• Archive of "Democracy" Category

    You Can Play the Home Torture Game

    December 18, 2014 // 3 Comments »

    torture


    Jealous that CIA torturers get all the fun? Want to virtually torture someone right from your own desktop? Want to encourage your kids to see torture as fun and help desensitize them? Why not play the torture game, your very own torture simulator!


    Torture Game 3 is the most up-to-date version of the popular bloody game (rated 8/10!) where you use different tools to torture the victim. You can cut the hands off the victim using a chainsaw saw, you can use a pistol or a shotgun to blow holes in the body, you can even break the body parts apart from the body itself.

    My favorite: using the Spike tool to tear off flesh.

    The variety of torture tools that can be found on the right side of the “action border panel” is robust. Why, there’s something for everyone. The most popular tools include ropes, a knife, a shotgun, a razor and of course the chainsaw. While the game loads with a generic male victim’s image, the designers explain you can upload any picture — even your own! — and torture a man or woman you hate.

    The game designers promise “this game is a good way how to spend several minutes after a difficult day.”

    Here’s the link. The game is NSFW. The game runs under Adobe Flash, so you need that on your computer, but otherwise no download is necessary; the game runs right in your browser. There is no cost, no ads, no sign up. Just hit the link and torture. And it is all nice and legal, just like in real life.

    I wish to God this was satire, but it is not. We are a sick, sick people. But have fun!

    My “thanks” to alert commenter Pitch for the tip on this game!




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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!

    Posted in Democracy, Police State, Post-Constitution America

    Torture and the Company We Keep

    December 16, 2014 // 28 Comments »

    proud-american


    A new poll finds majority of Americans — 59 percent — believe torture was justified after the 9/11 attacks.

    Look around you at the company you keep. The people who support torture, six out of ten, are your neighbors, your co-workers, the people on the bus with you. If you live in Washington DC, they are your children’s friends parents, the people at Safeway, the folks you go to church with.

    Now, let’s have a look at the company the United States keeps.



    Tortures Human Beings

    United States – YES
    ISIS – YES
    North Korea – YES
    China – YES
    Russia – YES
    Nazi Germany – YES
    Apartheid-Era South Africa – YES


    Uses Medical Personnel to Enhance Torture

    United States – YES
    ISIS – NO
    North Korea – Unknown
    China – Unknown
    Russia – YES
    Nazi Germany – YES
    Apartheid-Era South Africa – YES


    Maintains Third Country Detention Facilities

    United States – YES (including Poland)
    ISIS – NO
    North Korea – NO
    China – NO
    Russia – NO (once including Poland)
    Nazi Germany – NO (once including Poland)
    Apartheid-Era South Africa – NO


    Kidnaps/Renders People from Other Countries to Torture

    United States – YES
    ISIS – YES
    North Korea – YES
    China – Unknown
    Russia – Unknown
    Nazi Germany – YES
    Apartheid-Era South Africa – NO


    Sends Prisoners to Other Governments for Torture

    United States – YES (including Libya, Egypt and Syria)
    ISIS – NO
    North Korea – NO
    China – NO
    Russia – NO
    Nazi Germany – NO
    Apartheid-Era South Africa – NO


    Holds Prisoners Indefinitely without Trial

    United States – YES
    ISIS – Sort Of
    North Korea – YES
    China – YES
    Russia – YES
    Nazi Germany – YES
    Apartheid-Era South Africa – NO


    Kills Prisoners Under Torture

    United States – YES
    ISIS – YES
    North Korea – YES
    China – YES
    Russia – YES
    Nazi Germany – YES
    Apartheid-Era South Africa – YES


    Holds Innocents for Torture

    United States – YES
    ISIS – YES
    North Korea – YES
    China – YES
    Russia – YES
    Nazi Germany – YES
    Apartheid-Era South Africa – YES


    Assassinates Opponents

    United States – YES
    ISIS – YES
    North Korea – YES
    China – YES
    Russia – YES
    Nazi Germany – YES
    Apartheid-Era South Africa – YES


    Had Some Sort of Reconciliation Once Torture Exposed

    United States – NO
    ISIS – NO
    North Korea – NO
    China – NO
    Russia – Sort Of (Post-Stalin)
    Nazi Germany (Post-War)- YES
    (Post) Apartheid-Era South Africa – YES

    Claims to be a Christian Nation

    United States – YES
    ISIS – Hells NO
    North Korea – NO
    China – NO
    Russia – NO
    Nazi Germany – NO
    Apartheid-Era South Africa – YES, mostly.

    BONUS: Has its State Department write sanctimonious yearly human rights reports about other countries: USA! USA! USA!




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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!

    Posted in Democracy, Police State, Post-Constitution America

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

    // 2 Comments »

    torturediagram



    The Bush and Obama administrations have gone to extraordinary lengths to hide America’s archipelago of secret prisons and systems of torture.

    For all the empty talk of “transparency” being high-fived around following the Senate Report, they at first denied any of that nasty stuff 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 finally allowing the torturers at the CIA themselves the final word on the watered-down public version of a Senate report on torture.


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

    Posted in Democracy, Police State, Post-Constitution America

    On The BBC Defending Not Torturing People

    December 15, 2014 // 10 Comments »

    photo (1)

    I joined fellow whistleblower and former chief Guantanamo prosecutor Colonel Morris Davis on the BBC’s World TV recently to speak out against torture.

    Because most “journalism” these days defines objectivity as having people from bizarrely opposite sides of an issue yell at each other until time is up, I found myself “rebutting” a handful of nut jobs whose argument was basically that torture is good, or maybe useful, or vengeful, or whatever, as long as it hurts dirty brown Muslims because, 9/11. Witches deserved it. Also, torture works.


    Torture Worked at Salem

    Torture does indeed work, if your goal is simply to punish, humiliate or extract false confessions. One example of torture’s very successful use in American history was with the Salem witch trials. Innocent women in 17th century America were brutalized until they admitted to being witches. In one ingenious twist of logic worthy of their post-9/11 successors, the torturers devised a 100 percent effective strategy: hold a suspected witch under water until she either drowns (oops, not a witch, exonerated) or magically floats (confirming she is a witch) and then execute her. One way or another, you’re always correct!

    The logic holds for our modern day torturers. We learned than some 26 men held by the United States and tortured, some for years, truly had no connection to terrorism. Everytime they were waterboarded, threatened with death or beaten, they told the truth: they were not terrorists. However, their denials of culpability were taken merely as signs that more torture was needed to get them to confess.


    9/11 Left Us with No Choice

    One of the other points the troglodytes supporting torture, from the other guests on the BBC show to the Director of the CIA and the President, have brought up is the urgency and seriousness of the post-9/11 environment. They insist torture must be viewed in that light, not from the soft comfort of 2014. America had been attacked, and only through any and all means necessary could we protect her.

    Many other times America faced dire circumstances, most far more dangerous to the nation, when government-sponsored torture on a massive scale somehow wasn’t needed to prevail. The American Civil War, and WWII, especially in the aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbor, are two examples that come to mind. What made a handful of jihadis more dangerous?


    Ticking Time Bomb Scenario

    OK, OK, the ticking time bomb scenario. This one pops up as regular as bowel movements. Isn’t torture justified under a situation where a captured terrorist knows information that would stop a bus full of patriotic orphans from being blown up?

    Of course, no such scenario has ever existed, and is unlikely ever to exist. For a real 24 TV-like ticking time bomb scenario to exist, here’s what would need to fall into place: the U.S. would have to capture a terrorist in a timely fashion who knew the full, precise details (Monday morning, corner of 5th and Main, Columbus, Ohio, bad guy in white Prius), the U.S. would need to know that the terrorist indeed possessed this information, the U.S. would have to know only torture would elicit the information, the terrorist would need to “break” and give up the full, true information in a timely manner and the information would need to be transmitted to the appropriate law enforcement authorities wherever they were and they would need to act conclusively under whatever time pressures existed, and be successful in their intervention.

    Absent even one of those elements, there is no ticking time bomb scenario. It is a false argument for torture, as they all are.


    17th Century Morality

    But at the end of the day, what troubled me most was not the odd idea that the venerable BBC had stooped to scouring the world to find advocates of torture and given them an audience larger than those they normally addressed from under the rocks they live hidden beneath, or that journalism stoops so low now.

    The saddest thing of all is that in what is supposed to be the enlightened 21st century, with so many cries of “never again” echoing in our historical background, we are still forced to defend the notion that a country like the United States should not torture people. We have reverted to a 17th century morality.




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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!

    Posted in Democracy, Police State, Post-Constitution America

    Can We Sue the Government over Torture?

    December 12, 2014 // 6 Comments »

    torture


    Can We Sue the Government over Torture? Yes. But not really.

    Anyone can sue the government; Van Buren v. Barack Obama. I just need to file the papers in Federal court. Oh, a couple of issues.


    Torts

    Torture is a crime but it is arguably also a tort. Torts are civil wrongs recognized as grounds for a lawsuit. These wrongs result in an injury or harm constituting the basis for a claim by the injured party. While some torts are also crimes, the primary aim of tort law is to provide relief for the damages incurred and deter others from committing the same harms. The injured person may sue for an injunction to prevent the continuation of the tortious conduct or for monetary damages.

    Sounds like the kind of stuff we all would like in regards to torture. Compensation for victims and no more torture.


    Standing

    But before I call up a lawyer, I first need standing or the government will can my suit in a quick motion filing to dismiss. Standing means in this case I have to show I was personally affected by the torture. I wasn’t tortured, so this will be hard. Attorneys for Anwar al Awlaki’s father previously tried to persuade a U.S. District Court to issue an injunction a few year’s ago preventing the government from the targeted killing of his son. A judge dismissed the case, ruling the father did not have standing to sue. Awlaki was killed by the government.


    What About a Victim Filing Suit?

    OK, so maybe someone who was tortured himself could sue the U.S. government. That’d get around the question of standing.

    First problem with one of the victim’s suing the USG is persuading the relevant U.S. courts that they have jurisdiction over the acts committed by Americans overseas and are prepared to apply U.S. laws extra-territorially. This gets even dicier because the torture took place sorta-kinda during a sort-kinda kind of war-thing.

    This issue has been batted around the court system over Guantanamo for years, inconclusively.



    Government Immunity

    But what if somehow victim actually did file a lawsuit in the U.S. against those Americans who tortured them?

    Government officials acting under the “legitimate scope of their employment” are immune from suit. This is the “Westfall Act Certification” defense, via the Westfall Act of 1988. The Act permits the Attorney General, at his or her discretion, to substitute the United States as the defendant and essentially grant absolute immunity to individual government employees for actions taken within the scope of their employment.

    The government would only have to say the torturers were just doing their jobs, which in a sad way they were, and that ends the suit.

    There is an exception in Westfall for unconstitutional acts. The person filing the lawsuit would have to prove torture of a foreigner abroad was in fact prohibited by the Constitution. That would be one helluva hard sell.


    But the Game’s Already Been Decided

    And just to make this very clear, all the way back in 2012, Attorney General Eric Holder closed without charges the only two cases ever under investigation in connection with U.S. torture program. One case resulted in the 2002 death of an Afghan detainee at a secret CIA prison in Afghanistan, and the other the 2003 death of an Iraqi citizen in CIA custody at Abu Ghraib. Holder’s decision, said the New York Times, “eliminates the last possibility that any criminal charges will be brought as a result of the brutal interrogations carried out by the CIA”.

    Obama also made clear the idea of suing the government, or anyone connected with torture, was a non-starter.

    Long before throwing out the two cases noted above, way back in 2009 Obama said his desire was to look forward rather than conduct investigations that could alienate the intelligence community. “This is a time for reflection, not retribution,” Obama said in a statement, even as he noted torture was a “dark and painful chapter in our history.”

    “It would be unfair to prosecute dedicated men and women working to protect America for conduct that was sanctioned in advance by the Justice Department,” Attorney General Holder said in a 2009 statement.

    Obama officials also stated some five years ago that they would provide legal representation at no cost to CIA employees subjected to international tribunals or inquiries from Congress. They also said they would indemnify CIA staff against any financial judgments.


    Short version for non-lawyers: if two presidents order it done, whatever is done is legal, and there is not a damn thing you can do about it. Thanks for playing and have a super day!


    (I am not a lawyer and this is not legal advice)

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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!

    Posted in Democracy, Police State, Post-Constitution America

    The Torture Never Stops

    December 10, 2014 // 8 Comments »



    With the release of the Senate torture report, media accounts are quick to add 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 remained 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 sued the president of the United States, claiming being force-fed at Guantanamo is torture. The lawsuit 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 people still in Guantanamo who 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.


    (Long-time readers of this blog will note I am re-running some earlier torture articles in lieu of the Senate report’s release)



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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!

    Posted in Democracy, Police State, Post-Constitution America

    Redneck Georgia Town Bans Mosque

    December 8, 2014 // 7 Comments »

    muslimLet’s see, got my Bible right here… a lot of stuff in this thing about tolerance, loving each other, specifically love they neighbor.

    Hmm. They must be using a different version in Georgia, where a small town has used some odd twists on traffic laws to violate the First Amendment’s right to practice one’s religion, banning a mosque from opening. All together now — Freedumb!


    Kennesaw, Georgia, a pus-filled, hateful ashtray of a city of about 30,000 people in north Georgia, voted down a Muslim group’s request to rent an unused retail space and open a mosque in the city.

    The vote was 4-1 against as anti-Muslim protesters stood outside the meeting with signs such as “Ban Islam” and “Islam Wants No Peace!”

    Mayor Mark Matthews forbade comment inside from the public about religion, so critics instead said they opposed the mosque on the grounds parking. This despite the fact that the Muslim group had already agreed to limit attendance to 80 worshipers at a time in the 2,200 square foot space. The group also agreed to build 40 new parking spaces well-away from the nearby shopping area.

    The clever haters in Georgia figured they would get around that naughty old First Amendment to the Constitution (Note: the Constitution is that thingie that defines the freedom our troops are always fighting Muslims overseas to protect) by not, no sir, not in any way at all, making the mosque ban about religion. Nope. All the good white people of Kennesaw are concerned about is traffic issues in what no doubt is their busy and thriving downtown area.

    “This is not intended to be a religious debate or a discussion about people’s religious beliefs. It’s a purely technical hearing on the appropriate land use for a piece of property in the city of Kennesaw,” the mayor said.


    Oh wait, that’s bullsh*t.


    At a public hearing last month that had no limits imposed on discussing religion, Kennesaw residents shared things like this: “I am first a Christian and then an American citizen,” resident Jo Talley said. “As a Christian I am to put no other God before my Lord, and I am also to love my neighbor. If you know me, then you know that I do my best to do those things… but I also have the right to protect myself. This project has to do with Sharia law.”

    “You know, if Christianity were killing people, I’m pretty sure I would have a problem with it,” Pastor C.S. Clarke of the Redeemed Christian Fellowship Church added.

    Ashley Haspel, who owns a beauty salon, said she is concerned people attending the mosque would use too many parking places, leaving no room for her customers. “A worship center has no place being in a retail center… It would hurt our business not having the parking for our customers.”

    According to the application for the mosque, the daily prayer services would likely be attended by 10-20 people and the weekly prayer service 60-80 people. There are already 127 parking space, which would increase to 167 if the mosque is approved.

    Resident Anthony Bonner said the debate was “bigger than just zoning and parking. This is bigger than right and wrong. This is not a religious debate. This is about a comment on the value and the merits of a community.”

    A commenter added “Islam is a discriminatory religion so it is quite ironic to hear all the supporters of the mosque crying about discrimination.”

    Here’s one: “Should we accommodate a religion aiming to convert or kill the infidel, including the citizens of the United States? Islam is NOT a peaceful religion based on love. Should we aid the enemy?”

    An upstanding citizen stated “The scumbag lawyer for the terrorist organization says he will sue… good luck with that.”


    Another says on video “A retail space is not appropriate to a house of worship,” though by some odd quirk, the city allowed a Pentecostal church to rent a retail space for exactly the same purpose in July.



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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!

    Posted in Democracy, Police State, Post-Constitution America

    Adding Up Eric Garner

    December 6, 2014 // 13 Comments »

    eric-garner


    The argument you hear a lot is about not taking one case — Eric Garner for us now — and extrapolating too much from it. A cop killed an African-American man. That is one case, with its own unique circumstances, so you can’t claim it is just another example of a broad pattern of racism. Or, racism aside, that police violence and deadly force against citizens has become unmanageable.

    Maybe. At least until you add it all up. Here are some numbers, so as they say, you do the math.


    Three
    The New York police officer who killed Eric Garner has been sued three times for allegedly violating the constitutional rights of other blacks he and fellow cops arrested.

    A 2013 federal court lawsuit alleges that Daniel Pantaleo and other officers subjected Darren Collins and Tommy Rice to “humiliating and unlawful strip searches in public view.” They said Pantaleo “slapped and tapped” their testicles. The officers insisted they acted reasonably and exercised their discretion, but the lawsuit was settled last year for $30,000.

    Rylawn Walker’s 2012 lawsuit alleged Pantaleo and other officers falsely arrested him for marijuana. The charges against Walker were dismissed.

    A third suit involved Kenneth Collins, who alleged Pantaleo violated his rights during a 2012 marijuana arrest, including “a degrading search of his genitals” (disposition unknown)


    59 Pages

    A 59-page report released by the United States Department of Justice on Thursday reveals widespread, excessive use of force by police officers in Cleveland. Cleveland is the city where cops recently killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice while he was carrying a toy gun. Before that, Tanesha Anderson died in police hands when cops were supposed to be transporting her for mental health treatment.

    In another incident from the report, a 300-pound officer sat on a 13 year-old boy and punched the boy in the face repeatedly while the boy was handcuffed in the back of a police car. In another incident, police used their stun gun on a juvenile suspect, despite the fact that the boy was being held on the ground by two officers. In a third incident, an officer fired upon a man who fled after repeatedly asking the officer to produce his badge in order to prove that he was, in fact, a cop. The cop did not do so.

    The overarching conclusion of the report is that Cleveland police “too often use unnecessary and unreasonable force in violation of the Constitution,” and that “supervisors tolerate this behavior and, in some cases, endorse it.”


    Hundreds

    More than 550 homicides by police officers between 2007 and 2012 were missing from the federal statistics or not attributed to the law enforcement agency involved, the Wall Street Journal reported.

    This makes it nearly impossible to figure out how many people cops kill — justifiably or not — every year. To compile the report, the Journal looked at the internal figures of killings by police from 105 of the nation’s 110 largest police departments. Five declined the request for access. The internal records show at least 1,800 deaths during the aforementioned timeframe. That is about 45 percent higher than the FBI’s tally of 1,242. Some law enforcement agencies are not reporting all the police killings that happen on their watch.


    Thousands

    Young black males in recent years were at a far greater risk of being shot dead by police than their white counterparts – 21 times greater, according to a ProPublica analysis of federally collected data on fatal police shootings.

    One way of appreciating that stark disparity is to calculate how many more whites would have had to have been killed for them to have been at equal risk. The number is jarring – 185 – more than one per week over the three year period the statistics cover.

    ProPublica’s risk analysis on young males killed by police supports what has been an article of faith in the African American community: Blacks are being killed at disturbing rates when set against the rest of the American population.

    Details matter. Did police always list the circumstances of the killings? No, there were many deadly shootings where the circumstances were listed as “undetermined.” 77 percent of those killed in such instances were black.



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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!

    Posted in Democracy, Police State, Post-Constitution America

    Ferguson in NY as Cop Acquitted after Killing Unarmed Man

    December 4, 2014 // 16 Comments »

    eric-garner


    A grand jury will bring no charges against a white New York City cop who strangled an unarmed African-American man to death. Watch him die in the video.

    Watch Him Die

    Daniel Pantaelo, the NYPD officer who killed Eric Garner with a chokehold on Staten Island on July 17, will not face charges for the killing, a grand jury decided yesterday. You can hear Garner, who was asthmatic, plead with police about his inability to breathe several times during the struggle that led to his death. Watch him die in the video.

    The grand jury did not bring charges against Officer Pantaelo despite the fact that the NYPD’s own patrol guide explicitly prohibits the chokehold used to kill Garner.

    The grand jury did not bring charges against Officer Pantaleo despite Garner’s death being ruled a homicide by the New York City medical examiner in August.

    The cause of Garner’s death was “compression of neck (chokehold), compression of chest and prone positioning during physical restraint by police,” the medical examiner’s office said.

    Eric Garner was a 43-year-old father of six. Police said they approached Garner because he was selling unlicensed cigarettes — known as loosies — and that he resisted arrest.


    Watch him die in the video:


    In preparation for the Garner decision today, the NYPD sent detectives to Ferguson during recent demonstrations to gather intelligence on so-called professional protesters. In New York, cops will be looking for outside agitators and vowed to arrest demonstrators interfering with traffic. There will be a heavy presence of cops on foot, in the air and on horseback throughout the city.


    Comment
    We are left at this point only to wonder under what circumstances a cop may actually be indicted after killing someone on the street. In the Garner case, there is no doubt that he was unarmed. He did raise his hands. He did not endanger the police, and they had no clear reason to fear for their safety or the safety of anyone around them. There is no question about the events that unfolded, as the entire scene was filmed at close range. The police office who did the killing used a chokehold, a technique specifically outlawed by the NYPD. The medical examiner ruled Garner’s death a homicide.

    This is not Michael Brown. There are no conflicting witnesses, no ambiguous testimony, no need to decide who to believe. Believe your eyes.

    If under such conditions a grand jury comes to the conclusion that no crime was committed, it is hard to imagine what conditions could cause a grand jury to conclude a crime was committed.

    No amount of police body cameras, or blue ribbon panels, or meetings or additional training will help. This is just a slaughter and the people who can stop it won’t. Watch him die in the video.



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    Posted in Democracy, Police State, Post-Constitution America

    Questions from Ferguson

    November 25, 2014 // 8 Comments »

    photos_of_Darren_Wilson



    I woke up this morning with the worst kind of hangover: anger, confusion, wondering what happened last night. Without a drop of alcohol to explain how I felt. So here are some of the questions I have about Michael Brown, Darren Wilson and Ferguson.


    Why was the Announcement Made as it Was?

    The grand jury made its decision no later than early afternoon on Monday. Why was the announcement held until 9pm EST? That put the announcement at the end of hours of tension allowed to build, after dark, and suspiciously smack in TV prime time. There was nothing more to “get ready” on the streets except to allow crowds to gather and frustration to ramp up. Why not make the announcement as soon as a decision was rendered? Why not hold it until say 7am Tuesday morning when people were asleep and not yet gathered? In daytime? Wouldn’t those actions have reduced somewhat the potential for violence?


    Why was the prosecutor, Robert McCulloch, Seemingly Smirking?

    Why was the prosecutor, Robert McCulloch, whose very title implies his task before a grand jury, seemingly so pleased with the result? Throughout his press conference, he went out of his way to chastise the media and mock discrepancies among the witnesses to Brown’s shooting. This was unprofessional at the very minimum, and did nothing to calm tensions or create the impression of a fair process.

    Every attorney knows that in any situation witnesses will disagree with one another. The shooting occurred within seconds, and each witness saw it from a different location, so of course statements will vary. And indeed it is possible in any criminal situation that some witnesses may lie. McCulloch essentially treated this as some sort of unique facet of the Brown case. He kept referring to the significant gaps between the physical evidence and witness statements, yet the key thing, what initially happened between Michael Brown and Darren Wilson at the window of the police car, was by its nature not able to be supported or refuted by any physical evidence (What was said? Who acted first? At what point did Wilson shoot?)


    Why was the Physical Evidence of Wilson’s Injury Not Seen as More Significant?

    A key element of showing Darren Wilson was justified in his use of deadly force was the claim that Michael Brown punched/attacked him in his police cruiser, causing Wilson to fear for his life and fire his weapon. The law governing this states “An officer may use lethal force only when the officer reasonably believes that the action is in defense of human life, including the officer’s own life.” To a casual observer, the injuries Wilson sustained, which appear to be minor bruises, do not support the criteria necessary to have fired the first shots or Wilson’s statements that his life was in danger. It was the action at the door of the police car precipitated everything that followed.

    Wilson’s injuries were testified to on page 25 of the transcript. The questions appear only to describe for the record what was evident in the hospital photos, nothing more.


    Given McCulloch’s Personal History, Which Creates the Appearance of Bias, Why did He Handle the Case?

    Everyone knew the Brown killing was among the most controversial and sensitive cases Missouri had seen for a long time. Given the racial tensions and violence that both happened and were worried to happen, avoiding even the appearance of bias seemed a key element in helping tamp down concerns that the issue was treated unjustly. So why was McCulloch allowed to shepherd the case?

    McCulloch has a tragic, close, familial connection to violence. In 1964 his father, a police officer, was shot and killed by an African-American man in a public housing complex. In 2000 McCulloch controversially declined to bring charges against two detectives accused of excessive force in the killing of two unarmed black men, who died after 20 shots were fired into their car by police.

    McCulloch made questionable statements in August as protests unfolded in Ferguson. He criticized Missouri Governor Nixon for replacing St. Louis County police control of the Ferguson protests with officers and leadership from the Missouri State Highway Patrol. “It’s shameful what he did today, he had no legal authority to do that,” McCulloch said at the time. “To denigrate the men and women of the county police department is shameful.” He also praised police: “The abuse that they took on that line was incredible,” he said, in reference to the SWAT and riot teams on call in Ferguson in the early days of the protests. “The use of force, while they were doing it under the circumstances, I don’t think was excessive,” he said.

    A formal accusation of bias towards the police on the part of McCulloch is impossible to demonstrate. The appearance of bias is impossible to ignore. Given the controversy and sensitivity of the Brown killing, was there not anyone else in the state of Missouri who could have prosecuted the case? Why didn’t the governor appoint a special prosecutor as he was able to do?


    Why Did the Grand Jury Take it Upon Themselves to Sort Out the Witnesses Conclusively?

    The point of a grand jury is only to determine if probable cause of a crime, a very low legal hurdle, exists. If it does, they return an indictment and the case goes to trial for resolution. There, in open court with all sides publicly testifying, a jury selected for the specific case goes through all the evidence, and decides which witnesses to believe and which to discard. Cross-examination occurs, particularly of critical witnesses such as Darren Wilson.

    The most significant elements of the case could only be accounted for by Wilson, or Brown. One is dead, and one is fighting for his life. The latter point is often a critical one in a criminal trial and a defendant’s statements exonerating themselves are often looked at very closely. One of the key points of even having a trial is for the trial jury to sort out conflicting evidence; absent a confession, every criminal case has some sort of conflicting evidence.

    It appears that the grand jury took it upon itself not just to decide if probable cause existed, but to try Darren Wilson in secret, without the checks and balances of an open trial.


    What was Said by Prosecutors in Front of the Grand Jury?

    Did prosecutors actually ask for the grand jury to indict? If they did not believe the evidence supported an indictment, why did they take the case to the grand jury instead of dismissing the charges themselves as if normal procedure? It is clear that prosecutors went to great efforts to challenge the credibility of outside witnesses, going as far as labeling some as making up their stories to match publicly-available details.

    Were the same standards applied to the ultimate witness, Darren Wilson? Were his conclusive statements, which some could consider to be self-serving, aggressively challenged? If they were, exposing that would help to calm tensions.

    Wilson’s grand jury testimony is here; it does not appear to contain challenging questioning, but have a look yourself.

    The key element in determining whether Wilson was justified in shooting was the the question of whether Wilson thought his own life was in mortal danger. Wilson made the following statements to the grand jury; were they seen by the jury as unbiased or self-serving, or simply truthful?

    Brown had the “crazy” look of a “demon… It looked like he was almost bulking up to run through the shots, like it was making him mad that I’m shooting at him,” Wilson told the grand jury

    Wilson described Brown as “very aggressive” and was convinced the teen was “gonna kill me.” “It was just like intense,” the officer said. “I’ve never seen anybody look that, for lack of a better word, crazy.”

    Wilson also stated: “He turned, looked at me, made like a grunting noise and had the most intense aggressive face I’ve ever seen on a person.”

    Wilson was a veteran cop. Did anyone challenge his assertion, after years on the streets, that 18-year-old Michael Brown did indeed display the “most intense aggressive face I’ve ever seen on a person.”

    By the way, Brown, according to Wilson on page 225 of the transcript, only made that aggressive face after Wilson shot him the first time.


    So is This Over?

    This one we pretty much know the answer to. With the grand jury’s decision, Darren Wilson will not be criminally charged for killing Michael Brown by the state of Missouri.

    The Federal Department of Justice can charge Wilson with violating Brown’s civil rights, under the Fifth Amendment of the Bill of Rights, for “depriving him of his life.” Civil rights investigations can drag on for years. The Justice Department’s civil rights investigation into George Zimmerman, the neighborhood watch volunteer who fatally shot unarmed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida, is still active after two years with no results expected, well, for a long time.



    More to Come

    I am not a lawyer, and in the short time since the grand jury’s announcement have obviously not yet waded through all 70 hours of testimony and thousands of pages of written documentation, so it is possible that answers to some of these questions may already exist. I hope so, but I worry they don’t.

    What happened in Ferguson matters to us all as Americans. Are we doomed to remain a nation hopelessly, violently adrift in a swamp of racism? Do we have a justice system that is indeed just? Can everyone expect to receive fair treatment in our system, from the moment police confront an alleged criminal to the moment some sort of final decision is reached? Do our police forces exist to “protect and serve,” or does that only apply to some groups of Americans, while for others the police are deadly enemies?

    Without any disrespect, Michael Browns’ come and go. There have been young black men killed under dubious circumstances by the police before Brown, and God help us, there will be more killed under dubious circumstances by the police after Brown.

    Until the real questions of Ferguson are answered, we will do this over and over and over again.



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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!

    Posted in Democracy, Police State, Post-Constitution America

    Ferguson Tourist Board Admits Bad Timing (Satire)

    November 22, 2014 // 19 Comments »

    ferguson


    “Yep, we blew it,” said a sheepish spokesperson for the Ferguson, Missouri tourist promotion board. “We really, really picked a bad week to go all in on our ‘urban young people’ tourism promotion campaign– Ferguson, It’ll Be Cray-Cray Ya’ll!

    With a grand jury decision on the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson expected Sunday, and with many predicting violence to follow that decision in the racially divided city, the tourism board admitted they had egg on their faces.

    “At first we were kind of excited. The hashtag we had been promoting, #Ferguson, really blew up on Twitter, and we were hearing that media from all over the world were block-booking hotel rooms. We mistakenly took all that as signs that our social media campaign had really caught on, until we read about the whole grand jury thing and Michael Brown. I guess we should get a news app on our phones or something. Really, we checked Instagram three or four times and there was nothing. Awkward!”

    In its own defense, the tourism board did emphasize that the campaign had been in the works for months, and that many of the contracts for advertising, billboards and fake friends on social media had to be lined up quite a while ago. “And besides,” said one anonymous staffer, “nobody at city hall returned a phone call or responded to even one of our emails for like, four months, so we just said to ourselves, better ‘go for it!'”

    “And yes, we have already heard that saying we were specifically ‘targeting’ the African-American community with our promotional campaign is really awkward in so many ways. It’s just that our market research showed that so few African-Americans wanted to come to Ferguson for some reason that we figured they were an underserved demographic for us. Then we heard from two different restaurants in town that they actually don’t serve African-Americans, which we obviously misunderstood the meaning of. And who doesn’t make mistakes? That’s why pencils come with erasers. We feel really bad.”

    “But the saddest part of all is that so many people are going to miss some of the great attractions we have here in Ferguson. We have a movie theatre, which we now hope will not be burned down, and the Rite Aid is still open despite the plywood they now have up. For military buffs, the National Guard is going to hold some sort of parade soon. And we heard the state is considering legalized casino gambling, so keep us on your vacation radar.”

    “But maybe wait a week or so.”



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    Posted in Democracy, Police State, Post-Constitution America

    Cop Slaps Man Exercising Rights

    November 17, 2014 // 8 Comments »

    cop


    The Fourth Amendment to the Constitution guarantees your right against an illegal search by the police. Basically, you can only be searched under two conditions: a “lawful” search as defined by decades of Supreme Court decisions and with a warrant.

    (Of course none of this is legal advice and I am not a lawyer. Never make decisions without the advice of a lawyer.)

    Lawful vs. Warranted Search

    What is and is not a “lawful” search can get complicated, and has been the subject of much case law. A really basic example is after you have been properly arrested and are on the way to jail, the cops can search you for weapons without your permission. A warranted search is everything else; the police need to go to court and get permission from a judge to search you. The latter especially applies to enclosed spaces such as your home and car.

    If the cop thinks he has a clear lawful search that will stand up in court, he’ll just go ahead and do it. He does not need your permission. If the cop thinks he would otherwise need a warrant, he will ask your consent to search. If you grant such permission, the search automatically becomes “lawful.” You do not have to consent, and many lawyers will tell you never to do so without legal advice. The cops can be tricky, saying things like “Hey, you don’t mind if I just take a look?” or “So it’s cool if I just check inside, right?” If you nod, shrug or in some cases say nothing in response, that is often seen as granting permission. Some courts have held if you even open a door, or leave one unlocked, or allow the cops into your home “just to talk out of the rain,” that is “permission.” The clearest thing is to say “NO, I do not consent to a search” if that is your intent.

    But the cops don’t always play by the rules. The video shows what happens when they don’t, and now, in America, what happens when you simply exercise your Constitutional rights.





    What Really Happens

    In yet another example of how police officers act today if they don’t know there’s a camera on, a New York sheriff’s deputy was suspended without pay after a video that appears to show him slapping a young man went online. The cop is seen quickly losing patience with a man who did not want his car searched, as is his right under the Fourth Amendment. The cop was suspicious of the two men when he saw a .22-caliber rifle on the back seat of the car. Note that the right to lawfully possess a firearm is also protected by the Second Amendment to the Constitution. The men involved stated they had parked their car at a local business and were walking to a nearby party when confronted by the cop. The man stated his friend had purchased the .22-caliber rifle earlier that day, had a receipt for the weapon.

    “We’ll get a f*cking search warrant,” the cop says, apparently as a response to the man’s insistence that he did not consent to a search. “I wasn’t in my car when all this was happening,” the man says. “Why don’t you want to search my house or something?” The cops then replies “Let me see your f*cking keys.” When the man asks why, the cop is direct: “I’m going to search your f*cking car, that’s why… You wanna f*cking resist?” And that’s when the slap can be heard, although not seen.

    The second man, who was filming, tells the officer what just happened was “intense,” and the cop answers: “You like that, huh? I can get a lot more intense, believe me.” The man replies “Slap me around?” The cop’s answer: “Yeah, I’ll rip your f*cking head off and sh*t down your neck.”

    The cop was unapologetic when contacted by the media. He insisted he “was concerned [about] a public safety issue” and that if he “had to it all over again… I’d probably do the same thing.”


    So there you go, simply another story of what life is like for citizens in Post-Constitutional America. Your rights? You’ll get them when the cops are darn well ready to let you have them.


    Learn more about your right to video the police at Photography is Not a Crime.



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    Posted in Democracy, Police State, Post-Constitution America

    How to Communicate Securely with the Media

    November 15, 2014 // 5 Comments »




    Glenn Greenwald almost missed the story of his career because he didn’t understand how to communicate securely.

    The person Greenwald now knows as Edward Snowden began contacting him via open email, urging Greenwald to learn how to use encryption and other web tools to receive sensitive information. When Greenwald was slow to act, Snowden even made a video tutorial to baby-step him through the necessary procedures. Absent these extraordinary efforts by Snowden, who knows when or even if his game-changing NSA information would have come to light.

    You don’t have to wait for some future Snowden to teach you how to communicate securely, thanks to Trevor Timm, co-founder and the executive director of the Freedom of the Press Foundation.

    SecureDrop

    Freedom of the Press Foundation has helped news organizations install SecureDrop, an open-source whistleblower submission system that helps sources get documents to journalists in a much more anonymous and secure way than email. Currently, journalists at five major news organizations in the United States use SecureDrop. Here’s how to use it:

    — Find a public wifi internet connection that is not connected to your work or home, such as a coffee shop. Take the bus to a new place you’ll not visit again.

    Download and install the Tor Browser Bundle. For more security, also install and use the Tails operating system. For maximum security, run all this off a flash drive you bought with cash, and throw away the drive after one use.

    –Using the Tor Browser, enter in your news organization’s Onion URL (below). Only load this URL inside the Tor Browser.

    — Follow the instructions on the SecureDrop screen.


    Onion URLs

    Here are Onion URLs for the five groups of journalists currently operating SecureDrop:

    The Intercept: y6xjgkgwj47us5ca.onion

    ProPublica: pubdrop4dw6rk3aq.onion

    New Yorker: strngbxhwyuu37a3.onion

    Forbes: bczjr6ciiblco5ti.onion

    Wired’s Kevin Poulsen: poulsensqiv6ocq4.onion


    A Plea to Computer People

    I have heard from many journalists their concern that sources are unaware or incapable of communicating securely. Many times the journalist, who may or may not really understand this stuff, ends up trying to explain it to an already-nervous source whose computer skills may be basic at best. Every one of the writers say the same thing: someone please create a secure system for dummies.

    So, computer people of the web, please consider this. Create a one-button click piece of software that installs all the software needed on a flash drive. The users need only plug in the flash drive and click one button. Create the necessary front ends so that the software can be used by anyone. Please don’t write in and say “But it is already so easy to use.” Experience is that it is not. Think software that your grandma could make work. For better or worse, many people who are or who might communicate important information to responsible journalists need your help. Without your help, many will either not communicate at all, or put themselves at increased risk by communicating insecurely.

    Disclaimer

    Anyone takes great personal risk, including financial ruin and potential jail time, by transmitting to journalists, so all the warnings and caveats apply. Do not leak or transmit classified information. Courts are attacking journalists’ abilities to protect their sources. Though Snowden and others have endorsed the use of systems such as described here, there is no information now available on if/how the NSA can monitor such communications, now or in the future. The FBI has successfully, on a known, limited scale, monitored some parts of the Tor Network. Everything else. This is America, 2014. We’re on our own to fix our country.




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    Posted in Democracy, Police State, Post-Constitution America

    ISIS vs. Imperial Japan Propaganda Showdown

    November 7, 2014 // 6 Comments »

    beheading


    There are basically only two messages in propaganda: our side is good, strong and will win, and their side is evil, weak and will lose. Everything else is just music and narration.


    So to demonstrate how little propaganda statements towards whomever happens to be America’s enemy of the time change, let’s have a look at the 1943 propaganda film here, made to help stir up Americans for the long fight ahead to defeat Imperial Japan during World War II. Everybody likes Japan now, but remember the country that now makes our anime, manga and weird porn used to want to conquer us, even going as far as beheading hostages (sound familiar?)

    The Video



    What We Learn

    In the video we learn many things about the evil Japanese (and ISIS):

    – They are fighting a “Holy War” against the West (no change with ISIS);

    — They are trying to establish a world government with everyone living their austere, Emperor-worshipping lifestyle, with their harsh laws (substitute Caliphate);

    — They fight “fanatically,” and are willing to give their lives for the Emperor, believing Shinto paradise awaits them (substitute Allah and the same Paradise, less virgins on the Japanese side);

    — You “cannot measure the way Japanese think by any Western standard. While their weapons are modern, their thinking and beliefs are 2000 years out of date” (no change with ISIS);

    — The Japanese believe they have a “sacred duty” to fight for the Emperor against all others (ISIS, infidels, Allah, you get it)

    — They are “fanatics, and we must kill them before they destroy our way of life” (no change with ISIS);

    — The Japanese are not nice to their women (no change with ISIS);

    — They hate us (no change with ISIS);

    — They behead hostages (no change with ISIS)



    The Long Con

    Now, this all begs the question: if the core propaganda messages the U.S. government promoted during World War II are nearly identical to those pushed out today via the mass media about ISIS, does that tell us something? Is it that our enemies, as varied as Imperial Japan and ISIS across some sixty-five years of conflicts, are just so much alike, or is it that when America needs a villain, it goes to the same playbook? After all, what works, works.


    Why reinvent the scam?



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    Posted in Democracy, Police State, Post-Constitution America

    Top Ten Govt Things to Be Afraid of for Halloween

    October 31, 2014 // 1 Comment »

    pumpkin


    The government’s main function these days is to promote fear among Americans.

    Fear is good for our current way of life, allowing your opinion and votes to be manipulated, and to make sure you’ll go along with any terrible things the government wishes to do to you (surveillance, wars, detentions, quarantines, shredding of the bill of rights…)

    So, in honor of Halloween, our scariest holiday other than election day, here is the Official Government-Approved List of Fears:

    1) ISIS (they’re everywhere!)

    2) Ebola (it’s everywhere!)

    3) Al Qaeda (still around)

    4) People who tell you not to be afraid (they’re working for the terrorists)

    5) Something (as in “If you see SOMETHING, say something…”)

    6) For Kids: Your hippie parents and Occupy-creepy older siblings (be sure and report them to the nearest friendly Homeland Security personnel, they’ll give you tasty candies!)

    7) That Leatherface guy with the chainsaw and Twisty clown from the TV (they may be ISIS)

    8) The thing under your bed (could be an ISIS thing, and you’re not imagining it, we believe you)

    9) The Boogie-man as you choose to believe in him/her as a higher power (he has ebola and is a Muslim)

    10) People who are not like you based on skin color, preferences, religion, politics and everything else all the time everywhere forever, just to be on the safe side!

    Citizens remember, fear is your only protection against the forces of whatever, evil, so just stay afraid and you’ll be safe!



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    Posted in Democracy, Police State, Post-Constitution America

    U.S. Post Office Spying on Americans Without Oversight

    October 30, 2014 // 4 Comments »

    Dicktracy


    The United States Postal Service disclosed it approved nearly 50,000 requests, called “mail covers,” last year alone from law enforcement to secretly monitor the snail mail of Americans.

    An audit shows the surveillance program is more extensive than widely known and that oversight protecting Americans is lax: 21 percent of the covers examined were approved without even the minimal required written authorization and 13 percent that did have authorization “were not adequately justified.” The Post Office has no standing review procedures.

    Mail Cover is Nothing New, But…

    The Post Office helping spy on Americans per se is nothing new; its program to record your mail’s “metadata,” who sent what to whom, complete with addresses and date/time stamps, has existed in the form of an overt program detailed in federal law called “mail cover” since well before the term metadata was even invented. As mail cover does not involve reading the mail’s contents, only information on the outside of the envelope or package that could be read by anyone seeing the item, it is not considered by precedent a violation of the Fourth Amendment’s protections against unwarranted searches.

    Official versions of mail cover are acknowledged as far back as World War I. But like many such things– wiretapping, border detentions, searches and seizures, old Executive Orders, signing statements– its former existence, restrained in theory and often in practice in Constitutional America, is largely irrelevant now to all but historians. What has happened post-9/11 to mail covers is what has happened to America.

    How Did Mail Cover Use to Work?

    A mail cover has to be requested by a state or federal law enforcement agency. Following internal approval, postal workers intercept the target’s mail before delivery, and record the names, return addresses and any other information from the outside of letters and packages before they are delivered to a person’s home. The Post Office does not notify the recipient or the sender that the cover is in place.

    Prior to 9/11, the process had an old-timey feel to it, almost quaint. In a 2006 leaked instruction manual, agencies seeking a mail cover were told to first fill out a paper form, the External Law Enforcement Request for Mail Cover Template. Law enforcement was reminded to include the Zip +4 for all subjects. An electronic version of the form was supposedly available, but you had to telephone the Post Office personally to get one.

    The template required a paper cover letter requesting the action on agency letterhead, signed by the requesting agent’s supervisor. The form would then need to be put into an envelope marked Restricted Information, with that sealed inside a second envelope, and then snail-mailed via the regular first class, unclassified, mail system, to the appropriate section of the Post Office. Information obtained by the Post Office would be sent back on a Form 2009.

    Implementation was largely also a paper process. One subject learned his mail was being covered after he received a handwritten card, apparently delivered by mistake, with instructions for postal workers to pay special attention to the letters and packages sent to his home. “Show all mail to supv for copying prior to going out on the street,” read the card. The word “confidential” was highlighted in green. Another subject was told he was being covered by his regular mail delivery person.

    The standards for law enforcement to request a mail cover were low; “reasonable grounds that demonstrate the information from the mail cover is necessary to develop evidence in a criminal investigation.” Covers were not to be used as the first step in an investigation (on an honor system) and could not include attorney-client mail if the attorney of record is known (on an honor system.)

    The key point is that absent a specific request to monitor a specific person, the mail was simply delivered as it had been since the time of the pony express.

    Mail Isolation Control and Tracking (MICT)

    Sometime after the anthrax attacks of 2001, when the mail was used to send the poison letters, and its public acknowledgement is 2013, the Post Office created the Mail Isolation Control and Tracking (MICT) system.

    Under the new MICT system, an imaging tool is used to photograph of the exterior of every piece of paper mail processed in the United States. The images are kept, the Post Office says, for 30 days, allowing them to retroactively track mail at the request of law enforcement. There are no stated limits on how long law enforcement may store any information they receive from the Post Office. In addition, mail covers can be extended indefinitely, meaning a flow of data-in for years can be done if desired. MICT is the companion program to the NSA’s efforts: collect everything, store it, and then dig in retroactively. As has been said of the NSA , why look for the needle now, when you can collect the whole haystack? Collect it all, tag it, store it and later, whatever it is you want, search for it.

    Like the metadata obtained from cell phone records, mail covers are “a treasure trove of information,” James Wedick, a former FBI agent, told the New York Times. “Looking at just the outside of letters and other mail, I can see who you bank with, who you communicate with, all kinds of useful information that gives investigators leads that they can then follow up on with a subpoena.”

    As for those subpoenas, and any warrants thought to be needed to actually open and read mail of interest, George W. Bush asserted in a 2007 signing statement that the federal government had the authority to open mail without warrants in emergencies or in foreign intelligence cases. Others have argued such authority has existed since 1978 as part of the original FISA legislation.

    Abuse

    It should be blindingly obvious how the mail cover system, particularly with the broad, digital sweep of MICT available, stands ready to be abused (examples of past abuses are the alternate, secret, mail cover program [HTLINGUAL] run for twenty some years by the CIA, and the FBI’s COUNTERINTELPRO work against Vietnam War opponents.) The current mail cover system operates under no judicial or outside oversight. It relies on numerous assertions, an honor system if you will, by law enforcement that the Post Office cannot verify. The system touches the mail of every American.

    How many Americans have their mail subjected to this scrutiny? In 2013 alone, the Postal Office processed about 50,000 mail covers.

    Abuse? A sample examined by the Postal Service Office of Inspector General (OIG) “found some controls lacking.” For example, 21 percent of the covers examined were approved without even the minimal required written authorization and 13 percent that did have paper requests “were not adequately justified.” The audit also found hundreds of mail covers in active status even though their cover periods had ended. Part of the problem is that the Post Office has no standing review procedures for its own program.

    Other than the referenced OIG report, the Post Office refuses to disclose how many requests for mail covers it has received, nor will it break down the requests by local law enforcement versus federal law enforcement, nor will it specify how many requests are related to criminal investigations and how many deal with national security investigations. In fact, the Post Office has provided false information to some of those questions to the media.


    Conclusion

    On a oddly positive note, the Postal Service Office of Inspector General’s report did find handling of mail cover requests tended to be sloppy and slow, and the case management software ineffective. Such are the things that stand now between Americans and the Post-Constitutional Dark State.

    While small in size compared to the global operations of the NSA, the Post Office mail cover program shares many of the same hallmarks. It grew in size, complexity and technology post-9/11 without adequate safeguards built in, and has operated without those safeguards ever since. It is a secret program affecting all Americans, only disclosed by accident, Freedom of Information Act requests and a few journalists willing to look into the government’s actions. The program moved very quickly from targeting a select few Americans to covering every one of us. Like the actions of the NSA against Americans, the mail cover program at the very least rubs rough against the edges of the Fourth Amendment’s guarantees against unlawful searches, relying on legal precedents created in another era while using secrecy to thwart new legal challenges.

    There are the “it’s just metadata” faux arguments. Can’t someone look over my shoulder at the Post Office anyway? Big deal. Actually, it is a big deal. What is significant about the many disparate elements of a global surveillance system is not pieces of data in isolation (I got a letter today) but how those small elements can be combined to create a comprehensive picture of someone. Location data from phones + credit card transactions + license plate trackers + text messages sent and received + pharmacy purchases + Facebook posts + mail sent and delivered… well, you get it.

    And on perhaps a more personal note, one is left thinking, aw c’mon, now the Post Office too? The Post Office used to be one of the good guys, bringing packages and Christmas cards, creating a kind of a miracle that for about half a buck, a letter with details of Aunt Tillie’s surgery could journey from Ohio to Montana in just a few days. At some level, a lot of Americans were long-suspicious of the NSA, CIA. Sadly, post-9/11, the Post Office now too is just another tool of the surveillance state.



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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!

    Posted in Democracy, Police State, Post-Constitution America

    Movie Review: CitizenFour, Snowden for Lovers and Haters

    October 28, 2014 // 7 Comments »

    citizenfour_poster


    Two kinds of people are interested in Laura Pointras’ new documentary, CitizenFour, about Edward Snowden’s early contacts with journalists Glenn Greenwald, Ewen MacAskill and herself. Let’s have a review of the film for each group, the Haters and the Everyone Else.

    But First, a Quick Recap

    Snowden worked deep inside America’s national security state. His last job was as a contract systems administrator for the NSA. Through this job he obtained a massive trove of documents which, when made public, demonstrated to the world U.S. government electronic surveillance and espionage on a scale even its worst critics had not fully described. The documents also validated the information provided by earlier NSA whistleblowers. Snowden left the U.S. for Hong Kong, where he met the journalists above, and where most of CitizenFour was filmed. Following U.S. government efforts to bring Snowden back to the U.S., he left for Moscow, likely enroute to some other place, possibly Ecuador. He instead spent weeks in suspended status at the Moscow Airport before being granted long-term residency.

    With few exceptions, pretty much everyone can agree with that basic outline of the Snowden story to date, and CitizenFour does a very good job recounting most of it. It is there, however, where agreement ends. CitizenFour (the title comes from the codename Snowden choose for himself when first contacting filmmaker Pointras) cannot be understood independently from the greater Snowden story, and separate from the strong opinions of Snowden’s decisions.


    Review for Real Haters

    If you thought traitors like Chelsea Manning have their hate groups, they aren’t jack compared to what those on the right side (oh yes, pun intended) of the house will think of this film. To them, Pointras has created an evil-genius piece of propaganda, with the give-away starting point that she was a huge part of the Snowden story herself, throwing out any hint of objectivity. Her success at humanizing Snowden, portraying him as the amiable geek-nerd-manchild you could have a Lite beer with, is Riefenstahl-level work.

    This is a celebrity “authorized biography” with all the integrity those have. Apart from making a traitor look good, they’ll say, Pointras also crudely tells only the tidy parts of the story. Snowden’s believed-espionage relationships with Russia and China are glossed over. Many details of his time in Hong Kong and sneaky flights in and out are absent. Nothing is said about why Snowden won’t return to the U.S. to defend his so-called honorable acts in court like a real man would do. Nothing is said about how the NSA keeps America safe from Americans. Snowden is a starry-eyed savior of the left who’d likely smirk from his cozy Russian lair as America is attacked again.

    Review for Everyone Else

    CitizenFour is impressive filmmaking. Pointras starts with the problem of telling a story most people already know, in an engaging way, trying to reach a broad audience in many cases polarized as to her subject, and her Subject. She succeeds brilliantly, and if CitizenFour is not awarded the Academy Award for Best Documentary then that award no longer is relevant.

    To be fair to other films in award contention, Pointras starts from, and makes the most of, some very significant advantages. She is indeed part of the story (a fact she never hides nor diminishes) and thus enjoys a level of trust and access with her subjects almost unavailable to other documentarians. The viewer is in the room as the journalists with Snowden struggle to understand the story he is trying to tell them, working to interpret the documents he shows them and creating on the fly the most effective way to bring this information to the public. It is heady stuff.

    The interplay between Snowden and the journalists is dramatic, but in the sense that it is real human stuff. When Snowden claims he does not care if he is exposed as the whistleblower– he encourages the journalists to name him– they back him off a step, and try to make sure Snowden truly knows the impact such a decision will have on him and people he cares about. Funny things happen, particularly when Snowden realizes he is explaining some technical point to people who are nowhere near his level of expertise (an exchange about password security between Snowden and Greenwald is laugh-out-loud funny.)

    Pointras skillfully weaves her story, presenting it sometimes as if it was a thriller (it is), other times as a classic movie brave journalist saga (it is) and often times as a profile of a man everyone thinks they know but does not (it is that too.)

    Parts of Snowden’s journey from Hawaii to Moscow are omitted. Most sentient members of the audience will understand they have to be, given the global efforts underway to nab Snowden, and the need to protect the many people who played a role who choose to or need to remain anonymous. None of that is new in a documentary– turn on the evening news and witnesses speak in shadowy profile, while most docs about the CIA or the NSA alter voices and employ false names for the same reasons. Anyone expecting Pointras’ film to be a How to Catch Edward Snowden for Dummies will indeed be disappointed.

    Perhaps most powerfully, Pointras’ portrait of Snowden is of a whistleblower for a new generation. He is passionate, but in a laid-back way, confident in his actions such that his passion comes from within, maybe call it a kind of intellectual hipster patriotism. He is political, but in a small “p” way, moving through classic Left and Right into a place where many people feel more comfortable today, with a focus on issues such as privacy and authoritarianism above two sides shouting “Facist!” and “Hippie!” at each other in some news show’s clumsy attempt at their parents’ version of balance. When dealing with the older journalists in that hotel room, Snowden at times sounds like many young people do explaining how the DVR works to moms and dads dully mystified by but stuck being dependent on new technologies.

    And there (partisan now, no shame) lies CitizenFour’s most long-lasting contribution. There are millions of young men and women working inside the Dark State, often times with impressive levels of access to information. Like Snowden, they have seen evidence of government wrongdoing, obscenities directed at the Constitution, harm done to ordinary citizens. Almost every one of those people will remain silent, partners to the crimes. But maybe– just maybe– one out of a million will see a role model, an example, that rings true in CitizenFour, and stand to speak.

    If it was up to me, I’d have this movie play in every theatre in the Washington DC area 24/7, because s/he is out there.



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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!

    Posted in Democracy, Police State, Post-Constitution America

    Is Forced Quarantine for Ebola Legal?

    October 27, 2014 // 1 Comment »




    New York and New Jersey this week instituted mandatory confinement for certain people exposed to ebola. Illinois announced its own mandatory quarantine, and Florida has instituted a home-quarantine version.

    Is it legal for a state (or the federal) government to detain and quarantine you against your will for health reasons? Yes. Has this sort of thing been done before? Yes. Will it be effective? No. Is it just a political ploy to garner votes from a panicked public? Oh my yes.



    Is it legal for a state (or the federal) government to detain and quarantine you against your will for health reasons?

    Yes. The federal government derives its authority for isolation and quarantine from the Commerce Clause of the Constitution. Under the Public Health Service Act, the Secretary of Health and Human Services is authorized to take measures to prevent the entry and spread of communicable diseases.

    The authority for carrying out these measures is been delegated to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Under 42 Code of Federal Regulations parts 70 and 71, CDC is authorized to apprehend, detain, and examine people arriving to the United States and traveling between states who are suspected of carrying communicable diseases.

    Though the paranoid-a-sphere rediscovers these provisions on a regular basis and makes much of them, the basic idea of the government forcibly quarantining people for the sake of public health goes back into the 19th century.

    That said, the power to detain and quarantine often is left to the states, and both New York and New Jersey law provide for it. New York allows the decision to be challenged in a magistrate court; New Jersey does not have a similar law, though technically any form of detention can be broadly challenged under habeas corpus. But good luck with that– the Florida Supreme Court laid down the precedent in saying “The constitutional guarantees of life, liberty and property, of which a person cannot be deprived without due process of law, do not limit the exercise of the police power of the State to preserve the public health so long as that power is reasonably and fairly exercised and not abused.”



    Has this sort of thing been done before?

    Yes. The Florida precedent case cited above dealt with forced quarantine of a tuberculous patient in 1952.

    Just recently in Dallas, Texas, after her boyfriend was diagnosed as the first ebola case in the United States, Louise Troh and her family were asked not to leave their home. When Troh tried to leave anyway, a Dallas judge issued a confinement order, forcing a quarantine on Troh and her family. Police stationed outside of the family’s home enforced the order.

    In 2007, a 27-year-old man was forcibly placed in a Phoenix hospital ward reserved for sick prisoners. The man suffered from a deadly strain of tuberculosis known as XDR-TB. Doctors say he is virtually untreatable. He has been forced to live in a hospital cell in complete isolation.

    Though never implemented, in 1985 at the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, a majority of Americans favored quarantine of patients, with 48 percent approving of identity cards for those who tested HIV-positive, and 15 percent of Americans even supporting tattooing those with AIDS to mark them as “dangerous.”

    Further back in America’s history are multiple examples of forced quarantine, including Hawaiian leper colonies, and the isolated TB wards and Ellis Island medical isolations of the 19th century.

    The record is not pretty, but the record exists.



    Will it be effective for ebola?

    No. The New York and New Jersey quarantine laws at present only apply to a) health care workers b) returning from African “hot zone” countries through c) only two airports, JFK and Newark who d) had contact with ebola. That’s a very select group, chosen largely because New York’s sole ebola patient fit that exact profile. Persons such as regular travelers who fit the same profile,or persons who just flew internationally with the profiled individuals, are not included.

    In addition, the New York and New Jersey plans seem to rely 100 percent on individuals who fit the profile self-identifying themselves for the mandatory quarantine. Anyone who wished to avoid it, especially a health professional who knew s/he was not an active carrier based on clearly identifiable and well-known symptoms such as a high fever, could just dummy up at the airport. Alternately, s/he could route flights to land somewhere else and take the bus home to Manhattan.

    What does happen when a healthcare worker enters this quarantine system? There is only one example in New Jersey so far, and it is not a pretty one. Kaci Hickox, returning from volunteer work in Sierra Leone, was detained against her will for seven hours at Newark Liberty International Airport on Friday before being forcibly transferred to a local hospital, escorted by eight police cars, where she will be held for an unspecified period of time. Hickox did not have a fever when brought to the hospital and has tested negative for ebola, yet is inside the system now and those things do not appear to matter.

    Quarantining actually infectious people, who may indeed be a danger to public health is one thing. But like taking off our shoes and other security theatre that followed 9/11, the quarantine plan seems designed more for show than any hint of practicality.



    Is it just a political ploy to garner votes from a panicked public?

    Oh my yes. All of the state governors who pushed the plan through without the endorsement of the CDC or New York’s mayor are in election battles. The governors of New York, Illinois and Florida are up for reelection in about a week, and New Jersey governor Chris Christie is famously testing the waters for a possible 2016 presidential run. New York’s mayor is not up for reelection for years.

    Fear-mongering works; ask any politician who has beaten the drum of “9/11, 9/11, 9/11″ since, well, 9/11. People are scared, mostly based on ignorance fanned by media who themselves seek to profit from fear.

    That sort of disease seems more dangerous in the long run than a handful of ebola patients.




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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!

    Posted in Democracy, Police State, Post-Constitution America

    Republicans Welcome Ebola (Satire)

    October 25, 2014 // 6 Comments »

    ebola-cnn


    Giggling, the Chairperson of the Republican Party could barely contain himself when he learned a major hurricane was headed for the east coast of the United States. “Can anyone tell me if it’ll hit any blue states hard? We can always use some extra help I guess, but with ISIS and ebola, maybe that would be piling on. We live in great times.”

    Documents show that the entire Republican midterm strategy is based on creating a perfect storm of fear in the U.S., combining over-reaction and panic over ISIS with growing fears of an apocalyptic ebola epidemic sweeping through the nation’s gun shows. “Friends,” the chair continued, “This could be like the election after Watergate, when the Dems could have run nearly anyone, even a nut job like Jimmy ‘James’ Carter, and won. We just need to tie Obama a little bit more directly to the ebola thing and we are in, control of the Senate.” The chair actually lit a comically large Cuban cigar at that point.

    According to leaked documents left at a Chili’s by Edward Snowden while changing planes in Atlanta enroute from Moscow to a vacation villa outside Vladivostok, the initial Republican plan was to convince its base that ISIS operatives were everywhere. “The party must let every voter know that ISIS is dressed as terrifying clowns out there and plans to eat their dogs and behead their fat kids. That will be a money shot for November.”

    But as confident as the Republicans were after encouraging Fox, then CNN and then Cartoon Network to run ISIS beheading videos 24/7 as part of the plan, even their senior leaders admit ebola was a surprise gift. “Think about it. Unlike terrorism, which has basically killed no one in the U.S. since 9/11 but still controls our daily lives, ebola is an actual thing. We don’t even have to make this one up. And, and this is the best part of all, it comes from Africa, er, you know, um, from “not white people” which speaks to our Red State voters’ most cherished beliefs. And two boneheaded nurses in Dallas can’t remember enough high school biology to even wash their hands, followed by the CDC– Obama’s CDC– telling one of them it was OK to fly. And then– praise Saint Reagan in heaven– she flew to Cleveland, in Ohio, a major contested state. It writes itself: Obama is trying to kill Ohio. Our guys are already ordering furniture for their new Senate office spaces.”

    “More? Obama appoints some guy as ‘Ebola Czar” who has no medical experience. What, was Dr. Oz not taking calls? Yeppers, nothing inspires people to have faith in their leaders like choosing a bureaucrat they never heard of to save their very lives. And that bit about Secretary of State Kerry having to get involved in trying to get Belize to allow our ‘Ebola Cruise Ship’ permission to dock, and then failing? Right again, seeing old Mr. Muppet stumble makes our lives here in the Republican party easier and easier. That stuff screams incompetence. Heck, we should have carpet bombed Belize in retaliation.”

    “Travel ban from Africa?” said the chairman. “Yeah, we talk a tough game but we’d be opposed to marshmallows and hot chocolate if the Democrats came out in favor. No, no, no, we don’t want a travel plan. Bring us a bunch of infected Liberians. If say a couple of thousand American get sick with the ebola, 99 percent of healthy America votes for us, fish in a barrel. Maybe we’ll get some redneck to hold a benefit concert or whatever.”

    “Am I cynical? I don’t even know the meaning of that word. Fear is our best business tool, and friends, business is good. I’m seeing us ride this wave of paranoia and hysteria all the way!”



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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!

    Posted in Democracy, Police State, Post-Constitution America

    Can the US Seize Would-Be Jihadis’ Passports?

    October 24, 2014 // 2 Comments »




    The person who shot up the Canadian Parliament had had his passport taken away by the Canadian government, ostensibly to prevent him from traveling to Syria to join ISIS


    Can the U.S. government seize the passports of American citizens who it believes may travel abroad to join ISIS or other terror groups? Yep. The process is almost no-cost to the government, extra-judicial, can be made secret and requires a lengthy court process to even try to contest. No passport, no international travel, the ultimate no-fly tool against would-be jihadis. So why hasn’t this process been used more often?


    Scary Stories

    Leaving aside the not-insubstantial questions about their validity, the warnings are ominous.

    With some Americans seeking to join ISIS, there are fears that on their return they may commit terror in the U.S. Unlike foreign citizens, these radicalized Americans would sail through immigration checks and be able to easily disappear into a familiar society. The U.S. is seeking to tackle the problem at the supply end, preventing Americans from departing to join ISIS in the first place, as well as from the other side, blocking citizens from returning freely to the United States.

    The arrest at O’Hare airport of Mohamed Khan, a 19-year-old U.S. citizen, is one example. Authorities claim the young man headed to the Middle East to join ISIS, and, citing a left-behind note explaining his choice, waited at the airport to arrest Khan on charges of attempting to provide material support for a terrorist organization. The operation involved significant law enforcement resources to stop one teenager based largely on suspicion.


    Another Tool in the Box

    The United States can simply seize passports from American citizens if “The Secretary of State determines that the applicant’s activities abroad are causing or are likely to cause serious damage to the national security or the foreign policy of the United States.”

    The law allows this prospectively, the “or are likely to cause” part of the law, meaning the person needn’t have done anything. The government just needs to think they might.

    A Judicial Watch Freedom of Information Act request revealed that prior to Obama ordering him and his 16-year-old son to be killed by a drone in 2011, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton secretly revoked the passport of Anwar al-Awlaki, alleged al Qaeda propagandist and U.S. citizen. The two would not have been able to travel to the United States without handing themselves over to law enforcement. Indeed, a letter to that effect was allegedly sent to some address in Yemen inviting al-Awlaki to visit the American Embassy to discuss the details.

    Al-Awlaki isn’t the only person in Yemen to have his U.S. passport seized.

    According to information obtained through a U.S. government whistleblower involved directly with U.S.-Yemeni affairs, the American embassy in Sanaa, Yemen seized over one hundred U.S. passports from Yemeni-Americans (some place the number at 500 passports) between 2011 and 2013. Only after several legal battles did the State Department curtail its actions. Though State publicly claims the seizures were an anti-fraud measure, many in the Yemeni community saw them as a pilot program.

    A similar case involved the seizure of a Moroccan-American’s passport in Kuwait.

    The actions at the American embassy in Yemen may fit into a larger pattern. For example, at the same time in 2011 the U.S. was ramping up its actions against Yemeni-Americans, Australia appeared to be doing much the same thing. “Withholding passports is an important means of preventing Australians from traveling overseas to train, support or participate in terrorism,” an Australian government spokesperson said. “It may also be used to help prevent an Australian already overseas from participating in activities that are prejudicial to the security of Australia or another country.”


    How are Passport Seizures Legal?

    Restrictions on travel suffered under the British were part of the list of “injuries and usurpations” in the Declaration of Independence. So don’t Americans have a right to travel?

    Nope. The precedent was set by infamous ex-CIA officer Philip Agee, who in the 1970′s exposed CIA officers identities. It was in Agee’s case that the Supreme Court coldly affirmed that “The right to hold a passport is subordinate to national security and foreign policy considerations.” A lower court put it even more bluntly: “The Secretary [of State] may preclude potential matches from the international tinderbox.”

    The basic premise is that travel abroad (travel within the U.S. is specifically provided for in the Constitution, though the No-Fly list certainly can limit one’s options) is that it is an “aspect” of liberty subject to restraint under due process. In the 1950’s, American Communists were often denied passports if their travel abroad was believed to be in support of their political beliefs, a policy later overturned by the Supreme Court. The Court struggled to balance national security and personal liberty regarding travel through multiple cases, but has never concluded that travel– or having a passport– is a fundamental right.


    Some History

    The whole concept of Americans requiring passports to travel has its roots in national security restrictions. With the exception of roughly the years of the Civil War and World War I, Americans did not need a passport to enter the United States. Americans were first required as a group to hold passports at the start of the Second World War. The travel requirements instituted in the past only during times of national crisis stuck around after WWII through the present day, formalized in the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952. With echoes of current government actions, what was created as a wartime contingency morphed into a permanent peacetime restriction. The history of passport restrictions is not long, but does resonate into the post-9/11, Post-Constitutional era.

    While no right to travel per se exists for Americans, there is a basic assumption, rooted in the Citizenship Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution that Americans have something between an expectation, an entitlement and an implied right to return to the United States from abroad, rooted in the concept of citizenship. The ease with which passports can be seized (or boarding an aircraft denied via the No-Fly list) is not seen in conflict; in al-Awlaki’s case, he would have been welcome to come home, albeit in leg irons en route to federal SuperMax. Time is also an issue. How long the government may make a citizen wait before allowing a return to the U.S. under some specific circumstances is not codified and thus can be used as a de facto seizure or punishment without raising a case publicly.


    Why Doesn’t the Government Seize More Passports?

    In short, for an American citizen to travel abroad, whether for vacation or jihad, the government’s permission, in the form of a passport, is required. So why then does the government not use such a long-tested authority to deny or seize the passports of those suspected for traveling to join terror groups?

    While the real answer is obviously unknowable, several ideas may help explain this. First is that in fact such measures might be taking place. Persons who have not yet applied for a passport may find themselves denied issuance, and applications may have been denied or “in processing” without the applicant knowing the reason. The government is under no obligation to tell the person involved nor the media that national security has been invoked.

    More likely however, it is a matter of legal timidity and public relations. Arresting and trying someone for material support for terrorism is something of a set-piece case for post-9/11 law enforcement. There is little legal controversy generated, and almost no danger under present circumstances of any nasty precedent being set. Wide-spread passport seizures could easily create a new chance to bring the issue before the Supreme Court, risky business for a government that much prefers to act as it wishes vis-vis American’s rights.

    The other reason for restraint may simply be public relations. The public is familiar and appears supportive of arrests. Law enforcement in these circumstances are the good guys. Passport seizures sound a bit harsh, totalitarian-like, and are technically done under the authority of the Department of State, who does not enjoy the good guy reputation many attribute to the law enforcement people who “keep us safe.” It could be as simple as law enforcement not being willing to work with the State Department for bureaucratic reasons.

    Regardless, these are dark seas. In a democracy, the right of citizens to depart and return should not on its face be restricted in the interest of the government. The idea of limiting an American citizen’s travel proactively, on the assumption that she or he will end up fighting with ISIS based on documents or web postings, scrapes at liberty, even if the tools are there and it is legal to use them.



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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!

    Posted in Democracy, Police State, Post-Constitution America

    Local LE Chipping Away at the Fourth Amendment

    October 23, 2014 // 1 Comment »

    bill-of-rights


    The Bill of Rights was designed to protect the People from their government. That’s quite literally becoming history today as new challenges, now from local law enforcement, chip away at the Fourth Amendment’s protections of privacy. New laws and devices spread spying on Americans to the local level.

    A Brief Explanation of Post-Constitutional America

    The cornerstone of the Bill of Rights was that the People grant exceptions to those rights to the Government. Absent those specific exceptions, the rest of the stuff was inalienable, not up for grabs, not dependent in any way on Government’s decision to grant or withhold them. Constitutional America was clearly imperfect, but the underlying premise spoke of a striving toward an ideal.

    The cornerstone of Post-Constitutional America is just the opposite. The People have what rights the Government chooses to allow them to have, such that privacy is the exception, free speech a variable, torture a tool to be used or withheld as the Government finds appropriate. It is a turning on its head of Constitutional America, back to a time when a tyrant and king (may we call old King George an “evil dictator” to use the preferred language of today?) controlled Americans’ daily lives by decree.

    It should be unnecessary to have to argue the critical importance of the Fourth Amendment, but these days it seems necessary. If the First Amendment’s right to speak out publicly was the People’s wall of security, then the Fourth Amendment’s right to privacy was its buttress. Privacy is the right to think without the Government intruding. It is part of being American. If you want to personally give it away for yourself, feel free, but you are required to allow others to exercise it.

    9/11 Changed Everything

    Under the umbrella of post-9/11 fear, the relationship between the Government and the People of the United States changed. As early NSA whistleblowers Thomas Drake, Bill Binney, Kirk Wiebe and others made clear, within days after the attacks, the vast capability of the NSA was turned 180 degrees away from sites abroad toward a new definition of the People: we were now targets.

    Such acts, along with flimsy pieces of faux-legislation such as the Patriot Act, were not only harmful to our privacy by themselves, they also sent clear signals to law enforcement at all levels that new rules applied; after all, if the federal government was spying on Americans in clear contrivance of the Fourth Amendment, then why couldn’t local law enforcement do the same? With such tacit approval, and the redefining of every person in America as a potential terrorist, it all fell into place.

    So while the Snowden NSA revelations expose violations of the Fourth Amendment on the largest scale, let’s examine some examples of how those big-scale acts filter down to local levels.

    Los Angeles

    In 2008 the city of Los Angeles passed municipal ordinance 41.49 requiring hotels to gather, hold for at least 90 days and make available upon request a large amount of information on their guests. The information included guests’ credit card number, home address, driver’s license information and vehicle license number. Several dozen other cities, including Atlanta and Seattle, passed similar ordinances.

    Ordinarily the police would need to show probable cause, and to seek individual warrants on a person-by-person, case-by-case basis, to gather such information. The L.A. ordinance, however, allows police to simply demand it from a hotel, with no judicial or other oversight. The premise was that the information was the property of the hotel once the guest voluntarily surrendered it in order to stay the night. Personal information transformed into “business records,” L.A. argues, is inherently less “private” than personal information per se.

    Similarities to how the NSA collected mountains of phone call data from places like Verizon, claiming it too was simply now part of business records routinely available per the Patriot Act, are noted.

    The U.S. Supreme Court, after two opposite rulings through lower courts, has agreed to hear the case after the City of Los Angeles’ petition to do so. L.A. claims “These laws expressly help police investigate crimes such as prostitution and gambling, capture dangerous fugitives and even authorize federal law enforcement to examine these registers, an authorization which can be vital in the immediate aftermath of a homeland terrorist attack.”

    In addition to the clear, broad Fourth Amendment violations, opponents cite the reality that information, once gathered, can be disseminated anywhere for any purpose. Data gathered in L.A. for a perhaps legitimate gambling investigation can go on to populate an infinite number of databases indefinitely for an undeterminable range of purposes into the future. It does not go away. It waits to be used.

    And all that brings us to Virginia.

    Virginia Police Collect and Share Phone Data

    Five local police departments in southeastern Virginia have been secretly and automatically sharing telephone data and compiling it into a large database for nearly two years. According to a 2012 memorandum of understanding published for the first time this week by the Center for Investigative Reporting (the database had been kept secret from the public,) the police departments from Hampton, Newport News, Norfolk, Chesapeake, and Suffolk all participate in something called the “Hampton Roads Telephone Analysis Sharing Network.”

    Those police departments “agree to share telephone intelligence information derived from any source,” including subpoenaed telephone call detail records, subpoenaed telephone subscriber information, and seized mobile devices. The telephone intelligence information will be stored in the master Pen-Link telephone database and participating agencies can make inquires of the database by either telephone or e-mail contact with a member.”

    Such data transfers, the document goes on to explain, can happen automatically if the agency agrees to have certain software installed on their computer, or via e-mail or DVD. No information is available as to what, if any, data security protocols are in place.

    The significance of such data transfer cannot be underplayed. The assumption by the police is that any data gathered legally– for example, under warrant, after a showing of probable cause specific to a case or incident– can then be stored, shared and repurposed forever as the police see fit. The shaky legal premise for this whole system is that once taken in via some sort of legal means (though of course there is no outside control that all of the data was gathered legally), the data becomes akin to common property, and no further justification or judicial oversight needs to be applied to its use, any use, ever, forever.

    An even shakier legal premise it that a secret database of any kind can be maintained by the police: Virginia law, The Government Data Collection and Dissemination Practices Act, specifically states “There shall be no personal information system whose existence is secret.”

    Not an End in Sight

    Local actions have commonalities with the larger actions the NSA has been doing. The use of the collective where the law intended the individual– a single phone call versus redefining every call as a single set of business records– is clear. The manipulation of a legal act, such as collecting information via a warrant and then repurposing it into a general pool of data in Virginia, is also a marker of modern times. The most significant commonality between local actions and federal ones is the broad contempt for civil liberties. And that describes Post-Constitutional America as clearly as anything else.

    The examples above are, or likely soon will be, going to be tested in court. Other offenses to the Fourth Amendment have fallen to the People’s side: In 2012, a court ruled law enforcement authorities generally need search warrants when they attach GPS devices to a vehicle. In July 2014, the Supreme Court said that the authorities need warrants to dive into the mobile phones of people they arrest.

    At the same time, the proliferation of low-cost surveillance devices, such as license plate scanners and Stingray, continue to raise new questions even as a handful of older ones are resolved. The battle against the tyrant King George continues.



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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!

    Posted in Democracy, Police State, Post-Constitution America

    The State Dept. Says I Shouldn’t Write This

    October 17, 2014 // 7 Comments »




    (Friday) The State Department says I shouldn’t write this article. They have regulations that tell former employees like me what we should and should not say, and that’s wrong in America.

    As some readers may know, I am former employee of the Department of State, and after publishing a book critical of State’s efforts in the previous Iraq War We Meant Well, I was subjected to a year of legal battles, including threat of prosecution.

    But standing up for your rights is a part of having those rights. A free society is based on a marketplace of ideas, that free speech thing we all learned about in civics class. We all need to hear from all sides to become the “informed citizenry” that Thomas Jefferson said was so essential to a democracy. And who better to enlighten the public about how their government really works than former federal employees, the people who were on the inside, now private citizens?


    It would be wrong then for a former employer, as codified into its agency regulations, to expect its retirees to “refrain from engaging in activities of any kind, including writing manuscripts or giving speeches, which would be prejudicial to the foreign policy interests of the United States.” But that is exactly what the U.S. Department of State does.

    They even wrote it down, stating (emphasis added):

    Former employees are expected to refrain from engaging in activities of any kind, including writing manuscripts or giving speeches, which would be prejudicial to the foreign policy interests of the United States.

    Former employees are encouraged to make public appearances and write manuscripts for unofficial publication which constructively contribute to the interests and objectives of the Department of State and the Government.

    So let’s get this straight. Private citizens, who happened to once work for the State Department in some capacity, perhaps not even one directly connected to policy issues, are expected to not say anything in a public forum against the interests of the United States? And they are encouraged to say things that contribute to the objectives of the Department of State? Just ’cause?


    Though this all smacks of some sort of Orwellian attempt to coerce, er, expect, a class of private citizens to propagandize, um, engage in activities, that use their authority and reputation as former State Department employee to promote only the side of a discussion that supports the government’s position, I’ll play along. I have to right, as a Good Citizen?

    But I think the problem will be in how the State Department and I might differ on just what the “interests and objectives of the Department of State and the Government” are that I am told because I once worked there I must support.

    But let’s start with something we can agree on. The State Department’s Mission Statement says in part that the agency should seek to “Shape and sustain a… democratic world.” I agree.

    But I disagree that admonishments to spew the government line as a private citizen, as State wants, contribute to that goal. Instead, I believe that exercising my First Amendment rights as a private citizen contribute much to democracy. Any exercise of rights strengthens a democracy, the same as any attacks on those rights diminish it. Bleating out the party line is for countries ruled by parties. Did you know that North Korea’s interests and objectives include claiming Kim Il Sung invented the television? I guess their former employees are encouraged and expected to write nice things in comments on YouTube and stuff about that.

    Welcome to another episode of Post-Constitutional America, where the old rules do not apply. See something, say something, unless you used to work for the State Department and what you say does not agree with the government’s version of things.

    But oh! Some feel that is too much, too dramatic. Fair enough. The whole problem is not that State can ever enforce these rules– they can’t– it is that they exist as a testament to how they think. It’s that whole idea of “loyalty” above all else, and of course the hypocrisy of saying how important dissent is while trying very hard to stifle it. At the end of the day such things erode employees. So many just kind of give up and stop caring too much about what they do and just glide through the motions.



    BONUS: The same section of regulation quoted above also says “The State Department will be glad to furnish, upon request, advice, assistance, and copies of printed publications to former employees who wish to obtain information on particular subjects.” Or not. I have asked State for comment and “advice” on these regulations and have not received any response.

    FYI: State has not contacted me personally about anything I have written. This article is based on State’s regulations. Whether currently enforced in some way or not, their existence is reason enough to call out.





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    Posted in Democracy, Police State, Post-Constitution America

    Fact-Checking North Korea Propaganda about America (They’re Right)

    October 14, 2014 // 6 Comments »




    While we wait on more news of now-you-see-him, now-you-don’t Kim Jong Un, let’s peek into his country. What kind of world is it when North Korean propaganda about the United States is more correct than crazy? Let’s fact-check and see how the Northerners did.

    The Korean Central News Agency Schools You

    North Korea isn’t known as a big internet kind of place, but they do have a propaganda/news agency in Japan that stays busy. The funny ties between North Korea and Japan are always worth a look; Japan imported vast numbers of Koreans during World War II as slave labor. Many ended up staying as the Korean War broke out, and divided themselves into groups supporting the North and South. There are now some 600,000 Koreans in Japan, many of whom are second- and third-generationals born in Japan.

    So, the Korean Central News Agency, run by sympathtic Koreans working out of Japan, had some issues with the U.S., excerpted here. Let’s see what they have to say using their original English, with the fact-checking part in [brackets]:

    Model for Human Rights
    As the world’s worst human rights abuser, it [the U.S.] pretended to be a “model” in human rights performance. [Note: See “a shining city on a hill” claims by presidents from Obama back]

    Racism
    Racialism is getting more severe in the U.S. The gaps between the minorities and the whites are very wide in the exercise of such rights to work and elect. The U.S. true colors as a kingdom of racial discrimination was fully revealed by last year’s case that the Florida Court gave a verdict of not guilty to a white policeman [sic] who shot to death an innocent black boy. [Note: See Michael Brown, Donald Sterling, Trayvon Martin or this.]

    Unemployment
    At present, an average of 300,000 people a week are registered as unemployed, but any proper measure has not been taken. [Here the North Koreans are wrong; the Labor Department reported 377,000 people filed for initial unemployment benefits in the week ended January 21, up 21,000 from a revised reading of 356,000 claims the week before.]

    Housing Prices
    The housing price soared 11.5 percent last year than 2012 and 13.2 percent in January this year than 2013, leaving many people homeless. [Close; prices in 20 cities rose 12.9 percent year over year.]

    Poverty
    The number of impoverished people increased to 46.5 millions last year, and one sixth of the citizens and 20-odd percent of the children are in the grip of famine in New York City. [North Korea nailed it! In 2012, 46.2 million people in the United States lived in poverty. The nation’s official poverty rate was 15.0%. By the way according to the U.S. government, if you as a single person earn more than $11,344 you are officially not impoverished. The bar seems pretty low– the average one-bedroom apartment rent in Tulsa, Oklahoma is about $7500 a year, leaving you as a non-poverty person with a sweet, sweet $3800 to eat, pay utilities, car, clothes, etc. Most places in America have higher costs of living than Tulsa.]

    Crime
    All sorts of crimes rampant in the U.S. pose a serious threat to the people’s rights to existence and their inviolable rights. [North Korea again! Here’s a map showing crime in the U.S. outstrips most of its peers in Europe and elsewhere.]

    Surveillance
    The U.S. government has monitored every movement of its citizens and foreigners, with many cameras and tapping devices and even drones involved, under the pretext of “national security”. [Don’t make me Google Snowden and NSA for you on this one please.]

    Murder
    Meanwhile, bills on easing arms control were adopted in various states of the country, boosting murderous crimes. As a result, the U.S. has witnessed an increasing number of gun-related crimes in all parts of the country and even its military bases this year. In this regard, the United Nations on April 10 put the U.S. on the top of the world list of homicide rates. [OK, the North Koreans are a little fuzzy on this one, depending on how you define homicide. For large swaths of the MidEast and the developing world, people get killed all the time, in great numbers. Here’s the data. I was unable to tease out any broad statistics that separate a criminal kind of murder like on TV from war and suicide bombs kind of murder. But here’s one stat that supports the North Korean assertion: in 2006 in the US, there are roughly 17,000 murders, of which about 15,000 were committed with firearms. By contrast, Britain, Australia and Canada combined saw fewer than 350 gun-related murders each year. In the year that the U.S. saw 17,000 murders overall, there were only 794 in Germany.]

    Prisoners
    The U.S. also has 2.2 millions of prisoners at present, the highest number in the world. For lack of prisons on the part of the government, individuals are providing detention facilities to make money. [Wrong! The U.S. has 2.4 million people behind bars, about one percent of our entire population. The most serious charge against 51 percent of those inmates is a drug offense. Only four percent are in for robbery and only one percent are in for homicide. Racism? Black men were more than six times as likely as white men to be incarcerated.]

    Hail to the Chief
    Its chief executive, Obama, indulges himself in luxury almost every day, squandering hundred millions of dollars on his foreign trip in disregard of his people’s wretched life. [Gotta call this one for the North Koreans. While the White Houses never discloses costs for trips because “so much of the money is for security,” Air Force One, the president’s personal 747, costs $228,000 an hour to operate. A typical overseas trip involves eleven or more aircraft, including C-5 transports, aerial refuelers and small passenger jets that fly along with Air Force One. The president also likely enjoys fighter air cover and AWACs support, costs unknown.

    About a decade ago, the General Accounting Office released two fairly detailed reports on President Bill Clinton’s foreign travels (here and here). Secret Service costs were omitted as classified, but other government expenses were tallied up. A Clinton trip to six countries in Africa in 1998 rang up at $42.8 million, most of that for military aircraft costs. A trip to Chile came in at $10.5 million. A trip to China that year cost $18.8 million.

    Details are hard to find online, but my own experience with presidential visits from 24 years in the State Department is that typically entire floors of hotels or more are booked “for security,” hundreds of local cell phones are purchased and usually the president’s food is flown in, sometimes the water he’ll drink as well. One unsubstantiated report said Obama’s party booked over 500 hotel rooms on a trip to India.

    (Former Foreign Service Officer John Brown has a detailed, funny, from-the-ground account of a presidential visit)



    (North Korea is an awful place with horrendous human rights abuses. This article is about the U.S., not North Korea.)




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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!

    Posted in Democracy, Police State, Post-Constitution America

    America is Unaccountable

    October 12, 2014 // 12 Comments »




    I have a working idea for a new book, titled “America is Unaccountable.” The book will detail chapter-by-chapter how what we say and what we do as a nation diverge.

    War is Peace, Hate is Love, that kind of thing. Drone killings of wedding parties are for our freedom. NSA reading our Facebook stops terrorism. Congress cutting food stamps versus the Pentagon not being held even mildly accountable for trillions.

    What? Here’s a report from Reuters:

    The Pentagon is largely incapable of keeping track of its vast stores of weapons, ammunition and other supplies; thus it continues to spend money on new supplies it doesn’t need and on storing others long out of date. It has amassed a backlog of more than half a trillion dollars in unaudited contracts with outside vendors; how much of that money paid for actual goods and services delivered isn’t known. And it repeatedly falls prey to fraud and theft that can go undiscovered for years, often eventually detected by external law enforcement agencies.

    There’s more:

    Because of its persistent inability to tally its accounts, the Pentagon is the only federal agency that has not complied with a law that requires annual audits of all government departments. That means that the $8.5 trillion in taxpayer money doled out by Congress to the Pentagon since 1996, the first year it was supposed to be audited, has never been accounted for. That sum exceeds the value of China’s economic output last year.

    It will be a pretty big job to sort things out and account for the odd misplaced trillion or two. Reuters tells us:

    No one can even agree on how many accounting and business systems are in use. The Pentagon itself puts the number at 2,200 spread throughout the military services and other defense agencies. A January 2012 report by a task force of the Defense Business Board, an advisory group of business leaders appointed by the secretary of defense, put the number at around 5,000.

    But it’s OK, taxpayers, because in 2009 Congress passed a law requiring that the Defense Department be audit-ready.

    By 2017. We’re doomed.



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    Posted in Democracy, Police State, Post-Constitution America

    Satire: Everyone Hates America’s New Album

    October 4, 2014 // 6 Comments »

    Sales figures prove what many already feared: worldwide acceptance of the United States’ new album, “We Will Bomb You, Because” has fallen through the floor.

    “Dude, I grew up on the classic U.S. sound, you remember, democracy, equality, promotion of freedom. My favorite was ‘The Peace Corps,’ but ‘We Won’t Invade You This Month’ got me through some rough times in college. But this new stuff, meh,” said one long-time fan, sweeping aside his gray ponytail.

    “We Will Bomb You, Because” opened big inside the United States, where the United States still enjoys a steady following. A recent track, “Who Cares What You Think, Featuring al Qaeda,” saw over one million downloads its first week alone. “The addition of al Qaeda to the tune pumped new life into an old franchise,” stated Rolling Stone in its review, “but subsequent attempts to roll in ISIS and Khorasan just did not work when al Qaeda balked at joining the U.S. in touring the new material. “Just isn’t the same,” said Stone. “America has gone to the well too many times with the same material. They’re just phoning this new wave of terror stuff in.”

    When reached for comment, lead singer of the United States Barack Yeezus Obama remained hopeful. “Any time the group moves in a new direction, you risk losing some old time fans. We saw that just after we dropped the “NSA” album. But many times the old timers just give up and come to reluctantly accept what you are shoveling out, and of course new material also brings in new fans.”

    “For example,” chimed in backup singer George The W Bush, “look at what happened with our seminal ‘It’s 9/11, Bitch’ multi-platinum work. Not only did we rope in millions and millions of fans worldwide, but after sales tapered off following the disastrous Iraq tour, our old fans sucked it up and started taking their shoes off at the airport without a complaint. We even spun off the mega-platinum group DHS from all that. And when a small group of former fans started making too many negative comments online, we just had them tortured and imprisoned indefinitely. Let’s see Beyonce do that.”

    “And,” said Obama hopefully, “the recent tours in Yemen and Somalia have been huge successes. We have high hopes for Syria and the new material as well. We da’ bomb ya’all!”

    The band also acknowledged the growing popularity of long-time rival group Iran, but shrugged off any notion that the United States would not continue to dominate the market in the long-run.

    A spokesperson for the United States did quietly add that the group is not totally unaware of its falling image abroad. She hinted that the current tour will work in additional classic material, and a greatest hits collection will be out in time for Christmas. The United States plans also to donate a percentage of sales to the Wounded Warrior charity.

    “You gotta give back,” said the spokesperson.



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    Posted in Democracy, Police State, Post-Constitution America

    New Review of Ghosts of Tom Joad: “He makes it real”

    September 30, 2014 // 6 Comments »




    Fire Dog Lake blogger Ohio Barbarian posted this review of Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99 Percent (emphasis added).

    Yes, I know this book was featured on the FDL Book Salon back in May. I didn’t read that live; only skimmed it after the comments were closed, and I probably wouldn’t have commented on it anyway, but when I saw Ghosts of Tom Joad, a Story of the #99Percent at my local public library, I thought I’d check it out.

    I’m glad I did. It’s a great book and, in my ever so humble opinion, it is every bit as powerful as the classic John Steinbeck novel to which it refers.

    Set in a fictional small town in Ohio, home of a shuttered glass factory and a shattered American Dream, the protagonist, Earl, is a high school football player who graduated around 1977. He’s not exactly a sympathetic character, at least not to me. He’s basically an ignorant jock who did as little school work as possible, then dropped out after he got hurt in the middle of dumb teenage jock roughhousing, couldn’t play anymore, and went to work in the same factory where his World War II vet grandpa and his Korean War vet dad had worked before him.

    He starts out, at least, as the prototypical “small town small mind” my mother and then later myself always despised. By that I mean someone whose whole world is his little town, who never really wanted to go anywhere else, and was mostly incurious about the rest of the planet. Someone who just assumed if he didn’t get some miraculous football scholarship, he’d spend his life working at the factory, get married, and raise kids in the same little town just like his recent ancestors, and that was fine by him.

    In other words, he’s who Nixon’s cabinet secretary Earl Butz was referring to when the latter said, “All the average American wants is cold beer in the fridge and a warm place to shit.”

    Of course, being in a Rust Belt midwestern town, our Earl is laid off after just a few months, and quickly spirals down from one McJob to the next to Bullseye, a retail store clearly modeled by the author on Wal-Mart, to more McJobs to temp work to day labor to homelessness and despair.

    Van Buren takes an interesting approach, making the whole story a series of flashbacks while Earl is riding on the city bus, which is sometimes real and sometimes metaphysical, or at least metaphorical.

    I didn’t find most of the characters all that sympathetic or even likable, but that’s not necessary in order to empathize with them, at least not for me. Like Steinbeck did with The Grapes of Wrath 74 years ago, Van Buren creates a world where selfishness and greed on the part of a few has caused despair and sometimes sheer hopelessness on the part of the many, and he makes it real. I think it’s quite an accomplishment.

    My favorite parts of the book are astute observations by various characters about the deliberate destruction of America’s social, economic, and even moral sustainability by the top 1% for fun and profit, and the often subconscious collusion they get from most of the rest of us because of how we’ve been told to think since birth. My very favorite is, “It ain’t about left and right anymore, it’s about up and down.” A close second is “This was no accident, no invisible hand…we changed from a place that made things…into a place that just makes deals. Making things creates jobs, and jobs create prosperity. Making deals just creates wealth for the dealers.”

    Indeed. There’s more, much more, and the book is well-written and an easy read. I highly recommend it. In fact, it should be mandatory reading in public high schools and universities.

    Note: Though I also write for the site Fire Dog Lake, I do not know the author of the review, and have never met him/her.



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    Posted in Democracy, Police State, Post-Constitution America

    There is Much to Fear

    September 29, 2014 // 6 Comments »




    One of the exceptional things about Post-Constitutional America is how instead of using the traditional tools of an autocracy– secret police, torture, mass round ups– the majority of Americans have given up their rights willfully, voluntarily, almost gleefully. The key tool used by government to have accomplished this is fear-mongering.

    Fear is one of our most powerful emotions. It plays a very important evolutionary role after all; the first folks who learned to fear lions and tigers and bears tended to live longer than those who were slower learners. Fears from childhood about heights or spiders often stick with us forever. So using fear of terrorists and other bogeymen has proven to be the most effective tool of the world’s first voluntary national security state and its coalition partners in scariness.

    The post-9/11 months are nothing but a master class in fear-mongering. Condoleezza Rice’s oft-quote statement about not wanting to wait for a mushroom cloud over America to be the smoking gun of terror is near-Bond villain level evil genius. The 2003 Iraq War was sold in large part on fear-mongering over fake nukes, fake biological weapons and a fake hunt for WMDS.

    A few recent examples illustrate how the work continues. Because nothing is better to keep fear alive than a regular flow of refreshers (watch out behind you, a spider!).


    Australia

    The Australians have proven excellent students of the American model. After a single phone call from one purported jihadi in the Middle East to a purported jihadi in Sydney suggesting a random beheading would be a fine terror act, the Aussies kicked off the largest counterterrorism operation in Australian history, with full world-wide media coverage of course, all of which resulted in the arrest of one 22-year-old. Prime Minister Tony Abbott said it showed that “a knife, an iPhone and a victim” were the only ingredients needed for a terrorist attack.

    B.S. Factor: Between 2009-2010 (last statistics located) 257 Australians were killed domestically, many with knives. None of those cases involved the largest manhunts in Australian history. Drunken dingos seem more a threat to citizens than terrorists, perhaps even with an iPhone and a knife for the dingo.


    Britain

    The British are loosely joining the coalition against ISIS in Iraq, based largely on the beheading video of a single Brit hostage (beheading videos of two American hostages have also been an effective fear-mongering tool in the United States recently.) Since most westerners do not visit the Arabic-language web sites where such videos widely appear, this form of fear- mongering requires the assistance of the main stream media, who appear more than happy to assist by re-running the videos in an endless loop.

    B.S. Factor: In 2013, 6,193 Brits died abroad. Very few cases even made the news in a small way.


    United States

    Back here in the U.S., higher-level encryption built directly into the new iPhone caused much concern among law enforcement, who will have a harder time mass-monitoring the communications of all Americans as they have freely done for the past decade or so. FBI Director James Comey at a news conference already focused on ISIS terror threats said “What concerns me about this is companies marketing something expressly to allow people to hold themselves beyond the law.” He cited specifically kidnapping cases, in which exploiting the contents of a seized phone could lead to finding a victim, and predicted there would be moments when parents would come to him “with tears in their eyes, look at me and say, ‘What do you mean you can’t’ ” decode the contents of a phone.

    B.S. Factor: We could find no statistics on how often decoding the contents of a phone alone resolved a kidnapping case. We also note that even if the FBI or the NSA could not actually break the iPhone encryption, existing, working tools unaffected by encryption such as triangulation geolocating, standard GPS, cell tower tracking, Stingray intercepts, call logs, email logs, cloud contents, and web searches can provide a wealth of data remotely, without even the need to seize a physical phone.


    OMG: Americans May Be Killed By Terrorists

    Obviously the uber fear-mongering are the pervasive streams of warnings about “almost executed” terror plots inside America. Whether told “if you see something, say something” on a bus, strip searched in the airport or hearing about one pseudo-plot after another on the news, the meme is that danger lurks everywhere in the United States.

    B.S. Factor: Since 9/11, as few as 16 Americans here in Das Homeland has been killed by terrorists, almost all fellow Americans. On the high end, some claim the death count is about 100, but that includes murders at abortion clinics not everyone would call terrorism as far as traditional government fear-mongering is concerned.

    The odds of dying in a terrorist attack in the United States are 20,000,000 to 1. By comparison, Americans are 17,600 times more likely to die from heart disease than from a terrorist attack.

    Maybe more terrifying than anything else, in America you are eight times more likely to be killed by a police officer than by a terrorist. That’s a broad average; it is higher if you are a young African-American male.


    Exceptionalism?

    To be fair, fear-mongering in general, and fear-mongering over terrorism, have a much longer history of use by autocrats than what has been employed since 9/11. One national leader in fact said “The easiest way to gain control of a population is to carry out acts of terror. The public will clamor for such laws if their personal security is threatened.” That was Joseph Stalin.

    So yes, there is indeed much to fear.



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    Posted in Democracy, Police State, Post-Constitution America

    Watchlists and the Fourth Amendment

    September 26, 2014 // 10 Comments »




    If you don’t know Ray McGovern yet, you probably should.

    You see, Ray just beat down, in court, Hillary Clinton, the State Department, and a small part of Post-Constitutional America.

    Who is this Guy?

    McGovern is a changed man. He started out in the Army, then he worked for the CIA from the Kennedy administration up through the first Bush presidency, preparing the president’s daily intel brief. He was a hell of a spy. McGovern began to see the 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.

    Ray McGovern was put on the State Department’s Diplomatic Security BOLO list– Be On the Look Out– one of a series of proliferating government watch lists. What McGovern did to end up on Diplomatic Security’s dangerous persons list and how he got off the list are a tale of our era, Post-Constitutional America.

    Offending the Queen

    Ray’s 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 from the side by a man whose name is redacted from public records. Photos (above) of the then-71 year old McGovern 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.

    But because he had spoken back to power, State’s Diplomatic Security printed up an actual wanted poster citing McGovern’s “considerable amount of political activism” and “significant notoriety in the national media.” Diplomatic Security warned agents should USE CAUTION (their emphasis) when stopping McGovern and conducting the required “field interview.” The poster itself was classified as Sensitive but Unclassified (SBU), one of the multitude of pseudo-secret categories created following 9/11.

    Violations of the First and Fourth Amendments by State

    Subjects of BOLO 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 is a standing directive 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. These directives slash across the Fourth Amendment’s prohibitions against unwarranted search and seizure, as well as the First Amendment’s right to free speech, as the stops typically occur around protests.

    You Don’t Mess with Ray

    Ray McGovern is not the kind of guy to be stopped and frisked based State Department retaliation for exercising his First Amendment rights in Post-Constitution America. He sued, and won.

    The Partnership for Civil Justice Fund took up the case pro bono on Ray’s behalf, suing the State Department. They first had to file a Freedom of Information Act demand to even get ahold of the internal State Department justifications for the BOLO, learning that despite all charges having been dropped against McGovern and despite having determined that he engaged in no criminal activity, the Department of State went on to open 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.” It also cited McGovern’s “political activism, primarily anti-war.” The investigation ran nearly seven months, and resulted in the BOLO.

    With the documents that so clearly crossed the First Amendment now in hand, the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund went to court. They sought, and won, an injunction against the State Department to stop the Be On the Look-Out alert against McGovern, and to force State to pro-actively advise other law enforcement agencies that it no longer stands.

    McGovern’s constitutional rights lawsuit against George Washington University, where his arrest during the Clinton speech took place, and the officers who assaulted and arrested him, is ongoing.

    Watch Lists in Post-Constitutional America

    McGovern’s case has many touch points to the general state of affairs of post-9/11 government watchlists, such as No-Fly.

    The first is that it is anonymous interests, within a vast array of government agencies, that put you on some list. You may not know what you did to be “nominated,” and you may not even know you are on a list until you are denied boarding or stopped and frisked at a public event. Placement on some watchlist is done without regard to– and often in overt conflict with– your Constitutional rights. Placement on a list rarely has anything to do with having committed any actual crime; it is based on the government’s supposition that you are a potential threat, that you may commit a crime despite there being no evidence that you are planning one.

    Once you are on one watchlist, your name proliferates onto other lists. Getting access to the information you need to fight back is not easy, and typically requires legal help and a Freedom of Information Act struggle just to get the information you need to go forward. The government will fight your efforts, and require you to go through a lengthy and potentially expensive court battle.

    We’ll address the irony that the government uses taxpaying citizens’ money to defend itself when it violates the Constitutional rights of taxpaying citizens another time.

    Donating to The Partnership for Civil Justice Fund

    Persons wishing to donate to The Partnership for Civil Justice Fund may do so online. I have no affiliation with the organization and do not benefit in any way from donations.

    Full Discloure: I do know and respect Ray McGovern, and was once the subject of a State Department Be On the Lookout Alert myself, following these remarks I made about Hillarly Clinton. I have been unable to ascertain the status of my own BOLO alert but believe it is no longer in force. The State Department refuses to disclose any information to me about my status.




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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!

    Posted in Democracy, Police State, Post-Constitution America

    Posse Comitatus and the Fourth Amendment

    September 25, 2014 // 1 Comment »




    Back in pre-Constitution America, the British army would burst into the homes and businesses of American colonists.

    The searches would often be destructive, and intended so. Some of the time the point was to seize incriminating “revolutionary” materials, many times the point was simply to harass and threaten people the Crown feared and wanted to send a message to. It was in direct response to such invasions of freedom that the Founders wrote in the Fourth Amendment “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated…”



    Posse Comitatus Act

    Fast-forward to 1878, in the Constitutional America Era, when, in the wake of the Civil War, the Posse Comitatus Act was passed into law. The Act limit the power of the federal government to use the armed forces of the United States to enforce state laws, though the general interpretation evolved to limit severely the use of federal troops for law enforcement purposes.

    While both Bush and Obama weakened the Act to allow for troops to deploy (Bush) domestically and arrest civilians (Obama) in the wake of terrorist acts, the general idea remains intact. There are plenty of law enforcement agencies, local and federal, around to enforce the law. When the home town cops can’t handle it, the FBI can step in, not the military.

    Old Rules Do Not Apply

    Despite that clear background, it comes as little surprise that here in Post-Constitutional America, the old rules do not apply, even on a small scale.

    Yet in perhaps a tiny but significant decision, an appeals court ruled federal authorities had shown “a profound lack of regard for the important limitations on the role of the military in our civilian society” when they allowed the U.S. Navy to scan the computers of every citizen in the state of Washington fishing for evidence, any evidence of any crime, that could be turned over to local cops. The court so wished to admonish the Navy’s Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) for overstepping regulations that have evolved from the Posse Comitatus Act that it took the unusually strong step of excluding the computer evidence in any new trial of a child pornographer. “The extraordinary nature of the surveillance here demonstrates a need to deter future violations,” said the ruling.

    What happened? An NCIS investigator charged with online surveillance allegedly to protect naval facilities in Washington state, determined that his scope included electronic monitoring of the whole state and its entire civilian population. Since Navy families had kids, and/or because Navy personnel could be child pornographers, the NCIS argued extending the surveillance away from terrorism to scanning for kiddie porn had a legitimate military-related purpose. It is unclear if the employee acted on his own with no supervision, or acted under orders; neither is a good scenario.

    Round Up

    The NCIS spook set loose in Washington state with a computer tool called RoundUp on the Gnutella peer-to-peer network known to be favored by child pornographers to exchange illegal images. Gnutella allows a direct connection between multiple personal computers in lieu of a single server, so that tracking down and eliminating the “source” of files is much more difficult. The RoundUp software (a similar product is called GridCop) identifies computers on a peer-to-peer network by their individual Internet Protocol (IP) addresses. Investigators then work backwards to determine which service provider (such as Verizon) hosted the IP address and subpoena the provider for the name and address of the account holder. Investigators can then apply for and execute a search warrant for the computer and arrest the owner.

    Tech Point: RoundUp works by detecting known child porn files that have been identified in investigations based on cryptographic hash algorithms, or hash values, which are unique numeric identifiers generated based on the content of digital files. Duplicate files will usually have the same hash value even if users rename files.

    The FBI and local cops are doing this kind of thing all the time; the big deal in this case is that the agency at work is the U.S. Navy, which, under Posse Comitatus, is not supposed to be involved in such law enforcement. That is the illegal part, and the part that raises serious questions in an already nasty Post-Constitutional environment about what parts of the body of law the federal government will follow, and which parts it will ignore. That is not how a democracy works.

    More on the Specific Case

    The short version is that after actively monitoring the entire state for well, whatever it could find, the NCIS found one alleged child pornographer.

    NCIS gathered evidence, turned it over to local police, who obtained a warrant based on the Navy search to legally “reacquire” the evidence (see also parallel construction, where the NSA and DEA use a similar illegal process.) The owner of the computer was convicted of possessing and distributing child pornography, and is now serving an 18 year sentence at a federal prison. He appealed, claiming the evidence against him was obtained illegally, and the court threw the evidence out. The case will likely be retried. Without the actual evidence of child porn images, prosecutors have little to work with. The feds may appeal the decision. The convicted man remains in jail



    Comment

    Nobody likes child pornographers. As a parent, I wish every one of them would be fully, legally prosecuted and punished. But before you say “Well, NCIS did a bad thing, but in the end a child pornographer may be let off scot-free, which is worse” remember it was in fact the illegal acts of the NCIS that tainted the evidence and which themselves will see the guy walk if that is what happens. Bad law enforcement does not create good results. Walking all over the law to enforce it does little good for our society, and outright contempt for the law, as exhibited by NCIS, is evil in a society that once claimed to be a democratic example to others of the rule of law.

    “Letting a criminal go free to deter national military investigation of civilians is worth it,” the judge in this case wrote. “[This] amounts to the military acting as a national police force to investigate civilian law violations by civilians.”

    Deterrence may indeed be the order of the day. The NCIS case above surfaced only after the specific person convicted appealed, and had legal help smart enough to ask where the evidence against him came from. We know nothing about the extent of NCIS spying on civilians in Washington state, whether or not this is NCIS policy, and whether or not such spying, rogue or not, takes place in other states with military facilities. The NCIS employee at fault in Washington did say a colleague in Georgia was doing the same thing, so there is reason to wonder outside of just raw speculation. Those might have been good questions for the judges who decided the case, or the journalists who covered it, to ask.

    As for the NCIS, a spokeswoman declined to talk about whether the service has undertaken similar wide searches for child pornography offenders in other states with a significant Navy presence, like Florida, Virginia or California.

    Lastly, there are law enforcement agencies directly charged with hunting down child pornographers, armed with the same tools or better than NCIS. The FBI comes to mind. So where were they while one NCIS person was free-lancing an assault on the Posse Comitatus Act and the Fourth Amendment?




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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!

    Posted in Democracy, Police State, Post-Constitution America

    Once the American Dream

    September 23, 2014 // 3 Comments »

    We were once the American Dream, and now we’re just what happened to it.

    The people I am talking about in my book Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99 Percent seem illusive here on the East Coast; in New York, visiting the South Bronx, there are plenty of poor people. The sense in Midtown was that if they didn’t deserve to be poor, then, well, they were sort of naturally thrust into it as immigrants, as drug users, simply because they lived in a poor part of the city and it always would be. Kind of the natural ecology of the place.

    In talking to people in New York the working class tends to appear as caricatures, like Joe the Plumber in interior America was to politicians, the people of Brigadoon for elections, who then fade after the candidates grab votes promising new jobs and manicured optimism for a working class that somehow still listens to them. It’s inconveniently convenient to walk among them every four years, like having to be nice at your in-laws’ house for a family gathering. Ok as long as it doesn’t drag on too long.


    The View from Ground Zero

    The story is different when I talk in Kansas, Kentucky or Ohio. People there nod their heads, and everyone has a story to add: the family that lost their home to the bank, the factory that closed down and the retail outlets that replaced the factory that closed down, one after another piling up like the late spring snow we had that week. People say “But I’ll take any job. I just want to work. I’m not too proud to get my hands dirty. I still know how to sweat, the good kind.”

    I believe them all. But even if they’ll accept minimum wage, how far is a couple of dollars an hour throwing construction debris into a Dumpster going to get you? Better than nothing but not much better. You going to do ten hours of labor for the phone bill? Another ten for the groceries each week? Another 20 or 30 for a car payment? How many hours you going to work? How many can you work? Nobody can make a full living doing those jobs. You can’t raise a family on minimum wage. And you can’t build a nation on the working poor. It is a rough portrait of an American past and a tough vision to push into an American future.

    But my goal isn’t to speak in broad terms; I want to understand what’s happening on an almost documentary level. So what stood out was the proliferation of a new, New Economy, one designed to prey on the fact that people who don’t deserve to be poor are now poor. There are whole industries that sprang up because poor people became a new market.


    Rent-to-Own

    Pawn shops are an old business, but one that has grown alongside the working poor. In 1911, there were only 1,976 licensed pawnbrokers in the country. By 1988, there were 6,900 pawnshops in the U.S. (one for every two commercial banks) and in 2012 there were almost 14,000 pawnshops in operation throughout the United States.

    Pawn shops are one thing, but there are newer predators on the ground. I ended up buying Kenny’s story for two cups of coffee. Kenny told me that he couldn’t qualify for a credit card, the middle class’ old way of borrowing money. Average people with cards carry monthly balances of almost $16,000 and that’s at 12 to 15 percent interest, so not a helluva lot different from payday loans. Just looks cleaner. Kenny told me about the trap of the rent-to-own stores, who let people without a credit card rent a TV or a washer and dryer until they paid back a lot more than the appliance is worth. It was more like time payments than rental as most people used to understand the word. By the time you owned the appliance, it was old, and with interest you dropped $450 on a $200 item. You needed something and there wasn’t any other way to get it.

    Rent-to-Own is a big, big business. According to Broke, USA: From Pawnshops to Poverty, Inc. – How the Working Poor Became Big Business by Gary Rivlin, the largest rent-to-own operation, Rent-A-Center, reported three billion dollars in revenues in 2008. The bottom line has only gotten stronger for them since.


    Cashing In

    Kenny even said he’d tried to cash in on it for himself, working briefly for a collections agency. When folks could not pay, the debt got sold down the line. Some big bank wasn’t going to fuss over small change, so it sold the ownership of the debt to a big agency, who sold it to a smaller one like he worked for, a place that might see profit in getting 20 percent of a two hundred dollar collection. At those rent-to-own joints, customers have to sign tons of papers, all looking like they were written by a Keep Lawyers Employed committee, so that if you miss a payment the store takes back the whole appliance, not just the half they still own.

    This scared the people renting, but actually the last thing that company wanted was to repo a two-year-old TV, so Kenny’s job was to knock on the door and try to get them to pay something, and at the same time see if they’d refinance at an even higher rate. Loan to pay a loan. That old TV was worth nothing to the rent-to-own store, but it was some kind of magic thing to some old lady. If she was a single mom, the TV was her babysitter — feed your sister after Wheel of Fortune, lights out after Idol — and she wasn’t going to give it up easy. When Kenny talked them into an even uglier refi deal that let them keep the TV, they’d usually thank him for helping them out. Sometimes, he said, moms without cash would offer what he called a couch payment, bed in return for a report to the boss of no one home. His last customer before he quit the job was a former soldier who owed for a bicycle he was renting/buying over time for his daughter’s ninth birthday. Kenny said to hell with it, he wasn’t going to repo a Barbie two-wheeler with pink streamers on the handlebars and reported it as No One Home in that part of America.

    The Ohio town we were in was falling apart economically, but it still had its looks, to a point. This wasn’t the South Bronx. Old habits die hard. When middle class folks fall out of the middle class, they still tend to keep things neat and see that grass gets cut. But what was once maybe quaint was now just old and tired. Pretty soon I worry there’ll be no one home.



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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!

    Posted in Democracy, Police State, Post-Constitution America

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