Later On

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Archive for the ‘Obama administration’ Category

Feds seek to air consumer finance complaints

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Jeff Horowitz reports at The Big Story:

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has heard from hundreds of thousands of consumers who feel wronged by banks and finance companies. Now the agency wants the public to hear from those consumers too.

On Wednesday, the bureau proposed allowing consumers to publish online the details of their complaints against lenders and financial service providers. Those narratives would augment the bureau’s consumer complaint database, which lists complaints about checking accounts, credit cards, student loans and other financial products. If consumers choose to make their complaints public, the companies involved would then be given a chance to write a public response.

“By proposing to share people’s stories, we are giving consumers an opportunity to be heard by the entire world and not simply by a government agency and its officials,” CFPB Director Richard Cordray said in remarks prepared for a Thursday event in El Paso, Texas.

The consumer bureau’s current database simply lists the company being complained about, a general subject matter like “deposits and withdrawals,” and whether the complaint has been resolved. By adding the narratives, the bureau believes it will help consumers determine where to take their business and identify systemic problems. A similar complaint reporting system is already in place at the Consumer Product Safety Commission, which seeks to identify dangerous products from appliances to toys.

Consumer groups were elated by the bureau’s proposal, which Ruth Susswein, a deputy director at Consumer Action, called “essential for consumers to protect themselves.” Banks have complained bitterly about . . .

Continue reading.

This is excellent news—indeed, the complaints from the banks show how good it is. And as we saw in the previous article, making Federal databases open to the public whenever possible can help mitigate fraud and bad practice.

Written by LeisureGuy

22 July 2014 at 10:13 am

The government doesn’t seem to care about protecting your data

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You credit card numbers and expiration dates sent (and stored) without encryption, for example. See this article at Ars Technica by Cyrus Farivar. From the article:

. . . Hasbrouck pointed out that the more information the airlines choose to retain, the more of an opportunity the government has to build a profile on me. “They have seat assignments [and] could probably search who is seated next to you for social network analysis,” he said. “You have no way of knowing when you’re using this website which information they are storing.”

“This is not to catch people under suspicion; this is for the purpose of finding new suspects,” Hasbrouck added.

I asked Travelocity about its practices and received a statement from Keith Nowak, a company spokesman.

“As the ticketing agents to the airlines, travel agencies like Travelocity routinely provide ticketing and other relevant passenger data to the airlines to help facilitate passenger flight requests,” he said, declining to answer further specific questions. “Once this data has been transferred, the airlines use the data for appropriate operational purposes, and the airlines determine how and when the data may be shared with other parties. As a partner in this process, Travelocity consistently complies with all relevant data privacy and data security requirements.”

He declined to respond to how or why my credit card number was transmitted in the clear.

Fred Cate, a law professor at Indiana University, said that my story raises a lot of questions about what the government is doing.

“Why isn’t the government complying with even the most basic cybersecurity standards?” Cate said. “Storing and transmitting credit card numbers without encryption has been found by the Federal Trade Commission to be so obviously dangerous as to be ‘unfair’ to the public. Why do transportation security officials not comply with even these most basic standards?”

The goal of PNR collection, according to CBP, is “to enable CBP to make accurate, comprehensive decisions about which passengers require additional inspection at the port of entry based on law enforcement and other information.”

This information is retained for quite some time in government databases. CBP publicly states that PNR data is typically kept for five years before being moved to “dormant, non-operational status.” But in my case, my earliest PNR goes back to March 2005. A CBP spokesperson was unable to explain this discrepancy. . .

Written by LeisureGuy

21 July 2014 at 11:08 am

The EPA Dithers While a Popular Pesticide Threatens Ecosystems

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A somewhat depressing article in Mother Jones by Tom Philpott.

He cites many studies, but the EPA so far has shown little or no interest.

Written by LeisureGuy

21 July 2014 at 9:19 am

One example of why it is difficult to have respect for Obama’s Dept of Justice

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Evan McMorris-Santoro reports in Buzzfeed:

Earlier this year, the Obama administration Justice Department announced sweeping reductions in the sentences for nonviolent drug offenders, an announcement that was heralded in the press and by advocates, liberal and conservative alike.

But when it comes to people already in prison for those very same drug offenses, the Justice Department is taking a very different stance: Officials have recommended a policy that would keep tens of thousands behind bars under the old guidelines, a decision that has set off a firestorm among advocacy groups on both sides of the aisle.

The sentencing rules for federal drug crimes were established in the 1980s, sending thousands to prison for long sentences with the goal of reducing drug crime — a policy demonstrated to disparately affect minorities, and the subject of intense advocacy in recent years. The Justice Department announced its support earlier this year for new guidelines recommended by the U.S. Sentencing Commission that will lower the sentences for future offenders by an average of 11 months versus sentences handed down today.

Since that decision, however, the department has asked the commission, an independent board that creates sentencing guidelines for federal courts, to make thousands of drug offenders currently serving time exempt from those rule changes. On Friday, the commission will vote on the issue. Sources familiar expect the ruling to come sometime in the mid-afternoon.

In the balance: Whether 50,000 drug offenders serving time will be able to petition a judge to review their sentences according to the new standards.

That number represents around 25% of the total federal prison population — approximately 210,000 convicts — a daunting figure that has made even the advocates for change in the Justice Department blanch.

“The Justice Department is being very pragmatic here,” said Doug Berman, a professor at Ohio State law school and a leading expert on the Sentencing Commission and its decisions. Inside the department, there are fears about what allowing 50,000 prisoners to have their sentences reevaluated will mean. . .

Continue reading.

Shorter version: The Justice Department could reduce unjust sentences for thousands of prisoners, but it would be a lot of work, so DOJ will just let them stay in prison. After all, no skin off the DOJ’s nose, eh?

Contemptible.

Written by LeisureGuy

20 July 2014 at 9:09 am

What Gil Kerlikowske is doing at Border Patrol

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I’m sort of keeping an eye on the US Border Patrol to see what changes Gil Kerlikowske will make. He certainly seems to have done a good job as chief of police in Seattle, but his tenure at DEA did not produce any positive changes in that organization. The Border Patrol, another out-of-control law-enforcement operation, may give him a better chance to make positive changes, since the Border Patrol was in crisis, and it seems likely that Kerlikowske was given the authority to make serious change.

In this NPR interview (transcript at the link), he describes some of his initiatives—for example, getting a new head of internal affairs from outside the Border Patrol—someone on loan from the FBI. This is highly encouraging.

Read the interview for more. It sounds good. And it’s an extremely interesting article—for example, the drawbacks of putting police in riot gear (face masks, body shields, etc.) instead of in normal police uniforms.

Written by LeisureGuy

20 July 2014 at 7:47 am

Almost 90 Percent of All US Wiretaps Listen for Suspected Drug Deals

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So if we legalize drugs, we’ll immediately cut way back on surveillance of citizens. And studies have shown that making the drugs illegal, though extremely costly (DEA, corruption, prisons, deaths, wiretaps, etc.), has no real effect on consumption. We’re spending billions we can ill afford on a fool’s errand.

Brian Anderson reports on the wiretaps in Motherboard:

Earlier this year, a joint US-Mexico wiretap investigation netted the world’s top drug lord, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, after American agents in Arizona intercepted a mobile phone owned by the son of one of Chapo’s closest confidantes. It was a huge catch—Chapo, the elusive head of the globe-spanning Sinaloa cartel, had been on the run for 13 years.

But that was merely one eavesdrop in the bucket of narcotics-based wiretaps carried out in the US in 2013, during which the bulk of the surveillance that ultimately led to Chapo’s arrest actually went down. According to a new Administrative Office of US Courts report, wiretaps not only hit an all-time high in 2013, the most recent year for which we have data on law enforcement wiretaps. The overwhelming majority, nearly 90 percent, listened for suspected narcotics dealings.

The report breaks down the various shades and hotspots of authorized wiretap surveillance on electronic, oral, and wire communicatons in the US. All told, federal and state judges greenlit 3,576 wiretaps last year, according to the report. That’s only a five percent bump over 2012, to be sure. Compare that to a decade ago, however, when domestic law enforcement carried out about half as many wiretaps as today, and it’s clear that agencies like the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Drug Enforcement Administration are taking more and more after the Central Intelligence and National Security Agencies when it comes to spying.

wiretaps

But the real kicker is in what crimes, exactly, all these wiretaps were out for. Of all the criminal offenses investigated using wiretaps, as seen in the above chart, illegal drug offenses were far and away most prevalent. “Narcotics” constituted a whopping 3,115 of the 3,576 total wiretaps, followed by “other major offenses” (including smuggling and money laundering), homicide, and kidnapping, which was the subject of one wiretap.

No, I am not kidding. “Kidnapping” got a single wiretap last year. . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

18 July 2014 at 7:18 pm

President Obama turns down joint, consumes more dangerous drug

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Boy, talk about teaching the wrong lesson! Alcohol is much more harmful than marijuana, and yet Obama (when in Colorado, where marijuana is legal) turned down a joint in favor of a beer.

Check out this article by German Lopez, which contains many interesting and useful graphs, such as:

drugdeaths

And this one:

deadly_traffic_accidents_while_under_the_influence

And watch this 4-minute video for a quick rundown of how Federal policy regarding marijuana, though extremely expensive, makes no sense whatsoever:

Written by LeisureGuy

18 July 2014 at 9:06 am

Wall Street seems to be able to direct malicious government prosecutions

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Pam Martens reports in Wall Street on Parade:

Wall Street On Parade has been reporting for the past six months on a series of tragic, sudden deaths of Information Technology workers at JPMorgan. Now coming to the fore are stories of relentless prosecutions of Wall Street’s IT workers by Manhattan District Attorney, Cyrus Vance. Bloomberg News reports today that Vance is engaged in at least four prosecutions of Wall Street workers over theft of computer code or other intellectual property.

Bestselling author, Michael Lewis, devoted a significant part of his latest book, Flash Boys, to the prosecution of Sergey Aleynikov over alleged stolen computer code. Aleynikov had been working for Goldman Sachs when he received an offer to move to a hedge fund and build a system from scratch. Aleynikov accepted the offer but agreed to stay at Goldman for six weeks to train his colleagues. (That does not seem like the action of a person on the run with stolen computer code.)

That was 2009. For the past five years, Aleynikov has been arrested and jailed by the Feds, had his conviction overturned by the Second Circuit Appeals Court, rearrested by the Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance, and now faces more prosecution over the same set of facts: namely, that he took computer code that belonged to Goldman Sachs. Aleynikov is said to be among the best coders in the industry. He is increasingly being seen as the victim of malicious prosecution at the behest of the powerful Goldman Sachs.

According to the Lewis book, on the very same day that Kevin Marino, Aleynikov’s lawyer, gave his oral arguments to the Appeals Court, “the judges ordered Serge released, on the grounds that the laws he stood accused of breaking did not actually apply to his case.” He had been in prison for a year.

When the Second Circuit Appeals Court handed down its opinion of the case in December 2010, it found that Aleynikov had neither taken a tangible good from Goldman nor had he stolen a product involved in interstate commerce – noting that at oral argument the government “was unable to identify a single product that affects interstate commerce.”

But the hounds from hell were not finished with Aleynikov. Approximately six months after his vindication by the Second Circuit Appeals Court, the Manhattan District Attorney, Cyrus Vance, arrested Aleynikov, placed him in jail on essentially the same charges, and sought to have bail denied on the basis that he was a flight risk. Lewis notes in the book that the prosecutor put in charge of the case, Joanne Li, was actually the flight risk – Li soon fled the case, getting a job at Citigroup.

The ill repute that is now surrounding the Vance case is sending a message to close observers that this is more about harassing IT workers and delivering a cautionary warning to others than it is about punishing a real crime.

On Friday, June 20 of this year, New York State Judge Ronald A. Zweibel found that Aleynikov’s arrest at the hands of the Feds had been illegal. The Judge wrote that the FBI agent “did not have probable cause to arrest defendant, let alone search him or his home.” The Judge further noted that the “defendant’s Fourth Amendment rights were violated.”

The Judge also ruled that Aleynikov’s computer property seized by the FBI should have been returned to him after his case was overturned by the Federal Appeals Court. Instead, the Federal prosecutors turned the computers over to Vance’s office.

After Zweibel’s ruling, Aleynikov’s lawyer, Kevin Marino, released a statement saying that the Judge’s decision “represents a damning indictment of those assistant U.S. attorneys, assistant district attorneys and FBI agents who have now twice pursued an unlawful prosecution of an innocent man at the behest of Wall Street giant Goldman Sachs.” Marino added that Goldman “not only provoked but has been an active co-conspirator in the government’s case against Mr. Aleynikov.”

Is co-conspirator too strong a word? To comprehend the arrest and imprisonment of IT workers on Wall Street, one has to have context.

For many decades, there was a saying on Wall Street that . . .

Continue reading.

It’s pretty clear that Wall Street controls at least some of the Federal government. They do not use their power to good ends.

Written by LeisureGuy

17 July 2014 at 10:24 am

Spy agencies like GCHQ manipulate polls, fake comments, and in general pollute the cybersphere

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They do not simply eavesdrop, they also interact, and the purpose of their interactions is to mislead, manipulate, and control. Glenn Greenwald writes in The Intercept:

The secretive British spy agency GCHQ has developed covert tools to seed the internet with false information, including the ability to manipulate the results of online polls, artificially inflate pageview counts on web sites, “amplif[y]” sanctioned messages on YouTube, and censor video content judged to be “extremist.” The capabilities, detailed in documents provided by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, even include an old standby for pre-adolescent prank callers everywhere: A way to connect two unsuspecting phone users together in a call.

The tools were created by GCHQ’s Joint Threat Research Intelligence Group (JTRIG), and constitute some of the most startling methods of propaganda and internet deception contained within the Snowden archive. Previously disclosed documents have detailed JTRIG’s use of “fake victim blog posts,” “false flag operations,” “honey traps” and psychological manipulation to target online activists, monitor visitors to WikiLeaks, and spy on YouTube and Facebook users.

But as the U.K. Parliament today debates a fast-tracked bill to provide the government with greater surveillance powers, one which Prime Minister David Cameron has justified as an “emergency” to “help keep us safe,” a newly released top-secret GCHQ document called “JTRIG Tools and Techniques” provides a comprehensive, birds-eye view of just how underhanded and invasive this unit’s operations are. The document—available in full here—is designed to notify other GCHQ units of JTRIG’s “weaponised capability” when it comes to the dark internet arts, and serves as a sort of hacker’s buffet for wreaking online havoc.

The “tools” have been assigned boastful code names. They include invasive methods for online surveillance, as well as some of the very techniques that the U.S. and U.K. have harshly prosecuted young online activists for employing, including “distributed denial of service” attacks and “call bombing.” But they also describe previously unknown tactics for manipulating and distorting online political discourse and disseminating state propaganda, as well as the apparent ability to actively monitor Skype users in real-time—raising further questions about the extent of Microsoft’s cooperation with spy agencies or potential vulnerabilities in its Skype’s encryption. Here’s a list of how JTRIG describes its capabilities: . . .

Continue reading. Very interesting stuff at the link. And it does seem clear that the government targets not just potential terrorists but pretty much anyone active in opposing things the government wants to do: dissenters, in a word. We’re moving toward “democracies” of total control and surveillance by government agencies that pretty much run themselves and answer to no one.

Written by LeisureGuy

16 July 2014 at 10:55 am

I ♥ Senator Warren

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Pam Martens reports in Wall Street on Parade how Senator Warren asked some very pertinent questions of Fed Chair Yellen—and got totally unsatisfactory answers.

Yesterday, Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen delivered her Semiannual Monetary Policy Report to the Senate Banking Committee. Yellen deftly maneuvered questions on slack in the job market, asset bubbles on Wall Street, and assorted digs at the explosion of the Fed’s balance sheet to over $4 trillion as a result of quantitative easing.

When it finally came to the turn of the last Senator on the docket to quiz Yellen, Senator Elizabeth Warren, the Fed Chair gave her a big, warm smile at the beginning of the questioning, likely figuring she was about to steal home and get big kudos for her performance back at the Fed.

Things didn’t go as planned.

Senator Warren has apparently been looking at the bare bones 35-pages released to the public for the various “living wills” or wind-down plans if a systemically important (too-big-to-fail) bank gets into trouble again and compared these to the cryptic, unintelligible tomes of paper that constitute the real wind-down plans behind the Fed’s equally opaque draperies.
Senator Elizabeth Warren Questioning Janet Yellen During Senate Hearing on July 15, 2014

Senator Elizabeth Warren Questioning Janet Yellen During Senate Hearing on July 15, 2014

Warren opened her questioning of Yellen by reminding the Fed Chair that Section 165 of the financial reform legislation known as Dodd-Frank mandated that large financial institutions submit plans to the Federal Reserve and the FDIC explaining how they could be “rapidly” liquidated without bringing down the economy – as occurred in 2008.

To drive home her point, Warren compared the situation of Lehman Brothers at the time of its collapse in 2008 to the Wall Street behemoth, JPMorgan today. Lehman, said Warren, had $639 billion in assets and 209 subsidiaries when it failed and it took three years to unwind the bank. Today, said Warren, JPMorgan has $2.5 trillion in assets and a staggering 3,391 subsidiaries.

Warren pointedly asked Yellen if these big Wall Street banks had ever given the Fed wind-down plans that were “credible.”

Yellen proceeded to bury herself pretty deeply in her answer. She said it was her “understanding” that there is a “process.” (Surely the Fed Chair should be completely on top of this critical piece of the Fed’s supervisory role of the largest bank holding companies in the country and have more than just an “understanding.”) Yellen went on to say that the wind-down plans are “complex” and some plans encompass “tens of thousands of pages.”

Yellen added: “I think what was intended is this interpretation you’re talking about, whether they’re credible, in other words, do they facilitate an orderly resolution, and I think we need to give these firms feedback.”

“Feedback” to banks which have exponentially increased in size since the greatest economic collapse since the Great Depression and have consistently demonstrated illegal cartel and consumer rip-off behavior was clearly not the answer Warren had in mind.

Warren responded: . . .

Continue reading. You’ll learn how another Obama appointee, Stanley Fischer, basically said that the Fed has no intention of complying with the law. Fischer, a creature of Citigroup (at the link: a story about Citigroup’s shady if not criminal operation—and it probably is criminal, but DoJ and the SEC are not really good against the wealthy), is apparently pledged to protect his former employer and the source of his wealth.

Obama has done a poor job with his choices to regulate Wall Streeet, though better than the abysmal job done by George W. Bush.

Written by LeisureGuy

16 July 2014 at 10:38 am

The SEC continues to cater to Wall Street

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Mary Jo White, Obama’s choice to run the SEC, is turning out to be much as one feared: subservient to the demands of Wall Street. Read this article by Jesse Eisinger in ProPublica. It begins:

When a financial titan like Laurence D. Fink lobbies Washington, the natural instinct is to make sure the citizenry pats itself down to check that everyone still has their wallets, watches and belts.

Mr. Fink has been making the case that gargantuan asset managers — coincidentally, like the firm he heads, BlackRock — should not be given the dreaded label of Systemically Important Financial Institution. Being a S.I.F.I. means that you are capable of transmitting all manner of systemic financial diseases to trading partners and customers and need an extra measure of regulation.

Such Washington spectacles are made all the worse when the head regulator of Mr. Fink’s firm echoes industry talking points. Mary Jo White, the chairwoman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, BlackRock’s main regulator, has been on a genuflecting tour to reassure asset managers that they have a sympathetic ear in the nation’s capital. The S.E.C. has been jostling for turf over this question. Recently, Ms. White disagreed with the Treasury Department, telling the industry that it isn’t “overreacting” to the process.

But just because Mr. Fink is talking his book and Ms. White is acting the sycophant doesn’t mean they are wrong. Large asset managers shouldn’t be designated S.I.F.I.s.

Regulators have clear tasks left unfinished from the financial crisis. Where they have made progress, it’s been inadequate. This needs to be the relentless focus. Asset managers don’t top the list.

O.K., some context is in order. . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

16 July 2014 at 10:24 am

Hunting American Spooks: Germany Prepares Further Spying Clampdown

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Der Spiegel has a lengthy two-part article on Germany’s efforts to expel American spies. Here’s the first part, which has the same title as this post. The second part is titled “A Palpable Sense of Insecurity.”

Written by LeisureGuy

16 July 2014 at 9:28 am

At last some troops are becoming aware that not all orders are illegal

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And specifically an order to torture is illegal—that’s what the CIA is for. The CIA can torture (even torture to death) with no penalties, no repercussions. But the military is (theoretically) subject to the Military Code of Justice.

At any rate, a Navy nurse has decline to participate in forced feedings at Guantánamo.

Written by LeisureGuy

15 July 2014 at 5:42 pm

Good news: Those who hated us for our freedoms must be hating us a lot less these days

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Andrea Peterson has a good article in the Washington Post, in which she quotes this from a new report by Pew Research:

The Snowden revelations appear to have damaged one major element of America’s global image: its reputation for protecting individual liberties. In 22 of 36 countries surveyed in both 2013 and 2014, people are significantly less likely to believe the U.S. government respects the personal freedoms of its citizens. In six nations, the decline was 20 percentage points or more.

pewsnowden

 

Read the whole thing. More charts and graphs at the link.

Written by LeisureGuy

14 July 2014 at 4:50 pm

US spying on Germany

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From a good report in the New Yorker by Amy Davidson. Markus R. is the German working in the BND who was spying for the US:

Markus R. would be a lesser figure if the Germans were not still enraged about the N.S.A.’s unabashed spying on its citizens, including the agency’s eavesdropping on Chancellor Angela Merkel’s telephone calls. (Merkel, whose own life in East Germany gives her some perspective on spying, said this week that she wasn’t angry, just really disappointed.) Even before that, there was the case of a car salesman from the German city of Ulm whom the C.I.A. accidentally kidnapped because his name was similar to someone whom they were interested in—and who was then held in a secret prison for months, even after the Agency realized its mistake.

Also: the CIA tortured him, and when he was released he was simply dumped in the countryside in Macedonia, and the US has refused to apologize, allow him to sue for damages, or even to acknowledge our actions (presumably because of shame, but it’s not a constructive response).

I’m beginning to think that it’s not our freedoms that makes others hate us—or perhaps it is, in a way: that the US feels it’s free to do whatever it damn pleases and to refuse to accept any accountability for its actions.

Written by LeisureGuy

14 July 2014 at 3:42 pm

Ever Wondered Why the World is a Mess? Here’s why.

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Roberto Savio explains at the Inter Press Service News Agency:

Addressing this column to the younger generations, Roberto Savio, founder and president emeritus of the Inter Press Service (IPS) news agency and publisher of Other News, offers ten explanations of how the current mess in which the world finds itself came about.

ROME, Jul 11 2014 (IPS) – While the Third World War has not been formally declared, conflicts throughout the world are reaching levels unseen since 1944.

Of course, for the large majority of people throughout the world, news about these conflicts is just part of our daily news, but another share of our daily news is about the mess in our countries.

This is so complex and confusing that many people have given up the effort to attempt any form of deep understanding, so I thought it would be useful to offer ten explanations of how we succeeded in creating this mess.

1) The world, as it now exists, was largely shaped by the colonial powers, which divided the world among themselves, carving out states without any consideration for existing ethnic, religious or cultural realities. This was especially true of Africa and the Arab world, where the concept of state was imposed on systems of tribes and clans.

Just to give a few examples, none of the present-day Arab countries existed prior to colonialism. Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, the Gulf Countries (including Saudi Arabia) were all parts of the Ottoman Empire. When this disappeared with the First World War (like the Russian, German and Austro-Hungarian empires), the winners – Britain and France – sat down at a table and drafted the boundaries of countries to be run by them, as they had done before with Africa. So, never look at those countries as equivalent to countries with a history of national identity.

2) After the end of the colonial era, it was inevitable that to keep these artificial countries alive, and avoid their disintegration, strongmen would be needed to cover the void left by the colonial powers. The rules of democracy were used only to reach power, with very few exceptions. The Arab Spring did indeed get rid of dictators and autocrats, just to replace them with chaos and warring factions (as in Libya) or with a new autocrat, as in Egypt.

The case of Yugoslavia is instructive. After the Second World War, Marshal Tito dismantled the Kingdom of Yugoslavia and created the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. But we all know that Yugoslavia did not survive the death of its strongman.

The lesson is that without creating a really participatory and unifying process of citizens, with a strong civil society, local identities will always play the most decisive role. So it will take some before many of the new countries will be considered real countries devoid of internal conflicts.

3) Since the Second World War, the meddling of the colonial and super powers in the process of consolidation of new countries has been a very good example of man-made disaster.

Take the case of Iraq. When the United States took over administration of the country in 2003 after its invasion, General Jay Garner was appointed and lasted just a month, because he was considered too open to local views.

Garner was replaced by a diplomat, Jan Bremmer, who took up his post after a two-hour briefing by the then Secretary of State, Condolezza Rice. Bremmer immediately proceeded to dissolve the army (creating 250,000 unemployed) and firing anyone in the administration who was a member of the Ba’ath party, the party of Saddam Hussein. This destabilised the country, and today’s mess is a direct result of this decision.

The current Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, whom Washington is trying to remove as the cause of polarisation between Shiites and Sunnis, was the preferred American candidate. So was the President of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, who is now virulently anti-American. This is a tradition that goes back to the first U.S. intervention in Vietnam, where Washington put in place Ngo Dihn Dien, who turned against its views, until he was assassinated.

There is no space here to give example of similar mistakes (albeit less important) by other Western powers. The point is that all leaders installed from outside do not last long and bring instability.

4) . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

14 July 2014 at 2:21 pm

Brookings: One political party is actively working to make government fail

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Talk about stating the obvious! As Kevin Drum points out, our current migration crisis is completely due to an obstructionist political party. Christopher Ingraham and Tom Hamburger write in the Washington Post:

The federal government is failing now more than ever. That’s the conclusion of a unique taxonomy of federal ball-dropping just released by Paul C. Light, a non-resident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Light analyzed 41 high-profile cases of federal failure from 2001 to the present day, culled from the Pew Research Center’s News Interest Index. Because it’s ultimately derived from news accounts, the contours of the list are roughly what you’d expect. It starts with the 9/11 terrorist attacks and ends – for now – with the VA waiting list debacle in Phoenix. In between it covers everything from the search for WMDs in Iraq to Hurricane Katrina to Operation Fast and Furious. You check out the full list in an interactive over at the Brookings website, or scroll to the bottom of this post.

As with any qualitative taxonomy, there’s plenty of room quibble over which government mishaps made the cut and which didn’t. For instance, last year’s government shutdown, and the debt ceiling brinkmanship that led to the loss of S&P’s AAA credit rating for U.S. debt in 2011, didn’t make the cut. This is because Light focused only on “management/delivery failures by agencies. Some of these failures involved poorly crafted policy as a contributor, but failure had to come from the bureaucracy in some way.” So business-as-usual gridlock in Congress doesn’t make the cut.

Setting aside questions of inclusion/exclusion, Light’s work is the only methodologically rigorous account of government failures we know of, so it’s worth hearing what he has to say about these failures, what caused them, and how similar missteps can be avoided in the future.

Light breaks down the myriad factors that contribute to each of the failures he studies – bad policy, limited resources, and structural, leadership and cultural shortcomings. The study tracks the growing failure rate through the past five presidents. While many factors contribute to the generally increasing frequency of bureaucratic failures, the fluctuating numbers do reflect on an administration’s overall managerial competence. Light believes that Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush led especially competent White House teams. Reagan, his study shows, averaged 1.6 failures per year during the final part of his term.

On the other hand, George W. Bush’s administration was the most failure-ridden of them all. W. averaged 3.1 failures per year – overseeing more than twice as many annual failures as his father. . .

Continue reading. Article includes graphs, and also includes this quotation from Light’s report:

Republicans exploited the Democratic cowardice by doing everything in their power to undermine performance. They stonewalled needed policy changes, and made implementation of new programs as difficult as possible; they cut budgets, staffs, and collateral capacity to a minimum, proving the adage that the logical extension of doing more with less is doing everything with nothing; they used the presidential appointments process to decapitate key agencies, and appointed more than their share of unqualified executives; and they muddied mission, tolerated unethical conduct, and gamed the performance measure process to guarantee failing scores for as many government policies as possible.

As the WaPo article notes:

Republicans exploited the Democratic cowardice by doing everything in their power to undermine performance. They stonewalled needed policy changes, and made implementation of new programs as difficult as possible; they cut budgets, staffs, and collateral capacity to a minimum, proving the adage that the logical extension of doing more with less is doing everything with nothing; they used the presidential appointments process to decapitate key agencies, and appointed more than their share of unqualified executives; and they muddied mission, tolerated unethical conduct, and gamed the performance measure process to guarantee failing scores for as many government policies as possible.

Written by LeisureGuy

14 July 2014 at 12:45 pm

Still Living With Jack Bauer in a Terrified New American World

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Rebecca Gordon has a good column at TomDispatch.com:

Once upon a time, if a character on TV or in a movie tortured someone, it was a sure sign that he was a bad guy. Now, the torturers are the all-American heroes. From 24 to Zero Dark Thirty, it’s been the good guys who wielded the pliers and the waterboards. We’re not only living in a post-9/11 world, we’re stuck with Jack Bauer in the 25th hour.

In 2002, Cofer Black, the former Director of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center, told a Senate committee, “All I want to say is that there was ‘before’ 9/11 and ‘after’ 9/11. After 9/11 the gloves come off.” He wanted them to understand that Americans now live in a changed world, where, from the point of view of the national security state, anything goes. It was, as he and various top officials in the Bush administration saw it, a dangerous place in which terrorists might be lurking in any airport security line and who knew where else.

Dark-skinned foreigners promoting disturbing religions were driven to destroy us because, as President George W. Bush said more than once, “they hate our freedoms.” It was “them or us.” In such a frightening new world, we were assured, our survival depended in part on brave men and women willing to break precedent and torture some of our enemies for information that would save civilization itself. As part of a new American creed, we learned that torture was the price of security.

These were the ruling fantasies of the era, onscreen and off. But didn’t that sorry phase of our national life end when Bush and his vice president Dick Cheney departed? Wasn’t it over once Barack Obama entered the Oval Office and issued an executive order closing the CIA black sites that the Bush administration had set up across the planet, forbidding what had euphemistically come to be called “enhanced interrogation techniques?” As it happens, no. Though it’s seldom commented upon, the infrastructure for, the capacity for, and the personnel to staff a system of institutionalized state torture remain in place, ready to bloom like a desert plant in a rain shower the next time fear shakes the United States.

There are several important reasons why the resurgence of torture remains a possibility in post-Bush America:

* Torture did not necessarily end when Obama took office.

* We have never had a full accounting of all the torture programs in the “war on terror.”

* Not one of the senior government officials responsible for activities that amounted to war crimes has been held accountable, nor were any of the actual torturers ever brought to court.

Torture Did Not Necessarily End When Obama Took Office

The president’s executive order directed the CIA to close its detention centers “as expeditiously as possible” and not to open any new ones. No such orders were given, however, to the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), a clandestine force composed of elite fighters from several branches of the U.S. armed forces. JSOC had run its own secret detention centers in Iraq. At Camp Nama, interrogations took place in the ominously named “Black Room.” According to the New York Times, the camp’s chilling motto was “no blood, no foul.” JSOC is presently deployed on several continents, including Africa, where gathering “intelligence” forms an important part of its duties.

The president’s executive order still permits “rendition” — the transfer of a terror suspect to another country for interrogation, which in the Bush years meant to the prisons of regimes notorious for torture. It does, however, impose some constraints on the practice. Such “transfers” must be approved by a special committee composed of the director of national intelligence, the secretary of defense, the secretary of state, the secretary of homeland security, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. It is to be chaired by the attorney general. The committee must not “transfer… individuals to other nations to face torture or otherwise for the purpose, or with the effect, of undermining or circumventing the commitments or obligations of the United States to ensure the humane treatment of individuals in its custody or control.”

This last constraint, however, has been in place at least since 1994, when the Senate ratified the U.N. Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, and Degrading Treatment. That did not prevent the rendition of people like Maher Arar, an innocent Canadian citizen sent by the United States to Syria, where he endured 10 months of torture in an underground cell. Nor did it save Binyam Mohammed, whose Moroccan jailers sliced his chest and penis with a scalpel — once a month for 18 months, according to British human rights lawyer Andy Worthington.

Nor has the CIA itself been prepared to end all its torture programs. In his confirmation hearings, Obama’s first CIA director Leon Panetta told members of Congress that “if the approved techniques were ‘not sufficient’ to get a detainee to divulge details he was suspected of knowing about an imminent attack, he would ask for ‘additional authority’ to use other methods.” It is, however, unlikely that such “other methods” could be brought to bear on the spur of the moment. To do so, you need an infrastructure and trained personnel. You need to be ready, with skills honed.

Torture, though by another name, still goes on in the American prison complex at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. President Obama came into office promising to close Guantánamo within a year. It’s a promise he repeats occasionally, but the prison is still open, and some detainees are still being held indefinitely. Those who use the only instrument they have to resist their hellish limbo — a hunger strike — are strapped into chairs and force-fed. In case you think such “feeding” is a humanitarian act, Guantánamo prisoner Samir Naji al Hasan Moqbel described the experience in a New York Times op-ed in April 2013:

“I will never forget the first time they passed the feeding tube up my nose. I can’t describe how painful it is to be force-fed this way. As it was thrust in, it made me feel like throwing up. I wanted to vomit, but I couldn’t. There was agony in my chest, throat, and stomach. I had never experienced such pain before. I would not wish this cruel punishment upon anyone.”

The U.S. has a long history of involvement with torture — from its war in the Philippines at the dawn of the twentieth century on. It has also, as in Latin America in the 1960s, trained torturers serving other regimes. But until 9/11 top officials in this country had never publicly approved of torture. Whatever might happen behind closed doors (or in training sessions provided by the School of the Americas, for example), in public, everyone — government officials, the press, and the public — agreed that torture was wrong.

That consensus no longer exists today. After 9/11 those “gloves” came off. Waterboarding prisoners who might have information about a plot that could threaten us was a “no brainer” for Vice President Dick Cheney, and he wasn’t alone. In those years, torture, always called “enhanced interrogation techniques” (a phrase the media quickly picked up), became a commonplace, even celebrated, feature of our new landscape. Will it remain that way?

We Have Never Had a Full Accounting of All the Torture Programs Used in the “War on Terror”

Thanks to the work of persistent reporters, we now know many pieces of the torture puzzle, but we still have nothing like a complete, coherent narrative. And if we don’t know just what happened in those torture years, we are unlikely to be able to dismantle the existing infrastructure, which means we won’t be able to keep it from happening again.

In addition, . . .

Continue reading.

The US is becoming a frightening place as it becomes ever more frightened. Many men fear to go in public unless they are armed. (Some were upset at not being able to carry a gun into the polling place, so frightening is it to be unarmed in America today.) Having to arm yourself to go to the store is a new kind of United States.

Written by LeisureGuy

12 July 2014 at 6:18 pm

The American Century (1914-2014) has ended

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This article by Michael Lind in Salon makes a very good case, IMO.

In 1914, the American Century began. This year the American Century ended. America’s foreign policy is in a state of collapse, America’s economy doesn’t work well, and American democracy is broken. The days when other countries looked to the U.S. as a successful model of foreign policy prudence, democratic capitalism and liberal democracy may be over. The American Century, 1914-2014. RIP.

A hundred years ago, World War I marked the emergence of the U.S. as the dominant world power. Already by the late nineteenth century, the U.S. had the world’s biggest economy. But it took the First World War to catalyze the emergence of the U.S. as the most important player in geopolitics. The U.S. tipped the balance against Imperial Germany, first by loans to its enemies after 1914 and then by entering the war directly in 1917.

Twice more in the twentieth century the U.S. intervened to prevent a hostile power from dominating Europe and the world, in World War II and the Cold War. Following the end of the Cold War, America’s bipartisan elite undertook the project of creating permanent American global hegemony. The basis of America’s hegemonic project was a bargain with the two major powers of Europe, Germany and Russia, and the two major powers of Asia, Japan and China. The U.S. proposed to make Russia and China perpetual military protectorates, as it had already done during the Cold War with Germany and Japan. In return, the U.S. would keep its markets open to their exports and look after their international security interests.

This vision of a solitary American globocop policing the world on behalf of other great powers that voluntarily abandon militarism for trade has been shared by the Clinton, Bush 43 and Obama administrations. But by 2014 the post-Cold War grand strategy of the United States had collapsed.

China and Russia have rudely declined America’s offer to make them subservient military satellites, like Japan and Germany. China has been building up its military, engaging in cyber-attacks on the U.S., and intimidating its neighbors, to promote the end of American military primacy in East Asia.

Meanwhile, Russia has responded to the expansion of the U.S.-led NATO alliance to its borders by going to war with Georgia in 2008 to deter Georgian membership in NATO and then, in 2014, seizing Crimea from Ukraine, after Washington promoted a rebellion against the pro-Russian Ukrainian president.

There are even signs of a Sino-Russian alliance against the U.S. The prospect excites some neoconservatives and neoliberal hawks, who had been quiet following the American military disasters in Iraq and Afghanistan. But in a second Cold War against a Sino-Russian axis, the European Union, with its economy comparable to America’s, will not provide reliable support. Russia is a nuisance, not a threat to Europe. China doesn’t threaten Europe and Europeans want Chinese trade and investment too much. In Asia, only a fool would bet on the ability of a ramshackle alliance of the U.S., Japan, the Philippines, Vietnam and Australia to “contain” China.

The U.S. still has by far the world’s most powerful and sophisticated military — but what good is it? Russia knows the U.S. won’t go to war over Ukraine. China knows the U.S. won’t go to war over this or that reef or island in the South China Sea. As Chairman Mao would have said, America is a paper tiger.

The U.S. military was able to destroy the autocratic governments of Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya — but all the foreign policy agencies of the U.S. have been unable to help create functioning states to replace them. Since 2003, Uncle Sam has learned that it is easier to kick over anthills than to build them.

In addition to having a huge military that for the most part can neither intimidate strong adversaries nor pacify weak ones, America has an economy that for decades has failed to deliver sustained growth that is widely shared. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

12 July 2014 at 9:20 am

Pentagon really doesn’t care about MIAs

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Despite repeated efforts to get Pentagon attention to the incompetent leadership and ineffective organization of the department responsible for identifying remains of MIA troops, things continue much as before. The reason is obvious: the Pentagon simply doesn’t care. Megan McCloskey reports at ProPublica:

The Defense Department’s inspector general has drafted a stinging rebuke of the Pentagon’s struggling effort to recover the remains of missing service members from past wars, concluding the mission lacks the most elemental building blocks for success.

According to a draft report of its investigation obtained by ProPublica, the mission lacks agreed upon goals, objectives and priorities. It lacks a strategic plan and up-to-date policies. It lacks standard operating procedures, a complete centralized database of the missing, and a disinterment plan, among other flaws.

Many of these same issues were also laid out by a ProPublica and NPR investigation earlier this year.

The shortcomings have contributed to a remarkably low number of identifications each year – just 60 in 2013 out of the tens of thousands missing from World War II, Korea and Vietnam — despite about $100 million annually to get the job done.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced an overhaul in late March of the MIA effort. The current agencies involved in the mission will be consolidated within the next year into a new agency.

The revamped organization will have quite a job ahead of it. The Inspector General also laid out problems with leadership at the main agency involved with the mission, which have yet to be publicly acknowledged by the Pentagon. Complaints from about 50 current and former Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command employees, “paint a picture of long-term leadership and management problems resulting in a hostile and dysfunctional work environment,” the report states.

“If left uncorrected, the problems driving these complaints will be brought into the new Defense agency…hindering mission accomplishment.”

About a dozen former J-PAC employees have told ProPublica that they loved the mission but quit because of leadership issues.

When the Pentagon announced the revamp of the mission this spring, it stressed a structurally flawed system rather than issues regarding individual leaders and sidestepped any questions about accountability. Most of the leaders within the various agencies have been in charge in different positions for decades.

The Inspector General recommended that the Pentagon immediately “take corrective action” on the leadership problems, as well as cut back on staff to eliminate duplicative positions among the various agencies.

Continue reading.

It’s worth noting that the Pentagon does not believe in personal responsibility and accountability. The primary motivation and rive seems to be to protect officers at all costs, regardless of their performance.

Written by LeisureGuy

12 July 2014 at 9:01 am

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