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Same Old

January 19, 2014 Leave a comment

I’m old enough to have watched President Nixon deliver many a speech in which truth took a vacation, yet I was naive enough to imagine that it was still in residence. Well, I learned my lesson. Decades later, when a president makes a national address, I assume that its primary purpose isn’t to announce substantive change but to spin a story.

So it was on Friday when President Obama gave a speech on N.S.A. abuses. As reported by Mark Landler and Charlie Savage in the NYT,

President Obama, acknowledging that high-tech surveillance poses a threat to civil liberties, announced significant changes on Friday to the way the government collects and uses telephone records, but left in place many other pillars of the nation’s intelligence programs.

Responding to the clamor over sensational disclosures about the National Security Agency’s spying practices, Mr. Obama said he would restrict the ability of intelligence agencies to gain access to phone records, and would ultimately move that data out of the hands of the government.

But in a speech at the Justice Department that seemed more calculated to reassure audiences at home and abroad than to force radical change, Mr. Obama defended the need for the broad surveillance net assembled by the N.S.A. And he turned to Congress and the intelligence agencies themselves to work out the details of any changes.

David Rothkopf, writing in Foreign Policy (of which he is CEO), gets at the root of what most frustrates me about Obama: he has become just another “trust me” pol.

Few of the speeches President Barack Obama has delivered during his tenure in office illustrate his transformation from messiah to mediocrity, a middle of the pack president likely to fit in somewhere between Rutherford B. Hayes and Martin Van Buren, quite as well as his tepid, inadequate, and something-for-everyone but much-less-than-meets-the-eye speech on NSA reforms on Friday. At just the moment when the country needed the constitutional scholar who was bold enough to speak truth to power — the man who many of us thought we were electing in 2008 and then again in 2012 — we instead got the wobbly, vague, “trust me” of a run-of-the-mill pol.

The great flaw within the president’s remarks was not its inadequate details nor the issues it left unaddressed or punted off into an indefinite future. Nor was it the fact that he left the specifics of the implementation of many of the “reforms” to the judgment of many of the same folks who created the problem he was addressing. Rather the president, once again, sent the message that at least until he leaves office, he would like us to embrace the idea that personality is more important than principle in U.S. policymaking. In other words, he sought to reassure his supporters and critics (who are understandably worried about government overreach and the violation of civil liberties and wary of policies driven more by fear-mongering than prudent perspective), by more or less saying, “Don’t worry, I’m a good guy, I’ll make sure that all the big decisions that get made will be OK.”

Quite apart from the fact that wave upon wave of Snowden-fed revelation belies that argument, it ignores a central truth that the constitutional scholar should recognize. Our country was founded on clear limits being placed on the power of government because for all the generations of good and earnest leaders we may have or have had, our planet’s history and human nature tell us we must protect against those who might someday abuse their power.

[snip]

The weakness of the president’s arguments shone through most strongly when he sought to pour oil upon the waters with the assertion that we, the United States, are not Russia or China. Talk about setting a low bar for a country that views itself as being a light unto the nations of the world. We aren’t, the president said soothingly, as bad as two authoritarian societies founded on the ideas that individual rights and liberties take a back seat to the needs (and whims) of the state and its bosses.

That pretty well captures it.

But hey, at least Obama closed Guantanamo. Amirite?

rallnsa

[Ted Rall’s January 17, 2014, comic]

Categories: Politics, Security

Motorcade Madness

December 1, 2013 Leave a comment

motorcade

[Click on graphic for better image. Graphic from The Atlantic, by L-Dopa, accompanying this article]

I mentioned in my last post, by way of explaining my absence from Ron’s View of late, the events of two weekends ago (my mother-in-law Bea’s death) and last weekend (funeral, associated family events). One of those family events, dinner a week about about now for dinner at Gail’s sister’s, led us straight into an unexpected traffic mess.

On the way up, we stopped at the Apple Store so Gail could get a new screen for her iPhone, which was becoming less and less functional two months after its great fall. From there, I was stunned to find us in a long line trying to exit northbound on a local street, a street that in my decades of driving regularly through that neighborhood has never been so backed up. Not counting just after UW football games anyway. Then, as we slowly worked our way north and west toward I-5 to continue our route northwards, we encountered still more traffic in unlikely places.

With I-5 in sight and a massive line of cars heading north on a local road, I said to Gail and Joel that I-5 must be closed. Joel checked the map on his phone and said no, it shows no traffic. I pointed out that if it were closed, there would indeed be no traffic. Then Gail asked if any event was taking place and Joel said oh, yes, Obama’s in town for fundraisers. Had I read the paper, I would have known that he was due to head from the airport (south of downtown) through downtown to a private home in the north end of the city. We had stumbled right into the stoppage of I-5 that was designed to offer him clear sailing. We slowly edged north until we were able to get on an entrance with traffic flowing freely, Obama having apparently gone by. A routine 25-30 minute trip had taken an hour.

Perhaps it’s worth explaining that Seattle is long north and south, narrow east and west, with water on both the east and west sides–Puget Sound and Elliott Bay to the west, Lake Washington to the east. I-5 runs north-south right down the middle. And the city is divided east-west in the middle by natural and artificial waterway, so one can’t get from south to north without driving across one of a handful of bridges. What this means is, if you stop traffic on I-5 northbound, you are screwing everyone who wants to go north, even a limited distance.

Is this sensible or is it madness? An awkward question to ask on the weekend that fell exactly fifty years after the assassination of JFK.* Yes, presidential security is important. I get that. I do. But must thousands and thousands be pushed aside? For a fundraiser?

*I won’t dwell on where I was fifty years ago, but yes, I remember well where I was on learning of the assassination. I also remember where I was two days later, fifty years to the day before encountering the Obama motorcade. You may have read last week about the NFL’s decision to go ahead that day with its regularly scheduled games. I was at one of them. My beloved Giants against the St. Louis Cardinals at Yankee Stadium. That morning, my father stopped with my brother and me at the local post office to meet my uncle, who was dropping off my cousin to join us. As Jimmy got in the car, he announced the shocking news that Lee Harvey Oswald had just been shot. And off we went, to the Bronx and the game. 24-17 Giants. I’ve never forgotten the score. Let’s see. Here: the boxscore. It says the temperature was 48 degrees, with 19 mph winds. I remember the wind, and being plenty cold.

Anyway, we made it to Tamara’s and ate dinner: leftovers from the post-funeral dinner the night before. Gail and her siblings got to take care of some business. Eight o’clock rolled around and it was time to head home.

We were happily driving south on I-5, back from the suburbs into Seattle, southward through the northern part of the city, approaching the I-5 bridge that crosses the ship canal. And suddenly everything slows down. All southbound lanes uniformly. Then stops. Then stop and go. A mile ahead is the left-lane exit to State Route 520, which leads toward our house and then over the Lake Washington floating bridge to Medina, Bellevue, and the other communities of the Eastside. High up on the bridge is a sign that offers traffic warnings when needed. It is lit up. We finally get close enough for me to see that it says there’s been an incident on SR 520. Bridge closed. All lanes closed. Exit to 520 closed.

Wow! That must be some incident! Or so I was thinking.

Not your ordinary incident, though. I was naive. You see, after his North Seattle fundraiser, Obama was off to Medina, to the home of a retired Microsoft exec for fundraiser number two. And the time had come for him to drive back to Seattle to his downtown hotel. They closed the entire 520 bridge westbound and I-5 southbound just for him. For fundraising.

This is total madness. There are so few ways into Seattle. Two of the three biggest were closed. (There’s also I-90, coming across Lake Washington a few miles to the south.) We sat there for 15 minutes. No more stop and go. Just stop. Then Gail and Joel noticed flashing lights coming west on 520, south on I-5. Moments later, we were released.

Maybe next time Obama can do his fundraisers via Skype and let us go about our business.

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.”

Categories: Government, Security

NSA, the Cloud, and Profit

August 29, 2013 Leave a comment

The NSA's Utah Data Center

The NSA’s Utah Data Center


[AP/Rick Bowmer]

This site is great. (Hat tip: Jim Fallows.)

I suggested months ago that the NSA should go into business as the ultimate cloud service.

Isn’t it great to know they’re backing up all our email? And phone conversations too? … Why don’t they offer to charge us a fee for access to old data? … I would pay for this. Wouldn’t you?

(I know, I’m not the only one to think of this. But I’ll accept credit as an independent suggester, having written about it before seeing the idea anywhere else.)

And now, as an offshoot of the NSA’s PRISM program, there’s PRSM, which provides the very service I had in mind. Some highlights:

  • Unlimited Storage: With the world’s largest data center, share endlessly.
  • 320 million strong: You’ll find every person you’ve ever known. Even grandma.
  • Instantly upload trillions of megabytes of data.
  • Really big computers: Our datacenter can store up to 5 zettabytes of information.

And then there’s the list of key partners: Google, Facebook, Apple, Yahoo!, Microsoft, AOL, and AT&T. I recommend exploring all the service’s features.

Meanwhile, back in the non-parodic world, Craig Timberg and Barton Gellman write in today’s Washington Post:

The National Security Agency is paying hundreds of millions of dollars a year to U.S. companies for clandestine access to their communications networks, filtering vast traffic flows for foreign targets in a process that also sweeps in large volumes of American telephone calls, e-mails and instant messages.

The bulk of the spending, detailed in a multi-volume intelligence budget obtained by The Washington Post, goes to participants in a Corporate Partner Access Project for major U.S. telecommunications providers. The documents open an important window into surveillance operations on U.S. territory that have been the subject of debate since they were revealed by The Post and Britain’s Guardian newspaper in June.

New details of the corporate-partner project, which falls under the NSA’s Special Source Operations, confirm that the agency taps into “high volume circuit and packet-switched networks,” according to the spending blueprint for fiscal 2013. The program was expected to cost $278 million in the current fiscal year, down nearly one-third from its peak of $394 million in 2011.

Voluntary cooperation from the “backbone” providers of global communications dates to the 1970s under the cover name BLARNEY, according to documents provided by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. These relationships long predate the PRISM program disclosed in June, under which American technology companies hand over customer data after receiving orders from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

In briefing slides, the NSA described BLARNEY and three other corporate projects — OAKSTAR, FAIRVIEW and STORMBREW — under the heading of “passive” or “upstream” collection. They capture data as they move across fiber-optic cables and the gateways that direct global communications traffic.

The documents offer a rare view of a secret surveillance economy in which government officials set financial terms for programs capable of peering into the lives of almost anyone who uses a phone, computer or other device connected to the Internet.

Although the companies are required to comply with lawful surveillance orders, privacy advocates say the multimillion-dollar payments could create a profit motive to offer more than the required assistance.

Keeping Us Safe

June 13, 2013 Leave a comment

Ralltvs

As we continue to learn more about what President Obama does to keep us safe from terrorists, it may be worth reviewing Article 2, Section 1, Clause 8 of the US Constitution:

Before he enter on the Execution of his Office, he shall take the following Oath or Affirmation:–“I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”

The president swears to protect the Constitution, not us. Yet, like so many of his predecessors, Obama violates the Constitution in the name of our security.

Ted Rall suggests where this logic leads in his latest cartoon, above. I suppose we should ban cars, too, while we’re at it. (Not guns, of course.)

I quote the Esquire’s Charles Pierce a lot. Sorry. I can’t resist. On the subject of this post, let me link to one of his pieces from two days ago, in which he asks,

Tell me what is being done in my name and I can decide on the level of my own complicity. Tell me what is being done in my name and I can decide that I don’t want to be complicit at all. Tell me what is being done in my name and I can be a citizen, in full, of a self-governing political commonwealth. That’s your job. That’s what those three words [We the people] are about. Don’t tell me it’s for my own good. I’m not 12. I know what is for my own good. Don’t tell me to trust you. That ship sailed long ago. Goddammit, tell me.

Categories: Politics, Security

The Security State

May 17, 2012 Leave a comment

Gheorghe Alexianu, Romanian governor of region including Odessa during World War II, at far right

[From Charles King’s post at The Wilson Quarterly]

I wrote last Sunday about the book I was reading, Charles King’s Odessa: Genius and Death in a City of Dreams. I finished it yesterday morning. Still awaiting me when I wrote the post were chapters on Odessan life in the final years under the tsar, during World War I and the revolution, the first two decades of the Soviet Union and Stalin, and the Romanian occupation from 1941 to 1944.

Once Germany broke the German-Soviet Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact in 1941 and invaded the Soviet Union, it invited Axis ally Romania to head into the regions to Romania’s northeast along the Black Sea. King’s chapter on the Romanian occupation, Romanian anti-Semitism, and the removal of Jews from Odessa is the climax of the book. A horrific tale, as one would imagine, but a fascinating one as well. Also of interest are subsequent chapters on Odessa in the postwar Soviet Union, Odessa as part of post-Soviet Ukraine, and the rich Odessan-infused community in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn.

I had an unexpected sense of familiarity when I read a passage in the chapter on the Romanian years. King first explains that

Odessans began denouncing each other almost as soon as the Romanian cavalry trotted down a deserted and sandbagged Richilieu Street. … The demand to unmask hidden Bolsheviks before they could stage further terrorist attacks was greater than ever, and the supply of Odessans eager to avoid suspicion themselves probably spiked as well. After all, it was hard to have survived the 1930s without embracing to some degree the Soviet system, and in the topsy-turvy world of war and occupation, every virtue conjured from necessity was now a vice waiting to be revealed. It really was like stepping through the looking glass.

This leads into a story of two men’s dueling denunciations, after which we come upon the following passage:

For plenty of Odessans, the way to demonstrate a healthy sense of civic duty was by stepping up and being of use in the maintenance of law and order, the discovery of underground Soviet agents, and especially the exposure of hidden Jews.

Alexianu’s administration saw all Jewish Odessans, at least in theory, as Soviet agents. … the search for hidden Jews was not simply a matter of what would now be called ethnic cleansing. It was also, from the perspective of the occupier and many of the occupied, a matter of security.

By no means do I wish to compare early twenty-first century America to Odessa under the Romanians, but really, is this familiar or what? Just replace Jewish Odessans with Muslim Americans and Soviet agents with Al Qaeda agents. Yes, this is an enormous stretch, but still. What is one to make of our airport security theater apparatus? Of our data collection? And so on.

Just yesterday I read an article about the aldermen in Brookfield, Wisconsin, just outside Milwaukee, approving construction of a mosque. I know I should focus on this positive news — it was approved — but I couldn’t get the following portion of the report out of my mind:

Brookfield resident Beverly Kuntzsch told aldermen she was concerned about public safety. She said the New York Police Department surveyed 100 mosques nationwide in 2007 and found substantial ties to terrorism and “Jihad.”

“How will you monitor the literature or the preaching/teaching of violence that’s going on in the mosques?” Kuntzsch asked.

We’re not wartime Odessa, or anything remotely like it. But the security apparatus grows. It’s big business, for one thing, with bipartisan government support.

Where are we headed?

———

By the way, Charles King’s post at The Wilson Quarterly a year ago, from which the photo at the top is taken, is short and provides a good overview of what his book is about. See also Timothy Snyder’s review, which King’s post links to, again at The Wilson Quarterly. (Snyder is the Yale historian whose book Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin I read, and wrote about, a few months ago.)

Categories: Politics, Security

Fun with Security Theater

April 6, 2012 Leave a comment

[From Rapiscan home page]

Posting will be irregular over the next few days, while we’re traveling. But speaking of traveling, I had an unhappy encounter this morning with the Rapiscan body scanner at SeaTac. Not that i can imagine a happy encounter.

We got up at 4:00 am, left home at 5:15, and got on the SeaTac security line a little before 6:00. Looking ahead, I could see that the scanners weren’t yet in use, though we were subjected to a lecture on a video screen about how harmless they are, what to do when we enter them, how the person who sees the images doesn’t see you, etc.

We chose a short line, but it wasn’t moving at all. Then, when it did move, the person studying the images from the bag scanner was calling for a bag check with every other passenger. I don’t know what the deal was. They seemed to be practicing heightened security procedures.

When Gail and I got to the conveyor belt, she put herself through and headed to the scanning devices, where she was led to the usual scanner, like everyone else. I put my stuff on the belt, but it wasn’t moving. I waited. Thirty seconds later, it still wasn’t moving, at which point a TSA woman happened to move the little barrier that was blocking the body scanner. I knew what that meant. Sure enough, when the conveyor belt came to life and sucked in my bins and bag, the woman sent me to the scanner, as the first scannee of the day.

I really want to opt out. I don’t believe the claims that the scanners are safe. I know they are utterly useless. And I know the main reason they are used is because Rapiscan has close ties to the federal government and so got a big contract after the undie-bomber scare. On the other hand, opting out can lead to oral abuse, unreasonable delays, missing your flight, … . Better just to keep your mouth shut and do it, or so I have decided.

Stand in there. Do you have anything on you? Yes, my wallet. Hand it over. Raise arms. Stand for 10 seconds. Go out. Wait for approval to leave. But this time two new things occurred: (i) I had the tightest patdown of my life. I thought the whole point of opting in is that I won’t be frisked. But this guy, without warning or explanation, rubbed down the front of my body from neck to waist in about 8 or 9 strokes, working from one side to the other. I understand he’s checking for explosives, but I thought that’s what the scanner does, seeing if I have bulges. Or maybe the point is that I do have bulges, as revealed by the machine, so he had to verify that the bulges were really me, not explosives. If so, he could have told me.

Meanwhile, and this is (ii), they had taken my wallet away to put through the bag scanner. Are you serious? And again, they didn’t tell me they were doing this. They only told me after the fact. The last time I was body scanned, the TSA agent opened my wallet and felt in it but didn’t scan it.

There can’t possibly be a point to this, other than to piss everyone off, except the handful who are under the illusion that this is what keeps us safe.

Well, I could give references and links to buttress my case, but I’ve been up since 4:00 am and I’m too tired. So I’ll leave it at that.

As for Gail, when I was done with all this, I discovered that she was still being investigated. She had dutifully put her liquids in a 1-quart bag and put it on the conveyor belt in a separate bin. But apparently the TSA scanner decided there might be more liquids. Bag Check! She was pulled aside, her carry-on was emptied while she stood a few feet away, various other bags were pulled out and studied, then the bag was put through the scanner again.

Here we are, safe and sound in New York, with two more security theater encounters to look forward to in the coming days.

Categories: Security, Travel