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Our Border Patrol

September 22, 2013 Leave a comment

usborderpatrol

One casualty of our extended kitchen remodel is my listening to NPR’s On the Media, which is broadcast here in Seattle on Sunday evenings from 6:00 to 7:00. Sunday used to be my evening to cook dinner. (Gail, don’t laugh.) Okay, not so much lately, or in the months before the remodel, but if I cooked at all, that was the night. And while cooking, or doing dishes, I would listen to OTM.

This week’s edition has a compelling story, one I would have missed altogether if not for the New Yorker’s Philip Gourevitch, whose twitter feed I follow. This morning, he tweeted, “Listen, please, to this report on unaccountable Border Patrol abuse of US citizens by Sarah Abdurrahman.” I dutifully followed the link and listened, making this evening’s broadcast dispensable.

Abdurrahman is an OTM producer and was herself the subject of such abuse. The title of her piece is “My detainment story or: how I learned to stop feeling safe in my own country and hate border patrol.” The website explains:

Earlier this month, OTM producer Sarah Abdurrahman, her family, and her friends were detained for hours by US Customs and Border Protection on their way home from Canada. Everyone being held was a US citizen, and no one received an explanation. Sarah tells the story of their detainment, and her difficulty getting any answers from one of the least transparent agencies in the country.

When you can spare twenty minutes, give the story a listen.

You may also wish to see the US Customs and Border Protection website, from which I’ve taken the photo up top. Its caption: “The priority mission of the Border Patrol is preventing terrorists and terrorists’ weapons, including weapons of mass destruction, from entering the United States.”

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Categories: Government, Security

The Wonders of Privatization

May 4, 2012 Leave a comment

[Richard A. Chapman, Chicago Sun-Times]

It seems that in 2008, the city of Chicago sold its parking meter concession to a private investment company, Chicago Parking Meters, for 75 years for a one-time payment of $1.15 billion.

Is that a good deal for the city? To have an idea, we would need to know what the annual revenue is. A sidebar in a Chicago Sun-Times article today has the numbers. The city took in $23.8 million in 2008. Chicago Parking Meters has taken in $45.6m, $71.2m ,and $82.8m in the three full years since.

Which brings us to the point of today’s Sun-Times article. (Hat tip: Atrios.)

The private investors who run Chicago’s parking meters are doing better than expected, and now they’re demanding an additional $14 million they say they’re owed under obscure provisions of the wildly unpopular 2008 deal that privatized metered parking and caused rates to soar, records show.

Disputing the claim, City Hall says Chicago Parking Meters LLC is seeking a “windfall to which it is not entitled.”

The $14 million bill stems from parking revenues the meter company says it lost when the city took meters out of service last year because of street repairs, festivals and other city-sponsored activities, according to documents obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times.

This is the second time in a year that the company has hit City Hall with a claim for a big parking tab. The Emanuel administration already is in arbitration over a $13.5 million claim over free parking that Chicago Parking Meters says it provided to people displaying disabled-parking placards or license plates in 2010.

That makes the total disputed amount more than $27 million.

I’m thinking Chicago Parking Meters got a pretty good deal. I’d love to pay a little over a billion up front — if I had the change sitting around — and get their rate of return. Plus, it will keep growing.

Faced with widespread technical problems after the takeover of the parking system in early 2009, the company’s early returns fell short of expectations. But it rapidly rebounded, posting revenues of about $45 million in 2009 and more than $70 million the following year. Analysts have said they expect that number to hit $162 million by 2020.

Who did ante up that billion?

Partnerships assembled by New York-based financial giant Morgan Stanley hold a 50.1 percent stake in Chicago Parking Meters. The rest of the company is owned by German financial company Allianz and the investment arms of the emirate of Abu Dhabi.

What could Mayor Daley have been thinking?

Categories: Business, Government

Drone Assassinations

March 17, 2012 Leave a comment

Above is Ruben Bolling’s latest. I may be overdoing cartoons lately, but this one is too good to pass up. Our best cartoonists find fewer and fewer paid outlets for their work, even as they provide the most trenchant commentary on the political scene. As President Obama and Attorney General assure us that drone assassinations targeted killings are legal and that the authority to assassinate perform targeted killing is used wisely, it’s best to keep in mind that with the increase in domestic drones, the next targets may be us.

Categories: Government, War

War Is What I Say It Is

June 19, 2011 Leave a comment

A few days ago, I wrote about the White House’s justification for continuing the war in Libya without the Congressional authorization that the War Powers Act would appear to require. As explained in the NYT article by Charlie Savage and Mark Landler, Harold Koh, the State Department legal adviser, and Robert BAuer, the White House counsel, argued that “American forces had not been in ‘hostilities’ … They argued that United States forces are at little risk because there are no troops on the ground and Libyan forces are unable to exchange fire with them meaningfully.” (See Ted Rall’s representation of this concept above.)

On the front page of yesterday’s NYT, Charlie Savage followed up with a piece on how Bauer and Koh won Obama’s ear, and the day, despite counter-arguments by

Jeh C. Johnson, the Pentagon general counsel, and Caroline D. Krass, the acting head of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, [who] had told the White House that they believed that the United States military’s activities in the NATO-led air war amounted to “hostilities.” Under the War Powers Resolution, that would have required Mr. Obama to terminate or scale back the mission after May 20.

But Mr. Obama decided instead to adopt the legal analysis of several other senior members of his legal team — including the White House counsel, Robert Bauer, and the State Department legal adviser, Harold H. Koh — who argued that the United States military’s activities fell short of “hostilities.” Under that view, Mr. Obama needed no permission from Congress to continue the mission unchanged.

Savage goes on to explain that “Presidents have the legal authority to override the legal conclusions of the Office of Legal Counsel and to act in a manner that is contrary to its advice, but it is extraordinarily rare for that to happen. Under normal circumstances, the office’s interpretation of the law is legally binding on the executive branch.”

Only in the penultimate paragraph does Savage reveal the the stunning news that “Other high-level Justice lawyers were also involved in the deliberations, and Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. supported Ms. Krass’s view.”

President Bush listened to his OLC, but then he made sure to appoint hacks who told him whatever he wanted, most notably by re-defining torture so that whatever he wanted to do wouldn’t count. I don’t know what’s worse, Bush’s approach or Obama’s: just keep asking around until you hear what you want, then ignore the OLC and your attorney general.

The rule of law continues to wither away.

Categories: Government, Law, War

Change We Can Believe In, XIX

June 15, 2011 Leave a comment

Change We Can Believe In: It’s My Party, and I’ll Bomb Who I Want To

If you’re of a certain age, you’ll get the reference. If not, well, there was this nice Jewish girl named Leslie Sue Goldstein who recorded It’s My Party under the name Lesley Gore. As she turned 17 in the spring of 1963, it became the #1 song in the country, a hit for both her and producer Quincy Jones. The words of its immortal refrain were on all our tongues that summer: “It’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to, cry if I want to, cry if I want to. You would cry too if it happened to you.”

This morning I was dumbfounded as I read online the NYT article by Charlie Savage and Mark Landler, to appear in tomorrow’s paper, in which White House explains why the fighting in Libya is not a war. This was the basis for concluding that the War Powers Act doesn’t apply, so that President Obama need not ask Congress for authorization for continued fighting in Libya.

In contending that the limited American role did not oblige the administration to ask for authorization under the War Powers Resolution, the report asserted that “U.S. operations do not involve sustained fighting or active exchanges of fire with hostile forces, nor do they involve U.S. ground troops.”

[snip]

“We are acting lawfully,” said Harold H. Koh, the State Department legal adviser, who expanded on the administration’s reasoning in a joint interview with the White House counsel, Robert Bauer.

The two senior administration lawyers contended that American forces had not been in “hostilities” at least since early April, when NATO took over the responsibility for the no-fly zone and the United States shifted to primarily a supporting role — providing refueling and surveillance to allied warplanes, although remotely piloted drones operated by the United States periodically fire missiles, too.

They argued that United States forces are at little risk because there are no troops on the ground and Libyan forces are unable to exchange fire with them meaningfully. And they said the military mission was constrained by a United Nations Security Council resolution, which authorized air power for the purpose of defending civilians.

“We are not saying the president can take the country into war on his own,” said Mr. Koh, a former Yale Law School dean and outspoken critic of the Bush administration’s expansive theories of executive power. “We are not saying the War Powers Resolution is unconstitutional or should be scrapped or that we can refuse to consult Congress. We are saying the limited nature of this particular mission is not the kind of ‘hostilities’ envisioned by the War Powers Resolution.”

If I understand this correctly, we’re not at war because even though we get to fire missiles, Libyan forces can’t fire back.

Is this a great country or what? I love the rule of law. Okay, so the president is constrained by law to get Congressional approval to fight wars. But if we want to bomb the crap out of a country, as long as we keep them at arm’s length so they can’t return fire, we’re not at war.

Sorry, Congress. You don’t matter. It’s my party, and I’ll bomb who I want to.

Categories: Government, Law, War

Normalizing the National Surveillance State

June 13, 2011 Leave a comment

This is a post I started three weeks ago, in the wake of Jane Mayer’s widely discussed New Yorker article on the US Justice Department’s prosecution of Thomas Drake, the former National Security Agency employee accused of disclosing top-secret defense documents. Events have overtaken me, most notably the government’s abandonment of its overblown case and agreement to a plea bargain with Drake.

Mayer’s article is still very much to the point in its depiction of the Obama administration’s over-reach in its zeal to bring whistleblowers to their knees. It’s essential reading. For now, let me settle on making just one point, by quoting from Mayer’s article her own quote of Yale law professor Jack Balkin:

Jack Balkin, a liberal law professor at Yale, agrees that the increase in leak prosecutions is part of a larger transformation. “We are witnessing the bipartisan normalization and legitimization of a national-surveillance state,” he says. In his view, zealous leak prosecutions are consonant with other political shifts since 9/11: the emergence of a vast new security bureaucracy, in which at least two and a half million people hold confidential, secret, or top-secret clearances; huge expenditures on electronic monitoring, along with a reinterpretation of the law in order to sanction it; and corporate partnerships with the government that have transformed the counterterrorism industry into a powerful lobbying force. Obama, Balkin says, has “systematically adopted policies consistent with the second term of the Bush Administration.”

There is little more troubling about the Obama administration than its continuation of Bush’s national security state. At least in the Bush years we could see what he was doing as an aberration and anticipate that his successor would return us to the rule of law. Had McCain been elected and continued these policies, we might still view them as an aberration. But for Obama, who spoke out against these measures as a senator and campaigned against them, to not just continue them but vigorously argue for their necessity indeed enshrines them as bipartisan national policy. (See the cartoon at the top of this post for Tom Tomorrow’s take on this issue.)

Which brings us to Charlie Savage’s front-page article in today’s NYT, whose title speaks for itself: “F.B.I. Agents Get Leeway to Push Privacy Bounds.”

The Federal Bureau of Investigation is giving significant new powers to its roughly 14,000 agents, allowing them more leeway to search databases, go through household trash or use surveillance teams to scrutinize the lives of people who have attracted their attention.

The F.B.I. soon plans to issue a new edition of its manual, called the Domestic Investigations and Operations Guide, according to an official who has worked on the draft document and several others who have been briefed on its contents. The new rules add to several measures taken over the past decade to give agents more latitude as they search for signs of criminal or terrorist activity.

[snip]

Some of the most notable changes apply to the lowest category of investigations, called an “assessment.” The category, created in December 2008, allows agents to look into people and organizations “proactively” and without firm evidence for suspecting criminal or terrorist activity.

Under current rules, agents must open such an inquiry before they can search for information about a person in a commercial or law enforcement database. Under the new rules, agents will be allowed to search such databases without making a record about their decision.

In other words, the FBI can spy on us for just about any reason, or no reason at all.

I feel safer already.

Categories: Government, Law

War Without End

August 9, 2010 Leave a comment

Nagasaki bomb, August 9, 1945

Today is the 65th anniversary of the dropping of an atomic bomb on Nagasaki. Three days earlier, an atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. People continue to argue, and surely will as long as the human race survives, about the morality of President Truman’s decision to explode what, sixty-five years later, remain the only atomic bombs ever used in war. One thing is certain, though: the bombs brought the war with Japan to a close.

Now we find ourselves in a war apparently without end. Recent coverage of the war in Afghanistan, plus the release by wikileaks of over 91,000 reports on the war from 2004 to 2010, suggest not just that it is not going well, but that if we are to achieve our stated objectives, we may need to be there for decades to come. See, among many, this piece from today’s NYT, in which Gordon Goldstein (author of Lessons in Disaster: McGeorge Bundy and the Path to War in Vietnam, about which I wrote two Januarys ago) is quoted as arguing “that it’s clear the counterinsurgency and population-protection policy, as set out in Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal’s manifesto last summer, is failing, reminiscent of the grandiose plans Mr. Bundy promulgated in Vietnam in the 1960s.”

Bush began the war in parallel with tax cuts. As we continue to fight, the politicians who most ardently support the war ask that we cut taxes further. At what cost domestically? With the economic downturn cutting into local tax revenues and the federal government unable to fill the gap, much of the damage can be seen at the local level through cutbacks in government services. Three such examples were provided two days ago in a NYT article:

Plenty of businesses and governments furloughed workers this year, but Hawaii went further — it furloughed its schoolchildren. Public schools across the state closed on 17 Fridays during the past school year to save money, giving students the shortest academic year in the nation and sending working parents scrambling to find care for them.

Many transit systems have cut service to make ends meet, but Clayton County, Ga., a suburb of Atlanta, decided to cut all the way, and shut down its entire public bus system. Its last buses ran on March 31, stranding 8,400 daily riders.

Even public safety has not been immune to the budget ax. In Colorado Springs, the downturn will be remembered, quite literally, as a dark age: the city switched off a third of its 24,512 streetlights to save money on electricity, while trimming its police force and auctioning off its police helicopters.

Faced with the steepest and longest decline in tax collections on record, state, county and city governments have resorted to major life-changing cuts in core services like education, transportation and public safety that, not too long ago, would have been unthinkable. And services in many areas could get worse before they get better.

The length of the downturn means that many places have used up all their budget gimmicks, cut services, raised taxes, spent their stimulus money — and remained in the hole. Even with Congress set to approve extra stimulus aid, some analysts say states are still facing huge shortfalls.

Cities and states are notorious for crying wolf around budget time, and for issuing dire warnings about draconian cuts that never seem to materialize. But the Great Recession has been different. Around the country, there have already been drastic cuts in core services like education, transportation and public safety, and there are likely to be more before the downturn ends. The cuts that have disrupted lives in Hawaii, Georgia and Colorado may be extreme, but they reflect the kinds of cuts being made nationwide, disrupting the lives of millions of people in ways large and small.

(Glenn Greenwald used this NYT article as the starting point for his recent post, What Collapsing Empire Looks Like.)

And yet, over at The Weekly Standard, Bill Kristol offers President Obama three tips today on how to save his failed presidency. The concluding summary:

So: No tax hikes, no Afghanistan deadline, no Ground Zero mosque. It’s really pretty easy. They’re all the right thing to do (as you surely know with respect to Afghanistan and the mosque, and must suspect with regard to taxes). Doing these three things will stabilize your approval rating and could lead to an uptick before the election. November will be rough but not disastrous.

Ah, it’s so simple. Just keep fighting a lost war without paying for it. And while you’re at it, engage in a bit of demagoguery to suggest that we’re going to fight Moslems of all stripes, at home as well as abroad. At least Kristol didn’t suggest dropping atomic bombs on Afghanistan and Iran. Oh, but wait. His next and final sentence is, “Then major cuts in domestic discretionary spending in the budget early next year, and military action against the Iranian nuclear program—and you’ll have a real shot at a successful presidency.”

Um, so we should start another war? And pay for it with still more cuts in domestic spending? And this is the best hope for a successful presidency why?

I’ve been somewhat critical of Obama lately, but let me be clear. I sure am glad he’s our president rather than McCain, who would surely be trying out all of Kristol’s ideas. Still, I fear the direction in which we are headed and hope Obama takes clear steps to bring our wars to an end.

Categories: Government, Politics, War