Later On

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

Archive for August 10th, 2013

Backdoor secrets

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Obama wants to protect the various loopholes that the NSA offers its analysts—despite documented misuse. Obama is not acting in good-faith. Beware. Read this post by digby.

Written by Leisureguy

10 August 2013 at 1:13 pm

Military strategy, Afghanistan and ‘armed politics’

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Very interesting interview of Emile Simpson by John Thornhill of the Financial Times:

When the veteran military historian Professor Michael Howard raves about a book by a little-known, 30-year-old ex-Gurkha officer and declares it to be comparable to Clausewitz, it is surely worth snapping to attention. And after reading War From the Ground Up, I am all the more intrigued to meet its author, Emile Simpson. Drawing on his experience of fighting in Afghanistan, Simpson has written an engrossing account of the 12-year conflict that challenges the way we think about war and suggests how we might better fight the next one. “War From the Ground Up is a work of such importance that it should be compulsory reading at every level in the military,” Howard concluded in his Times Literary Supplement review.

Sitting in the Drapers Arms on a gloriously sunny day in north London, Simpson looks every inch the military man, from his regulation haircut to his civilian uniform of brown sports jacket and green tie. As he rises to greet me, the tall, athletic Simpson exudes an air of orderliness. His voice, modulated by his schooling in Cambridge and the parade grounds of Sandhurst, is one notch too loud, as is often the way with army officers.

We decide to move to the garden of the Islington gastropub, which he says is one of his favourite watering holes. It is eerily deserted on a Friday lunchtime. As we settle at a shady table, I ask Simpson whether he is from a military family and what first drew him to the army. He explains that his parents are both Cambridge academics who were somewhat surprised by his choice of career. “My interest in things military was part through history and [part] a spirit of adventure,” he says, in the slightly elliptical manner he deploys when talking about himself.

On a gap year spent teaching in Nepal, he was drawn to the local culture and traditions of the Gurkha regiment. After studying history at Jesus College, Oxford, where he was tutored and inspired by Niall Ferguson, he went to Sandhurst, where he was commissioned as an officer in the Royal Gurkha Rifles. In his six and a half years in the army, Simpson served three tours in southern Afghanistan, first as a platoon commander in charge of 30 men in Kandahar in 2007, then as a military intelligence officer helping to fight the counterinsurgency in Helmand province in 2010, and, finally, working at headquarters of the International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) under the US commander General John R Allen in 2011. Like Carl von Clausewitz, whose service in the Prussian army during the Napoleonic wars shaped his classic book On War , Simpson’s writings are informed by deep personal experience as well as a fascination with military theory.

Before we can plunge too deeply into Afghanistan, the waitress arrives to take our order from the surprisingly ambitious menu. Simpson goes for steak tartare and Dorset crab. I opt for the smoked mackerel and am also tempted by the crab. We order two glasses of Picpoul.

Simpson says that what intrigued him as a frontline officer was how much his experience on the ground diverged from what he had been taught about war and the way politicians talked about the conflict. Clausewitz still largely defines how most people understand war: it is primarily seen as an interstate activity that is polarised, decisive and finite. One side wins, declares victory and imposes its terms – and narrative – upon the loser. The other side accepts defeat, licks its wounds and works out how to fight smarter next time.

But the Afghanistan conflict, which has lasted longer than the two world wars combined, does not neatly conform to this pattern. Who is the enemy? How do you know when you have won? What would victory even look like? At times, when Simpson was fighting in Helmand at the height of the counterinsurgency, the battle lines were fairly clear. “We were fighting the Taliban pretty much every day. There were a lot of casualties – both ways. The battle group as a whole [of 1,000] had about 110 wounded and 28 dead, both British and Afghans,” he says.

At other times, it became near-impossible to distinguish between enemies and friends. The conflict appeared kaleidoscopic, indecisive and seemingly infinite. In his book, which interweaves military theory with personal anecdote, Simpson cites the example of one local commander who was notionally on the side of the Afghan government in Kabul but “rented” out some of his forces to the local Taliban because they had agreed to pay for them. In such situations, trying to divide the population between “them” and “us” was not only dangerous but counter-productive. “There were not two sides. Everyone was on their own side,” he says.

What frustrated Simpson was . . .

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Written by Leisureguy

10 August 2013 at 12:33 pm

A story of hope

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Backstory here.

Written by Leisureguy

10 August 2013 at 10:01 am

Posted in Video

Who ordered SWAT teams?

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Sarah Stillman writes in the New Yorker:

The moment the assault rifles surrounded her, Angie Wong was standing in a leafy art-gallery courtyard with her boyfriend, a lawyer named Paul Kaiser. It was just past 2A.M., in May, 2008. Wong was twenty-two years old and was dressed for an evening out, in crisp white jeans, a white top, and tall heels that made it difficult not to wobble. The couple had stopped by a regular event hosted by the Contemporary Art Institute of Detroit (CAID), a red brick gallery with the aim of “turning Detroit into a model city,” and arrived to find a tipsy, jubilant scene: inside, gallerygoers were looking at art and dancing to a d.j.; outside, on the patio, several young women were goofily belting out the lyrics to “Hakuna Matata,” from “The Lion King”:

Hakuna Matata! What a wonderful phrase.
It means no worries for the rest of your days.
It’s our problem-free philosophy. Hakuna Matata!

Only then did masked figures with guns storm the crowd, shouting, “Get on the fucking ground! Get down, get down!” (I document the basic details of what happened in my story, in this week’s magazine, about the police’s use and abuse of civil-asset-forfeiture laws.) Some forty Detroit police officers dressed in commando gear ordered the gallery attendees to line up on their knees, then took their car keys and confiscated their vehicles, largely on the grounds that the gallery lacked the proper permits for dancing and drinking. (More than forty cars were seized, and owners paid around a thousand dollars each to get them back.) “I was so scared,” Wong told me. At first, she thought the raid was an armed robbery. “Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Paul getting kicked in the face.” In the dimly lit security footage, the scene looks like something out of a thriller about Navy SEALs. Paul said, “I was scared for my life.”

In my magazine article, I focus on one key question about the raid, and about countless others like it across America: Does it make sense that civil-forfeiture laws, which allow police to confiscate and keep property that is allegedly tied to criminal activity, are often enforced at gunpoint against, say, nonviolent partygoers? But there’s another important question, highlighted by the operation at CAID: What, fundamentally, areSWAT teams for? When does it make sense to use machine guns, armored vehicles, and flash-bang grenades on a crowd of people or on a family, and how are these warfare-inspired approaches to law enforcement changing America?

In 1972, America conducted only a few hundred paramilitary drug raids a year, according to Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.” By the early nineteen-eighties, there were three thousand a year; by 2001, Alexander notes, the annual count had skyrocketed to forty thousand. Today, even that number seems impossibly low; with one annual count of combat-style home raids hovers around eighty thousand. (The title of Alexander’s book reflects the racially disparate impacts of these policies.)

In some cases, the rationale for using military weapons and tactics on domestic soil seems obvious: look no further, proponents argue, than the recent hunt for the Tsarnaev brothers after the Boston Marathon bombings. But what’s remarkable is how routine these tactics have become as a means of pursuing nonviolent suspects and low-level investigations, particularly in the war on drugs. Thousands of police departments nationwide have recently acquired stun grenades, armored tanks, counterattack vehicles, and other paramilitary equipment, much of it purchased with asset-forfeiture funds. In addition, as ABC reports, a U.S. Department of Defense program, often called the Pentagon Pipeline, has redistributed billions of dollars’ worth of surplus military gear to local police forces, a significant portion of it repurposed from Iraq and Afghanistan. (For example, a Humvee was used to patrol a school campus.) These acquisitions have no doubt helped to transform full-scale, bust-down-the-door raids on homes and businesses from red-alert rarities, reserved for life-threatening scenarios, to commonplace occurrences.

Few people understand this change as well as Radley Balko, the author of a fascinating and at times wrenching new book, Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces. For years, Balko has been an incisive chronicler of the drug war. In the course of the past few months, on the Huffington Post, he’s featured the “raid of the day,” cataloguing examples of SWAT operations gone hauntingly wrong. (One involved an unarmed twenty-one-year-old named Trevon Cole, who was shot dead during a botched drug raid on his Las Vegas apartment; his name had been confused with that of another man. In another case, a forty-one-year-old computer engineer named Cheryl Ann Stillwell was killed during a SWAT raid in Florida, based on a tip alleging the sale of two Oxycontin pills.) Balko’s raid taxonomy seems almost endless, and, indeed, his book situates these violent incidents in a history that stretches back to the years preceding the American Revolution. The Founders, Balko notes, evinced a clear “wariness of standing armies … born of experience and a study of history,” and they designed the Constitution expressly to guard against the home raids, property seizures, and other routine indignities to which the Britain subjected its colonists. “If even the earlier attempts at centralized police forces would have alarmed the Founders, today’s policing would have terrified them,” Balko writes.

“This is not an anti-cop book,” Balko stresses more than once in “Rise of the Warrior Cop.” His point, rather, is that “systems governed by bad policies and motivated by incentives will produce bad outcomes.”

There is still a lot that we don’t know about what these policies and their outcomes look like. Transparency has been mostly lacking. In March, . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

10 August 2013 at 9:57 am

Posted in Government, Law

Fred Astaire’s timing: Phenomenonal

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Written by Leisureguy

10 August 2013 at 9:54 am

Posted in Art, Movies & TV, Video

Obama’s press conference: Mealy-mouthed balderdash

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Obama seems to have lost his way. The New Yorker has an account of the press conference: thin soup and transparency mostly served via transparent lies (“I was just about to fix this when Edward Snowden released that information.” Obvious bullshit. “Snowden is leaking things week by week to catch us lying in imprecisions.” (When Clapper answered, “No,” to a question whose truthful answer was “Yes,” he apparently was merely guilty of imprecision: this is mealy-mouthed to perfection.)

I’m losing respect for Obama by the barrel.

Written by Leisureguy

10 August 2013 at 9:11 am

Well-state appraisal of Obama’s stance vis-à-vis the NSA et al.

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Juan Cole has a very good post:

President Obama gave a news conference on Friday in which he addressed the controversy over Edward Snowden’s revelations regarding NSA spying on the American people.

This issue is a very difficult one for Mr. Obama, given that he came to it from civil libertarian position as a senator, but now is president. When you are president, you are president of the nearly one million NSA employees and contractors, who become your constituency– not to mention the CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency, much of the military, the Intelligence and Research Division of the State Department, etc., etc.

Obama is concerned not to demoralize the analysts who are gathering and using the electronic data. Those analysts have had successes in keeping the US safe, which they cannot reveal, and one understands his support for them. I’ve addressed intelligence analysts from various US agencies dozens of times in the past decade, and have always been honored to do so.

But Mr. Obama is going beyond simply avoiding harming the government’s esprit de corps. He is playing to the gallery of maximalists on domestic surveillance and is preferring them over the general public. It is one of the problems with having a standing army and a huge intelligence-industrial complex, which the founding generation warned against– it becomes a lobby within the government for militarism and against civil liberties.

Obama is also aware of two dangers to his presidency and to the fortunes of the Democratic Party, which he heads. One is that the Bush administration, especially Dick Cheney, may have left behind saboteurs in the bureaucracy who will attempt to sink him if he tries to change certain policies put in place by Cheney for the sake of the latter’s cronies. The other is that a terrorist cell will in fact manage to pull off another big operation in the United States. While the Democrats for the most part did not blame Bush for 9/11, we know how the GOP will crucify Obama if there is an attack on his watch.

For both these reasons, the former civil libertarian now may feel he needs all the surveillance he can get.

Any president is beholden to the intelligence-industrial complex and the only time there are significant reforms is when there has been a revelation of significant wrongdoing that catches the public’s imagination or becomes a political football between the two parties. Thus, you had the Seymour Hersh articles about the CIA excesses in the New York Times in the early 1970s, then the Rockefeller report and the Church Commission. In the late 1960s and the 1970s, the CIA had conducted the COINTELPRO program on US college campuses against critics of the Vietnam War. (It is illegal for the CIA to operate on US soil against US citizens, though this practice was revived in New York after 9/11).

All that said, Mr. Obama has in his public comments on the revelations by Edward Snowden consistently gone beyond what he needed to do to assuage the injured feelings of the analysts.

Among the more shameful episodes in the Obama presidency has been his vindictiveness toward whistleblowers and his and Eric Holder’s eagerness to use the fascistic 1917 Espionage Act against them. Seymour Hersh, who provoked the last big reforms of US intelligence, would have been charged with espionage by Barack Obama and would either have been executed or would have been given life in prison. In this regard, Obama’s record is worse than Nixon’s.

The 1917 Espionage Act was enacted just after the US went to war with Imperial Germany. It was twinned with a Sedition Act a year later, as this site explains : “Congress passed the Sedition Act of 1918, which made it a federal offense to use “disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language” about the Constitution, the government, the American uniform, or the flag. The government prosecuted over 2,100 people under these acts.”

In other words, the Espionage Act deployed against Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden is a manifestation of war fever and nationalist fascism from the early 20th century, and likely is unconstitutional, just as most of the Sedition Act has been ruled to be. It does not speak well of Mr. Obama that he is using this sort of tool to govern.

Mr. Obama at one point in his press conference called on Edward Snowden to come back to the United States and argue his case. I mean, really. This kind of disinformation and grandstanding can’t possibly be necessary, even given the constraints mentioned at the beginning of this essay. Mr. Obama knows very well that if Snowden returned to the US, we would never ever hear from him ever again. He’d go straight to a maximum security prison for the rest of his days on earth and die there.

Bradley Manning was held at a brig by the Marines and was falsely declared a suicide risk so that he could be tortured by being chained naked to his bed for a year and woken up several times a night (sleep deprivation is a torture tactic, as is humiliation via making a prisoner nude. These same techniques were used by the US military on Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib). There is no reason to believe that Snowden would be treated better. Note that Obama’s own spokesman, P. J. Crowley, publicly criticized Manning’s treatment and was fired for it. Obama had been in a position to stop the torture but did not.

If Mr. Obama were serious about wanting Snowden voluntarily to return and participate in a national debate, he would take the espionage charges off the table. Despite cynical presuppositions by Snowden’s critics, there is no evidence whatsoever that he has shared sensitive intelligence with either China or Russia.

For the rest, Mr. Obama ignored most of the revelations from the Snowden material published by The Guardian and others when he spoke of reforming the NSA “programs.”

He ignored the revelation that the NSA is sharing Americans’ pattern of telephone calls with the Drug Enforcement Agency, which has repeatedly used it to develop drug charges against individuals, and has lied to judges and defense attorneys about how the information was obtained. Since it was obtained without a warrant and via massive fishing expeditions into citizens’ private effects, deploying it to gain drug convictions in small Midwestern towns is unconstitutional and extremely disturbing. Lying about how the case was initiated is unconscionable.

He ignored the revelation of the . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

10 August 2013 at 8:51 am

Good shave with blade near retirement

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SOTD 10 Aug 2013

My Omega Pro boar brush did a very good job at making lather from my Mitchell’s Wool Far shaving soap. The Gillette Slim Handle, which had replated in rhodium, was a treat to use, but the Kai blade in it was close to retirement, and it took some work to get a smooth shave. I replaced the blade at the end of the shave, putting in a new Astra Keramik Platinum.

A good splash of D.R. Harris Pink aftershave, which I liked well enough to repeat, and the weekend begins.

Written by Leisureguy

10 August 2013 at 8:47 am

Posted in Shaving

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