Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Archive for June 28th, 2013

Feedly

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Google Reader is dead! Long live Feedly.

I’ve been using Feedly the last few days. At first I hated it, but Google’s abdication forced me to continue, and now I love it: it’s ever so much better than Google Reader, and now I’m actually reading (or looking at) all my feeds. Check it out. If you use it a week, I think you’ll end up liking it a lot.

Written by LeisureGuy

28 June 2013 at 6:40 pm

Posted in Software

Ayn Rand would be so proud of North Carolina

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Read this description through to the end—the bitter end, in fact.

UPDATE: I am reminded that some North Carolinians are working to change things in that state:

RALEIGH, N.C. — For the past seven Mondays, protestors have entered the North Carolina State Legislative Building in downtown Raleigh to voice their concerns about bills introduced by the state’s Republican majority. The organized effort, named “Moral Monday,” has drawn thousands of people from across North Carolina each week to the building’s outdoor Halifax Mall, where they beat on snare drums, wave slogan-filled signs, sing gospel spirituals, and listen to the Rev. William Barber, president of the North Carolina NAACP, preach about what he describes as injustices proposed by Republican legislative leaders and supported by first-term Republican Governor Pat McCrory.

Barber and other clergy members have led the civil-disobedience demonstrations since April 29, which has drawn comparisons to the clergy-led protests of the civil rights era. The N.C. Council of Churches has provided its support each week by issuing press releases, opinions, and even calls for faith leaders to show up in mass to participate. More than 480 protestors have been arrested since the first demonstration, including Duke Divinity School and Law School professors and those donning their clerical collars.

On Monday, June 17, General Assembly police arrested 84 people who wished to show their disagreement with the state government’s plans to — among other things — cut unemployment benefits, slash Medicaid assistance, shift taxes toward middle- and lower-income taxpayers, and repeal environmental measures. One of those participating in the non-violent civil disobedience was the Rev. Tuck Taylor, a Duke Divinity School graduate and ordained elder in the North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church. I followed Taylor, the mother of four children and stepmother of two others, from the time she learned “how” to disobey civilly at Christian Faith Baptist Church to the point of her arrest inside the N.C. State Legislative Building. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

28 June 2013 at 3:09 pm

The NSA v. Democracy: A very good column by Ezra Klein

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Very thoughtful:

By its very nature, covert intelligence work creates almost insoluble problems for a democracy.

In a democracy, after all, power is exercised with the consent of the people. If the people don’t know about the powers being exercised, they can’t offer consent. But if they do know about the powers being exercised, those powers, almost by definition, are no longer covert.

You see the problem.

The way the United States has traditionally solved this problem is to wrap such efforts in a tight system of checks and balances. Even the most secretive programs require authorization and oversight from the courts and the Congress. The truly scary breaches have come when the executive branch tries to slip those bonds, as when President Franklin D. Roosevelt authorized wiretaps that both Congress and the Supreme Court had outlawed, or when President Richard Nixon used the intelligence services to carry out political vendettas.Checks and balances

The Obama administration has long taken pride in enmeshing its national security efforts in that system of checks and balances. That, they feel, is where they made good on their promise to rein in the security state built by President George W. Bush. Their efforts appear to have worked, too: The revelations about the extent of the National Security Agency’s surveillance have not come as a surprise to the intelligence committees, or to the FISA courts. There are no allegations that the executive branch went rogue.

“We have all these examples where the system of checks and balances was violated,” says presidential historian Michael Beschloss. “I don’t think we’ve had evidence yet that what the administration has done is in that category.”

But few seem comforted by the checks and balances wrapped around the NSA’s activities. A recent Post/ABC News poll shows that 58 percent support the NSA’s intelligence gathering. But 65 percent support Congress holding public hearings on the program. And 48 percent — a plurality — oppose charging Edward Snowden with a crime for revealing the programs. The American people, in other words, support the NSA’s secret programs — they just don’t like the secret part.

“Here’s the honest conversation we need to have as a country,” says Tommy Vietor, who served as National Security Council spokesman for President Obama. “Human beings are running these programs and collecting the intelligence. Anything they do will be imperfect. But take the metadata. It goes into a black box. You need permission to access it. It’s overseen by Congress and the courts. If none of those checks are enough for you, we have bigger problems, because that goes to a complete lack of trust in institutions.”

But a complete lack of trust in political institutions is exactly what we have. In 1958, more than 70 percent of Americans said they trusted the government. Today, that number hovers in the mid-20s. Similarly, a January Gallup poll found that only 36 percent of Americans have faith in the presidency, and only 10 percent trust Congress. . .

Continue reading.

Mistrusted government should not be involved in anything covert. By definition, you cannot trust the government, so why on earth would you trust it with a program that’s an extraordinarily well-funded complete secret? It doesn’t make sense even on the face of it. And in general, don’t we want our enemies to have a very (unrealistically, in fact) high estimate of our capabilities? so wouldn’t it make sense to exercise transparency: to reassure the US public and strike fear into the hearts of our enemies?

Anyway, we (as a nation) do not, in fact, trust the government, so we should insist that we at least get some transparency. And a Congress that can function. And a sparkle pony with a glowing mane and tail.

I do have to say that the increasing enmeshed corporate and government thing has me seriously worried.

Written by LeisureGuy

28 June 2013 at 3:02 pm

Posted in Government

“Render unto Caesar the things that are… Oh, forget it.” – Modern Gospel

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Paul Waldman writes in The American Prospect:

Ready for the next court fight over Obamacare? Get to know Hobby Lobby, the chain of stores fighting the Affordable Care Act’s requirement that the health insurance employers offer their employees cover contraception, and the next Christian martyr to the unholy scourge of health coverage for employees. Hobby Lobby’s owners are conservative Christians, and though their company isn’t a church, they’d like to choose which laws they approve of and which they don’t, and follow only the laws they like. And a federal appeals court just ruled that not only can their suit go forward, but they’re likely to win. Because apparently, “This law violates my religious beliefs” is now a get-out-of-jail-free card.

The decision is simply mind-blowing, essentially finding that private business are just like religious institutions, and therefore they can decide which laws they have to obey:

“Hobby Lobby and Mardel have drawn a line at providing coverage for drugs or devices they consider to induce abortions, and it is not for us to question whether the line is reasonable,” the judges wrote. “The question here is not whether the reasonable observer would consider the plaintiffs complicit in an immoral act, but rather how the plaintiffs themselves measure their degree of complicity.”

Hobby Lobby Stores Inc., Mardel Inc. and their owners, the Green family, argue for-profit businesses — not just religious groups — should be allowed to seek an exception if the law violates their religious beliefs. The owners approve of most forms of artificial birth control, but not those that prevent implantation of a fertilized egg — such as an IUD or the morning-after pill.

Hobby Lobby is the largest and best-known of more than 30 businesses in several states that have challenged the contraception mandate. A number of Catholic-affiliated institutions have filed separate lawsuits, and the court suggested faith-based organizations can follow for-profit objectives in the secular world.

“A religious individual may enter the for-profit realm intending to demonstrate to the marketplace that a corporation can succeed financially while adhering to religious values. As a court, we do not see how we can distinguish this form of evangelism from any other,” they wrote.

I’m not a lawyer, so maybe there’s something I’m missing here, but my reaction upon reading this was, “Holy crap!” It’s not for the court to question whether Hobby Lobby’s interpretation of what laws it would rather follow is correct? Seriously? And they don’t see how they can distinguish selling pipe cleaners and finger paint from any other form of evangelism?

Before we get to the core question here, it’s just incredible that one of the reasons the court found in favor of Hobby Lobby was that the company didn’t want to pay for insurance that would pay for “drugs and devices that the plaintiffs believe to be abortifacients.” But what they believe is utterly irrelevant. One of the methods they object to is Plan B, the morning-after pill. But Plan B isn’t an abortifacient. The plaintiffs can choose to “believe” that it is if they want, but they’re asking that the state accept their belief as if it were true just because they believe it, and thereby exempt them from obeying the law. In effect that creates a justification for anyone who wants to ignore the law to create their own factual universe, then use that invented universe to say they’re exempt from the laws everyone else has to follow. If you get caught by a speed camera going 50 in a 35 zone, you can’t say, “Your honor, I believe that all speed cameras automatically register cars as going 15 miles per hour over their actual speeds. Therefore, I was going 35, and I am exempt from this fine.” . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

28 June 2013 at 2:29 pm

BofA: More misdeeds revealed

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David Dayen reports at Salon:

Last week, I detailed bombshell revelations from Bank of America whistle-blowers, in which former employees of the bank detailed systematic fraud and deceptive practices inside their loan modification department — including bonuses and Target gift cards for staff who racked up foreclosures.

Now, another new lawsuit, featuring a separate whistle-blower, contains additional remarkable revelations – and may shed light on Bank of America’s strategy in getting out from under the mountain of legal exposure and costs in which it now finds itself. Simply put, the bank seeks to pocket quick cash and evade practices set forth in major settlements – by cashing out of the subprime mortgage servicing business. The result would be to leave struggling homeowners back at square one, with even fewer protections to avoid foreclosure.

First, some background. Over the past year, non-bank servicers like Nationstar and Ocwen have been buying up servicing rights to millions of mortgages, gradually positioning themselves to become the biggest companies in the space. These non-bank servicers, which process monthly payments and deal with foreclosures but do not originate loans, have an asset not available to their big bank colleagues: They haven’t yet been officially caught scamming customers. Therefore, they are not a party to the various servicer settlements brought by state and federal regulators, and they need not submit to those settlement guidelines. This includes rules like establishing a single point of contact for borrowers, stopping foreclosure operations when a modification is in process (ending what is known as “dual track”) and facilitating proper payment processing.

All of this has come to a head in a class-action lawsuit filed by Leonard Law Office in Massachusetts against Green Tree Servicing, a non-bank servicer based in St. Paul, Minn. As detailed by an insider at Bank of America in a packet of documents, in January 2013, BofA sold servicing rights to 650,000 mortgages (worth $93 billion) to the parent company for Green Tree.

Like Nationstar and Ocwen, Green Tree is not part of any servicing settlements, nor do they have to abide by any guidelines set by those agreements, even though the loans they purchased were subject to those guidelines when they were in the hands of BofA. Moreover, as a non-bank servicer, Green Tree has traditionally had less stringent oversight from federal regulators, though the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is fixing to change that.

Of course, servicers like Green Tree, Nationstar and Ocwen have terrible reputations as among the worst servicers in the country (worse than Bank of America, if you can imagine that). Among the charges Leonard Law Office made against Green Tree were claims that the servicer imposed illegal fees to process any kind of payment; failed to process mailed payments on time; harassed borrowers by calling them at all hours of the night and using abusive language to try to collect on debts; and delayed or denied timely modifications. These practices violate such federal laws as the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, the Telephone Consumer Protections Act, and others. Complaints about Green Tree’s practices litter the Internet.

And some complaints have gone to court, like the case of a Florida widow who claimed that Green Tree debt collectors called her husband, as well as his co-workers and relatives, nine times a day about a mortgage debt. Nationstar and Ocwen have seen their share of complaints as well. One innovative Ocwen scam involves sending homeowners a check for $3.50, and claiming that cashing the check automatically enrolls the customer in an appliance insurance plan, which costs $54.95 a month.

Here’s where Bank of America comes in. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

28 June 2013 at 2:16 pm

FBI Document—“[DELETED]” Plots To Kill Occupy Leaders “If Deemed Necessary”

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The FBI really needs to be completely reformulated. Their forensics lab is a very bad joke, putting innocent people in prison. Their inability to interrogate suspects without shooting them dead… the inability to understand that taping an interrogation might be useful…  the list is now a long one even before getting to Waco and Ruby Ridge.

David Lindorff has an interesting report on WhoWhatWhy.com:

Would you be shocked to learn that the FBI apparently knew that some organization, perhaps even a law enforcement agency or private security outfit, had contingency plans to assassinate peaceful protestors in a major American city — and did nothing to intervene?

Would you be surprised to learn that this intelligence comes not from a shadowy whistle-blower but from the FBI itself – specifically, from a document obtained from Houston FBI office last December, as part of a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request filed by the Washington, DC-based Partnership for Civil Justice Fund?

To repeat: this comes from the FBI itself. The question, then, is: What did the FBI do about it?

The Plot

Remember the Occupy Movement? The peaceful crowds that camped out in the center of a number of cities in the fall of 2011, calling for some recognition by local, state and federal authorities that our democratic system was out of whack, controlled by corporate interests, and in need of immediate repair?

That movement swept the US beginning in mid-September 2011. When, in early October, the movement came to Houston, Texas, law enforcement officials and the city’s banking and oil industry executives freaked out  perhaps even more so than they did in some other cities. The push-back took the form of violent assaults by police on Occupy activists, federal and local surveillance of people seen as organizers, infiltration by police provocateurs—and, as crazy as it sounds, some kind of plot to assassinate the “leaders” of this non-violent and leaderless movement.

But don’t take our word for it. Here’s what the document obtained from the Houston FBI, said:

An identified [DELETED] as of October planned to engage in sniper attacks against protestors (sic) in Houston, Texas if deemed necessary. An identified [DELETED] had received intelligence that indicated the protesters in New York and Seattle planned similar protests in Houston, Dallas, San Antonio and Austin, Texas. [DELETED] planned to gather intelligence against the leaders of the protest groups and obtain photographs, then formulate a plan to kill the leadership via suppressed sniper rifles. (Note: protests continued throughout the weekend with approximately 6000 persons in NYC. ‘Occupy Wall Street’ protests have spread to about half of all states in the US, over a dozen European and Asian cities, including protests in Cleveland (10/6-8/11) at Willard Park which was initially attended by hundreds of protesters.)

Occupiers Astounded—But Not Entirely

Paul Kennedy, the National Lawyers Guild attorney in Houston who represented a number of Occupy Houston activists arrested during the protests, had not heard of the sniper plot, but said, “I find it hard to believe that such information would have been known to the FBI and that we would not have been told about it.”  He then added darkly, “If it had been some right-wing group plotting such an action, something would have been done. But if it is something law enforcement was planning, then nothing would have been done. It might seem hard to believe that a law enforcement agency would do such a thing, but I wouldn’t put it past them.”

He adds, “The use of the phrase ‘if deemed necessary,’ sounds like it was some kind of official organization that was doing the planning.” In other words, the “identified [DELETED” mentioned in the Houston FBI document may have been some other agency with jurisdiction in the area, which was calculatedly making plans to kill Occupy activists.

Kennedy knows first-hand the extent to which combined federal-state-local law enforcement forces in Houston were focused on disrupting and breaking up the Occupy action in that city. He represented seven people who were charged with felonies for a protest that attempted to block the operation of Houston’s port facility. That case fell apart when in the course of discovery, the prosecution disclosed that the Occupiers had been infiltrated by three undercover officers from the Austin Police department, who came up with the idea of using a device called a “sleeping dragon” — actually chains inside of PVC pipe — which are devilishly hard to cut through, for chaining protesters together blocking port access. The police provocateurs, Kennedy says, actually purchased the materials and constructed the “criminal instruments” themselves, supplying them to the protesters. As a result of this discovery, the judge tossed out the felony charges.

FBI Response

WhoWhatWhy contacted FBI headquarters in Washington, and asked about this document—which, despite its stunning revelation and despite PCFJ press releases, was (notwithstanding a few online mentions) generally ignored by mainstream and “alternative” press alike.

The agency confirmed that it is genuine and that it originated in the Houston FBI office. (The plot is also referenced in a second document obtained in PCJF’s FOIA response, in this case from the FBI’s Gainesville, Fla., office, which cites the Houston FBI as the source.)  That second document actually suggests that the assassination plot, which never was activated, might still be operative should Occupy decisively re-emerge in the area. It states:  . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

28 June 2013 at 2:10 pm

Who is Leaking More: Edward Snowden or the Government Officials Condemning Him?

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Trevor Trim posts at the Freedom of the Press Foundation:

In the month since the Guardian first started reporting on the surveillance documents provided by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, the government has taken to the media to condemn his leaks and insist he is flagrantly violating the law. To prove this, the government has been incessantly leaking information itself.

Huffington Post’s Michael Calderone extensively detailed this week’s NSA media counteroffensive against Snowden, as officials have tried to explain—anonymously and without real proof—that Snowden’s leaks have hurt national security. On Wednesday, intelligence officials described to ABC News, Washington Post, Reuters, and AP about the how terrorists are allegedly “changing their tactics” now that they’ve been tipped off the US is monitoring the Internet.

Essentially, the government leaked a bunch of classified information in an attempt to prove leaking classified information is dangerous.

In addition, unnamed government sources alleged in the New York Times, Washington Post, and CNN that both China and Russia drained Snowden’s computers, without any evidence they had done so. As Calderone noted, “it’s possible that officials may be proven correct, and that the leaked NSA documents did fall into the hands of foreign governments. But…there’s no evidence he has willingly or unwillingly provided all the documents obtained to the Chinese and Russians.”

But it hasn’t just been the last few days; the government has been consistently leaking information about Snowden since the very start of the investigation into him. Last Friday, the Washington Post reported the paper had obtained the sealed criminal complaint against Edward Snowden, charging him with two counts under the Espionage Act and one count of stealing government property. As the Post reported, it was not until after the complaint was leaked that the Justice Department decided to officially unseal it.

On Sunday, the Associated Press reported that the US had revoked Snowden’s passport, which they had learned through unnamed sources in the government. By Monday, as USA Today reported, “Numerous government officials have said on background that Edward Snowden’s passport has been revoked, but no one will confirm it on the record.” Why couldn’t they say anything officially? Because it was prohibited by the the Privacy Act.

And when it was revealed the contractor which give Snowden a background check, the company told Reuters they could not comment because it “was a confidential matter under investigation.” But that didn’t stop someone from leaking information anonymously to insinuate Snowden lied on his resume to get his job.

The government’s own leaks come in the wake of a recent report from McClatchy newspapers detailing the Obama administration’s disturbing “Insider Threat” program, which supposedly views all leaks akin to aiding the enemy. This program, and its dangerous culture, has bled into agencies that don’t even deal with classified information, including the Department of Education, Department of Agriculture, and the Peace Corps.

To paraphrase George Orwell, all leaks are equal, but apparently some leaks are more equal than others.

Perhaps in response to the Obama administration policy, new CIA director John Brennan (a notorious leaker himself), wrote a memo calling for a further crackdown on leaks within the CIA. On Wednesday, the memo leaked to the Associated Press. A day later, the CIA leaked details of their response to a critical 6,000 page classified Senate report on CIA torture, before giving any information on their response to the Senate Intelligence Committee, like is required by law.

On Thursday night, NBC News reported that retired General James Cartwright is the prime suspect in the leak investigation regarding the New York Times report on the Stuxnet virus. How do we know that? A leak.

Written by LeisureGuy

28 June 2013 at 1:31 pm

Blowback is coming

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Nick Turse writes at TomDispatch:

The other day, Hamid Karzai, the U.S.-supported Afghan president who was once sardonically nicknamed “the mayor of Kabul,” had a few curious things to say about American policy in the Muslim world.  Karzai, of course, is a man whose opinions — whether on U.S. special operations forces and their (out of control) militias, U.S. night raids on Afghan homes, or U.S. air strikes on Afghan villages — Washington loves to ignore.  He is considered “volatile.”  Sometimes, however, it’s worth listening to what our subordinate allies, uncomfortable nationalists-cum-puppets, think and say about us.

As Josh Rogin reported at the Daily Beast, Karzai recently suggested that, starting in the early 1980s when the Reagan administration and the CIA buddied up with the Saudis and Pakistani intelligence and backed a set of extreme fundamentalist Afghan rebels against the Soviets, the U.S. has been, advertently or not, promoting Islamic radicalism in the Greater Middle East.  As Karzai said of that long-forgotten moment, “The more radical we looked and talked, the more we were called mujahedin. The consequence of that was a massive effort toward uprooting traditional Afghan values and culture and tolerance.”  In his speech at the 2013 U.S.-Islamic World Forum, he made a case for the ways in which Washington’s destabilization of the region has never ended, provoking ever more extreme blowback as it goes.

Without a doubt, the central event in the multi-decade fiasco that for a few years was known as the Global War on Terror was the invasion of Iraq, Washington’s preeminent act of folly so far in the twenty-first century.  Its disastrous effects have yet to be fully absorbed or assessed.  Yet without that invasion, it is hard to imagine a whole series of developments, including the present killing fields in Syria, the potential disintegration of Iraq itself, the Arab Spring, or the spread of extreme Islamic factions ever more widely in a vast region.  The irony, of course, is that the Bush administration and the neocon types who set so much of this in motion used to refer to the Greater Middle East from North Africa to the Chinese border disparagingly as “the arc of instability.”  Today, it increasingly looks like an arc of chaos and, as Nick Turse indicates, the process, far from ending, seems to be spreading — in this case, deep into Africa.

Turse, author of the recent bestseller Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam, has been following the latest U.S. global command, AFRICOM, as it embeds American military power ever more fully on the African continent. (In the process, he has engaged in full-scale public debate with that command over the nature of what it is doing.) Today, he offers a magisterial overview of what can be known about the increasing American military presence in Africa and how it is continuing a now more than three-decade-old process of spurring destabilization, the growth of radical Islamic movements, and blowback in a new region of the planet. Tom

The Terror Diaspora
The U.S. Military and the Unraveling of Africa
By Nick Turse

The Gulf of Guinea. He said it without a hint of irony or embarrassment. This was one of U.S. Africa Command’s big success stories. The Gulf… of Guinea.

Never mind that most Americans couldn’t find it on a map and haven’t heard of the nations on its shores like Gabon, Benin, and Togo. Never mind that just five days before I talked with AFRICOM’s chief spokesman, the Economist had asked if the Gulf of Guinea was on the verge of becoming “another Somalia,” because piracy there had jumped 41% from 2011 to 2012 and was on track to be even worse in 2013.

The Gulf of Guinea was one of the primary areas in Africa where “stability,” the command spokesman assured me, had “improved significantly,” and the U.S. military had played a major role in bringing it about. But what did that say about so many other areas of the continent that, since AFRICOM was set up, had been wracked by coups, insurgencies, violence, and volatility?

A careful examination of the security situation in Africa suggests that it is in the process of becoming Ground Zero for a veritable terror diaspora set in motion in the wake of 9/11 that has only accelerated in the Obama years.  Recent history indicates that as U.S. “stability” operations in Africa have increased, militancy has spread, insurgent groups have proliferated, allies have faltered or committed abuses, terrorism has increased, the number of failed states has risen, and the continent has become more unsettled.

The signal event in this tsunami of blowback was the U.S. participation in a war to fell Libyan autocrat Muammar Qaddafi that helped send neighboring Mali, a U.S.-supported bulwark against regional terrorism, into a downward spiral, prompting the intervention of the French military with U.S. backing.  The situation could still worsen as the U.S. armed forces grow ever more involved.  They are already expanding air operations across the continent, engaging in spy missions for the French military, and utilizing other previously undisclosed sites in Africa.

The Terror Diaspora

In 2000, a report prepared under the auspices of the U.S. Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute examined the “African security environment.”  While it touched on “internal separatist or rebel movements” in “weak states,” as well as non-state actors like militias and “warlord armies,” it made no mention of Islamic extremism or major transnational terrorist threats.  In fact, prior to 2001, the United States did not recognize any terrorist organizations in sub-Saharan Africa.

Shortly after the 9/11 attacks, a senior Pentagon official claimed that the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan might drive “terrorists” out of that country and into African nations.  “Terrorists associated with al Qaeda and indigenous terrorist groups have been and continue to be a presence in this region,” he said. “These terrorists will, of course, threaten U.S. personnel and facilities.”

When pressed about actual transnational dangers, the official pointed to Somali militants but eventually admitted that even the most extreme Islamists there “really have not engaged in acts of terrorism outside Somalia.”  Similarly, when questioned about connections between Osama bin Laden’s core al-Qaeda group and African extremists, he offered only the most tenuous links, like bin Laden’s “salute” to Somali militants who killed U.S. troops during the infamous 1993 “Black Hawk Down” incident.

Despite this, the U.S. dispatched personnel to Africa as part of Combined Joint Task Force – Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA) in 2002.  The next year, CJTF-HOA took up residence at Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti, where it resides to this day on the only officially avowed U.S. base in Africa.

As CJTF-HOA was starting up, the State Department launched a multi-million-dollar counterterrorism program, known as the Pan-Sahel Initiative, to bolster the militaries of Mali, Niger, Chad, and Mauritania.  In 2004, for example, Special Forces training teams were sent to Mali as part of the effort.  In 2005, the program expanded to include Nigeria, Senegal, Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia and was renamed the Trans-Saharan Counterterrorism Partnership.

Writing in the New York Times Magazine, Nicholas Schmidle noted that the program saw . . .

Continue reading. There’s a lot more, and by the end you’ll have a good grasp of the situation there and why we can expect blowback.

Written by LeisureGuy

28 June 2013 at 11:37 am

How did the ratings agencies fuck the country?

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A question that has not been answered in detail—and God knows the current Federal government will not take any effective action against the financial industry that would expose the rotten core beneath the skin—but Matt Taibbi offers some good findings in his Rolling Stone article:

What about the ratings agencies?

That’s what “they” always say about the financial crisis and the teeming rat’s nest of corruption it left behind. Everybody else got plenty of blame: the greed-fattened banks, the sleeping regulators, the unscrupulous mortgage hucksters like spray-tanned Countrywide ex-CEO Angelo Mozilo.

But what about the ratings agencies? Isn’t it true that almost none of the fraud that’s swallowed Wall Street in the past decade could have taken place without companies like Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s rubber-stamping it? Aren’t they guilty, too?

Man, are they ever. And a lot more than even the least generous of us suspected.

Everything Is Rigged: The Biggest Price-Fixing Scandal Ever

Thanks to a mountain of evidence gathered for a pair of major lawsuits by the San Diego-based law firm Robbins Geller Rudman & Dowd, documents that for the most part have never been seen by the general public, we now know that the nation’s two top ratings companies, Moody’s and S&P, have for many years been shameless tools for the banks, willing to give just about anything a high rating in exchange for cash.

In incriminating e-mail after incriminating e-mail, executives and analysts from these companies are caught admitting their entire business model is crooked.

“Lord help our fucking scam . . . this has to be the stupidest place I have worked at,” writes one Standard & Poor’s executive. “As you know, I had difficulties explaining ‘HOW’ we got to those numbers since there is no science behind it,” confesses a high-ranking S&P analyst. “If we are just going to make it up in order to rate deals, then quants [quantitative analysts] are of precious little value,” complains another senior S&P man. “Let’s hope we are all wealthy and retired by the time this house of card[s] falters,” ruminates one more.

Ratings agencies are the glue that ostensibly holds the entire financial industry together. These gigantic companies – also known as Nationally Recognized Statistical Rating Organizations, or NRSROs – have teams of examiners who analyze companies, cities, towns, countries, mortgage borrowers, anybody or anything that takes on debt or creates an investment vehicle.

Their primary function is to help define what’s safe to buy, and what isn’t. A triple-A rating is to the financial world what the USDA seal of approval is to a meat-eater, or virginity is to a Catholic. It’s supposed to be sacrosanct, inviolable: According to Moody’s own reports, AAA investments “should survive the equivalent of the U.S. Great Depression.”

The Scam Wall Street Learned From the Mafia

It’s not a stretch to say the whole financial industry revolves around the compass point of the absolutely safe AAA rating. But the financial crisis happened because AAA ratings stopped being something that had to be earned and turned into something that could be paid for.

That this happened is even more amazing because these companies naturally have powerful leverage over their clients, as they are part of a quasi-protected industry that enjoys massive de facto state subsidies. Largely that’s because government agencies like the Securities and Exchange Commission often force private companies to fulfill regulatory requirements by retaining or keeping in reserve certain fixed quantities of assets – bonds, securities, whatever – that have been rated highly by a “Nationally Recognized” ratings agency, like the “Big Three” of Moody’s, S&P and Fitch. So while they’re not quite part of the official regulatory infrastructure, they might as well be.

It’s not like the iniquity of the ratings agencies had gone completely unnoticed before. The Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission published a case study in 2011 of Moody’s in particular and discovered that between 2000 and 2007, the agency gave nearly 45,000 mortgage-backed securities AAA ratings. One year Moody’s doled out AAA ratings to 30 mortgage-backed securities every day, 83 percent of which were ultimately downgraded. “This crisis could not have happened without the rating agencies,” the commission concluded.

Thanks to these documents, we now know how that happened. And showing as they do the back-and-forth between the country’s top ratings agencies and one of America’s biggest investment banks (Morgan Stanley) in advance of two major subprime deals, they also lay out in detail the evolution of the industrywide fraud that led to implosion of the world economy – how banks, hedge funds, mortgage lenders and ratings agencies, working at an extraordinary level of cooperation, teamed up to disguise and then sell near-worthless loans as AAA securities. It’s the black box in the American financial airplane.

In April, Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s settled the lawsuits for a reported $225 million. Brought by a diverse group of institutional plaintiffs with King County, Washington, and the Abu Dhabi Commercial Bank taking the lead, the suits accused the ratings agencies of conspiring in the mid-to-late 2000s with Morgan Stanley to fraudulently induce heavy investment into a pair of doomed-to-implode subprime-laden deals, called Cheyne and Rhinebridge.

Stock prices for both companies soared at the settlement, with markets believing the firms would be spared the hell of reams of embarrassing evidence thrust into public view at trial. But in a quirk, an earlier judge’s ruling had already made most of the documents in the case public. Although a few news outlets, including The New York Times, took note at the time, the vast majority of the material was never reported, and some was never seen by reporters at all. The cases revolved around a highly exotic and complex financial instrument called a SIV, or structured investment vehicle.

The SIV is a not-so-distant cousin of . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

28 June 2013 at 11:33 am

Army restricts access to the Guardian

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It is important, apparently, that our soldiery be kept in ignorance of what the country is doing—because they would not be so willing to fight for it? Hmm. Phillip Molnar reports in our local paper:

The Army admitted Thursday to not only restricting access to The Guardian news website at the Presidio of Monterey, as reported in Thursday’s Herald, but Armywide.

Presidio employees said the site had been blocked since The Guardian broke stories on data collection by the National Security Agency.

Gordon Van Vleet, an Arizona-based spokesman for the Army Network Enterprise Technology Command, or NETCOM, said in an email the Army is filtering “some access to press coverage and online content about the NSA leaks.”

He wrote it is routine for the Department of Defense to take preventative “network hygiene” measures to mitigate unauthorized disclosures of classified information.

“We make every effort to balance the need to preserve information access with operational security,” he wrote, “however, there are strict policies and directives in place regarding protecting and handling classified information.”

In a later phone call, Van Vleet said the filter of classified information on public websites was “Armywide” and did not originate at the Presidio.

Presidio employees described how they could access the U.S. site, www.guardiannews.com, but were blocked from articles, such as those about the NSA, that redirected to the British site.

Sources at the Presidio said Jose Campos, the post’s information assurance security officer, sent an email to employees early Thursday saying The Guardian’s website was blocked by Army Cyber Command “in order to prevent an unauthorized disclosure of classified information.”

NETCOM is a subordinate to the Army Cyber Command, based in Fort Belvoir, Va., said its website.

Continue reading.

As you see, it’s merely the nitwit bureaucratic mind at work: even though the entire world knows, the information is (technically) still classified—it’s like those rules in the Manhattan Project, in which a foreign-born physicist was drafted to work on the bomb, but since he could not get security clearance, each page that he wrote was taken from him as soon as he finished and he was not allowed to see it again (because it was classified, you see: there’s a type of mind to which this makes perfect sense—avoid those people at all costs).

Written by LeisureGuy

28 June 2013 at 11:26 am

Posted in Army

World Health Organization takes on the food industry

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Speaking of the United Nations, here’s an interesting post by Marion Nestle at Food Politics:

I’ve just been sent a copy of  the opening address given by the Director-General of the World Health Organization, Dr Margaret Chan, to a Global Conference on Health Promotion in Helsinki on June 10.

Here is an excerpt from her extraordinary remarks:

Today, getting people to lead healthy lifestyles and adopt healthy behaviours faces opposition from forces that are not so friendly.  Not at all.

Efforts to prevent noncommunicable [chronic] diseases go against the business interests of powerful economic operators.

In my view, this is one of the biggest challenges facing health promotion…it is not just Big Tobacco anymore.  Public health must also contend with Big Food, Big Soda,and Big Alcohol.

All of these industries fear regulation, and protect themselves by using the same tactics.

Research has documented these tactics well. They include front groups, lobbies, promises of self-regulation, lawsuits, and industry-funded research that confuses the evidence and keeps the public in doubt.

Tactics also include gifts, grants, and contributions to worthy causes that cast these industries as respectable corporate citizens in the eyes of politicians and the public.

They include arguments that place the responsibility for harm to health on individuals, and portray government actions as interference in personal liberties and free choice.

This is formidable opposition. Market power readily translates into political power…

Not one single country has managed to turn around its obesity epidemic in all age groups.  This is not a failure of individual will-power. This is a failure of political will to take on big business…

I am deeply concerned by two recent trends.

The first relates to trade agreements. Governments introducing measures to protect the health of their citizens are being taken to court, and challenged in litigation. This is dangerous.

The second is efforts by industry to shape the public health policies and strategies that affect their products. When industry is involved in policy-making, rest assured that the most effective control measures will be downplayed or left out entirely. This, too, is well documented, and dangerous.

In the view of WHO, the formulation of health policies must be protected from distortion by commercial or vested interests.

Dr. Chan was courageous to say this so clearly.  Would that our health officials would be as brave.

Written by LeisureGuy

28 June 2013 at 9:40 am

Posted in Business, Food, Health

Top Ten Ways the Beltway Press will treat Gen. Cartwright differently from Snowden

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Another big leak of classified information, and yet Gen. Cartwright has not left the country or gone into hiding. Apparently he will fight the charges in court—if any charges are brought. You see, the idea of “justice” in the US has long since abandoned the notion of “fairness” because fairness would require the same treatment for the rich and powerful as for the poor and powerless, and that is simply not going to happen nowadays. And logic, too, is beside the point: that was evident in the back-to-back opinions from Supreme Court Justice Scalia where he holds (in one) that the Supreme Court cannot overturn laws passed by Congress and (in the other) that the Supreme Court can readily overturn laws passed by Congress, even a law passsed and renewed with enormous majorities.

So let’s track the way Greenwald and Snowden are treated by our government (and press) on the one hand, and the treatment of David Sanger (the NY Times reporter) and Gen. Cartwright on the other. The two cases should follow closely parallel tracks, with David Gregory asking Sanger whether he should be arrested on felony charges for aiding and abetting Gen. Cartwright. We’ll see.

Juan Cole does bring up some interesting points, though:

NBC reports that Gen. James “Hoss” Cartwright is under investigation as the source for David Sanger’s 2012 New York Times article revealing that the United States is behind the Stuxnet computer virus, which was used to infect computers at Iran’s Natanz nuclear enrichment facilities and at the Bushehr nuclear energy plants and delay their going hot.

High government officials in Washington routinely leak classified information, as part of turf battles inside the government. Cartwright may have been using Sanger to ensure that Stuxnet was not wholly abandoned (it was his baby). That such leaks are so routine, and are part of Washington’s way of doing business, is what makes the harsh espionage charges against people like Edward Snowden so hypocritical. He who is without leaks should cast the first stone.

The Cartwright story (and remember that he is only a suspect) intersects with Edward Snowden’s revelations about National Security Administration spying in many ways. It seems likely that suspicion is now falling on Cartwright because the NSA knows David Sanger’s phone number and has been looking at everyone he talked to on the phone in the months leading up to his article. We know that the NSA has been repeatedly requesting massive amounts of US phone information and storing it for easy search. Since Sanger’s article is proof that an illegal act was committed, as Obama said at the time, getting a FISA warrant to go through Sanger’s already-stored records would have been child’s play. When the PATRIOT Act was proposed, the FBI promised it would be used only for counter-terrorism. But that promise has for many years rung hollow.

While Osama Ben Laden knew not to use the phone during the last seven years of his life, American reporters and generals thought they were safe. PRISM did not catch Ben Laden because he went off the communications grid, and now anyone who wants to do anything the Federal government considers illicit had better do the same. This simple observation demonstrates that the Obama/ NSA cover story, that they are collecting all these phone records to fight terrorism, makes no sense. The data is most likely to be used against American non-terrorists

Another cautionary tale about NSA warrantless surveillance and Stuxnet is that the program shows how the US government is now a criminal enterprise and entirely willing to take risks that harm ordinary Americans. In 2010 the US government programmers made an error in Stuxnet that allowed it to escape from Iran’s Natanz computers out onto the internet, where it became a pest, infecting ordinary business and home computers around the world, including inside the US. By August, 2010, the worm had infected 100,000 computersin 115 countries in the world. Obama decided not to shut Stuxnet down even after it had caused all this damage. The ordinary consumers and businesses affected ought to sue the US government.

If we can’t trust them not to infect us with worms, why in the world should we trust them with all of our personal information?

Since Cartwright is a member of the inside-the-Beltway elite, you can bet that the courtier press will not treat him the way they have Edward Snowden, even if he proves guilty. Here will be the differences:

1. No one will obsess about the exercise habits of Gen. Cartwright’s wife.

2. Gen. Cartwright will not be characterized as “a 63-year-old hacker.”

3. Gen. Cartwright will not be described as “nerdy” or “flaky.”

4. David Gregory will not ask that David Sanger be prosecuted for espionage because he aided and abetted Cartwright’s leaking.

5. We won’t get stories every day about where in McLean, Virginia, Gen. Cartwright is living.

6. . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

28 June 2013 at 9:32 am

UN Secretary General calls for “all options” to be considered in drug policy debate

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Basia Cieszewska blogs at Transform:

It was welcome to note that during a special event held to mark the Unite Nations International Day against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking on June 26th, the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon declared:

Next year, the Commission on Narcotic Drugs will conduct a high-level review. This will be followed, in 2016, by the UN General Assembly Special Session on the issue. I urge Member States to use these opportunities to conduct a wide-ranging and open debate that considers all options.

His call for a “wide-ranging and open debate that considers all options” is certainly a welcome development, one that strikes the same note as the Count the Costs campaign statement:

The ‘war on drugs’ is a policy choice. There are other options that, at the very least, should be debated and explored using the best possible evidence and analysis. We all share the same goals – a safer, healthier and more just world.

Therefore, we the undersigned, call upon world leaders and UN agencies to quantify the unintended negative consequences of the current approach to drugs, and assess the potential costs and benefits of alternative approaches”

The Secretary General’s remarks echo the positive sentiments he and other high level UN officials have previously expressed regarding the need for a re-think of current policy, and an openess to explore alternative approaches.

In recent years the push for more pragmatic debate around alternative paths for drug control at the UN level have primarily come from Latin American leaders. During the 67th session of the UN General Assembly in September 2012 the presidents of Mexico, Colombia and Guatemala challenged the current policy framework in the face of its obvious failures and mounting costs.

Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos urged a reassessment stating that “It is our duty to determine – on an objective scientific basis – if we are doing the best we can or if there are better options to combat this scourge”, while Mexican President Felipe Calderon explicitly called on the United Nations to lead a global debate over a less “prohibitionist” approach to drugs.

In recent years increasing numbers of incumbent and former heads of state from all various parts of the world are starting to speak out in favour of reform, and the high-level debate regarding alternatives to the current prohibitionist approach gained further prominence after the recent publication of the groundbreaking report by the Organization of American States.

Let’s hope that this rhetorical shift at the highest level of global policy making will translate into meaningful debate and positive outcomes in the run up to the UN General Assembly Special Session on Drugs in 2016, which is set to “review the current policies and strategies to confront the global drug problem”.It is clear that more and more government and UN leaders, now including the UN Secretary General himself, accept the need for change and are taking the first tentative steps to begin the process of reform at the highest level.

Written by LeisureGuy

28 June 2013 at 9:14 am

Posted in Drug laws

BBS with ease

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SOTD 28 June 2013I

I used today’s shave to reset my baseline, using a brush, soap, razor, and blade that I have had good experience with. D.R. Harris does produce absolutely wonderful lather for me (particularly the shave stick, which suggests that I might spend a little more time loading the brush when using a puck of soap). Today I again used Wee Scot, to compare with yesterday’s lather, and I did load the brush well: loads of thick, creamy lather, enough for three passes.

Just to keep track: this morning I used the Jlocke98 formula for pre-shave with the jojoba oil. So far, they all work fine, but the lanolin oil has the edge, I think.

The first stroke of the razor didn’t feel smooth enough, so I immediately swapped out the old Gillette 7 O’Clock SharpEdge blade for a new Personna Lab blade. (I keep a variety of brands I like in the bathroom drawer, so I generally just pick one out at random.) The shave immediately became easier. The DLC Weber head is always a pleasure, and I do like my UFO handles.

Three passes and a splash of Arlington aftershave, and I sit here now with a BBS face, thinking about tomorrow’s shave. I’m going to bring out my Rooney Style 2 Finest for another run at the Stirling soap.

I had a sudden insight on the distilled-water shave this morning. I’ve noted it for the next edition. 🙂

 

Written by LeisureGuy

28 June 2013 at 9:02 am

Posted in Daily life

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