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Archive for June 16th, 2013

The Making of a Global Security State

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Tom Englehardt has a good column at TomDispatch.com:

As happens with so much news these days, the Edward Snowden revelations about National Security Agency (NSA) spying and just how far we’ve come in the building of a surveillance state have swept over us 24/7 — waves of leaksvideos, charges, claims, counterclaims,skullduggery, and government threats.  When a flood sweeps you away, it’s always hard to find a little dry land to survey the extent and nature of the damage.  Here’s my attempt to look beyond the daily drumbeat of this developing story (which, it is promised, will go on for weeks, if not months) and identify five urges essential to understanding the world Edward Snowden has helped us glimpse.

1. The Urge to be Global

Corporately speaking, globalization has been ballyhooed since at least the 1990s, but in governmental terms only in the twenty-first century has that globalizing urge fully infected the workings of the American state itself.  It’s become common since 9/11 to speak of a “national security state.”  But if a week of ongoing revelations about NSA surveillance practices has revealed anything, it’s that the term is already grossly outdated.  Based on what we now know, we should be talking about an American global security state.

Much attention has, understandably enough, been lavished on the phone and other metadata about American citizens that the NSA is now sweeping up and about the ways in which such activities may be abrogating the First and Fourth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution.  Far less attention has been paid to the ways in which the NSA (and other U.S. intelligence outfits) are sweeping up global data in part via the just-revealed Prism and other surveillance programs.

Sometimes, naming practices are revealing in themselves, and the National Security Agency’s key data mining tool, capable in March 2013 of gathering “97 billion pieces of intelligence from computer networks worldwide,” has been named “boundless informant.”  If you want a sense of where the U.S. Intelligence Community imagines itself going, you couldn’t ask for a better hint than that word “boundless.”  It seems that for our spooks, there are, conceptually speaking, no limits left on this planet.

Today, that “community” seeks to put not just the U.S., but the world fully under its penetrating gaze.  By now, the first “heat map” has been published showing where such information is being sucked up from monthly: Iran tops the list (14 billion pieces of intelligence); then come Pakistan (13.5 billion), Jordan (12.7 billion), Egypt (7.6 billion), and India (6.3 billion).  Whether you realize this or not, even for a superpower that has unprecedented numbers of military bases scattered across the planet and has divided the worldinto six military commands, this represents something new under the sun.  The only question is what?

The twentieth century was the century of “totalitarianisms.”  We don’t yet have a name, a term, for the surveillance structures Washington is building in this century, but there can be no question that, whatever the present constraints on the system, “total” has something to do with it and that we are being ushered into a new world. Despite the recent leaks, we still undoubtedly have a very limited picture of just what the present American surveillance world really looks like and what it plans for our future.  One thing is clear, however: the ambitions behind it are staggering and global.

In the classic totalitarian regimes of the previous century, a secret police/surveillance force attempted, via every imaginable method, including informers, wire tappers, torture techniques, imprisonment, and so on to take total control of a national environment, to turn every citizen’s life into the equivalent of an open book, or more accurately a closed, secret file lodged somewhere in that police system.  The most impressive of these efforts, the most global, was the Soviet one simply because the USSR was an imperial power with a set of disparate almost-states — those SSRs of the Caucasus and Central Asia  — within its borders, and a series of Eastern European satellite states under its control as well.  None of the twentieth-century totalitarian regimes, however, ever imagined doing the same thing on a genuinely global basis.  There was no way to do so.

Washington’s urge to take control of the global communications environment, lock, stock, and chat room, to gather its “data” — billions and billions of pieces of it — and via inconceivably powerful computer systems, mine and arrange it, find patterns in it, and so turn the world into a secret set of connections, represents a remarkable development.  For the first time, a great power wants to know, up close and personal, not just what its own citizens are doing, but those of distant lands as well: who they are communicating with, and how, and why, and what they are buying, and where they are travelling, and who they are bumping into (online and over the phone).

Until recently, once you left the environs of science fiction, that was simply beyond imagining.  You could certainly find precursors for such a development in, for instance, the Cold War intelligence community’s urge to create a global satellite system that would bring every inch of the planet under a new kind of surveillance regime, that would map it thoroughly and identify what was being mapped down to the square inch, but nothing so globally up close and personal.

The next two urges are intertwined in such a way that they might be thought as a single category: your codes and theirs.

2. The Urge to Make You Transparent

The urge to possess you, or everything that can be known about you, has clearly taken possession of our global security state. . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

16 June 2013 at 4:12 pm

More dishonesty and illegal behavior from the financial sector

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Little will be done, no one will go to prison, and the Big Rip-Off will continue. An article in Bloomberg Businessweek:

Traders at some of the world’s biggest banks have manipulated the WM/Reuters foreign exchange rates used as benchmarks to set the value of trillions of dollars of investments, according to five people with knowledge of the practice. Bank employees have been trading ahead of client orders—a practice known as front-running—and rigging the rates by pushing through trades before and during the 60-second window when the benchmarks are set, say the five, current and former traders who asked not to be identified for fear of reprisals. Dealers colluded with counterparts at different firms to boost chances of moving the rates, say two of the people.

The manipulation occurred daily in the spot foreign exchange market and has been going on for at least a decade, affecting the value of funds and derivatives. The $4.7 trillion-a-day currency market, the biggest in the financial system, is also one of the least regulated. [That sounds unwise to the point of stupidity, but undoubtedly is done precisely so that cheating can occur. – LG] “The FX market is like the Wild West,” says James McGeehan, co-founder of FX Transparency, a firm that advises companies on foreign exchange trading. “It’s buyer beware.”

The Financial Conduct Authority, Britain’s markets supervisor, is considering a probe into potential manipulation of the rates, according to a person briefed on the matter. “The FCA is aware of these allegations and has been speaking to the relevant parties,” says Chris Hamilton, a spokesman for the agency. Regulators around the world are already investigating the integrity of at least three market benchmarks. The FCA fined three banks about $2.5 billion in 2012 for rigging the London interbank offered rate, or Libor. The European Commission is probing companies including Royal Dutch Shell (RDS/A), BP (BP), and Platts (MHP), an oil pricing and news agency, for potential manipulation of the $3.4 trillion-a-year crude oil market. The three companies all say they are cooperating with the investigation. U.S. regulators are looking at the ISDAfix rate, the benchmark used for the swaps market.

Introduced in 1994, the WM/Reuters foreign exchange rates are used by fund managers to compute the day-to-day value of their holdings and by companies such as FTSE Group and MSCI that maintain indexes of stocks and bonds. They’re also used in futures and other contracts that require an exchange rate at settlement. Even small movements can affect the value of whatMorningstar (MORN) estimates is $3.6 trillion in funds, including pension and savings accounts, that track global indexes. “The price mechanism is the anchor of our entire economic system,” says Tom Kirchmaier, a visiting fellow in the financial markets group at the London School of Economics. “Any rigging of the price mechanism leads to a misallocation of capital and is extremely costly to society.”

The data are collected and distributed by World Markets, a unit of State Street (SSI), and Thomson Reuters (TRI). (Bloomberg LP, the parent company ofBloomberg Businessweek, competes with Thomson Reuters in providing financial news and information as well as currency-trading systems and pricing data.) State Street hasn’t been alerted to any allegations of wrongdoing involving the rate, says a person briefed on the matter. “The process for capturing this information and calculating the spot fixings is automated and anonymous, and the rates are monitored for quality and accuracy,” State Street said in an e-mail. Thomson Reuters referred inquiries to State Street.

WM/Reuters publishes the rates hourly for 139 currencies and half-hourly for 21 major currencies from the British pound to the South African rand. For the major ones, the benchmarks are the median of all trades in a minute-long period starting 30 seconds before the beginning of each half-hour. If there aren’t enough transactions between a pair of currencies during the reference period, the rate is based on the median of traders’ orders, which are offers to sell or bids to buy. Rates for the other, less widely traded currencies are calculated using quotes during a two-minute window.

Companies and asset managers typically ask banks to . . .

Continue reading. I suppose governments decided that illegal and dishonest behavior was tolerable in the finance industry because the miscreants paid off politicians handsomely.

Written by LeisureGuy

16 June 2013 at 11:56 am

Posted in Business, Government, Law

Bank of America Lied to Homeowners and Rewarded Foreclosures, Former Employees Say

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A company run by crooks—too bad the Obama Administration seems devoted to their protection. Paul Kiel writes at ProPublica:

Bank of America employees regularly lied to homeowners seeking loan modifications, denied their applications for made-up reasons, and were rewarded for sending homeowners to foreclosure, according to sworn statements by former bank employees.

The employee statements were filed late last week in federal court in Boston as part of a multi-state class action suit brought on behalf of homeowners who sought to avoid foreclosure through the government’s Home Affordable Modification Program (HAMP) but say they had their cases botched by Bank of America.

In a statement, a Bank of America spokesman said that each of the former employees’ statements is “rife with factual inaccuracies” and that the bank will respond more fully in court next month. He said that Bank of America had modified more loans than any other bank and continues to “demonstrate our commitment to assisting customers who are at risk of foreclosure.”

Six of the former employees worked for the bank, while one worked for a contractor. They range from former managers to front-line employees, and all dealt with homeowners seeking to avoid foreclosure through the government’s program.

When the Obama administration launched HAMP in 2009, Bank of America was by far the largest mortgage servicer in the program. It had twice as many loans eligible as the next largest bank. The former employees say that, in response to this crush of struggling homeowners, the bank often misled them and denied applications for bogus reasons.

Sometimes, homeowners were simply denied en masse in a procedure called a “blitz,”said William Wilson, Jr., who worked as an underwriter and manager from 2010 until 2012. As part of the modification applications, homeowners were required to send in documents with their financial information. About twice a month, Wilson said, the bank ordered that all files with documentation 60 or more days old simply be denied. “During a blitz, a single team would decline between 600 and 1,500 modification files at a time,” he said in the sworn declaration. To justify the denials, employees produced fictitious reasons, for instance saying the homeowner had not sent in the required documents, when in actuality, they had.

Such mass denials may have occurred at other mortgage servicers. Chris Wyatt, a former employee of Goldman Sachs subsidiary Litton Loan Servicing, told ProPublica in 2012 that the company periodically conducted “denial sweeps” to reduce the backlog of homeowners. A spokesman for Goldman Sachs said at the time that the company disagreed with Wyatt’s account but offered no specifics.

Five of the former Bank of America employees stated that they were encouraged to mislead customers. . .

Continue reading. At the link, you can see links to the employees’ actual statements and to the BofA rebuttal.

Written by LeisureGuy

16 June 2013 at 10:54 am

A brief history of typography

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Via Informed Comment:

Written by LeisureGuy

16 June 2013 at 10:28 am

Posted in Books, Video

Who can understand the GOP, which routinely votes against its own positions?

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I’m not referring to the intense GOP dislike of their own plans, once those plans are supported by (say) Obama: Romneycare, for example, or carbon cap-and-trade: GOP all for those until Obama supported them, and suddenly the plans are terrible—who can figure that out (if you start from the position that the GOP consists of adults)?

In the NY Times Andrew Rosenthal points out an even weirder example: the GOP being spendthrifts to support government expansion. I simply cannot understand the GOP.

The small-government, fiscally prudent Republicans in the House have voted to preserve a significant expansion of government power — and to keep spending nearly $1.6 million per prisoner per year at the Guantánamo Bay detention camp. They did all that in just a few hours.

Recently, Rep. Adam Smith of Washington, senior Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, along with Rep. Chris Gibson, Republican of New York, sponsored an amendment to repeal a dangerous provision in the 2013 military budget. That provision authorized military detention for anyone captured in the United States on suspicion of terrorism, and did not explicitly exclude American citizens.

Senator Mark Udall, Democrat of Colorado, said President Obama has pledged not to use the detention power for Americans, but “this is only binding on his administration, but that won’t tie the hands of future administrations.”

House Republicans killed the amendment last night.

Mr. Smith, who’s been very busy, also proposed an amendment to the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act, which would have required the closure of Guantánamo by the end of 2014.

It would have enhanced the authority of a presidential appointee charged with finding places to send the almost 90 prisoners who have been cleared for release — many of them because they didn’t actually do anything in the first place.

The bill also would have ordered the transfer of the rest of the prisoners to the United States from their current cells on land leased from the Communist Party of Cuba, either for trial in federal courts or for detention under the laws of war until the “end of hostilities.” (That, of course, is going to be hard to define, but a logical point would be the end of the current war in Afghanistan.)

The first, eligible-for-trial group includes men like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the so-called mastermind of the 9/11 attacks who is slated to go before one of the military tribunals that President Obama has improved from President Bush’s kangaroo courts, but which remain deeply flawed. The second, “end of hostilities” group includes prisoners who are believed to be threats but cannot be tried because there is no evidence against them, or because they were tortured (Mr. Bush’s legacy) and the evidence is not admissible in court.

Mr. Smith pointed out in a press release that the federal courts have convicted “more than 400 defendants charged with crimes related to international terrorism” since Sept. 11, 2001. They have done so without a single security issue or release of sensitive information. These defendants do not receive any greater measure of constitutional rights in the federal courts, including the rights of habeas corpus and the right of appeal, than in military tribunals.

No convicted terrorist has even tried to escape from a federal prison since 9/11. We spend about $34,000 per inmate each year at one of those prisons, Mr. Smith said, compared to $1.6 million per inmate at Guantanamo, where the Pentagon also wants to spend $260 million on new construction.

Republicans were deaf to these solid arguments, and voted down the amendment this morning.

The House did manage to pass one amendment from a Democrat, Jim McGovern, today. It requires an “accelerated” withdrawal from Afghanistan, which sounds good, but the date is the end of 2014, which happens to be when President Obama said he would do it anyway. Now that must have taken courage.

Written by LeisureGuy

16 June 2013 at 8:43 am

Posted in GOP, Mental Health

Throwing children in prison turns out to be a really bad idea

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Brad Plumer has a good article in the Washington Post:

The United States still puts more children and teenagers in juvenile detention than any other developed nations in the world, with about 130,000 detained in 2010. And as it turns out, this is very likely a bad idea.

new paper by economists Anna Aizer and Joseph J. Doyle, Jr. offers strong evidence that juvenile detention is a really counterproductive strategy for many youths under the age of 19. Not only does throwing a kid in detention often reduce the chance that he or she will graduate high school, but it also raises the chance that the youth will commit more crimes later on in life.This seems intuitive enough, but the problem is actually measuring the effect. After all, the youths who commit crimes and get tossed in detention in the first place are presumably different from kids who never get detained. So of course they’d have different outcomes. What we’d really want to know is whether detention itself is actually making things worse.

So, to figure this out, Aizer and Doyle took a look at the juvenile court system in Chicago, Illinois. The researchers found that certain judges in the system were more likely to recommend detention than others — even for similar crimes. That is, it’s possible to identify stricter and more lenient judges. And, since youths were assigned to judges at random, this created a randomized trial of sorts.

What the researchers found was striking. The kids who ended up incarcerated were 13 percentage points less likely to graduate high school and 22 percentage points more likely to end up back in prison as adults than the kids who went to court but were placed under, say, home monitoring instead. (This was after controlling for family background and so forth.) Juvenile detention appeared to be creating criminals, not stopping them.

The authors lay out a couple of reasons why this would be. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

16 June 2013 at 8:38 am

Excellent independent comedy: Safety Not Guaranteed

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I recently rewatched Safety Not Guaranteed and it’s even better the second time around. A wonderful movie—and many scenes seem to be translations, as it were, from a scene in a big-budget action movie to a smaller-scale, real-life equivalent. Extremely well done. Netflix Watch Instantly if you subscribe.

Written by LeisureGuy

16 June 2013 at 8:36 am

Posted in Movies & TV

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