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Archive for the ‘Obama administration’ Category

Why the U.S. Has Fallen Behind in Internet Speed and Affordability

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How appropriate: All week I’ve been having to wait on connections, sometimes more than a minute. Claire Cain Miller writes in the NY Times:

America’s slow and expensive Internet is more than just an annoyance for people trying to watch “Happy Gilmore” on Netflix. Largely a consequence of monopoly providers, the sluggish service could have long-term economic consequences for American competitiveness.

Downloading a high-definition movie takes about seven seconds in Seoul, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Zurich, Bucharest and Paris, and people pay as little as $30 a month for that connection. In Los Angeles, New York and Washington, downloading the same movie takes 1.4 minutes for people with the fastest Internet available, and they pay $300 a month for the privilege, according to The Cost of Connectivity, a report published Thursday by the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute.

The report compares Internet access in big American cities with access in Europe and Asia. Some surprising smaller American cities — Chattanooga, Tenn.; Kansas City (in both Kansas and Missouri); Lafayette, La.; and Bristol, Va. — tied for speed with the biggest cities abroad. In each, the high-speed Internet provider is not one of the big cable or phone companies that provide Internet to most of the United States, but a city-run network or start-up service.

The reason the United States lags many countries in both speed and affordability, according to people who study the issue, has nothing to do with technology. Instead, it is an economic policy problem — the lack of competition in the broadband industry. [Which is weird, because businessmen all say that they love competition, that competition is what makes America great, and so on---but they do everything in their power to avoid having to compete. - LG]

“It’s just very simple economics,” said Tim Wu, a professor at Columbia Law School who studies antitrust and communications and was an adviser to the Federal Trade Commission. “The average market has one or two serious Internet providers, and they set their prices at monopoly or duopoly pricing.” . . .

Continue reading.

And the lack of competition is thanks to Congress, the FTC, the FCC, and other regulatory agencies who are not doing their jobs and thereby steadily weakening the US.

Even now the FCC is working its head off to destroy net neutrality. But note what Tom Wheeler of the FCC points out:

“Stop and let that sink in: Three-quarters of American homes have no competitive choice for the essential infrastructure for 21st-century economics and democracy,” Tom Wheeler, chairman of the F.C.C., said in a speech last month.

Written by LeisureGuy

31 October 2014 at 3:35 pm

FBI pushing for more and more authority

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A few items from The Watch, Radley Balko’s column in the Washington Post, today by Lucy Steigerwald:

  • The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is requesting greater scopein their power to hack computers outside of their jurisdiction, including ones where the physical location of it is unclear.The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) says the FBI is being awfully vague about why this is so essential.
  • Other FBI news: In July several agents cut the internet to several suites in a Vegas hotel, then disguised themselves as the men come to fix it, all in order to gather evidence of illegal, high-stakes sports betting. One of the men’s lawyer says that this tactic sets an alarming precedent for law enforcement, and the case should be tossed out.
  • Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) is mad about all of this FBI stuff, and he is also not happy about the time the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) made a fake Facebook page under a very real woman’s name in order to snag drug suspects. Leahy says such things may “erode the public’s trust in the judgment and integrity of law enforcement officers.”

Written by LeisureGuy

31 October 2014 at 12:24 pm

Palestinians not required to ride in the back of the bus—they are not allowed to ride the bus at all

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Israel has moved to a level of racism and segregation worse than the early 20th century American South—much worse, considering the level of attacks and deaths in Gaza. And we are funding that regime:

Screen Shot 2014-10-31 at 11.59.53 AM

From the link:

“Since the October War in 1973, Washington has provided Israel with a level of support dwarfing the amounts provided to any other state. It has been the largest annual recipient of direct U.S. economic and military assistance since 1976 and the largest total recipient since World War ll. Total direct U.S. aid to Israel amounts to well over $140 billion in 2003 dollars. Israel receives about $3 billion in direct foreign assistance each year, which is roughly one-fifth of America’s entire foreign aid budget. In per capita terms, the United States gives each Israeli a direct subsidy worth about $500 per year. This largesse is especially striking when one realizes that Israel is now a wealthy industrial state with a per capita income roughly equal to South Korea or Spain.”

- John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt
“The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy

* Source: The Congressional Research Service’s report “U.S. Foreign Aid to Israel,” written by Jeremy M. Sharp, Specialist in Middle Eastern Affairs, dated April 11, 2014.

According to this report, the Obama Administration gave $3.1 billion in Foreign Military Financing (FMF) for Israel for the Fiscal Year 2014. In addition, the U.S contributed $504 million to the joint U.S.-Israel Missile Defense Program during FY 2014. If we include that number, American taxpayers give Israel $9.9 million per day.

Over the last 20 years, the U.S. has been slowly phasing out economic aid to Israel and gradually replacing it with increased military aid. In 2007, the Bush Administration and the Israeli government agreed to a 10-year, $30 billion military aid package FY 2009 to FY 2018. In 2012, the U.S. began giving Israel $3.1 billion a year (or an average of $8.5 million a day) and promised to provide that amount every year through FY 2018.

Israel is by far the largest recipient of U.S. foreign military aid (see how other nations compare). According to the CRS report, the President’s request for Israel for FY 2015 will encompass approximately 55% of total U.S. foreign military financing worldwide. According to the CRS report, “[a]nnual FMF grants to Israel represent 23% to 25% of the overall Israeli defense budget.”

Contrary to ordinary U.S. policy, Israel has been and continues to be allowed to use approximately 25% of this military aid to purchase equipment from Israeli manufacturers. According to CRS, “no other recipient of U.S. military assistance has been granted this benefit.” Thanks in part to this indirect U.S. subsidy, Israel’s arms industry has become one of the strongest in the world. “Between 2001 and 2008, it was the 7th largest arms supplier to the world with sales worth a total of 9.9 billion.”

The United States also contributes funds for a joint U.S.-Israeli Missile Defense Program designed to thwart short-range missiles and rockets fired by non-state actors (such as Hamas and Hezbollah) as well as mid- and longer-range ballistic missiles (this refers to Iran and/or Syria’s asenals). Arrow II, Arrow III, David’s Sling, and Iron Dome refer to different projects under the umbrella of this Missile Defense program. In 2014, the U.S. spent $504 million on this and plans to spend $272.7 million in 2015.

By all accounts the United States has given more money to Israel than to any other country. The Congressional Research Service’s conservative estimate of total cumulative US aid to Israel (not adjusted for inflation) from 1949 through 2014 is $121 billion.

An October 2013 Washington Report article “A Conservative Estimate of Total Direct U.S. Aid to Israel: $130 Billion,” by Shirl McArthur, puts the cumulative total even higher.

According to McArthur, “[T]he indirect or consequential costs to the American taxpayer as a result of Washington’s blind support for Israel exceed by many times the amount of direct U.S. aid to Israel. Some of these ‘indirect or consequential’ costs would include the costs to U.S. manufacturers of the Arab boycott, the costs to U.S. companies and consumers of the Arab oil embargo and consequent soaring oil prices as a result of U.S. support for Israel in the 1973 war, and the costs of U.S. unilateral economic sanctions on Iran, Iraq, Libya and Syria. (For a discussion of these larger costs, see ‘The Costs to American Taxpayers of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: $3 Trillion,’ by the late Thomas R. Stauffer, June 2003 Washington Report, p. 20.)”

** Source: The Congressional Research Service’s Report “U.S. Foreign Aid to the Palestinians”, written by Jim Zanotti, Analyst in Middle Eastern Affairs, dated September 30, 2013.

According to the report, . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

31 October 2014 at 12:05 pm

Report To U.N. Calls Bullshit On Obama’s ‘Look Forward, Not Backwards’ Approach To Torture

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I was stunned when President Obama flatly stated that he would ignore the legal requirements to investigate credible allegations of torture—allegations that by the time of his statement we knew to be factual, but without knowledge of how vast the torture program was nor the details of those guilty of participating in the torture system, torture quite clearly being a crime under US (nd international) law. But President Obama did not seem bothered by it because, you see, the crimes had been committed in the past, so that we should not even look into them: “Look forward, not back,” something that must have puzzled law-enforcement agencies, whose total workload and responsibilities are dealing with crimes that took place in the past. However, I am sure it was heartening to criminals everywhere—and in particular those who had tortured people (some of them perfectly innocent of any wrong doing) and transported people to be tortured: The President has said that bad deeds done in the past are perfectly okay.

But now the dereliction of duty is starting to fester. Murtaza Hussein reports at The Intercept:

Months after President Obama frankly admitted that the United States had “tortured some folks” as part of the War on Terror, a new report submitted to the United Nations Committee Against Torture has been released that excoriates his administration for shielding the officials responsible from prosecution.

The report describes the post-9/11 torture program as “breathtaking in scope”, and indicts both the Bush and Obama administrations for complicity in it – the former through design and implementation, and the latter through its ongoing attempts to obstruct justice. Nothing that the program caused grievous harm to countless individuals and in many cases went as far as murder, the report calls for the United States to “promptly and impartially prosecute senior military and civilian officials responsible for authorizing, acquiescing, or consenting in any way to acts of torture.”

In specifically naming former President George W. Bush, Department of Justice lawyer John Yoo and former CIA contractor James Mitchell, among many others, as individuals sanctioned torture at the highest levels, the report highlights a gaping hole in President Obama’s promise to reassert America’s moral standing during his administration. Not only have the cited individuals not been charged with any crime for their role in the torture program, Obama has repeatedly reiterated his mantra of “looking forward, not backwards” to protect them from accountability.

Needless to say, you shouldn’t try that defense in court if you’re an ordinary American on trial for, say, a drug crime.

It’s also worth remembering that, horrific as it was, the torture regime described in the report was only a tiny part of the wide-ranging human rights abuses the United States committed after 9/11. It doesn’t even account for the network of prisons where hundreds of thousands of people were detained in Iraq and Afghanistan – many of whom suffered beatings, rape and murder at the hands of U.S. soldiers.

The environment that allowed such treatment as again authorized at the highest levels, but just as with the CIA program the only people to receive any legal sanction for these actions have been low-level soldiers who’ve essentially been used as scapegoats for the crimes of their superiors.

By refusing to prosecute Bush-era officials for their culpability in major human rights abuses such as the CIA program and Abu Ghraib, President Obama is not just failing to enforce justice but is essentiallyguaranteeing that such abuses will happen again in the future. His administration has demonstrated that even if government officials perpetrate the most heinous crimes imaginable, they will still be able to rely on their peers to conceal their wrongdoing and protect them from prosecution. This not only erodes the rule of law, it also helps create a culture of impunity that will inevitably give rise to such actions once again. . . .

Continue reading.

And it’s worth noting that Obama appointed John Brennan, deeply implicated in the torture program, to head the CIA, and has had people involved in the torture program trying to whitewash the Senate report on the torture program—while Obama refuses to declassify it.

Obama is quite clearly a willing accessory to the torture program, going to great lengths to protect those who did the torture and to prevent the US public from knowing exactly what happened. This is a dark blot on his record and reveals an aspect of his character worth considering.

Written by LeisureGuy

30 October 2014 at 12:20 pm

How the Border Patrol became America’s most out-of-control law enforcement agency

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Interesting story in Politico by Garrett Graff:

il Kerlikowske was hoping to make it through at least his first week on the job without being awakened in the middle of the night. President Barack Obama’s new head of Customs and Border Protection, Kerlikowske could have used a week of quiet as he began to figure out the nation’s largest law enforcement agency, with its 46,000 gun-carrying Customs officers and Border Patrol agents and massive $12.4 billion annual budget. He didn’t get it. On his sixth night after taking office in March, a Border Patrol agent’s single gunshot 1,500 miles away from Washington interrupted Kerlikowske’s sleep. The gunshot itself wasn’t all that surprising; Border Patrol agents regularly open fire on suspected smugglers, border crossers and people harassing them from across the Mexican line. So often, in fact, that the agency doesn’t even bother to release details on most shooting incidents. But this wasn’t a regular shooting incident.

Early the day before, while Kerlikowske, an affable career cop who had spent five years as Obama’s drug czar, was going about his meetings in CBP’s headquarters at Washington’s cavernous Ronald Reagan Building, three Honduran women had surrendered to a green-uniformed U.S. Border Patrol agent in the Rio Grande Valley.

That, too, was a common occurrence. “RGV,” as it’s known in the Border Patrol, has been the epicenter of this year’s “border crisis,” the latest in a long series that stretches back decades—crises that inevitably lead to calls for more money, more agents, more fences. In this year’s iteration, tens of thousands of people fleeing the Central American countries of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras have journeyed through Mexico to turn themselves in at the U.S. border seeking asylum. Many of the refugees have been unaccompanied minors (“UACs” to the bureaucracy), a fact that strained the U.S. government response and unleashed critical 24-hour cable media coverage. RGV had been particularly flooded, and so the detention of the three Honduran women—a mother, her 14-year-old daughter and a second teen—around midday on March 12 shouldn’t have been anything other than routine.

Except that they surrendered to Esteban Manzanares.

Manzanares, a stocky 32-year-old agent who kept his head shaved short, was already under suspicion for misconduct—colleagues suspected he had let two border violators go free—but there was a huge backlog of misconduct cases at the inspector general’s field office in McAllen, Texas, and Manzanares was but one small unconfirmed red flag amid many along the southern border, so even under suspicion, he remained on duty with the Border Patrol.

Rather than detain the three Honduran women and bring them to the McAllen holding center, a 300-bed unit that some nights this spring hosted more than 1,000 people, Manzanares locked the women in the back of his Ford patrol truck—and drove them around the scrubland surrounding McAllen for an hour or two. It was a perfectly lovely South Texas day—sunny, low 70s, a bit cool for that time of year.

At 3:15 p.m., Manzanares texted his ex-wife, saying he wanted to be a good dad to their two children: “I want to help in any way I can but I am very limited.”

Then he stopped his truck in a wooded area. He raped both the mother and the daughter. He slit the mother’s wrists and tried to break the daughter’s neck, leaving them for dead in the brush.

He drove off with the third woman bound in his green-and-white heavy-duty Border Patrol truck with a red-and-blue light bar on top, a Department of Homeland Security logo on the door and a U.S. flag on the hood. Somewhere out in the borderlands, the agent left his third prisoner hidden, bound with duct tape.

Manzanares wrapped up his scheduled shift a little after 4 p.m. and returned his truck to the motor pool at the McAllen Border Patrol station, a huge new 68,000-square-foot facility constructed for $22.4 million as part of the agency’s influx of new agents and money over the past decade. Only at 5:45 p.m., his paperwork for the day completed, did he finally pull out of the Border Patrol station. His apartment was just three miles straight down the highway, past South Texas College and then a right turn at the Exxon station, but he wasn’t going straight home.

It was just around that time that other Border Patrol agents made a horrifying discovery, spotting one of the women Manzanares had left for dead wandering past a security camera—one link in the huge post-9/11 network of electronic eyes and sensors that now monitors the border region. Agents responded to the scene and after a brief search located both the injured mother and daughter, took them to the hospital and began looking for their attacker; the women described him as wearing green, so the agents suspected they were looking for one of their own.

They were, and he was not far away: After leaving work, Manzanares had retrieved the third victim and brought her back to his apartment in a housing complex, the last set of buildings before the Rio Grande that demarcates the two countries. The complex was home to a number of his Border Patrol colleagues—including his next-door neighbor and one across the hall. They all joked about how safe it was. Border Patrol agents seemed to be everywhere in McAllen these days, as the agency since 9/11 had become one of the region’s largest employers, a boon for one of the poorest metropolitan areas in the country. There were now some 3,200 agents in RGV—driving along the border, patrolling by boat, flying overhead in helicopters, working interior checkpoints, watching cameras, staffing the Border Patrol’s new overhead surveillance blimp, the latest high-tech toy cast off by the Pentagon and repurposed to protect the border.

Back inside his apartment, . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

30 October 2014 at 11:44 am

Another way business takes over the government

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It burrows inside, like the trichinosis parasite into muscle. Read this op-ed in the NY Times by Clarence Ditlow and Ralph Nader:

WHEN regulators sleep and auto companies place profits over safety, safety defects pile up. A record number of vehicles — more than 50 million — have been recalled this year, a result of congressional hearings and Justice Department prosecutions, which exposed a mass of deadly defects that the auto industry had concealed.

From the Ford Explorer rollovers in the 1990s and Toyotas’ issue with unintended acceleration in the 2000s to the recent fatal consequences of defective General Motors ignition switches and Takata airbags, the auto companies hid defects to avoid recalls and save money. These and other major defects were first exposed by safety advocates who petitioned the government and by reporters in the tradition of Bob Irvin of The Detroit News, who wrote over 35 articles on Chevrolet engine mounts until General Motors agreed to recall 6.7 million vehicles in 1971.

These campaigners did the job the regulator should have done. Congress gave the Department of Transportation authority to regulate the auto industry through the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration — including subpoena authority to find defects. But it used this authority so infrequently after the ’70s that its acting administrator, David J. Friedman, told Congress this year that he didn’t even know it had the power. The N.H.T.S.A. also failed to require companies to disclose death-claim records in civil lawsuits over the Toyota accelerations, G.M. ignition switches and Takata airbags.

In order to prevent the risk of death or serious injury, Congress empowered the agency to oblige auto companies to use alternate suppliers and independent repair shops to manufacture parts and make repairs to expedite a recall fix. Yet the N.H.T.S.A. has never used this authority — even though it took General Motors from February to October to get enough parts to dealers to repair all the recalled ignition switches.

Only after a lengthy delay was the agency prodded, in 2009, into opening an investigation into whether the first two Honda recalls of Takata airbags were adequate. Although the agency asked tough questions, it quickly closed the investigation after Takata hired a former senior N.H.T.S.A. official to represent the company. The agency’s attitude, in short, was: Don’t bother us with the facts.

More facts did come out when BMW, Honda, Nissan and Toyota recalled millions of Takata airbags from 2010 to 2013. Still, the N.H.T.S.A. opened no investigations and ordered no recalls on the airbags. Honda also failed to disclose death and injury claims on Takata airbags, as required by law. Even now — after reports of a third death in the United States associated with the airbags — the N.H.T.S.A. refuses to order a national recall, as Senators Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Edward Markey of Massachusetts have urged.

What explains this neglect? Over time, the N.H.T.S.A. has been captured by the industry it regulates. Through the ’70s, it aggressively litigated cases to force recalls, and it caught most defects early in the life of a vehicle. Beginning in the ’80s, however, numerous officials — including Diane K. Steed, Jerry Ralph Curry, Sue Bailey and David L. Strickland, who all served as head of the agency, and Erika Z. Jones, Jacqueline S. Glassman and Paul Jackson Rice, who all served as chief counsel to the agency — have gone on to become consultants, lawyers or expert witnesses for auto companies.

What’s more, the agency is heavily populated by former industry employees. Ms. Glassman, for example, had been a lawyer for Chrysler before working at the agency (and is now at a law firm that represents auto companies). The agency’s last non-acting administrator, Mr. Strickland, went to work in January of 2014 for a firm representing Chrysler — the same month the agency approved an inadequate recall of Chrysler Jeeps with fuel tanks liable to explode as a result of rear impacts.

Although Congress has given the N.H.T.S.A. regulatory tools that the agency failed to use, Congress has not given it the two things it needs most: sufficient funding, and the power to bring criminal penalties against auto companies. . .

Continue reading.

Or, Koch brothers fashion, like this in Texas. Worth the click—unbelievable, except unfortunately not.

Written by LeisureGuy

29 October 2014 at 2:44 pm

A hopeful sign: Big banks’ stunning setback: Meet two officials saying no to Bank of America

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David Dayen has a good article in Salon:

In August, the Justice Department announced a $16.65 billion settlement with Bank of America over the fraudulent sale of mortgage-backed securities (in reality, the cost to the bank is significantly lower). But two months later, one small part of the settlement has not been finalized in federal court: a $135.84 million cash distribution to the Securities and Exchange Commission. The reason for the holdup could raise the stakes for financial institutions that commit fraud, and over time stabilize the system as a whole, simply because two SEC commissioners have dared to try to maintain the consequences for misconduct.

Under current SEC rules, financial firms that settle fraud investigations automatically incur a number of additional penalties. Many of these mandatory actions date back to the creation of the SEC during the Great Depression. The SEC can ban institutions from managing mutual funds, prevent them from working with private companies to find investors, and force SEC approval for any stocks or bonds that the firm issues on its own behalf. These penalties and disqualifications cut into profits, and in many ways can be as damaging as the settlements themselves.

The problem is that these supposedly automatic penalties are routinely waived. Given that the settlements themselves are so porous, this robs the SEC of a critical tool to deter misconduct, by layering on additional costs, and increasing scrutiny of future activities. And the waiver benefits appear to go disproportionately to those firms big enough to hire fancy lawyers and lobbyists. One large financial firm received an astounding 22 waivers in a 10-year period.

Kara Stein, a Democratic Commissioner who previously served as a Banking Committee aide to Sen. Jack Reed, has openly rebelled against the waiver policy since arriving at the SEC in August 2013, voting against waivers on five occasions. This April, she went public with a blistering dissent against a waiver for Royal Bank of Scotland, after the criminal conviction of their subsidiary over rigging the London Interbank Offered Rate (LIBOR). Thanks to the waiver, Royal Bank of Scotland could continue to offer securities to investors as a “well-known seasoned issuer,” without SEC approval of each offering. This was the 30th such waiver since 2010, 29 of which went to large institutions and broker-dealers. “I fear that the commission’s action to waive our own automatic disqualification provisions arising from RBS’s criminal misconduct may have enshrined a new policy,” Stein said, “that some firms are just too big to bar.”

Stein, a pro-reform regulator whose insistence on loophole closures significantly improved the final Volcker rule, has persuaded Luis Aguilar, her Democratic colleague, to agree with her stance that automatic penalties from civil or criminal misconduct should not be waived. “The commission and its staff should not be in the business of rubber-stamping and approving all waiver applications simply because a request is made,” Aguilar has said.

The two were able to change SEC policies on waivers, forcing signoff by the commissioners rather than at the staff level. But because SEC chairwoman Mary Jo White typically voted with the commission’s two Republicans [big damn surprise: that's why Obama appointed her---she was a lawyer FOR THE BANKS, for chrissake! - LG], the waivers continued to go through.

In the Bank of America case, however, White had to recuse herself from the decision. As a private attorney, White represented Ken Lewis, who was CEO of Bank of America at the time that they fraudulently sold mortgage-backed securities to investors without disclosing the poor quality of the underlying loans. So without her vote, the commission is deadlocked at 2-2, threatening Bank of America’s ability to secure the waivers.

The penalties kick in as soon as a judge approves the settlement, so Bank of America has sought to delay approval, pending the status of the waivers. As long as Stein and Aguilar hold firm, the sanctions will trigger, or the entire SEC settlement will disintegrate, creating more legal exposure for Bank of America.

According to Bloomberg, while the mutual fund waiver will likely go through, Stein and Aguilar are holding the line on the waivers to allow Bank of America to help private companies find investors, and to issue securities without SEC review. And the industry is simply shocked. “Until recently, the waiver issues were never viewed as the least bit controversial,” said Jon Eisenberg, a partner at white shoe law firm K&L Gates.

What should be shocking is how the waivers became so routinized in the first place. These automatic penalties have a long history, with the goal of protecting investors and markets. Clearly in this case, Bank of America violated those standards, with investors paying a heavy price in losses on mortgage securities. Why should Bank of America subsequently retain their “well-known seasoned issuer” status to avoid SEC review, the equivalent of what commissioner Kara Stein calls a “Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval”? . . .

Continue reading. It’s really good.

Written by LeisureGuy

29 October 2014 at 1:46 pm

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