about half of the one billion dollars in SNAP expenditures in Oklahoma;

    – One Walmart Supercenter in Tulsa, Oklahoma received $15.2 million while another (also in Tulsa) took in close to $9 million in SNAP spending.

    (Simon’s research also found out that bank JP Morgan Chase is also profiting heavily off the electronic bank transfer-based SNAP program. Morgan has contracts for the SNAP electronic benefits transfer services in 25 states. In Florida, Morgan Chase has a five-year contract worth about $83 million. In New York, a seven-year deal that originally paid Morgan Chase $112 million for services was recently amended to add another $14.3 million, a nice 13 percent increase.)

    All this money in play affects a lot of Americans. 2011 saw a new record enrollment in SNAP, 1 of every 7 Americans.

    Walmart Want to Keep Selling Sugary Soda as Food

    But back to Walmart. Not only does Walmart want SNAP money, it also wants to keep as many of its products SNAP-eligible as possible. The Department of Agriculture must certify an item as available for purchase with food stamps; some long-term no-no’s include alcohol, tobacco and many prepared foods. Yet the top three food vendors in terms of SNAP-money received are Coca-Cola (who makes Coca-Cola), Kraft (of highly processed foods fame), and Mars (the candy and snack food maker.) Walmart has joined those companies to lobby the Department of Agriculture, and Congress, against any measures that would restrict SNAP use to more healthy food choices.

    Since Congress has been debating the soda-food stamps question on and off since 1964, it seems unlikely Walmart and the others have much to fear.


    SNAP Funds Your Everyday Low Prices at Walmart

    As reported previously, one of the main reasons why Walmart can sell things cheap is that it gets away with paying below a living wage because you, the taxpayer, subsidize the employees’ wages. The gap between what the majority of employed people earn through the minimum wage at places like Walmart, and what they need to live a minimum life, is made up by federal and state benefits. Nearly three-quarters of enrollments in America’s major public benefits programs are from working families. They work in jobs that pay wages so low that their paychecks do not generate enough income to provide for life’s basic necessities.

    And it is not just Walmart. The cost of public assistance to families of workers in the fast-food industry alone is nearly $7 billion per year. That money, which might rightly be paid by McDonald’s and Burger King and KFC, is instead paid by the taxpayers, money lenders to a government that is far more interested in subsidizing business than in caring for the nation as a whole.

    This Land is Your Land

    America is indeed the land of opportunity; where else in the world can the collusion of government and corporate interests create both a major lobbying effort to increase food aid to America’s poor, while at the same time fleecing taxpayers so that large corporations can further monetize poverty? Exceptional, indeed.



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  • Ghosts of Tom Joad on Sale at Amazon Now

    April 7, 2014 // 20 Comments

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    Posted in: #99Percent, * Most Popular

    Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99PercentMy new book, Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99 Percentis now available and shipping from Amazon in Kindle, paperback and hardcover.

    The book is off to a good start. Here what one reviewer said:

    Ghosts of Tom Joad is a book about the 99% but told from a very personal level. I needed to remind myself throughout the book that this is fiction, but it is also so many people’s real life story. Van Buren laces factual information throughout the book, but it fits into the story. It does not read like a collection of statistics or a leftist/union propaganda brochure. It reads as real life. This book is very well done on so many levels.


    Here’s another, from Daniel Ellsberg:

    In his new book Ghosts of Tom Joad Van Buren turns to the larger themes of social justice and equality, and asks uncomfortable questions about where we are headed. He is no stranger to speaking truth to power, and the critical importance of doing that in a democracy cannot be overestimated.

    Rolling Stone:

    A lyrical, and deeply reported look at America’s decline from the bottom up. Though a work of fiction, Ghosts of Tom Joad is – sadly, and importantly – based on absolute fact. Buy it, read it, think about it.

    Academy-Award nominated filmmaker James Spione:

    Like his heroes Steinbeck and Agee before him, the author takes us on an unflinching tour of America’s “broken places,” yet true to his predecessors Van Buren never loses sight of his rough characters’ resilient humanity, their deeply held yearning for the grounding connection of family and community, their stubborn hope for a better life. An urgent, important story and an incredibly necessary book.


    Ghosts of Tom Joad is an important book for me, and a once-in-a-lifetime chance for me to bring the issues of social and economic inequality in America to a wider audience, to expose clearly our apartheid of dollars in our nation. If you enjoy my writing here, or on TomDispatch, HuffPo, FireDogLake or elsewhere, picking up a copy of the book will help fuel what I hope to continue doing.

    Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99 Percentis a good story, but with a conscience.



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  • U.S. Government Hilariously Creates Secret-Cuba Twitter, Then Just Quits

    April 4, 2014 // 27 Comments

    Tags: , , ,
    Posted in: * Most Popular, Embassy/State




    There is, clearly to at least two or three people in Washington, no greater threat to American safety and security than Cuba. America has had a Cold War hard-on over Cuba for decades, and so spending millions of taxpayer dollars on it, even if it means a lot of that money actually and knowingly gets paid to the Cuban government itself, is OK. Freedom isn’t free.


    One of the most recent such events was a failed U.S. government attempt to create a Cuba-only Twitter-like text system, and then to use subscribers’ mobile phones to seed anti-Castro propaganda. The bizarre thinking underlying all this was that such social media would foment “flash mobs” in Cuba that would somehow lead to a people power revolution to overthrow the Cuban government.

    Cuba Libre, Cuba Tweet

    In 2010, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), best known for overseeing billions of dollars in reconstruction money in the successful campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, decided to create a bare-bones “Cuban Twitter,” using cellphone text messaging to evade Cuba’s Internet restrictions. It was called ZunZuneo, apparently slang for a Cuban hummingbird’s tweet. Like Twitter, get it?

    To hide the U.S. government’s involvement in all this, fake companies were established in the Cayman Islands, while DNS spoofing and other naughty tricks were employed to disguise the origin of messages, all with the goal of making sure neither the Cuban government nor the Cuban people knew this was a U.S. propaganda ploy. The plan was, according to documents obtained by the Associated Press, for the U.S. to build a subscriber base through “non-controversial content” such as soccer scores and hurricane updates. When the network reached a critical mass of subscribers, perhaps hundreds of thousands, the U.S. would introduce political content aimed at inspiring Cubans to organize “smart mobs” that would assemble at a moment’s notice a Cuban Spring. One USAID document said the formal goal was to “renegotiate the balance of power between the state and society.” This was all at a time when the U.S. fantasized that the Arab Spring would yield the same outbreak of democracy that the Ukrainian Orange Revolution is now famous for.

    Hilarious aside: USAID in its internal project documents called hard-core Castro supporters “Talibanes.”

    No Hay Problemas

    To begin, the propaganda network coincidentally activated shortly after Alan Gross, a USAID subcontractor who was sent to Cuba to surreptiously help “provide citizens access to the Internet,” was arrested. No one claims there is any connection.

    As the Cuban government became aware of the program, its users (who had no idea they were unwitting stooges in a USG black op) came under intense suspicion. This may cause Cubans to be wary of participating in future U.S. programs, and/or to be very suspicious of any legitimate third-party programs for fear of ending up in jail.

    Because sending the texts needed to participate in the program was quite expensive in Cuba, and because the U.S. sent out thousands of messages itself, significant amounts of U.S. money were paid directly to the Cuban government-owned telephone company. The good news for taxpayers was that the Spain-based front company for this mess negotiated with the Cuban government for a bulk-rate for the texts. Can I get a Viva! from the crowd?

    When the service started to become popular and exceed the technical capabilities of what the U.S. set up, the U.S. limited Cubans to only one text a day per person, unlikely to be conducive to creating flash mobs and revolution.

    Various problems capped Cuban participation in the program to only about one percent of the total population. At one point USAID claimed this was good, and kept the project “under the radar.”

    By mid-2012 Cuban users began to complain that the service worked only sporadically. Then not at all, and ZunZuneo simply vanished. The old web domain is now up for sale by a URL broker. Surprisingly, no takers to date. The ZunZuneo Facebook page is still online, last updated in May 2012. Be sure to hop online and “Like” them.

    To hide the program from Congressional scrutiny, the money spent on Cuba was taken out of funds publicly earmarked for Pakistan.

    As part of all the texting, a contractor for the project built a vast database about the Cuban subscribers, including gender, age, “receptiveness” and “political tendencies.” This will never be leaked, hacked, stolen or ever come into the hands of the Cuban government so that they can stomp out any legitimate dissent.

    A lawyer specializing in European data protection law, told the Associated Press it appeared that the U.S. program violated Spanish privacy laws because the ZunZuneo team illegally gathered personal data and sent unsolicited emails using a Spanish front company. Especially in the wake of the revelations of NSA spying throughout Europe, this is unlikely to have affect on broader relations.

    Since USAID, ostensibly a humanitarian aid organization, apparently created several international clandestine front companies, spoofed Cuban telcom networks and funneled money through Cayman Island banks, there is no chance that the CIA had anything to do with any of this.

    USAID at one point turned to Jack Dorsey, a co-founder of Twitter, to seek funding for the project. Documents show Dorsey met with Suzanne Hall, a State Department officer who worked on “new media projects.” Ms. Hall, who appears to be about 26, is captured on video here, explaining how cool social media thingies are. Please note the statue of Hillary Clinton on the bookshelf on the right side of the screen.

    Nothing in the documents available lists exactly how much this all cost American taxpayers.


    Note: As we go to press, the Cuban government is still in power and doing just fine, thank you. Please note that U.S. government efforts to promote freedom in Cuba in no way conflict with U.S. government plans to maintain its off-shore penal colony at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, indefinitely.



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  • Police Blindside Woman with Nightstick, Pepper Ball Man at Basketball Celebration

    April 3, 2014 // 9 Comments

    Tags: , ,
    Posted in: #99Percent

    What happens when the militarization of our police grows too strong? This happens:

    March Madness

    In the final minutes of a March Madness basketball game, University of Arizona students gathered on University Boulevard as they had after previous NCAA Tournament games prepared to celebrate a win, or commiserate a loss. A local bar owner noted that the students didn’t cause any trouble or property damage, and there was no violence until police began trying to clear the streets. “The kids,” said the owner, “I want to say they weren’t unruly, it was drunk college kids partying after a loss. I think more were hanging out in the street rather than trying to cause problems.”

    None the less, Tucson police showed up in Darth Vader-style riot gear, armed with nightstick and non-lethal bullets, pepper spray and gas masks. They quickly declared that the students were now an “unlawful assembly,” ordered them to disperse and when they did not immediately do so, attacked the crowd.

    The Attack

    One student said “It seemed like cops were asking for trouble. Wearing gas masks and lining University Boulevard before the game even ended seemed excessive.”

    What happened next is shocking. A video showed a cop blindsiding a young woman with his nightstick. Another video showed police firing non-lethal rounds into a male student and then roughly tackling him to the ground when he did not go down.

    Us and Them

    Police are empowered to use appropriate force, primarily when needed to protect themselves or others. The inappropriate use of escalating violence is more akin to what happens in war zone, not among partying college students. Tuscon on a spring evening shouldn’t look like Kiev, Istanbul or Caracas, but it did. One is left to wonder if the cops see these students as “their people,” the ones they are sworn to protect and serve. Watching the videos, more and more one feels cops have the same Us and Them attitudes soldiers adopt in war zones.

    The actions of an increasingly militarized police are reinforced by billions of dollars’ worth of military weapons and equipment available to local police departments through grant programs administered by federal agencies such as the Departments of Defense, Justice, and Homeland Security. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) warns:

    The police officers on our streets and in our neighborhoods are not soldiers fighting a war. Yet many have been armed with tactics and weapons designed for battle overseas. The result: people – disproportionately those in poor communities and communities of color – have become targets for violent SWAT raids, often because the police suspect they have small amounts of drugs in their homes.

    In his book, Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces, author Radley Balko shows how politicians’ relentless declarations of war against vague enemies like crime, drugs, and terror have blurred the distinction between cop and soldier. He shows how over a generation, a creeping battlefield mentality has isolated and alienated American police officers and put them on a collision course with the values of a free society.

    The evidence accumulates. Have we have become the enemy? We have become the enemy.



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  • Who is the April Fool? A Partial List of World Leaders the NSA Spies On

    April 2, 2014 // 4 Comments

    Tags:
    Posted in: Democracy, Post-Constitution America

    It’s no April Fool’s joke. A new slide from Edward Snowden shows us just a tiny list of those world leaders the NSA collects against, spies on, monitors and eavesdrops.

    Have a close look at the bottom of the slide. The goes up to 122, and we can only see 11 names, oddly alphabetized by first name.


    The number in the column marked “Cites” indicates transcripts of intercepted fax, voice and computer-to-computer communication. According to internal NSA documents, it is used to “find information relating to targets that would otherwise be tough to track down.”


    C’mon Eddie, don’t be such a tease! Show us the full list!



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  • We Meant Well Exposed as Fraud!

    April 1, 2014 // 2 Comments

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




    With only some irony that it unfolded on April Fool’s Day, leaked revelations exposed vaguely-noted author Peter Van Buren as a fraud.

    “Yes, I’m afraid it is true,” Van Buren admitted under waterboarding that Van Buren also agreed was “clearly not torture in anyway ever.”

    “All along I’ve been working under the control of others.”

    He Didn’t Mean Well at All

    The sham began with Van Buren’s first book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People “You see,” the author confessed, “the war, occupation and reconstruction of Iraq was a complete success. Slam dunk. I saw it with my own eyes– the parks, the sparkling superhighways, the children at play, milk and honey out the buttside.”

    “My sometime-lover Secretary of State Clinton knew it, too, and wanted to hide the fact that the U.S. was pulling millions of barrels of oil out. See, if the world knew of that black gold, that Texas Tea, flowing into the U.S.’ strategic reserves, it would have deeply upset the Saudis and they would have unfriended us on Facebook, derailing what has become a successful MidEast peace process. After having finally read some of my cables on Wikileaks, the Secretary tapped me to write my book mocking State’s efforts and laying the groundwork for a complacent media to ‘buy’ the story that Iraq was a failure. All the harassment by State after my, er, our, book came out was just subterfuge. In fact, all profits from the book have gone directly to the Hillary for 2016 fund.”

    “I Hate the First Amendment!”

    As bamboo splints were forced by liberals high on warm tofu and artisanal quinoa under Van Buren’s manicured nails, more confessions came out.

    “I freaking hate the First Amendment. All it does is empower one nut job after another to start his own blog. I know nobody reads any of that junk– all the comments on my own blog are computer generated– but it is the point of it all. The Founders clearly intended that line about ‘freedom of the press’ to refer only to breaking the Commie printer’s union that dominated Colonial America.”

    “And that Fourth Amendment, unwarranted search and seizure? Please. Opponents of all that are secretly trying to undermine plans for universal gun ownership. If, as the ACLU is planning, hunting dogs are required to have warrants to search for small animals for grown men to kill, hunting– and ownership of automatic weapons capable of dropping sweet, sweet rounds of armor piercing steel into a bunny– will fade away. Poof! No more Second Amendment. And everyone knows the Second is the only cool amendment in the so-called Bill of Rights.”

    Ghosts of Van Buren’s Career: A Story of a #Loser

    Commentators, reacting to the news of Van Buren’s confession, have also called into question the themes of social and economic inequality in the author’s new book, Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99 Percent

    “First, he stole the title, and who cool uses ‘hashtags’ anymore? I happen to know, well, I overheard somewhere,” said one unnamed source, “that Van Buren owns several third world slaves. In fact, in addition to serving his every desire, those same slaves actually wrote the damn book. They begged Van Buren for minimum wage, as he ‘pays’ them only in counterfeit bitcoins. As his own slaves wrote the text decrying the dilution of America’s middle class and the rise of the working poor, the author actually sat back and chortled throughout at the irony. He enjoyed that. He actually enjoyed watching that. The man is sick.”

    “And those photos of Pete as an old, fat, bald man? Just part of the scam, the clever bastard,” said an unnamed source. “Those images are designed to elicit sympathy. Dude is actually ripped, with a full head of lionesque hair. I mean, he could step into the movie ’300′ right out of bed.”

    Off to Bali

    Following the torture sessions (which were in no way torture), rumor has it that Van Buren is off to Bali, where he and Edward Snowden meet regularly to experiment with military-grade peyote, play Minecraft, and draw the cheesy graphics used on the NSA documents.

    The State Department had no comment.



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    Copyright © 2014. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!

  • State Department Spends $400,000 of Your Money on Sculpture

    March 31, 2014 // 25 Comments

    Tags: , ,
    Posted in: Embassy/State

    Your Department of State spent $400,000 of taxpayer money on a piece of sculpture called “Camel Contemplating Needle” for the U.S. embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan.

    The sculpture weighs 500 pounds. The written justification for not putting the project out for competitive bidding includes a cut ‘n paste from Wikipedia about the artist. The State Department says that the sculpture meets the “values of a predominantly Muslim country.”

    The price paid, $400,000 of your money, included crating of the sculpture.

    The photo above is the actual $400,000 sculpture.

    These are the people in charge.

    That is all.



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  • Dissecting Obama’s Proposed NSA Reforms

    March 28, 2014 // 29 Comments

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

    So, after nine months of ignoring the Snowden revelations, downplaying the the Snowden revelations, not telling the truth about the Snowden revelations, insulting the Snowden revelations, sending members of his administration to lie to Congress about the Snowden revelations and claiming everything the NSA does is legal, righteous and necessary to keep the barbarians outside the gates, Obama is coincidentally now proposing some “reforms” without acknowledging the Snowden revelations. Let’s have a look based on what we know right now.

    Starting with a Question

    Right away we have a question about these proposals. Almost everything (we know) the NSA has been doing to us was imposed either by Executive Orders (Bush and Obama) not subject to Congressional review or approval, or done under wide, almost farcical interpretations of the Patriot Act (Section 215 especially) not subject to judicial review, or blessed in secret by the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA) court not subject to any review. So the question of why Obama’s proposed reforms are being sent to Congress for a vote looms large.

    Why doesn’t the president just pull back what he and his predecessor rammed forward? Well, of course we know the answer: politics. If Congress approves, then the president can say that the task is done, the Constitution restored, let’s look forward again and not backward. If Congress does not vote for the reforms or changes them, well, anything from there forward is their fault. Neat. You’ll recall Obama played the same trick, albeit in a somewhat kludgy way, trying to throw the decision to bomb Syria into Congress’ fetid lap last September.

    We also have a handy delay built into the proposal. The current spy programs technically expire March 28, but Obama is asking that good old Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to renew the program as it exists for at least one more 90-day cycle. So while the reforms are needed according to the president, there’s no real hurry and the NSA can keep on spying on us at least into the summer. With some irony, that additional 90 days brings us quite close to the anniversary of Snowden’s revelations last June.

    The Reforms Proposed

    Reform 1: The NSA, proposes Obama, would end its systematic collection of data about Americans’ calling habits. Well, sort of. First we all just have to trust that what the NSA has been and would have continued to do in secret if Snowden had slept in will just stop. There’s a whopper of a maybe, especially given that these changes come only after the whole evil mess hit the news. Better yet, just because the NSA may not collect data, someone else will, because…

    Reform 2: The bulk records would stay in the hands of the phone companies, which would not be required to retain the data for any longer than they normally would. So the data still exists, just reshelved. Most phone companies hold such data anyway for 18 months, plenty of time for some leisurely snooping. And just because the phone companies are not required to hold the data longer, that does not mean some government agency which controls their contracts, licenses, technology and all that will not suggest they hang on to it longer. Hey Verizon, just buy a bigger hard drive, they’re cheap these days. Slap a non-disclosure type order on the phone companies and we’ll never know what they keep for how long. Again, this reform requires trusting organizations that lied to us consistently since 2001 until caught red-handed.

    Reform 3: The NSA could only obtain specific records with permission from a judge. I think we all can see through this one like it was as sheer as a Miley Cyrus costume. Likely enter the handy FISA court again, which has a long record of rubber stamping government requests, no doubt in no small part because only the government is allowed to speak to the court (in its entire history, the FISA court denied just 11 of the more than 33,900 surveillance requests put to it.)

    In addition, it is unclear what level of detail and introspection the court could apply to what no doubt will be hundreds of thousands of new requests, most of which will no doubt be marked as urgent in response to the endless parade of “imminent threats” only the NSA sees.

    Sub-Reform: Obama will ask Congress to convene a panel of public advocates to represent “consumers” before the FISA court. Are Citizens now just “consumers” as far as the government is concerned?

    The members of this panel, to be drawn from civil liberties, technology and privacy advocates, will be given security clearances and other benefits. Their job will be to represent Americans, but only when the FISA court faces “novel issues of law.” Left open is who these people will be, who will pay them, who will choose them, and how aggressive the government will be in using the security clearance process to keep true advocates away from the court. Who and how “novel issues of law” will be determined is another question. What rights these advocates will have to see government data is unclear. And of course everything will be secret.

    Back to the court orders themselves. These court orders are lined up to be another forward-looking thing: once a phone company starts providing call data on an individual, they would be required, on a continuing basis, to feed the NSA data about any new calls placed or received after the order is received. For how long? Not mentioned in the proposal. Better classify that time period or you’ll alert the terrorists when they can start talking freely again. The court orders would also automatically give the NSA related records for callers up to two phone calls, or “hops,” removed from the number that has come under suspicion. So if they look at your records, they are also allowed to look at the doctor you call and the journalist you call.

    Worse yet is the way math works with that two-hop rule. One writer has speculated that if one of those hops includes a popular take-out pizza joint, that hop will automatically link the NSA to a very, very large number of people. Other data suggests a typical two-hops set of links will pull in over 8,000 people. Reconfigure your two-hops to restart with one of those 8,000 and so forth until the set of permissible monitoring grows geometrically.


    What’s Missing

    The only category of people Obama has specifically exempted from surveillance is allied foreign leaders. He has not extended any exemptions to American citizens.

    The reform proposals seem specific only to bulk phone records collected by the NSA under Section 215 of the Patriot Act. They do not appear to apply to any other collections by the NSA (email, Skype, chat, GPS, texts, and so on and on), or any other federal or state agency, or to any programs in place today that we are not aware of or which may be created in the future, perhaps in response to the reforms.

    This omission is significant; The Guardian reports the NSA collects each day more than five million missed-call alerts, for use in contact-chaining analysis (working out someone’s social network from who they contact and when), details of 1.6 million border crossings a day, from network roaming alerts, more than 110,000 names, from electronic business cards, which also included the ability to extract and save images and over 800,000 financial transactions, either through text-to-text payments or linking credit cards to phone users. NSA also extracted geolocation data from more than 76,000 text messages a day, including from “requests by people for route info” and “setting up meetings.” Other travel information was obtained from itinerary texts sent by travel companies, even including cancellations and delays to travel plans.

    The Obama reforms do not even mention surveillance of Internet communications internationally under Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act; and surveillance of communications overseas under Executive Order 12333.

    The reforms do not mention pulling back the NSA’s ongoing efforts to weaken overall internet security, such a demanding companies provide them with backdoors to bypass encryption.

    The reforms leave the door open. Obama’s proposal includes a provision asking Congress to validate that Section 215 of the Patriot Act may in the future be legitimately interpreted as allowing bulk data collection of telephone data.

    The reforms leave in place far too many secret court actions and loopholes.

    The reforms will be changed in the Congressional process and are likely to be further weakened by frightened representatives terrified of being blamed for the next act of terror (or by fear of losing votes for appearing “weak.”)

    The reforms, even if enacted exactly as proposed or even slightly strengthened, only alter the security state in some minor and superficial ways. Our Fourth Amendment rights against unwarranted search and seizure remain jackbooted.

    Some might even say the reforms are not reforms at all, but just some pretty words like “Hope” and “Change” that a smart politician might toss off to appear to be listening to his People without doing anything of substance.



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  • Using Metadata to Catch a Whistleblower

    March 26, 2014 // 13 Comments

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




    With Obama set to announce on Friday his plans to amend the electronic surveillance program at the National Security Agency, it is a good time to look more closely at what the NSA has been doing with some of the data it has been collecting on Americans for the last decade or so. But first some background.

    As the very first info Edward Snowden’s information about the NSA began to emerge in June 2013, Obama made the following statement:

    Nobody is listening to your telephone calls. That’s not what this program is about. As was indicated, what the intelligence community is doing is looking at phone numbers and durations of calls. They are not looking at people’s names, and they’re not looking at content. But by sifting through this so-called metadata, they may identify potential leads with respect to folks who might engage in terrorism.

    (Obama also said in that same remark “Now, with respect to the Internet and emails — this does not apply to U.S. citizens and it does not apply to people living in the United States,” a statement which we now know, from Snowden’s revelations, was a complete lie. But that’s another column.)


    Dianne Feinstein backed up the president that same day, telling nervous Americans “This is just metadata. There is no content involved.”

    (Feinstein also had the gall to say in June 2013, “To my knowledge, we have not had any citizen who has registered a complaint relative to the gathering of this information.” But that’s another column.)


    What is Metadata?

    Metadata in 2013 was not a term widely-known to the general public. A quick definition might be that metadata is information about data– when and where the data was created, perhaps who created it, how long it took to create, that sort of thing. The metadata for this article might be something like “Created in New York City at 11:33 on April 2 by user Peter Van Buren.” Using this, while a snoop would not with the metadata alone know what I wrote, s/he could indeed place me at a specific location engaged in a specific task at a specific time with a specific computer. Potentially valuable information, especially in the aggregate.

    If the metadata was for an interactive thing, like a phone call, then the snoop would also know to whom I was talking. Metadata can serve as a giant index to allow the snoop to know which “content” is worth looking at in detail. Matching a phone number to a business or person is painless within the U.S. and many other countries. It can done by most people over the internet (reverse directories) and has long been available using more sophisticated systems by law enforcement.

    But let’s focus on the metadata alone, as did the Stanford University Security Lab. Scientists there asked subjects to voluntarily collect and share the same metadata about their cell calls as the NSA collects from them involuntarily. The scientists did this via an app one could download, a kind of willful piece of malware like the NSA could install on phones where it does not already have access to the full network (as it does in the U.S. and most allied nations.)

    To Catch a Whistleblower

    So what did Stanford find among all that metadata? They began with some simple, common-sense assumptions, primarily that the more calls you made to a specific place (i.e., a political group or a friend) and the longer in duration those calls were, the more significant the connection. If that same source called you back, frequently or for long durations, the connection was more or less confirmed. Mistakes could be made, but there is always some collateral damage in these things.

    Let’s play along. Jennifer holds regular conference calls during business hours with the same set of people at numbers that resolve to an office in the Pentagon. She makes a significant set of short calls to an Anti-War organization during after-work hours, followed by another set of very long calls to a law office known to represent whistleblowers. She occasionally calls a journalist whose number resolves to New York City, often only speaking for a few seconds. Is Jennifer planning to blow the whistle on something and is setting up meets with a NY journalist? Let’s kick down her door tonight at 2 am and find out.

    Looking to gather data that might be used to identify vulnerabilities, blackmail or character-assassinate someone? The Stanford people wrote “The degree of sensitivity among contacts took us aback. Participants had calls with Alcoholics Anonymous, gun stores, NARAL Pro-Choice, labor unions, divorce lawyers, sexually transmitted disease clinics, a Canadian import pharmacy, strip clubs, and much more.”

    Knowing Everything

    Let’s go deeper. Stanford found:

    Participant A communicated with multiple local neurology groups, a specialty pharmacy, a rare condition management service, and a hotline for a pharmaceutical used solely to treat relapsing multiple sclerosis.

    Participant B spoke at length with cardiologists at a major medical center, talked briefly with a medical laboratory, received calls from a pharmacy, and placed short calls to a home reporting hotline for a medical device used to monitor cardiac arrhythmia.

    Participant C made a number of calls to a firearm store that specializes in the AR semiautomatic rifle platform. They also spoke at length with customer service for a firearm manufacturer that produces an AR line.

    In a span of three weeks, Participant D contacted a home improvement store, locksmiths, a hydroponics dealer, and a head shop.

    Participant E had a long, early morning call with her sister. Two days later, she placed a series of calls to the local Planned Parenthood location. She placed brief additional calls two weeks later, and made a final call a month after.


    What Do They Know?

    What could someone do with that kind of information about you? What if that someone also had, as we know the NSA does, access to your social media, email, snail mail, credit card data, travel information, air reservations, and bank records? Orwell was an amateur. Metadata is the key to stripping away the haystack so that the needle is just sitting there.

    The Stanford metadata research program appears to still be up and running; volunteer to help by downloading their app. The NSA program is most certainly robustly ongoing.



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  • Iraq War Anniversary: Me and Colin Powell in the NYC

    March 24, 2014 // 15 Comments

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




    I love New York. What other city in the United States has public art openly mocking former Secretary of State and Bush Lickspittle Toady Colin Powell?


    In the High Line Park, in the Meatpacking District, stands a bust of Colin Powell, his mighty frame bursting out of well-sculpted living rock. Held in his hand (see arrow) is a vial of fake Iraqi anthrax. The statue mimics Powell’s actual performance at the UN.

    Powell Sells Out America

    Last week marked the 11th anniversary of the Iraq War, so Powell’s self-debasement took place some 11 years ago. A little recap is due.

    Colin Powell, as Secretary of State, lent his considerable credibility and gravitas to the case for war with Iraq. Powell spoke publicly before the UN General Assembly, and privately in depth with America’s allies, about mobile biowar labs, weapons of mass destruction and the imminent danger Saddam Hussein posed. While many people knew Bush was an idiot puppet, and Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld psychopathic fibbers, Powell convincingly represented the United States’ case for war.

    Of course, everything Powell said was a lie. If Powell somehow did not know what he was saying was a lie even as the words oozed out of his mouth that day, he soon came to know, as did the rest of the world, that Saddam had no weapons of mass destruction, and that the whole 2003 invasion of Iraq was a thin sham. In his autobiography, Powell had this to say:

    A blot, a failure will always be attached to me and my UN presentation. I am mad mostly at myself for not having smelled the problem. My instincts failed me. There is nothing worse than a leader believing he has accurate information when folks who know he doesn’t don’t tell him that he doesn’t.


    Doing the Right Thing

    And of course as soon as Powell found out the intel was not just flawed, but completely made up, he resigned in a dramatic protest and attempt to restore America’s credibility, right? Powell went to the media and told everyone that the Iraq War was started on false pretenses? Nope. He served out his four years as Secretary of State.

    Powell-erful stuff. One hopes that the over 4,400 Americans who died in Iraq, the over 100,000 Iraqis who died and the taxpayers who watched a trillion dollars poured into the sand there are equally moved to know that it was all a “blot.” The direct relation between the chaos unleashed by the upsetting of the balance of power in the Mideast through that invasion, and the engorging mess in Syria, Libya and everywhere else, is just a sideshow one guesses to that “blot.”

    Another Blot?

    Colin does love his blots. He said this about Hillary Clinton and the deaths of four Americans at Benghazi:

    I think she’s had a distinguished record. And I don’t think that this one incident– which is one of these things that those of us in government have been through many, many times where suddenly an action happens late at night– I don’t think it’s a blot on her record.


    Enjoy

    It is almost comical to remind that Powell served out his full term as Secretary of State, and was never prosecuted, punished or sanctioned for his lies. He now reportedly earns $40,000 a speech, and is in demand for fundraisers and motivational sales events.

    We’ll enjoy your statue in New York City Colin. You eventually will enjoy your time in Hell, cellmates with Robert McNamara, and please spend every day you have left on this planet meditating on the souls of the people who died in Iraq because of your lie, and your utter lack of responsibility in not speaking up. Only cowards remain silent, and that is your legacy. But do enjoy the money. That is your penance.



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  • War on Whistleblowers Moves to Supreme Court

    March 21, 2014 // 10 Comments

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

    The Obama administration opened a new front in its ongoing war on whistleblowers. It’s taking its case against one man, former Transportation Security Administration (TSA) Air Marshal Robert MacLean, all the way to the Supreme Court. So hold on, because we’re going back down the rabbit hole with the Most Transparent Administration ever.

    Despite all the talk by Washington insiders about how whistleblowers like Edward Snowden should work through the system rather than bring their concerns directly into the public sphere, MacLean is living proof of the hell of trying to do so. Through the Supreme Court, the Department of Justice (DOJ) wants to use MacLean’s case to further limit what kinds of information can qualify for statutory whistleblowing protections. If the DOJ gets its way, only information that the government thinks is appropriate — a contradiction in terms when it comes to whistleblowing — could be revealed. Such a restriction would gut the legal protections of the Whistleblower Protection Act and have a chilling effect on future acts of conscience.

    Having lost its case against MacLean in the lower courts, the DOJ is seeking to win in front of the Supreme Court. If heard by the Supremes — and there’s no guarantee of that — this would represent that body’s first federal whistleblower case of the post-9/11 era. And if it were to rule for the government, even more information about an out-of-control executive branch will disappear under the dark umbrella of “national security.”

    On the other hand, should the court rule against the government, or simply turn down the case, whistleblowers like MacLean will secure a little more protection than they’ve had so far in the Obama years. Either way, an important message will be sent at a moment when revelations of government wrongdoing have moved from the status of obscure issue to front-page news.

    The issues in the MacLean case — who is entitled to whistleblower protection, what use can be made of retroactive classification to hide previously unclassified information, how many informal classification categories the government can create bureaucratically, and what role the Constitution and the Supreme Court have in all this — are arcane and complex. But stay with me.  Understanding the depths to which the government is willing to sink to punish one man who blew the whistle tells us the world about Washington these days and, as they say, the devil is in the details.

    Robert MacLean, Whistleblower

    MacLean’s case is simple — and complicated.

    Here’s the simple part: MacLean was an air marshal, flying armed aboard American aircraft as the last defense against a terror attack. In July 2003, all air marshals received a briefing about a possible hijacking plot. Soon after, the TSA, which oversees the marshals, sent an unencrypted, open-air text message to their cell phones cancelling several months of missions for cost-cutting reasons. Fearing that such cancellations in the midst of a hijacking alert might create a dangerous situation for the flying public, MacLean worked his way through the system. He first brought his concerns to his supervisor and then to the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general.  Each responded that nothing could be done.

    After hitting a dead end, and hoping that public pressure might force the TSA to change its policy, MacLean talked anonymously to a reporter who broadcast a critical story. After 11 members of Congress pitched in, the TSA reversed itself. A year later, MacLean appeared on TV in disguise to criticize agency dress and boarding policies that he felt made it easier for passengers to recognize marshals who work undercover. (On your next flight keep an eye out for the young man in khakis with a fanny pack and a large watch, often wearing a baseball cap and eyeing boarders from a first class seat.) This time the TSA recognized MacLean’s voice and discovered that he had also released the unclassified 2003 text message. He was fired in April 2006.

    When MacLean contested his dismissal through internal government channels, he discovered that, months after firing him, the TSA had retroactively classified the text message he had leaked. Leaking classified documents is more than cause enough to fire a federal worker, and that might have been the end of it. MacLean, however, was no typical cubicle-dwelling federal employee. An Air Force veteran, he asserted his status as a protected whistleblower and has spent the last seven years marching through the system trying to get his job back.

    How Everything in Government Became Classified

    The text message MacLean leaked was retroactively classified as “security sensitive information” (SSI), a designation that had been around for years but whose usage the TSA only codified via memo in November 2003. When it comes to made-up classifications, that agency’s set of them proved to be only one of 28 known versions that now exist within the government bureaucracy. In truth, no one is sure how many varieties of pseudo-classifications even exist under those multiple policies, or how many documents they cover as there are no established reporting requirements.

    By law there are officially only three levels of governmental classification: confidential, secret, and top secret. Other indicators, such as NOFORN and ORCON, seen for instance on some of the NSA documents Edward Snowden released, are called “handling instructions,” although they, too, function as unofficial categories of classification. Each of the three levels of official classification has its own formal definition and criteria for use. It is theoretically possible to question the level of classification of a document.  However much they may be ignored, there are standards for their declassification and various supervisors can also shift levels of classification as a final report, memo, or briefing takes shape. The system is designed, at least in theory and occasionally in practice, to have some modicum of accountability and reviewability.

    The government’s post-9/11 desire to classify more and more information ran head on into the limits of classification as enacted by Congress. The response by various agencies was to invent a proliferation of designations like SSI that would sweep unclassified information under the umbrella of classification and confer on ever more unclassified information a (sort of) classified status. In the case of the TSA, the agency even admits on its own website that a document with an SSI stamp is unclassified, but prohibits its disclosure anyway.

    Imagine the equivalent at home: you arbitrarily establish a classification called Spouse Sensitive Information that prohibits your partner from seeing the family bank statements. And if all this is starting to make no sense, then you can better understand the topsy-turvy world Robert MacLean found himself in.

    MacLean Wins a Battle in Court

    In 2013, after a long series of civil service and legal wrangles, the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit handed down a decision confirming the government’s right to retroactively classify information. This may make some sense — if you squint hard enough from a Washington perspective. Imagine a piece of innocuous information already released that later takes on national security significance. A retroactive classification can’t get the toothpaste back in the tube, but bureaucratically speaking it would at least prevent more toothpaste from being squeezed out. The same ruling, of course, could also be misused to ensnare someone like MacLean who shared unclassified information.

    The court also decided that, retrospective classification or not, MacLean was indeed entitled to protection under the Whistleblower Protection Act of 1989. That act generally limits its protections to “disclosures not specifically prohibited by law,” typically held to mean unclassified material. This, the court insisted, was the category MacLean fit into and so could not be fired. The court avoided the question of whether or not someone could be fired for disclosing retroactively classified information and focused on whether a made-up category like SSI was “classified” at all.

    The court affirmed that laws passed by Congress creating formal classifications like “top secret” trump regulations made up by executive branch bureaucrats. In other words, as the Constitution intended, the legislative branch makes the laws and serves as a check and balance on the executive branch. Congress says what is classified and that say-so cannot be modified via an executive branch memo. One of MacLean’s lawyers hailed the court’s decision as restoring “enforceability for the Whistleblower Protection Act’s public free speech rights. It ruled that only Congress has the authority to remove whistleblower rights. Agency-imposed restraints are not relevant for whistleblower protection rights.”

    The ruling made it clear that the TSA had fired MacLean in retaliation for a legally protected act of whistleblowing. He should have been offered his job back the next day.

    Not a Happy Ending But a Sad New Beginning

    No such luck. Instead, on January 27, 2014, the Department of Justice petitioned the Supreme Court to overturn the lower court’s decision. If it has its way, the next time a troublesome whistleblower emerges, the executive need only retroactively slap a non-reviewable pseudo-classification on whatever information has been revealed and fire the employee. The department is, then, asking the Supreme Court to grant the executive branch the practical power to decide whether or not a whistleblower is entitled to legal protection. The chilling effect is obvious.

    In addition, the mere fact that the DOJ is seeking to bring the case via a petition is significant. Such petitions, called writs of certiorari, or certs, ask that the Supreme Court overturn a lower court’s decision. Through the cert process, the court sets its own agenda. Some 10,000 certs are submitted in a typical year. Most lack merit and are quickly set aside without comment. Typically, fewer than 100 of those 10,000 are chosen to move forward for a possibly precedent-setting decision. However, only a tiny number of all the certs filed are initiated by the government; on average, just 15 in a Supreme Court term.

    It’s undoubtedly a measure of the importance the Obama administration gives to preserving secrecy above all else that it has chosen to take such an aggressive stance against MacLean — especially given the desperately low odds of success. It will be several months before we know whether the court will hear the case.

    This Is War

    MacLean is simply trying to get his old air marshal job back by proving he was wrongly fired for an act of whistleblowing.  For the rest of us, however, this is about much more than where MacLean goes to work.

    The Obama administration’s attacks on whistleblowers are well documented. It has charged more of them — seven — under the Espionage Act than all past presidencies combined. In addition, it recently pressured State Department whistleblower Stephen Kim into a guilty plea (in return for a lighter sentence) by threatening him with the full force of that act. His case was even more controversial because the FBI named Fox News’s James Rosen as a co-conspirator for receiving information from Kim as part of his job as a journalist. None of this is accidental, coincidental, or haphazard.  It’s a pattern.  And it’s meant to be.  This is war.

    MacLean’s case is one more battle in that war.  By taking the extraordinary step of going to the Supreme Court, the executive branch wants, by fiat, to be able to turn an unclassified but embarrassing disclosure today into a prohibited act tomorrow, and then use that to get rid of an employee. They are, in essence, putting whistleblowers in the untenable position of having to predict the future. The intent is clearly to silence them before they speak on the theory that the easiest leak to stop is the one that never happens. A frightened, cowed workforce is likely to be one result; another — falling into the category of unintended consequences — might be to force more potential whistleblowers to take the Manning/Snowden path.

    The case against MacLean also represents an attempt to broaden executive power in another way. At the moment, only Congress can “prohibit actions under the law,” something unique to it under the Constitution. In its case against MacLean, the Justice Department seeks to establish the right of the executive and its agencies to create their own pseudo-categories of classification that can be used to prohibit actions not otherwise prohibited by law. In other words, it wants to trump Congress. Regulation made by memo would then stand above the law in prosecuting — or effectively persecuting — whistleblowers. A person of conscience like MacLean could be run out of his job by a memo.

    In seeking to claim more power over whistleblowers, the executive also seeks to overturn another principle of law that goes by the term ex post facto. Laws are implemented on a certain day and at a certain time. Long-held practice says that one cannot be punished later for an act that was legal when it happened. Indeed, ex post facto criminal laws are expressly forbidden by the Constitution. This prohibition was written in direct response to the injustices of British rule at a time when Parliamentary laws could indeed criminalize actions retrospectively. While some leeway exists today in the U.S. for ex post facto actions in civil cases and when it comes to sex crimes against children, the issue as it affects whistleblowers brushes heavily against the Constitution and, in a broader sense, against what is right and necessary in a democracy.

    When a government is of, by, and for the people, when an educated citizenry (in Thomas Jefferson’s words) is essential to a democracy, it is imperative that we all know what the government does in our name. How else can we determine how to vote, who to support, or what to oppose? Whistleblowers play a crucial role in this process. When the government willfully seeks to conceal its actions, someone is required to step up and act with courage and selflessness.

    That our current government has been willing to fight for more than seven years — maybe all the way to the Supreme Court — to weaken legal whistleblowing protections tells a tale of our times. That it seeks to silence whistleblowers at a moment when their disclosures are just beginning to reveal the scope of our unconstitutional national security state is cause for great concern. That the government demands whistleblowers work within the system and then seeks to modify that same system to thwart them goes beyond hypocrisy.

    This is the very definition of post-Constitutional America where legality and illegality blur — and always in the government’s favor; where the founding principles of our nation only apply when, as, and if the executive sees fit. The devil is indeed in the details.




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  • Captain Phillips Goes to Libya

    March 19, 2014 // 7 Comments

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

    So here’s today’s puzzler: when is it cool to take over a ship in international waters and when is it piracy?

    Captain Phillips Goes to Libya

    A major American movie this year was Captain Phillips. It told the story of a brave ship captain (played by American Hero Tom Hanks) and the brave Navy SEALS who recaptured his ship off the coast of Somalia after it was hijacked by pirates who boarded it in international waters.

    For more than a week, an oil tanker from somewhere floated in the Mediterranean. The tanker at one point flew a North Korean flag, but even the North Koreans have disavowed any connection. The Libyan government announced they were going to bomb the tanker “into scrap” but somehow that did not happen and the ship put to sea.

    On March 17, U.S. Navy SEALS boarded the ship in international waters and seized it. Supposedly no shots were fired, and American Sailors took control of the ship and are sailing it back to Libya. No word on what happened to the “pirates” aboard. The “pirates” were “Libyan rebels” who were seeking “the black market.”

    The funny part is that the pirates/rebels, under their militia leader Ibrahim Jadran, had been recruited by the Libyan government to guard crucial oil ports. But eight months ago, they instead seized them, blocked some oil exports, and demanded shared revenues for their eastern region where most of the oil originates. Jadran, for his part, says the Libyan government is corrupt and unfit to rule.

    So Why the U.S.?

    Why did the U.S. do this? Grab a ship full of oil in international waters?

    The oil belongs “to the Libyan National Oil Company and its joint venture partners,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki explained. Those partners included some U.S. companies, which one guesses is the connection to the United States here. Supposedly the Libyan and for some reason the Cypriote governments requested the U.S. to do all this out in international waters.

    Psaki also said “Any oil sales without authorization from these parties places purchasers at risk of exposure to civil liability, penalties and other possible sanctions.” This would presumably involve someone suing the pirates for something. The imagine of lawyers parachuting in with the SEAL team is amusing.

    Also, per the New York Times, “the American intervention is a salvation to the fragile transitional government in Tripoli, the Libyan capital, which would have faced the loss of its main source of revenue and its sole source of political power if renegade militias succeeded in selling Libya’s oil.”

    Libya has seen its oil exports shrink to just 12.5 percent of its output since U.S. led bombing campaign that led to the death of longtime leader Qaddafi. Oops.

    Iraq Redux

    So, as a status check, here we are in late Winter 2014: shilling for American oil companies with the SEALS while trying to prop up a crappy U.S. puppet government in a country the U.S. helped turn from stability to chaos. Now, this is payback, or more like rent due: after making the same promises for Iraq and seeing those fall through, the USG is now showing it is indeed a government of its word.

    P.S. Denizens of the internet: I get it that the Somali’s boarded Captain Phillips’ ship to steal it, and the SEALS boarded the Libyan tanker to steal it back. The point here is to examine the use of military power for the sleaziest of purposes while trying to bathe it all in the perfume of truth, righteousness and the American Way.



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  • You Can’t Opt Out: 10 NSA Myths Debunked

    March 17, 2014 // 21 Comments

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    Posted in: * Most Popular

    The debate Edward Snowden envisioned when he revealed the extent of National Security Agency (NSA) spying on Americans has taken a bad turn. Instead of a careful examination of what the NSA does, the legality of its actions, what risks it takes for what gains, and how effective the agency has been in its stated mission of protecting Americans, we increasingly have government officials or retired versions of the same demanding — quite literally — Snowden’s head and engaging in the usual fear-mongering over 9/11. They have been aided by a chorus of pundits, columnists, and present as well as former officials offering bumper-sticker slogans like “If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear,” all the while claiming our freedom is in direct conflict with our security.

    It’s time to face these arguments directly. So here are ten myths about NSA surveillance that need debunking. Let’s sort them out.

    1) NSA surveillance is legal.

    True, if perhaps you put “legal” in quotes. After all, so was slavery once upon a time in the U.S. and apartheid in South Africa. Laws represent what a government and sometimes perhaps even a majority of the people want at a given point in time. They change and are changeable; what once was a potential felony in Colorado is now a tourist draw.

    Laws, manipulated for terrible ends, must be challenged when they come into conflict with the fundamental principles and morals of a free society. Laws created Nelson Mandela, the terrorist (whom the U.S. kept on its terror watch list until 2008), and laws created Nelson Mandela, the president.

    There’s a catch in the issue of legality and the NSA. Few of us can know just what the law is. What happens to you if you shoplift from a store or murder someone in a bar fight? The consequences of such actions are clearly codified and you can look them up. Is it legal to park over there? The rules are on a sign posted right where you’d like to pull in. If a cop tickets you wrongly, you can go to court and use that sign to defend yourself. Yet almost all of the applicable “law,” when it comes to the National Security Agency and its surveillance practices, was secret until Edward Snowden began releasing his documents. Secret interpretations of the shady Patriot Act made in a secret court applied. The fact that an unknown number of legal memos and interpretations of that secret law (themselves still classified) are operative means that we really don’t know what is legal anymore.

    The panel of experts appointed by President Obama to review the Snowden revelations and the NSA’s actions had a peek into the issue of “legality” and promptly raised serious questions — as did one of the two federal courts that recently ruled on some aspects of the issue. If the Obama administration and the Justice Department really believe that all the NSA’s activities will be proven legal in a court of law, why not allow them to be tested openly and unambiguously in public? After all, if you’ve done nothing illegal, then there’s nothing to hide.

    When Amnesty International first tried to bring such a question before the courts, the case was denied because that organization couldn’t prove that it had been subject to monitoring — that was a secret, of course! — and so was denied standing even to bring the suit. Snowden’s revelations seem to have changed all that. The documents made public have given “standing” to a staggering array of individuals, organizations, and countries. For the first time in 12 years, they pave the way for the issue to come to its proper venue in front of the Supremes. Openly. Publicly.

    2) If I’ve done nothing wrong, I have nothing to hide. So why should I care about any of this?

    Keep in mind that the definition of “wrong” can quickly change. And if you don’t know what the actual law really is, how can you say that you know you have done nothing wrong? If you’ve got nothing to hide, post your social security number and credit card information online, leave your curtains open at night, and see how that sits with you.

    In a larger sense, however, the very idea that “I’ve got nothing to hide” is a distraction. The Fourth Amendment guarantees a right to privacy. The Constitution does not ask if you want or need that right; it grants it to everyone, and demands that the government interfere with it only under specific circumstances.

    The Fourth Amendment came into being because of the British use of general warrants in the colonial era. Under that “law,” they could legally search whole groups of people, their possessions, and their papers without having to justify searching any specific person. Called “writs of assistance,” these general warrants allowed the King’s agents to search anyone, anytime, regardless of whether they suspected that person of a crime. The writs were most often used by Royal Customs agents (an irony perhaps, given the draconian powers now granted to U.S. Customs agents to search anyone’s personal electronics, including those of American citizens, at the border).

    The U.S. fought a revolution, and James Madison wrote the Fourth Amendment, against broad government authority to search. Whether you personally do or do not have anything to hide is not even a question that should be on the table. It should be almost un-American to ask it.

    3) But the media says the NSA only collects my “phone metadata,” so I’m safe.

    My older, conservative neighbor quickly insisted that collecting this metadata thing she had heard about on Fox was necessary to protect her from all the terrorists out here in suburbia. She then vehemently disagreed that it was okay for President Obama to know whom she called and when, from where to where and for how long, or for him to know who those people called and when, and so forth.

    Think of metadata as the index to all the content the NSA can sweep up. That agency is able to record, say, 24 hours worth of Verizon phone calls. Its operatives can then easily locate any particular call within that huge chunk of metadata. Such basic information can also provide geo-location information to track physical movements. Metadata showing that you called your doctor, followed by metadata about which lab department she called next, followed by a trip to the pharmacy might fall into the “something you want to hide” category. (Actually, using metadata to learn about your medical history may not be even necessary. An exception to the privacy policy of one of America’s larger HMOs, Kaiser Permanente, states: “We may also disclose your PHI [personal health information] to authorized federal officials as necessary for national security and intelligence activities.” BlueCross BlueShield has a similar exception as do regional medical outfits.)

    Metadata is important. Ever play the game “Six Degrees of Separation”? Silly as it seems, almost anyone is indeed just six hops away from anyone else. You know a guy in Detroit who has a friend in California who has a sister who cuts hair whose client is Kevin Bacon’s high school classmate’s cousin. You and that cousin are connected. Publicly available information tells us that the NSA traces “three hops” from a target: A knows B, C, and D. But once C morphs into a target, C’s three hops mean the NSA can poke into E, F, and G, and so forth. The Guardian calculated that if A has 50 friends, the number of targets generated under the three-hop rule would be over 1.3 million people. I really do hope that you (and everyone you know, and they know) have nothing to hide.

    4) Aren’t there are already checks and balances in our system to protect us against NSA overreach?

    In recent years, the government has treated the king of all checks and balances, the Constitution, like a used Kleenex. The secret Foreign Intelligence and Surveillance Court (FISA) was set up to provide judicial oversight in a classified setting to the intelligence community.  Theoretically, the government is required to make a compelling case for the issuance of orders authorizing electronic and other surveillance, physical searches, and compelled production of business records. Either the government is very good at making its case, or the court has become a rubber stamp: that secret FISA court approved all 1,789 requests submitted to it in 2012.

    The Patriot Act elevated a once rarely used tool, the National Security Letter (NSL), into the mainstream of government practice. National Security Letters are an extraordinary search procedure that gives the FBI the power to compel the disclosure of customer records held by banks, telephone companies, Internet service providers, public libraries, and others. These entities are prohibited, or “gagged,” from telling anyone about their receipt of the NSL. Though the Justice Department itself cited abuse of the letters by the FBI in 2008, in 2012 the FBI used 15,229 National Security Letters to gather information on Americans. NSLs do not require judicial approval and the built-in gag orders prevent anyone from seeking judicial relief; indeed, most people will never even know that they were the subject of an NSL. And at the moment, the Department of Justice is trying to keep classified an 86-page court opinion that determined the government violated the spirit of federal surveillance laws and engaged in unconstitutional spying.

    Director of National Intelligence James Clapper directly lied to that check-and-balance branch of the government, Congress, in a public session. (He later termed his response the “least untruthful” answer.) And we wouldn’t even know that he lied, or much of anything else about the NSA’s surveillance activities here or globally, if it weren’t for one man’s courage in exposing them. The government had kept it all from us for 12 years and never showed the slightest sign of reconsidering any part of that policy. Without Snowden, we would not even know what needs checking and balancing.

    5) But I trust Obama (Bush, the next president) on this. 

    I can guess what your opinions are of the people that run the Transportation Safety Administration or the Internal Revenue Service. On what basis, then, can you conclude that the NSA or any other part of the government is any more trustworthy or competent, or any less petty?

    While the government does not trust you to know what it does, thanks again to the Snowden revelations, we know that the NSA trusts some foreign governments more than you. The NSA is already sharing at least some data about Americans with, at a minimum, British intelligence and the Israelis. And who knows how those governments use it or whom they share it with downstream?

    Do you really trust all of them all the time to never make mistakes or act on personal grudges or political biases? History is clear enough on what former FBI director J. Edgar Hoover did with the personal information he was able to collect on presidents, the Supreme Court, Congressional representatives, Martin Luther King, and others in the Civil Rights movement. Among other things, he used his secretly obtained information to out gay members of government. As for the NSA, so far it hasn’t even been willing to answer the question of whether it’s been spying on, surveilling, or gathering metadata on members of Congress.

    Still, let’s assume that Obama or the next president or the one after that will never do anything bad with your personal data. Once collected, however, that data potentially exists forever. If the NSA is to be believed, it claims to hold metadata for only five years, though it can keep copies of intercepted communications from or about U.S. citizens indefinitely if the material contains “significant intelligence” or “evidence” of crimes. The NSA can hold on to your encrypted communications as long as is needed to break the encryption. The NSA can also keep indefinitely any information gathered for “cryptanalytic, traffic analysis, or signal exploitation purposes.” Data held is available to whoever can access it in the future, using whatever technologies come to exist. Trusting anyone with such power is foolish. And as for data security, we know of at least one recent instance when more than 1.7 million highly-classified NSA documents just walked out the door.

    6) But don’t private companies like Facebook already have access to and share a lot of my personal data? So what’s wrong with the government having it, too?

    While private companies can pass your private information to the government, either willingly or under secret compulsion, there still are some important differences.

    At least in theory, it’s your choice to give data to private companies. You could stop using Facebook, after all. You can’t, however, opt out of the NSA. About the worst that Facebook and the others directly want is to take your money and send you spam. While certainly no angel, Facebook can’t arrest you, put you on the No-Fly list with no recourse, seize your property or put you under investigation, audit your finances, imprison you without trial as a terrorist, or order you assassinated by drone. Facebook can’t suspend your civil rights; the government can. That is a big, big difference.  And by the way, a proposed solution to the metadata collection problem — having private companies, not the NSA, hold the data — is no solution at all.  Data stored and available to NSA analysts, wherever it is, is data stored and available to NSA analysts.

    7) All this surveillance is distasteful and maybe even illegal, but isn’t it necessary to keep us safe? Isn’t it for our own good? Haven’t times changed and shouldn’t we acknowledge that?

    This isn’t a new argument; it’s Old Reliable. It was the argument that Hoover, Senator Joseph McCarthy, and so many others made to justify the particular acts they chose to endorse to protect us against Communism. The 1976 Church Committee Report, the first and only large-scale review of America’s internal spy networks, found that between 1953 and 1973 nearly a quarter of a million first-class letters were opened and photographed in the United States by the CIA. Like the NSA, it was at that time officially forbidden to spy on Americans domestically. It nonetheless produced a computerized index of nearly one and one-half million names. At least 130,000 first class letters were also opened and photographed by the FBI between 1940 and 1966, all to keep us safe and for our own good in changing times. I doubt many people now believe any of that is what kept the Reds at bay.

    The same argument was made about the necessity of domestic surveillance during the Vietnam War. Again, from the Church Report, we learned that some 300,000 individuals were indexed in a CIA computer system and that separate files were created on approximately 7,200 Americans and more than 100 domestic groups under the umbrella of Operation MH/CHAOS, designed to ferret out supposed foreign influence on the antiwar movement. Intelligence files on more than 11,000 individuals and groups were created by the Internal Revenue Service between 1969 and 1973 and tax investigations were started on the “basis of political rather than tax criteria.” I doubt many people now believe any of that is what kept the nation from descending into chaos.

    The Constitution and the Bill of Rights have matured with our nation, growing to end slavery, enhance the rights of women, and do away with Jim Crow and other immoral laws. The United States survived two world wars, the Cold War, and innumerable challenges without a massive, all-inclusive destruction of civil rights. Any previous diversions — Abraham Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus during the Civil War is a favorite instance cited — were short, specific, and reversed or overturned. The Founders created the Bill of Rights to address, point-by-point, the abuses of power they experienced under an oppressive British government. (Look up the never-heard-from-again Third Amendment.) A bunch of angry jihadis, real and imagined, seems a poor reason to change that system.

    8 ) Terrorists are everywhere and dangerous.

    From 1776 to 2001 the United States did not experience a terror attack anywhere close to the scale of 9/11; the worst terror attack against the United States as of 9/10, the Oklahoma City bombing, claimed 168 lives compared to some 3,000 at the Twin Towers. Since 9/11 we have not had a comparable mass-scale terror attack. No dirty bombs at the Super Bowl, no biochemical nightmares, no suicide bombers in our shopping malls or theme parks. There have been only about 20 domestic terror-related deaths since 9/11. Your chances as an American of being killed by a terrorist (the figures are for the world, not just inside the U.S.) are about 1 in 20 million. The inevitable comparison shows the odds of being struck by lightning at 1 in 5.5 million.  You are, in other words, about four times more likely to be struck by lightning than killed by a terrorist. Most of the “terrorists” arrested in this country post-9/11 have been tragicomic fabrications of the FBI. 9/11 was a one-off, an aberration, so unique that its “success” stunned even Osama bin Laden. It was a single morning of disaster and cannot be the justification for everything the government wishes to do forever after.

    9) We’ve stayed safe. Doesn’t that just prove all the government efforts have worked?

    No, that’s called false causality. There simply is no evidence that it’s true, and much to the contrary. It’s the same as believing government efforts have prevented Martian attacks or wild lions in our bedrooms. For one thing, we already know that more NSA spying would not have stopped 9/11; most of the needed information was already held by the U.S. government and was simply not properly shared or acted upon. 9/11 was a policy failure, not a matter of too-little snooping. Today, however, it remains a straw-man justification for whatever the NSA wants to do, a way of scaring you into accepting anything from the desecration of the Fourth Amendment to taking off our shoes at airport security. But the government uses this argument endlessly to promote what it wants to do.  Even the NSA’s talking points recommend their own people say: “I much prefer to be here today explaining these programs, than explaining another 9/11 event that we were not able to prevent.”

    At the same time, despite all this intrusion into our lives and the obvious violations of the Fourth Amendment, the system completely missed the Boston bombers, two of the dumbest, least sophisticated bro terrorists on the planet. Since 9/11, we have seen some 364,000 deaths in our schools, workplaces, and homes caused by privately owned firearms, and none of the spying or surveillance identified any of the killers in advance.

    Maybe we should simply stop thinking about all this surveillance as a matter of stopping terrorists and start thinking more about what it means to have a metastasized global surveillance system aimed at spying on us all, using a fake argument about the need for 100% security in return for ever more minimal privacy. So much has been justified in these years — torture, indefinite detention, the Guantanamo penal colony, drone killings, wars, and the use of Special Operations forces as global assassination teams — by some version of the so-called ticking time bomb scenario. It’s worth getting it through our heads: there has never been an actual ticking time bomb scenario. The bogeyman isn’t real. There’s no monster hiding under your bed.

    10) But doesn’t protecting America come first — before anything?

    What exactly are we protecting from what? If, instead of spending trillions of dollars on spying and domestic surveillance, we had spent that same money on repairing our infrastructure and improving our schools, wouldn’t we now have a safer, stronger America? Remember that famously absurd Vietnam War quote from an American officer talking about  brutal attack on Ben Tre, “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it”? How can anyone say we are protecting our liberty and freedom by taking it away?




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    Copyright © 2014. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!

  • When Does the Torture End?

    March 14, 2014 // 14 Comments

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




    While the unfolding Constitutional crisis over the CIA’s spying on Senate staffers reviewing the torture program continues, all media accounts are quick to add to their articles a variant of the phrase that “Obama discontinued the enhanced interrogation programs soon after coming into office.”

    That is not true.

    Force-Feeding at Guantanamo

    Imad Abdullah Hassan has spent twelve years in Guantanamo in a cage without ever being charged with anything. A judge cleared Hassan for release, finding there was not enough incriminating evidence to justify keeping him imprisoned. Hassan’s clearance came in 2009, yet he remains at America’s off-shore penal colony without explanation or hope of release. He went on a hunger strike in protest (the U.S. military refers to it as a “long-term non-religious fast”), and is being force-fed.

    Hassan is now suing the president of the United States, claiming the conditions under which he is being force-fed at Guantanamo are torture. The lawsuit Hassan filed describes his treatment:

    – Prisoners are strapped to a hospital bed or special restraint chair for feeding.

    – Large tubes are used, and they cause undue pain when forced into the nostrils of the prisoners. Hassan was originally force-fed with a Number 8 gauge tube, later increased to a Number 14 that barely fit as it was pushed through his nostril into his stomach.

    – A funnel was used to channel large amounts of liquid into the tube to feed him faster.

    – So much liquid was forced through that the second time Hassan underwent this procedure, he lost consciousness and spent two days in critical condition.

    – Prisoners were force-fed drugs causing them to defecate on themselves as they sat in the chair being fed. “People with hemorrhoids would leave blood on the chair and the linens would not always be changed before the next feeding,” said Hassan in the lawsuit.

    – Prisoners would be be strapped down on top of others’ stool and blood for up to two hours at a time.

    – Hassan was at times forcibly sedated so he could be force-fed more easily.

    – If Hassan vomited on himself at any time during the procedure, the force-feeding would restart from the beginning.

    – Guards took Hassan and two others to another prison block so that others would see what was being done to them, as a deterrent.

    – Air-conditioning was sometimes turned up and detainees were deprived of a blanket. This was particularly difficult for the hunger strikers, as they felt the cold more than someone who was eating.

    – Guards would bang hunger-striking prisoners’ cells every five minutes day and night to prevent sleep.

    – The force-feeding procedures described in the lawsuit were done twice a day, every day, on prisoners.

    – Even after Hassan broke down at one point and began eating again, he continued to be force-fed anyway.

    – Hassan’s recorded weight fell from 119 pounds to 78 pounds. The military, in its force-feeding manual, states “Patients with weight loss can be expected in any detained population.” The manual advises “When detainees are weighed… wearing shackles or other restrictive devices, the weight of those devices will be subtracted from the measured weight.”

    – Hassan has been force-fed in this manner for eight years.


    Why Doesn’t He Just Eat?

    At this point some will be asking: why doesn’t Hassan just eat? That would stop the force-feeding torture.

    It is likely Hassan himself has thought about the same question. In my former career working for the Department of State, I was responsible for the welfare of arrested Americans abroad. Many threatened hunger strikes for reasons ranging from superficial to very serious. However, in my 24 years of such work, only one prisoner carried it out for more than a day or two, taking only small sips of water for days. His captors, one of America’s allies in Asia, choose to not force-feed him, stating due to the nature of his political crime that they’d prefer to see him die.

    I watched the man deteriorate before my eyes, starving to death in real-time. It requires extraordinary will and strength to do that, pushing back against all of evolution and biology screaming inside your head to just eat. Close to death, the man choose to stay alive and eat for the sake of his family. It is no casual decision to do what Hassan is doing. Something very important must be at stake for a man to do what Hassan has done.

    For eight years.

    And of course Hassan was still force-fed at one point when he did start eating. Imprisoned wrongly in the first place, and cleared to leave Gitmo for the last five years but still locked up, Hassan is worthy of protesting his incarceration via the only means available to him. He also understands that the force-feeding is not about keeping him alive per se, but about forcing him and others to comply with his jailers.


    Dr. Mengele at Gitmo

    The procedures at Guantanamo (as well as at the CIA Black Sites) are performed by or supervised by U.S. military and CIA doctors who, though they had taken the Hippocratic Oath to do no harm to a patient, do anyway.

    The Institute on Medicine as a Profession (IMAP) issued a lengthy study on the abandonment of millennia-old medical ethics in the post-9/11 U.S. torture programs. IMAP is a respected source of ethical comment; its board members include physicians from Columbia University, Harvard, the University of Toronto, Johns Hopkins, Boston University and a number of other prominent hospitals and medical research facilities. These are non-political, dispassionate people whose work has ended up as political under the extraordinary circumstances of our world.

    IMAP produced a report entitled Ethics Abandoned: Medical Professionalism and Detainee Abuse in the War on Terror, based on two years of review of public records. The report details how military and CIA policies institutionalized a variety of acts by military and intelligence agency doctors and psychologists that breached ethical standards. These include:

    – Involvement in abusive interrogation;

    – Consulting on conditions of confinement to increase the disorientation and anxiety of detainees;

    – Using medical information for interrogation purposes; and

    – Force-feeding of hunger strikers.

    In addition, IMAP says that military policies and practices impeded the ability to provide detainees with appropriate medical care and to report abuses against detainees under recognized international standards. The report explains how agencies facilitated these practices by adopting rules for military and CIA health personnel that substantially deviate from ethical standards traditionally applied. For example, violations of ethical standards were “excused” by designating health professionals not as doctors, but as “interrogation safety officers,” personnel not bound by any ethics.


    Medical Ethics

    The basis of medical ethics, the Hippocratic Oath which says “first, do no harm,” is understood in the real world to come into conflict with the demands on doctors in wartime. Such complicated circumstances have been dealt with, and evolved standards do exist. Here are some from a recognized international body:

    Voluntary consent of the human subject is absolutely essential. This means that the person involved should have legal capacity to give consent; should be so situated as to be able to exercise free power of choice, without the intervention of any element of force, fraud, deceit, duress, over-reaching, or other ulterior form of constraint or coercion; and should have sufficient knowledge and comprehension of the elements of the subject matter involved as to enable him to make an understanding and enlightened decision… [procedures] should be so conducted as to avoid all unnecessary physical and mental suffering and injury… proper preparations should be made and adequate facilities provided to protect the experimental subject against even remote possibilities of injury, disability, or death.

    These standards were written in 1947 in Nuremberg, Germany, to guide future medical experimentation on human beings held captive. The authors were Americans sitting in judgment of 23 Nazi physicians accused of murder and torture in the concentration camps. Of course many will argue circumstances in Dachau and Guantanamo are different; this is true. The former was run by the Third Reich and the latter by the World’s Indispensable Nation.


    Bad Dreams

    It is like I’ve had a bad dream and awoken to remember it all.

    As pundits falsely applaud the end of the U.S.’ torture regime following the election of Barack Obama, one should spare a thought for those 154 people still in Guantanamo who still endure America’s pointless wrath. The irony that the same president who said he ended torture also said he would close Guantanamo once in office is noted, but is really not much more than another spot on the white wall we imagine we are as a nation.

    Why do we do it? The doctors who conduct the torture are not stupid, especially evil as we traditionally define it, or unaware of the ethics of their profession. They know as well as anyone Hassan is approved for release, and so even any piggish notions of revenge or pay back do not apply. Some of the doctors involved were likely in junior school when 9/11 happened and know about that day the same way they know about Gettysburg or the Battle of the Bulge.

    We might also remind ourselves that after their military careers, some of those same young doctors will move among us in private practice, perhaps holding their dark secrets inside, perhaps enjoying them a bit too much in private moments.

    I don’t know why they do it. They’ll say, perhaps to themselves in some death-bed moment of desperate remorse, that they were only following orders. One hopes their god is more understanding, because we here have heard that one before.



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  • CIA, Senate and a Constitutional Crisis (if you’ll keep it)

    March 12, 2014 // 20 Comments

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




    Even for someone cynical and jaded, it is still possible to be gobsmacked by the news. We are witnessing extraordinary events in the history of our nation.

    Speaking in reference to revelations that the CIA searched computers being used by Senate staffers, and removed documents those staffers had received from the CIA detailing its post-9/11 torture program, Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Dianne Feinstein said:


    I have grave concerns that the CIA’s search may well have violated the separation of powers principles embodied in the United States Constitution, including the Speech and Debate Clause. It may have undermined the constitutional framework essential to effective congressional oversight of intelligence activities.

    [CIA actions] may also have violated the Fourth Amendment, the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, as well as Executive Order 12333, which prohibits the CIA from conducting domestic searches or surveillance.

    We will bypass for now the hypocrisy of Feinstein complaining that her own Fourth Amendment rights were trod upon, given that she has until now enthusiastically supported the government’s rape of our own rights through unwarranted surveillance. There are bigger fish to fry this round.

    Torture

    As almost a side note, it is very clear now that there are things in those deleted CIA files that the CIA and the White House are willing to go to extraordinary lengths to hide. Recall that the CIA destroyed without punishment or sanction video tapes of the torture sessions.

    Feinstein said “The interrogations and the conditions of confinement at the CIA detentions sites were far different and far more harsh than the way the CIA had described them to us” and emphasized that her committee’s report would detail “the horrible details of the CIA program that never, never, never should have existed.”

    It is likely the files the CIA pulled out of the Senate’s hands would reveal two presidents have lied to the world about the torture program, and that horrors beyond what we know were committed in our names. What did they do to other humans?


    Beyond Torture

    But we are past the question of torture. What is happening here is a Constitutional crisis. If Feinstein does not have CIA Director Brennan up before her Senate committee immediately, and if she does not call for his resignation and if the president remains silent (“We need to allow Justice to complete its investigation”) then we have witnessed the essential elements of a coup; at the very least, the collapse of the third of the government charged with oversight of the executive.

    That oversight– those Constitutional checks and balances– are the difference between a democracy and a monarchy. They are what contains executive power and makes it responsible to the People. But like Jenga, pull out the important one and the whole thing falls.

    A Last Question

    The only question remaining then is whether the president is part of the coup, or another victim of it. Is he in charge, or are the intelligence agencies? We may have an answer soon. CIA Director Brennan said:


    If I did something wrong, I will go to the president and I will explain to him what I did and what the findings were. And he is the one who can ask me to stay or to go.

    So far, the White House response has been to ignore the challenge:


    President Obama has “great confidence” in Brennan, Carney said during his daily briefing. He added that if there has been any “inappropriate activity,” the president “would want to get to the bottom of it.”

    Carney added later Obama administration lawyers were told about the CIA’s intentions to have the Department of Justice investigate Senate staffers for potentially stealing classified documents they sought to hold on to after the CIA tried to delete them but did not approve or weigh in on the agency’s decision. One must ask: why the f*ck not?

    Brennan has challenged the president to act. What the president does will tell us much about the future of our democracy. As radio host Guillermo Jimenez has said, “On this Grand Chessboard, it is We the People who are now in check. It’s our move.”




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  • Snowden Warns Us of the Dark Path Ahead

    March 10, 2014 // 16 Comments

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

    In written testimony to the European Union (EU), Edward Snowden explained in patient, well-written, detailed prose exactly why what the NSA is doing is so dangerous. Snowden reveals himself an articulate writer, and through that moves from mere whistleblower into an almost philosophical role. His testimony deserves your full read, so you should best stop right here and just go read it.

    For those who prefer some highlights, with commentary, please follow me deeper down the page rabbit hole.

    Snowden says:

    The suspicionless surveillance programs of the NSA, GCHQ, and so many others that we learned about over the last year endanger a number of basic rights which, in aggregate, constitute the foundation of liberal societies.

    The first principle any inquiry must take into account is that despite extraordinary political pressure to do so, no western government has been able to present evidence showing that such programs are necessary. In the United States, the heads of our spying services once claimed that 54 terrorist attacks had been stopped by mass surveillance, but two independent White House reviews with access to the classified evidence on which this claim was founded concluded it was untrue, as did a Federal Court.

    …There are indications of a growing disinterest among governments for ensuring intelligence activities are justified, proportionate, and above all accountable. We should be concerned about the precedent our actions set.

    Snowden understands that the programs he revealed are fundamentally in conflict with the very basis of a just society; the two cannot co-exist. When the government turns its full resources to spy, without suspicion or reason or legitimate purpose, on its full citizenry (including the Senate, charged with in theory a check-and-balance role on the executive), a fundamental shift occurs: the Government is no longer of the People, it has made the People its enemy. The opposite follows by course. Deceiving your enemy is part of any war.

    More:

    I know the good and the bad of these systems, and what they can and cannot do, and I am telling you that without getting out of my chair, I could have read the private communications of any member of this committee, as well as any ordinary citizen. I swear under penalty of perjury that this is true.

    These are not the capabilities in which free societies invest. Mass surveillance violates our rights, risks our safety, and threatens our way of life. If even the U.S. government, after determining mass surveillance is unlawful and unnecessary, continues to operate to engage in mass surveillance, we have a problem.

    Indeed we do Edward. The problem is that following the events of that one day– 9/11– America went, quite simply, insane. For a short period of time, nearly every American, naw, let’s all look at our shoes and feel ashamed, because EVERY American agreed that anything that even might make us feel safe again was OK. We went out and bought duct tape when told a gas attack might happen, and we eyed our neighbors cautiously.

    But as the dust literally settled, the government realized that they could cite 9/11 as justification forever, for anything. Evil people took this opening to slip a still-metastasizing national security state into the fabric of our lives, then enlarge it to cover the globe. Snowden in his testimony acknowledges that the NSA’s reach covers billions of people. I am certain that if we could ever catch anti-freedom figures like Cheney, Obama and their pig helpers in a private moment, they would all say: “If we knew it was going to be this easy to create an omnipotent executive, we would have done it years ago.”

    Snowden:

    Whether we like it or not, the international norms of tomorrow are being constructed today, right now, by the work of bodies like this committee. If liberal states decide that the convenience of spies is more valuable than the rights of their citizens, the inevitable result will be states that are both less liberal and less safe.

    There is the most important sentence of all: the international norms of tomorrow are being constructed today. Because if this devolution of our world, our freedoms and our privacy is allowed to remain, it will grow, and that will be the end of that. As Snowden warned earlier, no one in elementary school today will ever know what privacy is, and will grow up in a police state that envelopes their lives in total. They will never hold a private thought, never share a private communication, never wake to a place where they are not on someone’s video screen. Snowden is clear that we are at the last Y in the road.

    The final words are Snowden’s:

    If you want to help me, help me by helping everyone: declare that the indiscriminate, bulk collection of private data by governments is a violation of our rights and must end. What happens to me as a person is less important than what happens to our common rights.


    Now really, go read Snowden’s full testimony.



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  • Barrett Brown: The Criminalization of Web Links

    March 7, 2014 // 20 Comments

    Tags: , , ,
    Posted in: Democracy, Embassy/State, Post-Constitution America

    This– A LINK– could have sent me to jail. Another link came very, very close to sending Barrett Brown to jail.

    First, a quick recap of how the internet works. People from all over the world put stuff on the web (“posts”). In many cases you the viewer do not know who posted something, when they did it, where they live or where they obtained the information they posted. It is just there on your screen. If the info is of interest, you can link to it, sending instructions via chat, email, HTML, Facebook or whatever to someone else, telling them where to find the information.

    The act of linking is analogous to saying “Hey, did you see that article in the Times on page 4? Check it out.” It is kind of what the internet is about. Here’s how the government seeks to criminalize linking from one article on the web to another.

    The United States v. Barrett Brown

    Barrett Brown is an internet guy. He may or may not have been involved with web naughty boys Anonymous and most certainly was deeply involved with broad free speech issues online. In 2011 Brown posted a link in a chatroom, pointing to data that was obtained during the late-2011 hack of Stratfor Global Intelligence. The link pointed to the Wikileaks site.

    The government arrested Brown and charged him with a number of offenses, the most significant of which was for posting that link. The link, the government contended, exposed enormous amounts of credit card information, a crime. Not mentioned by the government, the link also documented discussions of assassination, rendition and how to undermine journalists and foreign governments.

    To be clear, neither the government nor anyone else accused Brown of stealing the info himself, or misusing the info to use others’ credit cards, physically possessing the information, hosting it on a server he controlled or anything like that. His crime was simply linking to data that already existed on the internet and which was already available worldwide for viewing.

    (To be further clear, Brown is no choirboy. He was once addicted to heroin, is accused of threatening an FBI agent on YouTube and who knows, may be mean to strangers. And so what. What matters is his actions, not his Match.com profile.)

    Browns Wins, Though Broader Issues Remain

    The Electronic Freedom Foundation (EFF) supported Brown throughout his arrest. Because the government imposed a gag order on Brown speaking publicly about his situation, friends such as the EFF were critical in keeping the case in the public eye. The significance of Brown’s case was made quite clear by the EFF:

    The U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Texas today [March 5, 2014] filed a motion to dismiss eleven charges against Barrett Brown in a criminal prosecution that would have had massive implications for journalism and the right of ordinary people to share links. EFF has written extensively about the case and had planned to file an amicus brief on Monday on behalf of several reporters groups arguing for the dismissal of the indictment.

    Brown, an independent journalist, was prosecuted after he shared a link to thousands of pages of stolen documents in an attempt to crowdsource the review of those documents—a common technique for many journalists. The records came from the US government contractor, Stratfor Global Intelligence and documented discussions of assassination, rendition and how to undermine journalists and foreign governments. They also included thousands of stolen credit card numbers. Brown had no involvement in the hack, but was charged nonetheless with identity theft.


    Looking for a Test Case

    Though the government in its Motion to Dismiss gave no reasons for its decision, the implication is that while the government was clearly looking to set a precendent on the Brown case, it did not want that precedent to be a loss. Better to let a small fry like Brown swim away than risk the greater principle the government seeks.

    Having failed to find any legal or otherwise effective way to deal with sites like Wikileaks, or the publication of classified materials elsewhere on the internet, the government is taking a side-step in seeking to punish those that use, view or handle the material itself.

    U.S. Government Orders its Employees to Not Look at Wikileaks and Others

    For example, when the Wikileaks information first started pouring out across the web, most government agencies blocked access to the data via their firewalls, claiming the content was still classified and thus could not be viewed on a government computer even while it could be viewed on any other web-connected computer from Cleveland to Karachi. Similar blocks have been put in place to prevent much of the Snowden material from being viewed at work.

    Before Barrett Brown, Me

    The attempt by the government to punish people for links to “objectionable” material did not start with Brown. Though I can’t promise I was the first test case, I was certainly an early attempt.

    In 2010 the Department of State suspended the Top Secret security clearance I had held without incident or question for over twenty years because I linked to a supposedly classified document on the Wikileaks site from this blog.

    State referred my linkage to the Department of Justice for prosecution in fall 2010. When Justice declined without reason to pursue the case, State took the non-judicial action of “temporarily” suspending my security clearance indefinitely, because of the link. State claimed that via that link I revealed classified information publicly, a major no-no for cleared personnel and sought to fire me. As in the Brown case, in the end State choose not to pursue charges, again without comment.

    There may be other such link cases out there that we do not yet know of. They may be classified, or the parties involved may be under gag orders as was Brown.



    Who’s Next?

    There appears little question that the government is testing the concept, looking for a case that it can win that would criminalize linking. From the government’s point of view, the win would pay off handsomely:

    – With use of their content criminalized, sites like Wikileaks would slip beneath the world radar. People would be increasingly afraid of reading them, and the crowdsourcing critical to sifting through millions of documents would slow down significantly.

    – In cases the government saw as particularly dangerous, people would disappear into jail. With a precedent set in a “good” test case, winning such prosecutions would be rote work for interns. Is there a link? Did Ms. X create the link? Does the link go to classified information? It’s a slam dunk.

    – Best of all from a control standpoint, prosecuting links will have a chilling affect. Many people will simply be afraid to take the chance of legal trouble and stop creating links or following them. That will certainly be the case among the main stream media, already far too skittish about security matters. One wonders what effect such prosecuting of links will have on search engines like Google, essentially little more than a collection of links.

    Another step toward a post-Constitutionalization of America is the creeping criminalization of everything. If every act is potentially cause for prosecution, the ability of the government to control what people do or say grows.

    So while we still can, better hit these links: Wikileaks, Cryptome, some Snowden. Who could have guessed that in 2014 a click of the mouse would be a subversive act?



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  • The British Empire, the Eagle and the Bear: Non-Options for Crimea and Ukraine

    March 5, 2014 // 30 Comments

    Tags: , , ,
    Posted in: Afghanistan, Embassy/State, Iraq, Libya




    “You just don’t invade another country on phony pretext in order to assert your interests,” John Kerry said on Meet the Press. “This is an act of aggression that is completely trumped up in terms of its pretext. It’s really 19th century behavior in the 21st century.”

    Following Kerry’s comment, laughter could be heard from Iraq (twice), Afghanistan, Libya, many undisclosed parts of Africa, Somalia, Pakistan, Yemen, Syria and across the Middle East. Faint chortles echoed out of Grenada, Bosnia, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. Snickers in Panama, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala and El Salvador.

    The Triumph of Syria

    Kerry of course had previously brought the joy of laughter to the world in the midst of the last Syrian “crisis.” Kerry clumsily tried to soften resistance to the Obama administration’s urge to launch strikes against al-Assad’s regime with the bizarre claim that such an attack would be “unbelievably small.”

    But like any good comedian, Kerry saved the big joke for last, when, in London enflight to the new, bestest war ever, Kerry famously and offhandedly said conflict could be avoided if the Syrians turned in their chemical weapons. In practically the same heartbeat, the Russians stepped into the diplomatic breach, with Vladimir Putin as an unlikely peacemaker. The U.S. did not attack Syria and the show ended with a good belly laugh for all.

    Onward to the Ukraine

    With Kerry once again taking the show on the road by flying to the Ukraine, all of cable TV has arisen as one demanding options, demanding cards to be played, demanding a catalog of “what the U.S. can do.” As a public service, here is that catalog of U.S. options for the Crimean Crisis:

    –Seal Team 6 will infiltrate Russia, ring Putin’s doorbell late at night and run away in Operation DING&DITCH. Ashton Kutcher will lead the Team.

    – A senior U.S. Embassy official in Moscow will cluck his tongue and roll his eyes disapprovingly.

    – State Department social media rangers will send out Tweets calling Putin a “poopy head.” The Russian translation by State will actually come across as “A green dog’s sandwich” but sure, they’ll get we’re mad.

    – The NSA will hack Putin’s web cam sessions, showing him shirtless. Putin himself will turn around and post the video online.

    – The NSA will also break into Putin’s NetFlix queue and change everything to romantic comedies and Jack Black movies.

    – The U.S. will recruit remaining allies Lichtenstein, Monaco, East Timor and Freedonia to enforce sanctions against Russia.

    – The State Department will direct Assistant Secretary for European Affairs Victoria Nuland to say “F*ck the E.U.,” in a recorded conversation with the U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine, Geoffrey Pyatt.

    – Obama will unfriend Putin on Facebook.


    Flashman at the Charge

    As is obvious, there is little the U.S. can, should or will do. The more the U.S. swaggers hollowly about the Crimea, the sadder it all sounds.

    John Kerry, in what he thought was a stinging remark, labeled Russia’s invasion of the Crimean “19th century behavior in the 21st century.” As usual, Kerry was close to being right without actually realizing what he said.

    The 19th century player in this Great Gameis actually the U.S. itself. After following the footsteps of the British Empire into Iraq, after plunging deep into the graveyard of the British Empire in Afghanistan, after fumbling in the British swamp of Pakistan, the U.S. now returns to the land of the Charge of the Light Brigade, the Crimea. Like the Victorian British, the U.S. imagines the world as a chessboard where it can move pieces around with predictable results, shaping world affairs to its own advantage while placing opponents in check. If that was ever true, the events of the last decade demonstrate it is not true anymore.

    As with everyone else who failed to learn the lessons of history and thus will be doomed to repeat them, inevitably next, the U.S. will slip beneath the waves as did the British Empire, over-extended, bankrupt and endlessly tied to foreign policy adventures that mean nothing while the world changes around it. It’s been a good run though, right?



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  • A Government Turning the Tools of War on Its Citizens

    March 3, 2014 // 25 Comments

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



    While poets and psychologists talk about soldiers bringing the battlefield home with them, in fact, the U.S. is doing just that. More and more, weapons, tactics, techniques and procedures that have been used abroad in war are coming home, this time employed against American Citizens.

    A front-page article in the Washington Post confirms that wartime surveillance blimps– aerostats– used in Iraq and Afghanistan will now monitor most of the Northeast United States. The aerostats will be able to track individual cars and trucks as they move about their business.

    Welcome Home Aerostat

    The latest (known) example of war technology coming home is the aerostat, a medium-sized blimp tethered high above its target area. Anyone who served in Iraq or Afghanistan will recognize the thing, as one or more flew over nearly every military base of any size or importance (You can see photos online).

    What did those blimps do in war? Even drones have to land sometime, but a blimp can stay aloft 24/7/forever. Blimps are cheaper and do not require skilled pilots. Blimps can carry literally tons of equipment, significantly more than a drone. The blimps can carry any sensor or technology the U.S. has available, suspending it at altitude to soak up whatever that sensor is aimed at– cell calls, radio waves, electronic whatevers. The aerostats also carried high-powered cameras, with heat and night vision of course. While in Iraq, I had the aerostat video feed on my desktop. Soldiers being soldiers, occasional diversions were found when a camera operator spotted almost anything of vague interest, including two dogs mating, an Iraqi relieving himself outdoors or on really dull days, even a person hanging out laundry. The device obviously also had much less benign tasks assigned to it.

    The war has come home again, as the Army confirmed that by summer 2014 at least two of these aerostats will be permanently over the Washington DC area. They will be run by the Army, using operators who likely learned their trade at war. The aerostats are brought to you by the Raytheon company, who also makes some of America’s favorite weapons and surveillence gear.


    Armor, Drones and Armed Drones

    Others have written about the rise of warrior cops. Armored military-style vehicles are now part of most big-city police forces, as are military-style weapons. The FBI has admitted to using drones over America. In a 2010 Department of Homeland Security report, the Customs and Border Protection agency suggests arming their fleet of drones to “immobilize TOIs,” or targets of interest.

    Stingray Knows Where You Are

    Much of the technology and methodology the NSA and others have been shown to be using against American Citizens was developed on and for the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan, in particular the advanced use of cell phones to track people’s movements.

    A technique now at use here at home is employing a fake cell phone tower under a program called Stingray. Stingrays spoof a legitimate cell phone tower in order to trick nearby cellphones and other wireless devices into connecting to the fake tower instead of a nearby real one. When devices connect, stingrays can harvest MAC addresses and other unique identifiers and data, as well as location information. To prevent detection, the stingray relays the call itself to a real tower so the pickup is transparent to the caller. By gathering the wireless device’s signal strength from various locations, the Feds can pinpoint where the device is being used with much more precision than they can get through data obtained from the mobile network provider’s fixed tower location.

    Better yet, stingray bypasses the phone company entirely. Handy when the phone company is controlled by the enemy, handy when laws change and the phone companies no longer cooperate with the government, handy when you simply don’t want the phone company to know you’re snooping on its network.

    Meta-Your-Data

    Also refined in Iraq, Afghanistan and the greater archipelago of the war of terror was the use of metadata and data-mining, essentially amassing everything, however minor or unimportant, and then using increasingly powerful computers to pull out of that large pile actionable information, i.e., specific information to feed back to combat commanders and special forces to allow them to kill specific people. Knowing, for example, the name of a guy’s girlfriend leads to knowing what car she drives which leads to knowing when she left home which leads to listening to her make a date via cell phone which leads a credit card charge for a room which leads to a strike on a particular location at a specific time, high-tech flagrante delicto.

    The FBI has followed the NSA’s wartime lead in creating its Investigative Data Warehouse, a collection of more than a billion documents on Americans including intelligence reports, social security files, drivers’ licenses, and private financial information including credit card data. All accessible to 13,000 analysts making a million queries monthly. One of them called it the “uber-Google.”

    It’s All Good

    No need to worry Citizens, as the aerostats will only be used for your own good. In fact, their sensors will scan for incoming cruise missiles, mine-laying ships, armed drones, or anything incoming from hundreds of miles away, because of course Washington is constantly being attacked by those sorts of things (I love the idea of protecting the city from mine-laying ships sneaking up the Potomac River).

    Those DC-based aerostats will certainly not have employed the Gorgon Stare system, now in use in Afghanistan to rave reviews. Gorgon Stare, made up of nine video cameras, can transmit live images of physical movement across an entire town (four km radius), much wider in scope than any drone. Might be handy for VIP visits and presidential stuff, however, right?

    And of course the temptation to mount a stingray device where it can ping thousands of cell phones would be ignored.

    But I could be wrong about all the 1984-stuff, in which case the multi-million dollar aerostat program would be noteworthy only as another waste of taxpayer money. Remember when that was what made us the maddest about the government?



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  • Hope and Change, NSA Edition

    February 28, 2014 // 12 Comments

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

    Hey lookit here, jiggling, shiny keys. Wait, I just forgot what I was going to write, but at least I’ve stopped kicking the seat in front of me.

    Distracting people from real issues with shiny objects is called “hope and change” nowadays. Here’s the latest (and this is not satire.)

    The Wall Street Journal, citing unnamed administration “officials close to the matter,” tells us that four suggestions for “NSA reform” will be forwarded to the president for a decision.

    A Quick Recap

    Prior to June of last year and Edward Snowden’s revelations about the NSA, most people had only a limited idea at best of the depth and expanse of NSA spying on Americans here in Das Homeland. It was not widely known that nearly every/every bit of electronic effluence we produce was being monitored, stored and analyzed for our safety and security. We had no idea that our very lives were just one NSA-missed email away from ending.

    Now we know a little bit more, keeping firmly in mind that only a tiny portion of Snowden’s information has been published, and that Snowden is only one whistleblower from only one of the universe of U.S. and international intelligence agencies that actively spy on all of us. In addition, Snowden’s revelations are mostly about what information the NSA and others collect, and a bit about how they collect it. We know almost nothing about what is done with that information.

    The NSA Reform Recommendations

    Still, even this tiny peep-hole view of Big Brother set off enough noise among Americans that the president was moved to create the appearance of action and reform. Hence the four recommendations the Wall Street Journal tells us will be offered to the president so that he can make a decision. Let’s have a look at those recommendations (Reminder: this is not satire.)

    Recommendation One: The NSA would continue to vacuum up our lives. Only under this recommendation telecommunications companies like Verizon and AT&T would store the data, not the NSA. The NSA would “ask” for data as needed.

    Recommendation Two: The NSA would continue to vacuum up our lives. Only under this recommendation some other part of the government would store the data, not the NSA. The NSA would “ask” for data as needed.

    Recommendation Three: The NSA would continue to vacuum up our lives. Only under this recommendation some non-telecom, non-government entity would store the data, not the NSA. The NSA would “ask” for data as needed.

    Recommendation Four: The entire spying program would be ended.



    Those Jingling Keys

    Leaving aside the obvious proof that the government still has a sense of humor proposing Recommendation Four, it is equally obvious that One, Two and Three are no reform, change or hope whatsoever. They are merely the illusion of change, the jingling keys.

    Such false “reforms” are the new normal in our post-Constitutional America. Once implemented, these reforms will then be endlessly cited by the president, the press and both parties as proof that they are listening, evidence that Something Has Been Done and that it is time to move on. As a bonus, the reforms will be available to further disrespect Snowden, asserting that his stated goal– to provoke debate and reform– has been satisfied. His work done, Snowden thus should return to America immediately for imprisonment.

    Thank you for reading this but do not be further distracted by its content. Please disperse and go about your daily lives, Citizens.


    BONUS CONTENT: Only on February 26 did we learn that the Justice Department asked the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to allow it to hold the already-collected bulk telephone records beyond the currently-allowed five years.

    Why the sudden need? Because the ACLU and others are suing Justice over the collection program, and Justice says destroying the records would be inconsistent with legal obligations to retain evidence. Naughty ACLU, see what you did! Now you made it so the government has to hold our phone records longer!



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  • Any More U.S. “Stabilization” and Africa Will Collapse

    February 26, 2014 // 14 Comments

    Tags: ,
    Posted in: Iraq, Military

    History is just one of those hard things to ignore, especially in South Sudan.

    In 2011, the U.S. midwifed the creation of a new nation, South Sudan. Though at the time Obama invoked the words of Dr. Martin Luther King speaking about Ghana (“I knew about all of the struggles, and all of the pain, and all of the agony that these people had gone through for this moment”) in officially recognizing the country, many were more focused on the underlying U.S. motives, isolating the rest of Sudan as part of the war on terror, and securing the oil reserves in the south for the U.S. The State Department rushed to open an embassy in South Sudan, and U.S. money poured in to pay for the new government. Like his counterparts from Iraq and Afghanistan when the U.S. was still in charge of those places, the new South Sudan president was brought to the White House for photos, all blithely pushed out to the world via the Voice of America. The two leaders were said to have discussed “the importance of maintaining transparency and the rule of law.”

    In 2012 then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited the nation as part of an extended effort at creating B-roll footage for her 2016 campaign, and Obama publicly applauded a deal brokered between Sudan and South Sudan on oil pipeline fees that the White House claimed would “help stem the ongoing violence in the region.”

    However, like in Iraq, Afghanistan and so many other places that fell apart while being democratized and stabilized by the U.S. (one also thinks of Libya, itself part of the African continent), the rush to mediagenic proclamations without addressing the underlying fundamentals led only to catastrophe. A scant few years later, South Sudan is at the brink of civil war and societal collapse, the U.S. is evacuating another embassy and indeed one variety or another of “rebels” are shooting at U.S. military aircraft arriving in their country in violation of their national sovereignty. Those who believe that the U.S. efforts in South Sudan do not involve special forces on the ground and drones overhead no doubt will have a nice Christmas waiting up to catch a glimpse of Santa.

    Obama, apparently unwilling to remember how he stood aside while an elected government recently fell apart in Egypt, went on to double-down on hypocrisy by stating in regards to South Sudan, “Any effort to seize power through the use of military force will result in the end of long-standing support from the United States and the international community.”

    The Militarization of Africa

    If the U.S. efforts in South Sudan were isolated, that would be tragedy enough. However, the U.S. militarization of Africa paints such a sad, similar picture that it bears a recapping here. The always on-track Nick Turse reported:

    – In recent years, the US has trained and outfitted soldiers from Uganda, Burundi and Kenya, among other nations. They have also served as a proxy force for the US in Somalia, part of the African Union Mission (Amisom) protecting the U.S.-supported government in that country’s capital, Mogadishu.

    – Since 2007, the State Department has given about $650-million in logistics support, equipment and training for Amisom troops. The Pentagon has given an extra $100 million since 2011.

    – The U.S. also continues to fund African armies through the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership and its Pentagon analogue, now known as Operation Juniper Shield, with increased support flowing to Mauritania and Niger in the wake of Mali’s collapse. In 2012, the State Department and the US Agency for International Development poured approximately $52 million into the programs and the Pentagon chipped in another $46 million.

    – In the Obama years, U.S. Africa Command has also built a sophisticated logistics system, officially known as the Africom Surface Distribution Network, but colloquially referred to as “the new spice route”. Its central nodes are in Manda Bay, Garissa and Mombasa in Kenya; Kampala and Entebbe in Uganda; Bangui and Djema in the Central African Republic; Nzara in South Sudan; Dire Dawa in Ethiopia; and the Pentagon’s showpiece African base, Camp Lemonnier.

    – In addition, the Pentagon has run a regional air campaign using drones and manned aircraft out of airports and bases around the continent including Camp Lemonnier, Arba Minch airport in Ethiopia, Niamey in Niger and the Seychelles Islands in the Indian Ocean, while private contractor-operated surveillance aircraft have flown missions out of Entebbe. Recently, Foreign Policy reported on the existence of a possible drone base in Lamu, Kenya.

    – Another critical location is Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, home to a Joint Special Operations Air Detachment and the Trans-Sahara Short Take-Off and Landing Airlift Support Initiative that, according to military documents, supports “high-risk activities” carried out by elite forces from Joint Special Operations Task Force — Trans-Sahara.


    The Failure of the Militarization of Africa

    Libya is in flames, Benghazi the only point of attention for Americans while chaos consumes a once-stable country. Egypt, again on the continent though perhaps not of it, saw its brief bit of democracy stamped out by a military coup. The governments of Mauritania and Niger fell to their militaries. Chad experienced a coup, albeit unsuccessful. Fighting continues in Mali and the Central African Republic. In October 2011 the U.S. invaded, albeit in a small way, the Central African Republic In December 2012, the U.S. evacuated its diplomats and civilians. 2011 also saw a U.S.-backed Kenyan invasion of Somalia. U.S. troops are hunting humans in Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Like ghosts from the 18th century, pirates haunt the waters off East Africa. The U.S. admits to having 5,000 troops in ten African countries when once there were none.

    And So, Why?

    The basic rule for any investment is what do you gain in return for risk? It applies to buying stocks as well as investing a nation’s blood, resources and prestige.

    In the case of Africa, the U.S. investment has been a disaster. Chaos has replaced stability in many places, and terrorists have found homes in countries they may have once never imagined. The U.S., in sad echo of 19th century colonialism, has militarized another region of the world.

    Every rebel and terrorist the U.S. kills creates more, radicalizes more, gives the bad guys another propaganda lede. The more we kill, the more there seem to be to kill. America needs fewer people saying they are victims of America. The Chinese are building cultural ties and signing deals all over Africa, and we’re just throwing up barbed wire. Why?



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  • Government Watch Lists, Ray McGovern and Post-Constitutional America

    February 24, 2014 // 25 Comments

    Tags: , , ,
    Posted in: Democracy, Embassy/State, Post-Constitution America




    The Passion of Ray McGovern

    Ray McGovern is a hell of a guy. An Army veteran, he worked for the CIA from the Kennedy administration up through the first Bush presidency, preparing the president’s daily intel brief and other important stuff. Along the way, McGovern began to see the fraud and evil of much of the government’s work, and has since become an outspoken critic of the intelligence world and an advocate for free speech. He speaks on behalf of people like Julian Assange, Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden.

    McGovern is also a very nice person, soft-spoken, serious, kinda looks like your uncle playing Santa Claus, full of fascinating Cold War history. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Ray. He’s the kind of guy you meet and like almost immediately. I bet he was a hell of a spy.

    A Wanted Man

    Ray McGovern is also on the State Department’s BOLO list– Be On the Look Out– one of a series of government watch lists.

    The old-timey wanted poster State’s Diplomatic Security printed up cites McGovern’s “considerable amount of political activism” and “significant notoriety in the national media” as if those points were somehow relevant to his inclusion on the watch list. Though McGovern is a thin man, age 75 with no history of violence, Diplomatic Security warns that its agents should USE CAUTION (their emphasis) when stopping McGovern and conducting the required “field interview.”

    A Dangerous Man

    What did McGovern do to end up on Diplomatic Security’s dangerous persons list? His offense was to turn his back on Hillary Clinton, literally.

    In 2011, at George Washington University during a public event where Clinton was speaking, McGovern stood up and turned his back to the stage. He did not say a word, or otherwise disrupt anything. University cops grabbed McGovern in a headlock and by his arms and dragged him out of the auditorium by force, their actions directed by a from the side by a third man whose name was redacted from public records of the event. Photos of the then-71 year old man taken at the time of his arrest show the multiple bruises and contusions he suffered while being arrested. He was secured to a metal chair with two sets of handcuffs. McGovern was at first refused medical care for the bleeding caused by the handcuffs. It is easy to invoke the words thug, bully, goon.

    The charges of disorderly conduct were dropped, McGovern was released and it was determined that he committed no crime.

    And one more thing: the speech Clinton was making at the time of McGovern’s protest and arrest? She was condemning authoritarian governments who repress dissenters and internet freedom. As McGovern was being dragged out, Clinton stated that “The government does not want the world to watch,” in reference to Egypt, not her America as unfolding before her eyes. Clinton did not acknowledge the arrest, never broke character as it happened.

    An Enemy of the State

    In old-timey America, that might have been the end of McGovern’s troubles. However, in our post-Constitutional America, it was only the beginning.

    Despite all charges having been dropped against McGovern and despite having determined that he engaged in no criminal activity, the Department of State then opened an investigation into McGovern, including his political beliefs, activities, statements and associations. The investigative report noted “McGovern does
    seem to have the capacity to capture a national audience – it is possible his former career with the CIA has the potential to make him ‘attractive’ to the media.” The investigation ran nearly seven months, and resulted in the Be On The Lookout Alert.

    Subjects of such alerts are considered potential threats to the Secretary of State. Their whereabouts are typically tracked to see if they will be in proximity of the Secretary. If Diplomatic Security sees one of the subjects nearby, they detain and question them. Other government agencies and local police are always notified. The alert essentially constitutes a standing directive by Diplomatic Security that the subject be stopped and seized in the absence of reasonable suspicion or probable cause that he is committing an offense. Stop him for being him. It is easy to see how these directives slash across the Fourth Amendment’s prohibitions against unwarranted search and seizure.

    Subjects are also not allowed inside any State Department facility, including embassies and consulates abroad where typical Americans are by treaty allowed to seek refuge and protection. But not for Ray McGovern.

    McGovern v. John Kerry

    As we’ve said, McGovern is no typical guy. On February 15 he filed a lawsuit against Secretary of State John Kerry and his State Department, as well as George Washington University where the arrest took place, claiming his First Amendment rights were violated by unlawful police misconduct in retaliation for his act of protest. He also is suing over violation of his Fourth Amendment rights due to excessive use of force and his wrongful arrest. McGovern seeks injunctive relief prohibiting the State Department from directing law enforcement stop and question him on sight.

    We’ll keep track of the lawsuit and report on its progress.

    Why I Know So Much about BOLO Alerts

    Information reluctantly made available to me as the State Department sought to persecute, prosecute and /or fire me for my whistleblowing book, We Meant Well, showed that I too was and may still be subject to a Diplomatic Security alert.

    After a blog post I wrote in 2011 that was deemed insulting to then-Secretary of State Clinton, and after over two decades of public service, my State Department access card was impounded, I was marched out of the building and I was given a letter stating I was prohibited from entering any State Department facility, domestic or abroad. When a bit of necessary bureaucratic business came up a week or two later, I was told that I could only enter the State Department building as far as the public lobby, where I would be met by the appropriate Human Resources person in the presence of security personnel.

    State later was forced to reveal that not only was I placed on its own Diplomatic Security watch list, but also on the Secret Service’s watch list, as they share responsibility for Clinton’s security as a former First Lady. McGovern may want to check on that.

    My lawyers sought to have State remove me from the lists. State refused to confirm or deny my continued presence on the lists. State did not respond to my several requests for this information under the Freedom of Information Act.

    Post-Constitutional America

    Diplomatic Security knew of course I was no threat to anyone. I’m a fat old guy, short, and had a clean track record inside the Department since the 1980′s. Same for Ray McGovern; the cops that mistreated and arrested him for standing silently knew damn well he was neither disrupting anything nor a threat. They knew exactly what the First and Fourth Amendments said.

    And they didn’t care.

    This is what post-Constitutional America is about. The government, from major issues such as extrajudicial drone killings down to the pettiness which preoccupies the bullies in places like Diplomatic Security, no longer cares whether its actions are legal, and no longer cares if everyone knows it.

    From the Founders forward, government has always done illegal things, naughty things, things that it knew were likely unconstitutional. What is new is that the acts have scaled up significantly, moving from analog to digital, and that the government is so sure that neither the courts nor the People will object that they no longer even go through the motions of hiding what they do.

    Remember, both the Stasi and the Nazis did what they did quite openly, and kept excellent records.



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  • Snowden Leaks Old Journalism Textbook, Media Shocked

    February 21, 2014 // 17 Comments

    Tags: , ,
    Posted in: Iraq

    In yet another dramatic revelation flowing out of whistleblower Edward Snowden, a journalism textbook from 1983 has been sent to several large media outlets, including the Washington Post, New York Times and the trailer park where Fox News is thought to originate.

    “To say we’re shocked is an insult to electricity,” said a spokesperson from the Post while speaking with the media, who refused to give his name because he was not authorized to speak with the media. “We had no idea. Not a clue.”

    “For example, it says here that ‘journalists’ are supposed to gather facts, analyze them, and then ‘report’ what they learned,” stated an unnamed former somebody. “This flies in the face of our current practice of transcribing what government officials tell us anonymously and then having someone read that aloud on TV. We are still trying to find out more about the ‘analyze’ function of journalism, but Wikipedia is down right now.”

    Fox News went on to say that a chapter in the book about naming sources so that readers themselves could judge the value and veracity of the information “just came from Mars” as far as the organization is concerned. “I mean, if we named our sources, they’d be held accountable for what they say, you know, and I doubt we’d have much access to the big boys after that. We’d have to start hiring people just to go out and gather news, maybe outside the office even, instead of just from the web. Something like 90% of our content comes from press releases from ersatz think tanks controlled by PR firms. Our whole business model would have to change. And that thing about ‘questioning’ what the government says? How are we supposed to do that? Who do they think we are?”

    New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, speaking on behalf of the paper from his soundproof bubble removed from reality, explained “That J-school book is potentially a game changer, if you believe it is not just another disinformation scheme. For example, how credible is this bit– it says that simply getting two quotes from two sources that 100% contradict each other isn’t what reporting is. So here, in my latest column, where I have Obama saying ‘health care is good,’ and Sarah Palin saying ‘no, it sucks dick,’ somehow is wrong? Give me a break.”

    Multiple sources say, however, that the single most shocking thing to emerge from the leaked textbook is that “news” and “journalism” are supposed to inform, enlighten and educate people, an essential part of our democracy, and are not simply another form of entertainment.

    The spokesperson from the Washington Post was blunt: “That’s just bullshit. Anyway, here’s another cute cat picture.”



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  • Would You Have Chelsea Manning’s Courage When Called?

    February 19, 2014 // 13 Comments

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

    The Sam Adams Associates for Integrity in Intelligence (SAAII; I am a proud voting member) have voted overwhelmingly to present the 2014 Sam Adams Award for Integrity in Intelligence to Chelsea Manning. The award ceremony will be held February 19, 2014 at Oxford University’s Oxford Union Society. Chelsea will send a statement, and SAAII members will be hosted for dinner at the Ecuadoran Embassy in London.

    With more than a little irony, while I was in Iraq working for the State Department, Chelsea Manning’s office was across the hall from mine. While I was winning the war by writing emails to the embassy, Manning was across the hall capturing the texts of hundreds of thousands of State Department cables, famously released by Wikileaks, showing that was could never be won.

    My war in Iraq ended in near-complete failure. What Manning did will have an impact far beyond that terrible struggle. In this video, I ask the question of why I didn’t do what Manning did, and challenge the audience: when faced with history, would you have the courage to do what Manning did?

    I didn’t.



    BONUS: Seated to my right on the panel is Daniel Ellsberg. On my immediate left is Michael Ratner, one of Manning’s attorneys. The woman on the end is Jesselyn Radack, who currently serves on Edward Snowden’s defense team, and is a whistleblower herself.



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  • The Tao of Political Ambassadors

    February 17, 2014 // 20 Comments

    Tags: ,
    Posted in: Afghanistan, Democracy, Embassy/State

    The United States is the only first world nation that allots ambassador jobs as political patronage.

    You don’t have to know anything, or have any specific background or training, to be the president’s personal representative abroad and conduct foreign policy on behalf of the World’s Most Powerful Nation (c). You do have to donate heavily to the president to buy one of those appointments.

    Back during my own 24 years working for the State Department as a diplomatic serf my mother asked what I’d have to do to make ambassador. The answer was simple: dad needed to die young, and mom should donate the entire inheritance to the winner of the next presidential election. I’d get appointed and hobnob with State’s elite!

    For so many reasons, I am glad dad is still alive.

    What is an Ambassador?

    The U.S. ambassador is the head of the embassy in a particular country, and serves as the senior representative for the United States there. S/he interacts personally with important leaders of the host country, negotiates on behalf of the U.S. and serves as America’s public face and mascot, appearing in the media, making public appearances and hosting social events that in some parts of the world are the primary venue for serious business. Some say it’s an important job. Guys like Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson did it once.

    Embassies are otherwise primarily staffed by foreign service officers, folks from the State Department who are diplomatic professionals. The question here is between those two groups– political hacks or trained professionals– who should be an ambassador?

    Is the U.S. Exceptional?

    The U.S. is exceptional, because every other major country in the entire known universe answered the question already: being an ambassador is a job for professionals. It makes sense that a person who likely has already served in a country, who probably speaks the language and who is familiar both with U.S. foreign policy and the mechanics of diplomacy might do a better job than a TV soap opera producer who turned over $800,000 to the president’s campaign (true; see below.) Why, in almost any other setting other than U.S. politics, that would be called corruption.

    Bipartisan Patronage

    A quick note to people of the internet. Every political party in power doles out ambassadorial appointments as patronage, and has, from the 19th century to the present day. Democrats, Republicans, Whigs, the Boston Tea Party and all the rest did it and do it. Obama is slightly ahead of the 30 percent historical average, though many pundits are over-weighing his second term picks because he is filling his First Class (i.e., political posts) before the generally mediocre locations allocated to career jobs. This is true bipartisan sleaze, an issue we can all get into regardless of our views on other issues.

    Yet despite the clear record of patronage, the State Department insists that political campaign donations have nothing to do with diplomatic nominations. “Either giving or not giving money doesn’t affect either way. It doesn’t make you more or less qualified,” deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf told reporters this week. Talk about your credibility. You could almost watch it drain out of the spokeswoman as she spoke the words with a straight face.

    Why It Matters

    Many, many politically appointed ambassadors are frighteningly unqualified. Sure, many don’t have a clue about the country they’ll serve in and very, very few have any language skills or experience in diplomacy. Some haven’t even been abroad, except maybe a bus tour or two. The latest crop, however, are reaching new heights of stupidity:

    –The nominee to China admitted he’s no expert on China;

    –The nominee to Argentina never set foot there and speaks no Spanish. Same for the nominee to Iceland, who never visited and also does not speak Spanish, though that is less important in Iceland;

    –The nominee to Norway insulted their government in his Senate approval hearing (he was approved by the Senate anyway!)

    –Then there is Colleen Bell, the nominee for Hungary, whose qualifications include being the producer of “The Bold and the Beautiful” TV soap opera, and of course raising $800,000 for Obama. She stammered her way through testimony to the point where John McCain basically begged her to just shut up as a kind of mercy killing.


    Political Appointees in the Wild

    What happens to these kinds of boneheads abroad is not hard to imagine. Some wonderfully extreme cases include the American ambassador to Finland, who sent out official Christmas cards with him in “Magic Mike” beefcake poses and whose signature accomplishment is basically renovating his own office. A political appointee ambassador to Kenya paralyzed his embassy with personnel demands, including internet access in his executive toilet. The political appointee ambassador to Belgium was accused of soliciting sexual favors from prostitutes and minor children.

    As for many other political appointees, some, like Caroline Kennedy in Japan, understand they are just living photo-ops and stay out of the way of the adults working (which may sum up Kennedy’s entire life.) A few appointees become sentient and actually turn out to be decent managers based on their business backgrounds before being sidelined by State’s incestuous culture. The best political appointees are old pols like Howard Baker, whose Washington connections and political savvy make them at least effective stooges for the president’s personal political agenda, if not always America’s.

    Why It May Not Matter

    The bad news is that there are equal inconsistencies on the side of State Department professionals who become ambassadors outside the political appointee spoils system.

    Many, especially to smaller nations (think Africa, parts of the Middle East), have spent most of their careers in the neighborhood, and have built up significant, trusted relationships. Many of these career ambassadors got to know young leaders long ago, and have kept the relationship intact as those men and women ascended into positions of authority. Pretty cool to call your old buddy and sort out a diplomatic problem using first names and shared experiences as a base.

    There are exceptions to excellence; watch one of our career ambassador’s in a Congressional hearing not know how much money his embassy is spending in Afghanistan nor the U.S. death toll for the year.

    Unfortunately, even for out-of-the-way places, it is very hard to make it to ambassador without sucking up to State’s big shots, even if you have the chops to do the job well. Every careerist at State (i.e., everyone) wants that title, the big house and the limo that comes with the job. As an autocracy, just being the most qualified for anything inside State is rarely enough. That leaves plenty of suck ups, wankers and toadies of the higher ups mucking around to get into an ambassador’s chair. It’s unavoidable.

    The last sticking point on why foreign service officers can make lousy ambassadors is the dual nature of the job. While in most cases the ambassador’s primary task is headline-level “policy,” s/he also is the head of the embassy. Many administrative and personnel issues rise to the ambassador’s office. Most State Department ambassadors have gotten as far as they did based nearly 100 percent on those policy things, and many thus make very poor managers. The best defer the decisions to their own management staff; the worst dive in, wielding power without responsibility and the very worst use the position to settle old scores and promote the interests of their own lickspittles.

    Why It Really, Really Doesn’t Matter

    Critics of political appointee ambassadors inside State are quick to point out that people don’t get appointed as generals in the military. Senior leaders in the Army are expected to have come up through the ranks. Admirals have captained ships. Marine generals have eaten snakes, that sort of thing.

    The reason big campaign donors don’t get appointed as generals in the military is because what generals do can matter, matter beyond at least embarrassing the nation. Not to say all or even most generals make the right calls, but to say that generals need technical knowledge of the services they work for, and the decisions they make literally affect lives and can shape world events.

    Ambassadors are increasingly becoming curios left over from a distant past, before instant worldwide telephone and internet communications, before senior White House officials could jet around the world, a past when ambassadors actually had to make big decisions in far-off places. Nowadays most ambassadors don’t change their socks without “conferring with Washington.” Their own jobs matter less and less, as does the State Department they work with.

    So never mind ambassador slots, which often stay empty for months as donors wrangle for the prime positions. A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report shows that more than one fourth of all U.S. State Department Foreign Service positions are either unfilled or are filled with below-grade employees. These vacancies and stretches at State are largely unchanged from the last time the GAO checked in 2008.

    In government, what matters most gets funded most. There are more military band members than State Department foreign service officers. The whole of the Foreign Service is smaller than the complement aboard one aircraft carrier. The State Department is now a very small part of the pageant. The Transportation Security Administration has about 58,000 employees; the State Department has 22,000. The Department of Defense has nearly 450,000 employees stationed overseas, with 2.5 million more in the U.S.

    In an age of military ascendancy, when State and diplomacy are seen as tools to buy time for later military action instead of as potential solutions themselves, it just might not matter who is ambassador anymore. Of course the man or woman in the chair might best avoid sexual solicitation of minors and inane, embarrassing acts, but really, that’s just a nice thing, not a requirement.

    Old-school political patronage was about giveaways, handing over some largely ceremonial job to a hack. The medieval kings had it down, appointing dukes and grand viziers and equipping them with plumed hats and lots of gold braid while ensuring they stayed out of the way.

    Political appointee or career foreign service officer as ambassador? Why does it matter?



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  • Happy Valentine’s Day: U.S. (Hearts) Karzai

    February 14, 2014 // 25 Comments

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

    In an article headlined The U.S. Has Finally Outfoxed Hamid Karzai, the occasionally-respected Fiscal Times explains how for months Afghan President Hamid Karzai has refused to sign a long-term security agreement with the United States, causing mounting frustration within the White House and the Pentagon. Now, according to the Times, “it appears as if President Obama and his advisers have finally outfoxed Karzai, marking the end of a long and tumultuous relationship.” The Times:


    The White House and DOD have decided not to make any agreement until after April’s presidential elections in which Karzai is not expected to be a candidate. They’ll only make a deal with Karzai’s successor.


    “If he’s not going to be part of the solution, we have to have a way to get past him,” a senior U.S. official said of the elected leader. “It’s a pragmatic recognition that clearly Karzai may not sign the (deal) and that he doesn’t represent the voice of the Afghan people.”

    By way of perspective, the U.S. has previously outfoxed Karzai by handing him fantastic amounts of unmarked cash and creating a massive, corrupt system in Afghanistan that bleeds the U.S. taxpayer while feeding even more money to Karzai and his family.


    (None of the above is satire. It is true. Here’s the satire part.)

    Karzai, however, is a sly old fox himself and is thus not easily outfoxed. Unbeknownst to U.S. authorities as the NSA was preoccupied with Beyonce’s selfies folder, Karzai has moved to Washington DC. While the Old Grey Fox first was just using the money he stole from the U.S. to buy up real estate (“giving back”), these days Karzai is shipping hundreds of his relatives, friends and his favorite hired gunmen into the DC suburbs.

    “It’s freaking dangerous in Afghanistan, and you crazy Americans want to keep the war going forever,” Karzai exclusively told this blog, “I’ve got ‘graveyard of empires’ printed right on my wallet so its not like the Ambassador doesn’t see it every time we meet, but that dude is crazy. ‘We don’t want another Vietnam, er, Iraq,’ he says. I guess his solution is that as long as the U.S. keeps killing Afghans they can say it’s not over and they haven’t lost. So anyway, who wants to be a part of all that? I’ll just pack up in April and let the next jerk to do this job sort it out. I still can’t figure out why the Taliban want this dump anyway.”

    “Despite all that, I still like the Ambassador personally. Funny guy. He once gave me a stack of Benjamins just to “like” the embassy Facebook page. Sometimes when the Ambo and I are just kicking back with a few 40′s he talks about the U.S. not wanting to lose the gains they’ve made over the last decade in this rat hole. I always end up with beer spraying out my nose when he says that. I mean, look out the window– that goat cost you Americans 75 billion dollars.”

    Karzai did get reflective at the end of the interview, remembering his first cash bribe from a then-junior CIA officer. “That guy is now running their whole op here,” said the president. “Twelve years goes by. They just grow up so fast.”

    “Anyway, I’m out of here. Somebody tell the U.S. Army ‘last man to die for a bad idea, turn off the light when you leave.’ That’s the expression you guys use in English, yes?” By the way, what do you think about BitCoin as an investment? I’m fat with cash right now and how many Rolexes do you really need?”



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