• Social Media Legally Falls Under the First Amendment; Here’s How

    January 18, 2019 // 14 Comments »


     
    A court just came close to acknowledging the First Amendment applies to social media. But there is still a lot of ground to cover to protect our free speech rights online.
     
    In Davison v Randall, a local government official blocked a constituent from an “official” Facebook page. The court held this to be viewpoint discrimination, a 1A violation in a long-recognized category of unconstitutional speech restraint. Advocates like the ACLU and Knight Institute supported the case to bolster the argument Trump cannot block people on his Twitter feed; lower courts have agreed it is unconstitutional under the 1A for Trump to silence his critics this way. The Department of Justice is appealing, and the ACLU is happy to build precedent with smaller cases like Davison v Randall, as the Trump case almost certainly will wind its way to the Supreme Court.

    The ACLU is likely to continue to prevail against Trump. The problem is while narrowly focusing on an individual politician’s responsibility not to block users with unpopular opinions, the courts continue to allow Facebook, et al, to do exactly the same thing on a much larger scale.
     
    In the age of Trump, social media companies’ suspensions skew against conservative and libertarian commentators (I am permanently banned from Twitter) but Facebook could just as easily block all Sanders supporters, or anyone left handed for that matter. Despite this, and driven in part by the ACLU’s apparent desire to only disadvantage Trump and not enlarge 1A protections in ways that might empower his critics, the broader issues are being bypassed in favor of a narrower one.

    The struggle to grow the 1A to cover social media has a history of piecemeal progress. One victory confirmed the status of social media, when the Supreme Court struck down a law making it a crime for registered sex offenders to use Facebook. Justice Kennedy wrote in Packingham v North Carolina social media is now part of “the modern public square.” Denying access violated the First Amendment.

    But the decision made clear unconstitutional denial still has to come from the government. Facebook and others may deny those speech rights any time they want. The argument only the government is covered by the 1A seems to have reached its limit with technology that so grossly delineates whose literal finger clicks the mouse when the results and implications for free speech in our society are exactly the same.

    Technology and market dominance complicate the 1A environment by giving greater power to a handful of global companies (currently all American but imagine the successor to Twitter based in Hong Kong with Chinese censors at the helm) even as the law seeks to crave the simplicity of the 19th century. That way of thinking requires willful ignorance that Facebook would never act as a proxy for the government, unconstitutionally barring viewpoints on behalf of a politician who would not be allowed to do it themselves.

    Except it already happened. Following a hazy intelligence community assessment accusing the Russians of influencing the 2016 presidential election, Twitter and Facebook punished Russian media RT and Sputnik by banning their advertising in line with the government’s position the two did not deserve the protections of the 1A. Senator Chris Murphy got it. He demanded social media censor more aggressively for the “survival of our democracy,” with companies acting as proxies for those still held back by the First Amendment.
     
    It may even seem to some a valid argument in the realm of social media. But when the same proxy idea appears in the flesh, the underpinning seems less acceptable. It is easy to see how the government using federal law enforcement to bar entry to opposition supporters at a town hall meeting held at some theater is unconstitutional. It is equally easy to see the president’s best friend hiring private security guards to do exactly the same thing would not pass a court challenge, yet that is basically what is currently allowed online.

    The sub-argument the theater is private property and thus outside the 1A (just like Twitter!) does not hold up. The Supreme Court recognizes two categories of public fora: traditional and limited public forums. Traditional public forums are places like streets, sidewalks, and parks. Limited public forums are not traditionally public, but ones the government has purposefully opened to some segment of the public for “expressive activity.” Like that town hall meeting held in a private theater.

    By inviting the public to Facebook for comment, the government transforms a private place into a limited public forum covered by the 1A. The Court only requires a “forum” for 1A purposes “to be private property dedicated to public use” or when the government “retains substantial control over the private property.” Like how the government cannot censor public library books even if the library is located in a private storefront. Like a Facebook page set up and administered by the government.

    The most analogous example of how shallow the debate is comes from a technology of the 1980s, one originally expected to change the nature of debate: public access television. Before the Internet, it was envisioned privately-owned cable TV companies would make air time available to the public as “the video equivalent of the speaker’s soapbox.” Even though the channel and equipment used to produce the programming was privately owned, the programming fell under the 1A. The Court concluded “public access channels constituted a public forum, notwithstanding that they were operated by a private company,” the dead solid perfect equivalent of social media.

    The faux public-private argument is being double-plus used as a work-around to prohibit disagreeable speech, say by labeling a conservative viewpoint as hate speech and letting @jack banish it. Millennials who celebrate Twitter not being held back by the 1A believe that power will always be used in their favor. But back to the law, which sees further than the millennial obsession with Trump. In City of Lakewood v Plain Dealer the Court held all that power was itself a 1A problem: “The mere existence of the licensor’s unfettered discretion, coupled with the power of prior restraint, intimidates parties into censoring their own speech, even if the discretion and power are never actually abused.”

    The once-upon-a-time solution was to take one’s free speech business elsewhere. The 2019 problem is the scale of the most popular social media platforms, near global monopolies all. Pretending Facebook, which claims it influences elections, is just another company is to pretend the role of unfettered debate in a free society is outdated. Technology changed the nature of censorship so free speech is as much about finding an audience as it is about having some place to speak. In 1776 you went to the town square. In 2019 that’s on popular social media. Your unknown blog is as free, and irrelevant, as a Colonist making an impassioned speech alone in his barn.
     
    Asking for the 1A to reach now to social media is in line with the flexibility and expansion the 1A has shown historically. For example, it wasn’t until the post-Civil War incorporation doctrine that the 1A applied equally to the states and not just the federal government. Some private institutions accepting federal funding are already covered by the 1A. The Supreme Court has regularly extended 1A protection to new and non-traditional speech, including nudity and advertising.

    Facebook and others like it have become the censors the Founding Fathers feared. The problem is the ACLU and other advocates today apply political litmus tests to what speech they will defend. And so they aggressively seek to force the 1A into social media to prevent Trump from blocking users he dislikes, but they have not taken on cases which would force the 1A into social media to prevent Facebook and Twitter from blocking users whose conservative and libertarian ideas upset their own viewpoints.

    The greater First Amendment challenge is thus stymied by politics, even while the problem only grows with the greater impact of social media. Yet the cornerstone of free speech, the critical need to have all views represented in a marketplace of ideas, has not changed. One hopes these core elements of our democracy will collide inside the Supreme Court in the near future. If not, the dangers of narrow, short term thinking, that Trump is the problem, not the one of access to free speech, will become more obvious.
     

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    Monitoring and Criminalizing Online Speech and Social Media

    January 8, 2015 // 1 Comment »

    free-speech

    Challenges to free speech don’t always involve guns.

    Citizens, you have an obligation to remain silent. What you say online, once upon a time an arena of free speech, can and will be used against you.

    Here are two creeping examples.


    In the UK

    Six British soldiers were killed in Afghanistan, what the Prime Minister called a “desperately sad day for our country.” A British teenager, Azhar Ahmed, went on Facebook to angrily object, saying innocent Afghans killed by British soldiers receive almost no attention from the media. He opined the UK’s soldiers in Afghanistan are guilty, their deaths deserved, and are therefore going to hell.

    The following day Ahmed was charged with “a racially aggravated public order offense.” He was convicted “of sending a grossly offensive communication,” fined and sentenced to 240 hours of community service. The judge Ahmed’s opinions “beyond the pale of what’s tolerable in our society.”

    The Independent newspaper noted that Ahmed “escaped jail partially because he quickly took down his unpleasant posting and tried to apologize to those he offended.” Apparently, says Glenn Greenwald at The Intercept, “heretics may be partially redeemed if they publicly renounce their heresies.”

    Criminal cases for online political speech are now commonplace in the UK. Around 20,000 people in Britain have been investigated in the past three years for comments made online. The investigations have by no means been neutral, instead directed at the country’s Muslims for expressing political opinions critical of the state’s actions.

    Wow, luckily this can’t ever happen in America… right? Oh wait, it just did.


    In America

    A man convicted in a fatal car crash and released early from prison on parole has ended up back behind bars after an Ohio judge and the victim’s family took issue with a post he made on Facebook.

    Ryan Fye’s post included a photo of him making an obscene gesture and a message saying, “Prison didn’t break me. It MADE me.” Fye claims he was responding to a Facebook threat from someone unrelated to his case who said they “couldn’t wait to bump into” him and that prison ought to have made him tough enough to handle the encounter.

    The message upset relatives of the man killed by Fye in the 2013 crash. A judge also found the Facebook posting disrespectful toward the family and concluded it violated parole sanctions imposed on Fye.

    While typical terms of probation prohibit threats, intimidation, harassment, and retaliation against the victims, prosecution, judges, family of victims and so on, it is quite unclear that Fye’s Facebook posting is even directed at any such people, or that it is even a threat or act of intimidation. Many people might characterize it as boastful at worst.

    Fye’s defense attorney said Fye didn’t violate probation or the law. “Committing a crime is a probation violation, not abiding by the rules is a probation violation. Mr. Fye didn’t do any of those things.” Fye is back in custody while he appeals the judge’s decision to lock him up.

    Over a Facebook posting.




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    Hilarious Anti-China U.S. Propaganda Smoked by Online Ad

    May 24, 2014 // 5 Comments »




    Your FBI is concerned that bonehead Americans will travel overseas to enemy-controlled territory such as China and be recruited as spies. Since this apparently sort-of happened once to one total dumbass kid, the FBI turned right around and spent a boatload of your taxpayer dollars to make a cheesy video, albeit one with professional actors and Hollywood-level technical production qualities. The video explains how to become a Chinese spy so you don’t do that.

    If you’d like to see this 21st century version of those hygiene movies once shown in health classes across America (Reefer Madness for STDs), you need only drop by the Facebook page of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI). What, you didn’t know that the U.S. government organization responsible for coordinating all spying for America had a Facebook page? Silly you. It’s here. We’ll leave the question of who the 23,000 people who “like” the page are aside for now.

    Instead, let’s enjoy the irony of the web. Playing inside the video warning American kids about being recruited as spies when they study abroad is in fact an ad encouraging Americans to study abroad. Look:




    See the ad, there on the bottom? Win for the internet.

    As a follow up, did the Chinese in fact place that ad to undermine the U.S. government’s efforts to get kids to stay at home? Or does the ad imply the close cooperation Google and Facebook warmly enjoy with the NSA helping them spy on Americans? Better yet, why does a video made and paid by taxpayer money have ads at all?

    Bottom Line: Americans, stay home. Ignorance of the world is a small price to pay. For Freedom.



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    Report from Baghdad: Still Liked on Facebook

    June 5, 2013 // 8 Comments »




    Along with the odd threat or hate mail (a few people hilariously misunderstand the book’s title We Meant Well as being serious and chastise me for supporting the Iraq War), some interesting things pop up. Here’s one, a report from the front lines of freedom in Iraq:

    I work in Iraq and I’ve seen first hand the waste and abuse you chronicled so well during the “reconstruction”. I think you once called the US Mission in Iraq a ‘self-licking ice cream cone’ — a self-contained, self-aggrandizing system of little actual use to Iraqis. An apt analogy.

    Here’s something you’d appreciate:

    A couple of days ago, just minutes after a briefing on the latest death toll from sectarian violence (50 killings in one night; 520 close to 1000 total this month) in Iraq, I attended a meeting with people who were enthusiastically discussing the massive uptick in “likes” on our mission’s Facebook page.

    As journalism, I checked Facebook to find that the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad has some 137,000 “likes.” Their banner graphic celebrates breaking 100,000. As a comparison, retired porn star Jenna Jameson’s Facebook page as 566,703 likes. Maybe the Embassy needs to show more skin?

    So, as the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad remains the world’s largest and most expensive diplomatic mission, we salute the brave boys and girls out there who are still more focused on their Facebook likes than Rome burning down around them. To Victory!



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    Social Media Numbers Don’t Add Up at State Department

    November 2, 2012 // 6 Comments »

    The latest self-congratulatory social media pablum from the State Department (in the guise of a “new” Brookings Institute report whose data has been peddled before) offers one non-insight, and one quite revealing.

    The non-insight is over the course of forty dense pages of praise (“At the vanguard of this adaptation is the U.S. State Department,” Hillary Clinton is referred to as “the Godmother of 21st Century Statecraft”) is that despite over 150 people employed at State in 25 separate ediplomacy nodes covering eight different work areas, and at U.S. missions abroad another 900 staff use ediplomacy tools to some extent, there’s not a word said about effectiveness, value, return on investment, whatever you might wish to call actually assessing the point of spending time and money on something.

    What is revealing are the numbers. The report gushes over the numbers of people who friend, follow and like the State Department’s social media outlets. The clear implication is that a tool that reaches this many people can’t but help be effective at, well, something.

    Fair enough, but the problem is that a hugely significant number of the people the State Department is talking to are in the United States, a clear miss for what is supposed to be America’s foreign affairs organ.

    For Facebook, out of some 12 million fans, almost 8 million are in the U.S., about two thirds of them.

    For Twitter, out of 1.7 million followers, 867,000 are in the U.S., about half of them.

    For YouTube, out of 26,700 subscribers, over 15,000 are in the U.S., well more than half.


    We’ll skip the tired old discussion about the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948, whcih, among other things, was supposed to prevent the U.S. from disseminating propaganda inside the U.S.; propaganda was for foreigners. Whatever you think of that, technology, primarily the web, has of course made boundaries disappear and anything from a major news event to those goddamn cute cat videos is available on the global smorgasbord.

    We’ll also skip the paranoid rant about how the State Department is trying to influence Americans as a tool of the White House or the gay movement or the Trilateral Commission or Spongebob. The content of the State Department social media is so lame and substance free that its only possible influence is as a sleep aid.

    What we’ll conclude instead is that social media as practiced by the State Department is fairly pointless. With its Hillary’s eDiplomacy wonks and their primary role in conducting America’s foreign affairs (Bill handles the domestic affairs, couldn’t stop myself, sorry, and you were thinking it too), you’d think whatever the point of all the social media, it would have more to do with talking to foreigners than talking to Americans.

    Since no one at State is willing to assess social media in any way except by numbers, perhaps they need to take a closer look at their headcounts and decide if all the time, money and effort is worth it, given that more than half just dribbles back onto us here at home.



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    Government Dumps on First Amendment

    August 10, 2012 // 6 Comments »

    Jess Radack wrote this, with some added info in italics by me for ya’:

    The Washington Post has an article on how Daniel Carter Jr. was fired for “liking” a page on Facebook. This was not a pornographic, racist, or other prohibited website – it was a Facebook page for a candidate who was challenging his boss.

    This is just the tip of the iceberg of workplace free speech rights. I represent a client, State Department whsitleblower Peter Van Buren, who was not only prohibited from using any social media – on his own time, on his personal computer – but the State was actively monitoring anything he did: blog, Tweet, update his status of Facebook, etc. (here’s the letter the State Department compelled me to sign acknowledging they would be violating my First Amendment rights)

    Both Carter and Van Buren’s behavior is protected free speech (the ACLU aggressively defended my First Amendment rights in front of the State Department).

    Carter filed a lawsuit claiming that his First Amendment rights had been violated, which is now before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit. Both Mr. Carter and Mr. Van Buren’s “speech” raise substantial constitutional questions and create the appearance of impermissible retaliation for their criticism – Carter’s so tacit that you can’t even call it “criticism,” and Van Buren’s more open – of the head of the sheriff’s department and the State Department, respectively.

    The Supreme Court has made clear (Pickering v. Bd. or Educ., 1960 and its progeny) that public employees are protected by the First Amendment when they engage in speech about matters of public concern. These rights can be overcome only if the employee’s interest in the speech is outweighed by the government’s interest in the orderly operation of the public workplace and the efficient delivery of public services by public employees.

    The Supreme Court has also held that public employees retain their First Amendment rights when speaking about issues directly related to their employment, as long as they are speaking as private citizens (Garcetti v. Ceballos, 2006). It is clear in both these cases that both Mr. Carter and Mr. Van Buren were “speaking” in their own voice and not on behalf of the local Police Department or the federal State Department.

    (The State Department is the most aggressive violator of social media Free Speech rights of employees in the Federal sphere)

    If the lower court’s ruling that “liking” a page does not warrant protection because it does not involve “actual statements” is upheld, a plethora of Web-based actions – from clicking ‘like” on Facebook to re-tweeting something – won’t be protected as free speech.

    The Hampton, Virginia sheriff’s actions and the State Department’s actions are unconstitutional. Carter and Van Buren used various computer technologies to communicate matters of public concern – in Carter’s case, who is to be elected Sheriff, and in Van Buren’s case, the reconstruction effort in Iraq.

    As new technologies emerge daily, the law struggles to keep apace, but the First Amendment must be interpreted to protect these new modalities of communicating. As the ACLU points out:

    Pressing a ‘like’ button is analogous to other forms of speech, such as putting a button on your shirt with a candidate’s name on it.


    Jesselyn Radack is National Security & Human Rights Director for the Government Accountability Project, the nation’s leading whistleblower protection and advocacy organization.



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    US Embassy Kabul Cheers for Afghan Olympic Team

    August 3, 2012 // 3 Comments »



    Since we US taxpayers more than likely paid for the Afghan Olympic team, we might as well cheer for them. And, oh yes, “like” the Facebook page so as to inspire Afghan girls who no doubt are viewing Facebook in between drone strikes on their non-existent computers in their without-Internet homes without electricity.

    Since we do have computers and Internet and electricity for now, Americans, let’s see some of those Facebook comments that are meant to encourage the Afghan girls:

    Qais Esmaty starts us off by saying “Good luck Afghan loin, Good luck Afghan Girl.”

    Bahman Behroz says “No result will have this chicken.”

    Najia Shehidi responds with “Iranian Dog Bahman Behroz you better stop barking bloody jowish, you must know by now that Afghans are unbeatable.”

    Mansoor Zazai misses his chance for some American reconstruction money with “No need for afghani girl to compete they should stay in their culture limit.”

    Sawelai Batoor kinda sees through the crude US propaganda by asking “Btw which sport is she participating in and what time will it start?” as if any of that matters to the US tools.

    Ghulam Abbas echoes “Which time tomorrow, she is going to be on the screen of TV?”

    Bahman Behroz, a second time, with “No result will have this chicken.”

    Everybody else just says good luck, which is nice.


    Important Note: These important Facebook diplomatic interactions are what your State Department is actually doing. This is someone’s job. Someone is being paid with your tax dollars to do this in some frakish, twisted belief that it must be somehow helping the United States. Now, who again was saying the State Department is slouching into irrelevancy?



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    Syrians to US Ambassador Ford: Piss Off

    July 27, 2012 // 4 Comments »

    The US can’t contain its glee over the ongoing chaos and destruction in Syria. A massive bombing that killed senior officials, an act that would have instantly been labeled terrorism anywhere else, was delightfully lightly commented on by the White House. Atrocities are occurring on all sides (it is too complex to simply refer to the ongoing free-for-all as “both” sides, as if this was a sporting match) but the US seems to single out nasty things done by the government while downplaying those by the other side(s), including a growing who’s who of Middle East terror groups.

    While more-or-less openly supporting chaos, the US still feels the need on a random summer Friday to play at the same tired rhetoric of “democracy and freedom” (“daf”) that it trots out now and then. Today’s trotter is US ambassador to Syria in exile Robert Ford. Ford is an old State Department hand, with plenty of mileage in the Iraq fiasco to his credit, and rumored in fact to be the next ambassador nominee to Iraq.

    Ford’s address “to the Syrian people” takes place in English and on Facebook for some reason. He is not Lincoln or Pericles. While it is barely worth the effort itself of the mouse click, the comments below it, many purportedly from Syrians, are worth your time.

    One writes “Our memory is LONG LONG LONG Mr. Ford, who the hell do you think you are messing with?” while another is more to the point in saying “piss off Ford.”

    Read the whole thing yourself now on freaking Facebook and of course feel free to comment yourself.

    Bonus: It appears that most Americans are ignoring this “address” by Ford, confusing “Syria” with Siri the Apple robot voice or Suri, Tom Cruise’s child.

    Full Disclosure: Yeah, OK, I commented appropriately on Facebook. Also, Ford was Deputy Chief of Mission in Baghdad while I served in Iraq, and almost fired me over the idiotically wasteful “Sheep for Widows” project I opposed, as outlined in my book.



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    Waiting (for Memorial Day)

    May 28, 2012 // 2 Comments »

    There will be a lot of thanking of veterans this Memorial Day weekend, and that is not altogether out of place. We ask a lot from the people in the military, and in return many would like us to understand what they endure, so when we thank them it is not just a bumper sticker but a thank you that comes from some understanding. From understanding comes empathy, and from there it’s a hop, skip and jump to sincerity. Excerpted from my book, We Meant Well, I offer this meditation on what it means to wait this Memorial Day.

    Soldiers did a lot of waiting. They waited for orders, they waited for trucks to arrive, they waited for chow, they waited for someone to explain why they were waiting. Not as bad as prisons, nursing homes, and shipwrecks, but it was an artificial way to live. Soldiers learned how to ingest time as if it were a physical thing. They became Zen masters of boredom, always waiting.

    They waited, too, back home. We regularly had communications blackouts, when the Army cut off the Internet and the phones. The blackouts lasted two or three days and were usually after a soldier was killed and the Army did not want anyone calling his or her family or the media or posting online until the next of kin had received official notification. For our spouses and children, panic set in when the e-mails and Skype stopped suddenly. They knew it meant someone had died, and they held their breath and waited until they learned who. That was hard, so we usually figured out which one of us had a cell phone with international dialing that worked outside the Army system. There were a lot of ten-second calls to say the dearest words a soldier can utter to a waiting loved one, “Can’t talk, but I’m OK.”

    In our war, communication was omnivorous-present, and waiting was done at Internet speed. Facebook did not exist when the Iraq war started (war, March 2003; Facebook, February 2004), but it sure as hell was here now. Even in the smallest dirt hole there was a sat phone or some kind of Internet connectivity or someone with the right Jetsons iPhone that got a cell signal in a place that did not even get daylight some weeks.

    It started off as a good thing. We don’t have to wait for the mail! Hey, I can call you from the war! OMG frm #iRaQ LOL. Sometimes it was cool. But a lot of times it meant two worlds that had nothing in common but the soldier collided. Why the hell was she Skyping from home about a small problem with the backyard fence when I’ve just come in from six hours in 110 degrees looking for an arms cache site? What to do about the leak in the basement? You call a plumber, burn down the house, I don’t care, we just took a mortar round and I’m going to miss my only real food of the day in five minutes.

    Other times it was worse. No one picks up at 3:00 a.m. back home in a house that is supposed to contain a sleeping wife. Kids answer the phone, distracted by the Disney Channel, and have nothing to say. You worry after three deployments that the substitution of a phone call for a birthday party grows old even for weary preschoolers. The attempt to reconcile a life out here with a life over there fails again and again and again, until you quit trying. Yeah, the lines were down, or I guess you weren’t home when I called, or maybe I’ll call in a week or so or never. Sometimes after they’d hung up you watched guys unable to say it earlier whisper “I love you” to the dead phone, maybe waiting for a response.

    Of course, many nights it was different and you wanted to sit with the phone to your ear and hear the voice at the other end talk about anything, nothing, forever, your world collapsing into the wire. You clung to a wife complaining about the dry cleaner because that represented somewhere better than where you were and today your head was screwed on tight enough to realize it. You had to store up the good stuff when you could get it because you couldn’t count on it coming when you needed it. Like sleep, you wished there was a way to bank it.

    The availability of communication sometimes forced on me more than I wanted to accept. I was waiting to go home, waiting to hear from my child, waiting for my turn to use the phone, and had no strength left to share everyone else’s burden. I walked past a stranger on the phone in the calling center and heard him say “I want to touch you” to a girl somewhere else. I saw a man listening to a six-year-old recite lines from a play seven thousand miles and a world away, using the speakerphone so he had both hands free to cover his eyes. It was too much to be plunged this deeply into the lives of people I didn’t know, and I wished at those times that phones and e-mail and Facebook and Twitter would just go away.

    Outside the calling center I saw an orange dot poking a hole in the darkness and smelled cigarette smoke. I heard another guy crying in the latrine, buttoned up into some of the only privacy available. He couldn’t wait for the moment of his breakdown— technology thrust it onto him. That’s when I knew it was bad. I stopped sleeping for a while and started just waiting for my own mornings to come.



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    State Department to Unfriend al Qaeda on Facebook

    May 24, 2012 // 5 Comments »

    Secretary of State Hillary said that “experts” at her State Department swapped al Qaeda ads on Yemeni websites bragging about killing Americans with ones showing the deadly impact of al Qaeda tactics on Yemenis themselves. “Our team plastered the same sites with altered versions of the ads that showed the toll al-Qaida attacks have taken on the Yemeni people,” Clinton said. “Extremists are publicly venting their frustration and asking supporters not to believe everything they read on the Internet.”

    Rather than hacking the sites covertly, the State Department specialists challenge the extremists in open forums. “We parody and poke holes in what they do,” a State Department official explained, in a cyber “cat and mouse game.”

    According to the AP, last week, AQ launched a new series of banner attack ads focusing on them fighting the Americans, with U.S.-flag-draped coffins. The State Department team countered the attack by buying space on the same site with new ads, featuring the coffins of Yemeni civilians.

    A Few Things Worth Noting

    It was only last week that Clinton said “Each time a reporter is silenced or an activist is threatened it doesnt strengthen government, it weakens a nation… We have to continue making the case for respect, tolerance, openness, which are at the root of sustainable democracy.” I guess her idea of respect, tolerance and openness extends only to ideas she agrees with.


    And of course the State Department coughed up this on Twitter today:


    But wait a minute– we’re now trying to win the war on terror by buying banner ads? Won’t this keen strategy just stop working when the web site owners stop selling us the ads, which they will do now that Clinton has bragged about it?

    If the US is paying for banner ads on pro- al Qaeda websites, aren’t we sort of materially supporting pro- al Qaeda websites? Should DOJ now arrest the State Department for material support?

    Believe it or not, Clinton’s going commando about this silliness was part of her effort to show that diplomats can stand as equals alongside Special Forces operators.

    Anybody think any SpecOps guys are now convinced? Anybody think any SpecOps guys wet themselves laughing?

    Whose credit card did State use to buy the ads?

    Pretty much everyone already knows not to believe everything they read on the Internet.

    Does this count as cyber-bullying?

    How many cyber exploits does it take to erase the memory of each US drone killing?

    Seriously, our tax dollars are spent on crap like this and people who think this stuff up?

    Does anyone anywhere really click on banner ads anymore?

    Breaking

    Inside sources at the State Department have leaked that future cyber efforts will include unfriending al Qaeda on Facebook, releasing a fake al Qaeda sex tape and photoshopping lots of al Qaeda pictures from prom to make them look fatter. State will also bombard known al Qaeda email addresses with fake Viagra ads and offers for low cost government-backed mortgages (those are real). The State Department also plans to start a rumor during fifth period lunch that “no one likes al Qaeda anymore and no one should invite them to any more parties.”

    Also, the US drone strikes killing Yemenis will continue.




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    From the PRT Diaspora: A New Hope

    February 25, 2012 // Comments Off on From the PRT Diaspora: A New Hope

    An email from a former PRT member…

    Before I worked with the PRT program I thought the foreign service was full of brilliant diplomats and that all the policies were in good hands. Now I’m not so sure and feel unsettled anytime I hear the DOS is in charge of doing something important.

    Your book brought back so many memories as I was reading it I was struck by how common the experience was that we shared. I did 2.5 years on two PRTs in [Iraq]. As hopeless and ineffective as the program was though, it was also the best job I’ve ever had, just like the Peace Corps but with money. Maybe we didn’t accomplish much but a few of us did learn a great deal. And I will never forget all those great soldiers and a few of the civilians I worked with. Seriously, I did learn a lot there and hope to use the skills and knowledge to actually have a positive impact on Iraq in the coming years. I am currently in Baghdad about to launch a consulting firm to help companies operate and set up shop here.

    Despite all the incompetence that you accurately describe, I do see things going in a good direction in Iraq, at least as far as the economy goes. The commitment of the U.S. to stay despite all the losses we took deserves some of the credit for that. I set up a page on Facebook to follow economic developments.

    Please check it out, as the news is not all bad and I will be posting at least a few positive stories here and there.



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    21st Century Bypasses Embassy Baghdad

    January 13, 2012 // 2 Comments »

    Crowing about how State is now the cool kids to eat lunch with, spokescoolperson Victoria Nuland held the first Twitter briefing of 2012 as part of “January is 21st Century Statecraft Month” (February will be “IBM Selectric Month.”) Ms. Nuland noted that “more than 100 of our embassies have Facebook or Twitter accounts, or sometimes both,” meaning there are still more accounts in my daughter’s high school lunch room than at State worldwide. Since the tech has been around for a century, maybe the rest of the posts can sign up soon– it’s free to join LOL 🙂 LMAO!

    One mission that just can’t seem to get Tweeting is the World’s Largest Embassy (c), Baghdad, still without a first Tweet. Or maybe that’s a fake account, like all those “Ashton Kutcher” Twitter feeds that just want to sell you Uggs or something, or maybe they have prioritized for a robust MySpace. The Embassy has a nice Facebook page for study in the US (a lot of Iraqis would like to get on that train; almost all of the postings are asking for visas, scholarships or for someone to answer their emailed requests for visas and scholarships) and a YouTube channel, though the latter may run afoul of State’s own master of social media Alec Ross, who said recently “I just don’t think propaganda works on social media, at all.” lulz 😉 #SMH

    Anyway, I think we can help the World’s Largest Embassy (c) get started on Twitter. Here are a few Tweets they could send out to the Iraqis to get things going:

    Anyone out there can help us w/ the Twitter? Ours stops after 140 characte

    @IraqiPeeps Pls stop killing each other. #OurInvestment

    @IraqiPeeps Really, stop it.

    @Basra Can we haz the oil now pls? #OurInvestment

    @Blackwater Can you return Amb limo? Also last time trunk had empty beer bottles, so pls clean, thx.

    How many Iraqis to screw in lightbulb? Zero. No power. #PRT #Reconstruction

    @TheRealSeanPenn Rethought it, maybe you can help. #Reconstruction

    @Hashemi Sorry, apts here all full, try Erbil #Sunni #Kurd #Shia

    @USEmbassyBaghdad RT Send lawyers, guns and money #Hashemi

    All yer bases belong to us. Oh, wait, not any more. #SOFA

    @JulianAssange Can’t find Amb memo re: Mosul dated 04/01/2010 anywhere– do u have a copy? #Wikileaks

    @Sadr Bday party at Baghdaddy’s Fri, no rockets after 9pm pls, ‘k? #Democracy

    Travel Warning: Instant cappuccino maker at Sully still broken. #15% #25% #35%

    @Qods It’s not terrorism when we do it, only when you do it #Carbombsunderscientists

    @Malaki Really really apologize for last night. Meant Iran, not Iraq. #Toomuchtodrink #Girlfriendz

    Q: Five-day forecast for Baghdad? A: Two days. #Sunni

    Sorry to all for trouble, Emb cafeteria menu site now no longer auto-redirects to wemeantwell.com




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    Blocking Objectionable Web Sites: Tehran and State Department

    December 8, 2011 // Comments Off on Blocking Objectionable Web Sites: Tehran and State Department

    Iran has blocked ”Virtual Embassy Tehran”, within 24 hours of its launch by the US, accusing the State Department of “meddling” in the internal affairs of the country.

    The State Department launched the virtual online embassy Tuesday to provide (fairly bland) information to Iranians, despite the lack of diplomatic ties, and to “work as a bridge between the American and Iranian people.”

    Accusing the US of “meddling” in the internal affairs of the country, Iran barred the website. US officials responded they were expecting this move by the Iranian government. A State spokesperson said “Many Iranians do have software and virtual private networks that allow them to work around these kinds of blocks. I think, for example, there are millions of Iranians who have access to Facebook and they”ll also be able to use these so-called VPNs to access this site.”

    It is indeed a sad State of affairs when governments block information they find politically objectionable.

    Oh yes, and this:

    The Department of State continues to block access on its own networks to any Wikileaks-related website, including select news and comment sites that have commented about Wikileaks. The cables released by WikiLeaks are of course available to anyone sober enough to operate an internet connection. But, according to the ACLU, the government has spent the last year insisting, over and over, that the WikiLeaks cables are still classified, going so far as interrogating a State Department employee (me) who linked to one of the cables from his personal blog. Now, the State Department has reversed course and acknowledged without comment that at least some of the cables can be released to the public without harming national security.

    The use of specialized software and VPNs that State recommends to Iranians to circumvent the firewall block is prohibited by the State Department to its own employees to get around State’s own firewall blocks.

    Also, a regular reader, whom we’ll call, what the hell, “Popeye,” reports that my blog is now blocked on the Navy’s unclassified network.

    Of course, sailors, State Department officials and Iranians worldwide can still watch this:




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    Drone News

    October 12, 2011 // Comments Off on Drone News

    Given the state of affairs in Congress and Washington in general, it is no surprise that the big news is all about drones. Yes, America’s robotic killers in the sky– other than assassinating American Citizens, what have they been up to?

    Skynet Joke Already Made

    Well, to start, drone HQ has a computer virus. A computer virus has infected the cockpits of America’s Predator and Reaper drones, logging pilots’ every keystroke as they remotely fly missions over Afghanistan and other warzones. The virus, first detected nearly two weeks ago by the military’s Host-Based Security System, has not prevented pilots at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada from flying their missions overseas. Nor have there been any confirmed incidents of classified information being lost or sent to an outside source. But the virus has resisted multiple efforts to remove it from Creech’s computers, network security specialists say. And the infection underscores the ongoing security risks in what has become the U.S. military’s most important weapons system.

    OK, point taken. A computer virus is messin’ with our drones. Nothing to see here, move along.

    Like Your Drone

    Like drones? Me too! Why not “like” them on Facebook? You can!

    The Congressional Unmanned Systems Caucus, a Congressional group made up of drone lovers, has its own Facebook page. You can see it, and “LIKE” it, here: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Congressional-Unmanned-Systems-Caucus/222909124388885. I’ll try posting a link to this page, so look for that! DO NOT make Skynet comments there, it is too too obvious. C’mon, most of us are unemployed with free time, so be creative.

    Secret Drones

    Lastly, sad-as-a-hound-dog Leon Panetta was almost jolly as he confirmed that the CIA uses drones to kill people. That used to be secret. Oh well, now it is a “gaffe.” Leon said:

    “Obviously I have a helluva lot more weapons available to me in this job than I had at the CIA. Although the Predators aren’t that bad.” He added that the Predators were “something I was very familiar with in my last job.”



    A Drone of Your Own

    Want more? How about your own drone? Click on over to DIY Drones, “home for everything about amateur Unmanned Aerial Vehicles.” You can’t arm them (legally) but, good news!, while “commercial use of aircraft with cameras is regulated, UAV/drone aircraft flying under the recreational exemption may use cameras and GPS.”

    But don’t go to that site if you’re a hippie or a terrorist, because “if we see any discussion of UAV use that we feel is potentially illegal or intended to do harm, we will bring it to the attention to the relevant authorities.”

    And those relevant authorities (Hank Williams, Jr.) will hunt you down with a drone like a freaking dog and use a missile to stamp “Made in the USA” on your burning backside.



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    US Embassy Kabul Features Las Vegas to its Muslim Audience

    October 10, 2011 // 1 Comment »




    Who says the Embassy in Kabul is out of touch?

    On its Facebook page, the US Embassy in Kabul has run a feature on Las Vegas, noting that the place known to most Americans as Sin City is “synonymous with entertainment.” Entertainment here being synonymous with gambling, drinking and whoring.

    What could possibly appeal more to a Muslim audience?

    It gets better.

    When a commenter named “Smock” on Embassy Kabul’s Facebook page raised these same issues, some drone in the Embassy’s Public Diplomacy section actually wrote this:

    Dear Smock, Las Vegas is one of fifty-two cities being featured this year on Embassy Kabul’s Facebook. We appreciate your comments and feedback as to which future cities you would like to see featured.



    We’re winning! Viva Las Kabul!


    (I first learned of this piece of moral high ground from an excellent blog on US reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan called Hamsters on the Titanic, well worth a look. Be sure to check out the regular focus on absurdity column, called “Today’s Helping of Bacon Wrapped Pork Chop”)



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    Vigilance Where You Really Care: Blogs v. Contracts

    August 5, 2011 // 12 Comments »

    When it comes to protecting the rights of bloggers in places like Syria and China, the State Department has no end of energy. Democracy, State says, demands an open and free exchange of ideas, even when they are critical of the government. Rock the power! in those dirty places abroad.

    However, when it comes to stifling free speech among its own employees, the State Department seems also to have no end of energy. The Department asserts:

    Publicly available Internet communications on matters of official concern, including blog postings, must be reviewed by the employee’s agency. 3 FAM 4172.1-3(A)1. See also 5 FAM 792.2b and 5 FAM 792.3d. Thus, there can be no question that employees must submit blog postings for review if they address matters of official concern.

    This of course is a pretty big job, reviewing the blog postings, Tweets, Facebook updates, MySpace posts, IMs, texts, chat room lines, bulletin board contributions and listservs of thousands of employees worldwide, 24/7.

    Just as an example, one of the Department’s own websites links directly to dozens of private blogs (but not this one!) by Foreign Service Officers and others. These sites contain pages of postings, which apparently the State Department is committed to monitoring. While there are quite a variety of opinions expressed, they are no doubt all approved as required. An even longer list is online, suggesting daily blog posts in the thousands need to be vetted.

    Anything less than 100 percent vigilance would be a) selective enforcement (i.e., prejudicial enforcement aimed only at free speech the Department disagrees with and seeks to punish or restrain) and b) risk allowing some snippet of unfettered speech to slip through that could destroy the foreign policy space-time continuum as we know it. In its own words, the purpose of State Department review of all of these blog posts is to screen out statements which “could cause serious damage to US foreign policy, and in particular US diplomatic efforts and military activities.” Heavy Doc, heavy.

    One blog about the Foreign Service, Diplopundit, tracks other Statey blogs that have been forced to stop publishing by the Department. State unleashes senior Deputy Assistant Secretaries to quietly threaten the careers of bad bloggers and, if that does not work, invokes its internal discipline system as if the blogs contained the nuclear launch codes, passwords to the Wikileak servers and Hillary’s Victoria Secret orders all in one.

    Who knows how many thousands of people must work in Foggy Bottom’s Ministry of Truth just to keep up with the flood of blog postings needing to be reviewed. It is even more amazing that somehow the hundreds of blogs keep publishing articles every day, despite the mandatory review process which can take up to 30 days (State claims “30 days” means thirty business days, so it is really close to six weeks of human time.)

    A weaker mind might assume that State does indeed selectively enforce its rules, whacking hard blogs that speak out, while avoiding applying pressure to nice blogs that tow the party line. Why, one could even think that discipline was selectively used to make an example out of FSOs who say things that while true, leave senior officials more than upset.

    If only State could spare a couple of drones from the censorship department to help out over in contracting oversight, things might be better off.

    It seems that the State Department has only now gotten around to noticing an analyst who may have helped award millions in contracts to a company run by her husband and daughter. The analyst helped her husband’s company win 43 taxpayer-funded contracts in recent years, while she and her husband kept their relationship secret from the State Department.

    You are, as an organization, the product of what you do, what you choose to do with your resources. In tough, tough budget times, State chooses to aggressively and selectively police its bloggers, while casually allowing spectacular contracting fraud to pass unnoticed.

    Hopefully as Congress sits down to make its budget cuts, they will take this into consideration.



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    I am (Rejected by) Bradley Manning

    May 26, 2011 // 2 Comments »

    peter van buren One year ago today, Bradley Manning was arrested. So you’ll be seeing a lot of him on the Internet over the next few days. Luckily some new photos have surfaced to replace that one of him smiling in his uniform.

    The folks at The Bradley Manning Support Network have a good idea. To raise awareness of Manning’s situation, they invite people to submit photos of themselves holding up a sign reading “I am Bradley Manning.” They are collecting the photos on their web site, and have quite a few, many from regular folks and several from semi-celebs like Daniel Ellsberg and some CodePink people. You can add yours, too.

    (True CodePink story: I was working alone in the State Department liaison office on Capitol Hill when CodePink people rushed in to protest something. One had a giant paper mache head of Condi Rice, with garish buck teeth the size of pieces of Wonderbread. I asked politely if I could finish a phone call before they protested and they very politely agreed. I finished talking, hung up, they shouted a bit and all was well. Politics is one thing, but I think politeness is still very important. Kudos to the giant headed CodePinker!)

    Back to Manning. I sent my photo of support in, above, but it was rejected because I did not have a sign. I guess my “sign” is there, electronically, but apparently you have to have a paper sign to be included. They wrote:

    Thanks for your submission. We are currently processing a back-log of images, but we noticed that yours didn’t quite fit the criteria. Would you mind resubmitting a photo of yourself holding a sign? It is hard for us to map support for Bradley Manning without the photos to prove it! Your sign could say “I am Bradley Manning,” or a message of your choice if you would prefer. Have a look at the ones that are posted, for ideas. 

    I could claim I went green and saved a piece of paper by not having a paper sign, or admit it was faster and easier for me to just add the words to an existing photo. I’m not sure it matters, but it seems to matter to the people at The Bradley Manning Support Network. Oh well, I’m sure they too meant well.



    Manning is held now in Leavenworth, not quite Rapture-level paradise but nowhere near as meaningfully nasty as Quantico was for him. You can read what a typical day for him is like, or see some photos of where he is locked up.

    If you really want to feel creepy, PBS’ frontline has published Manning’s old Facebook page posts as a weird way of marking his first year in captivity.







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