Archive for May 2015
Barbara Myers writes at TomDispatch.com:
The witness reported men being hung by the feet or the thumbs, waterboarded, given electric shocks to the genitals, and suffering from extended solitary confinement in what he said were indescribably inhumane conditions. It’s the sort of description that might have come right out of the executive summary of the Senate torture report released last December. In this case, however, the testimony was not about a “black site” somewhere in the Greater Middle East, nor was it a description from Abu Ghraib, nor in fact from this century at all.
The testimony came from Vietnam; the year was 1968; the witness was Anthony J. Russo, one of the first Americans to report on the systematic torture of enemy combatants by CIA operatives and other U.S. agents in that long-gone war. The acts Russo described became commonplace in the news post-9/11 and he would prove to be an early example of what also became commonplace in our century: a whistleblower who found himself on the wrong side of the law and so was prosecuted for releasing the secret truth about the acts of our government.
Determined to shine a light on what he called “the truth held prisoner,” Russo blew the whistle on American torture policy in Vietnam and on an intelligence debacle at the center of Vietnam decision-making that helped turn that war into the nightmare it was. Neither of his revelations saw the light of day in his own time or ours and while Daniel Ellsberg, his compatriot and companion in revelation, remains a major figure for his role in releasing the Pentagon Papers, Russo is a forgotten man.
That’s too bad. He shouldn’t be forgotten. His is, unfortunately, a story of our times as well as his.
The CIA Interrogation Center, Saigon
Before him sat the enemy. VC. Vietcong. He was slender, a decade older than the 28-year-old American, and cautious in his initial responses. The American offered him a cigarette. “Smoke?”
Anthony Russo liked to befriend his subjects, finding that sharing a cigarette or a beer and congenial conversation could improve an interview’s results.
This man’s all right, Russo thought — unlike the one he had interviewed when he first arrived in Saigon. That prisoner had sat before him, quivering in fear, pleading for his life. “Are you going to kill me?” the distraught man had said repeatedly, his thumbs red and bulbous from being strung up.
Torture was not something Russo had anticipated when he took the job. A civilian with a rank equivalent to major working for the RAND Corporation, he had arrived in the South Vietnamese capital on February 22, 1965, and was briefed on his mission. Russo was to meet the enemy face-to-face and figure out what made them tick. On that first day, he could hear General Richard Stilwell, chief of staff of Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV), barking orders from the next room: “You get every goddamn plane in the air that you can!”
Russo thought the war would be over in a few weeks, months at worst.
Instead of the limited conflict he expected, years slipped by. Bombs fell, villages were decimated, the fabric of Vietnamese life assaulted. Russo persisted with his interviews of Vietcong prisoners, witnessing the after-effects of torture in nearly every instance.
It’s hard to pinpoint just when the shift occurred in the young man who came to Southeast Asia to “promote democracy.” But as one tour of duty extended to two, contact with the enemy changed not their hearts and minds, but his. On the eve of the 1968 Tet Offensive, he returned to the United States intent on challenging the war, a chance he would get, helping his friend and RAND co-worker Daniel Ellsberg with the Pentagon Papers.
That secret history of U.S. decision-making in Vietnam, a massive compilation of internal government memoranda and analyses, had been quietly commissioned by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara in 1967 to assess what had gone wrong in Vietnam. Ellsberg leaked the Papers to the press in mid-1971, setting off a political firestorm and First Amendment crisis. He would be indicted on charges of espionage, conspiracy, and theft of government property, and would face a maximum penalty of 115 years in prison. Charges were also brought against Russo, who was suspected of complicity, after he refused to testify before a grand jury. He was jailed for 47 days for contempt and faced a possible sentence of 35 years in prison if convicted.
Ellsberg’s leak led to a Supreme Court decision on prior restraint, a landmark First Amendment case. Though all the charges were ultimately dropped, the leak and its aftermath had major political fallout, contributing to the demise of the presidency of Richard Nixon and forming a dramatic chapter on the path to U.S. defeat in Vietnam.
Ellsberg became a twentieth-century hero, applauded in print and film, his name nearly synonymous with the Pentagon Papers, but Russo, the young accomplice who goaded Ellsberg to go public, has been nearly forgotten. Yet he was, according to Ellsberg, the first person to document the systematic torture of enemy combatants in Vietnam. If no one knows this, it’s because his report on the subject remains buried in the vaults of the RAND Corporation, the think tank that did research for the Pentagon in Vietnam. Similarly, while the use of unprecedented airpower against the civilian populations of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia inspired international calls for war crimes trials in the 1970s, Russo’s exposure of the fabrication of data that propped up that air war remains but a footnote in Vietnam War historiography, unknown to all but a handful of academics. . . .
It’s pretty easy to save the bees in terms of effort, but because corporate profits will be somewhat reduced, corporations will not allow it, and corporations control legislators. So no action will be taken despite the environmental danger—cf. global warming: clear and imminent danger, nothing done because it would impact oil and coal profits. Example.
Lindsay Abrams writes in Salon:
The world’s bees are in trouble, and progress in addressing the underlying problems contributing to their demise, from the use of dangerous pesticides to the destruction of their habitat, is painfully slow.
But it still isn’t too late, a hopeful, if not terribly optimistic Dave Goulson tells Salon.
A professor of biology at the University of Sussex and the founder of the Bumblebee Conservation Trust, Goulson knows better than anyone just how massive the challenges are, but also how capable we are of meeting them — if we only muster the will. His work studying the bees’ plight was the focus of his first book, “A Sting in the Tale” — Salonspoke with him about it last May. His latest book, “A Buzz in the Meadow,” has as its centerpiece a small part of the solution: Goulson writes of his decade-plus-long project of transforming a rundown farm in rural France into a thriving meadow, which teems with life of all sorts and has become a haven for wild bees.
Salon caught up with Goulson to gauge the current situation and for a much-needed reminder that saving the bees isn’t as impossible as it may seem. Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
What’s been happening in the bee world since we talked a year ago? Have there been any big developments in research or policy that stand out to you?
The thing that everyone talks about is all the pesticide-related stuff that’s rumbling on and on and on. There’s a lot of politics there. Obama has just announced his bee care bill, and in Ontario they’re having a big battle over proposals to withdraw neonicotinoids or reduce their use by 80 percent. Over here in Europe we’ve got this moratorium in place, but it runs out this year and no one knows what to do next, so there’s a pitched battle running at the moment between the agrichemical industry and the environmentalists and scientists all caught up in the middle of it. So that’s all been interesting and messy.
I was wondering what you thought about Obama’s new pollinator plan. I know it emphasizes bee habitat and creating these pathways for bees, which you talk about in the book as extremely important to be focusing on.
I guess I’m naturally a bit of a skeptic as to the value of big documents produced by politicians, because they often don’t seem to actually result in much real action. If they really produce, now I forget of the top of my head how many million hectares of habitat it was supposed to be, was it 5 million or something?
Yes, 5 million.
If that actually happens, and it’s good habitat for bees, that would be amazing. That really would massively help. But talk is all very well; it doesn’t help anybody or anything, so it would be nice to see whether it really works.
I suppose I also thought it was a little bit weak on the pesticide side of things. It was just really saying, “We need to do loads more research.” Well, I do research, so you’d imagine I would be saying, “Yes! Lots more money, that’s what us scientists need.” And of course, that would be nice. But actually, I think we know enough to do something, so some more specific measures to reduce pesticide use would have been nice. But perhaps that was further than they were willing to go.
Are there any areas where you might suggest that, so far as pesticides go, more research really could be useful? Or is this just buying time? That’s what it sounded like to me.
I think it is buying time rather than biting the bullet, because we all know that we use too many pesticides and it’s not really good for the environment. But nobody really wants to tackle it, because there are such powerful vested interests and so much money is made from selling them that it’s politically a difficult one to take on. So it’s an easy option to say “Let’s do more research.”
There are some areas we don’t understand very well. One of the obvious ones is that when people look at the safety of any new chemical that’s being developed, it has to be evaluated — and it’s all done on little short-term toxicity trials. So you get your honeybee and you give it compound X. You basically then wait two days, and if it’s still alive after two days, all is well and it’s deemed that that compound is not going to harm honeybees. So they look at acute toxicity in very short time periods. They never look at what happens if a bee is exposed for six months to a small amount of pesticide — but that’s what really happens. Also what really happens is the bee isn’t just exposed to one chemical — it’s exposed to 10 chemicals chronically throughout its life. Nobody looks at what the effects of mixtures are on bees, or for that matter on everything else, on people. We all consume pesticides chronically, more or less in everything we eat, and yet no one really knows for sure that that isn’t harmful long-term because no one has ever studied it long-term. You couldn’t really do it; there are some obvious practical difficulties.
So as far as bees are concerned, there are some big unknowns as to just how much impact being gently, chronically exposed to a whole cocktail of chemicals throughout their lives has. We know it happens, but we don’t know what it does. But you can guess it’s probably not good for them.
Going back to habitats, I’d love it if you could take a minute and talk about the importance of restoring wild habitat and maybe a little bit about what you learned on your farm in France.
Well obviously the big reason bees have declined, and the big reason wildlife has declined globally, is loss of habitat — and particularly for bees, loss of these flowering meadows. We used to have loads and loads of them, particularly in Europe. We had this ancient tradition of making hay and so we had hay meadows all over the place: huge, huge areas of them, and they were all full of flowers and happy bees until the 1940s, ’50s, ’60s when they all just got destroyed. It’s slightly different in North America, but you still had these vast tracts of prairies not so long ago which were originally flower-rich, open grasslands full of bees. But obviously the vast majority of those got turned into cereal fields and farmland and there are basically no flowers left, or hardly any.
The simplest way, if you want to conserve bees, the most obvious thing and the least controversial thing, everyone can agree, it would be nice to have more flowers. You don’t upset too many people when you say that. But it’s true. And also going back to these other things, the pesticides and the diseases they suffer from, they’re probably better able to cope with being poisoned or infected if they’ve got lots of food. The same is true of people; obviously we all know if you’re unwell, it’s important to have healthy food and so on, because that helps build your strength and immunity. So creating areas with flowers is a really good way to help them.
But also it isn’t just about bees, because if you try and restore these flowery habitats, then it helps hundreds of other species as well. Starting with the flowers, obviously, there are all these interesting, beautiful wildflowers that used to be quite common and many of which now are very rare. It gives them somewhere to live. Loads of other insects will come with that: the grasshoppers and crickets and beetles and flies and wasps, all sorts of other things as well. So there’s a whole rich community of creatures that live in these meadows. It’s quite dear to my heart to look after the meadows that are left and create new ones if we can, which is what I’ve been up to down in France for the last 12 years.
You focus a lot on bringing our attention to these tiny species that we might overlook. We don’t hear about tiny bugs going extinct as often as bigger animals, and it seems to require a bit of a more complicated argument as to why it’s important to keep them going.
It’s actually easier to make. As I say in the book, if pandas were to go extinct, I think we’re pretty certain it wouldn’t have any repercussions for people other than we’d be sad because we wouldn’t be able to see one at the zoo. There would be no ecological impact. But obviously, for insects that live all around us — and the simplest example of course is bees — then it’s really easy to explain the link to our own well-being. We wouldn’t have those beautiful flowers, we wouldn’t have the food to eat, if we didn’t have bees. So that’s an easy one; even young schoolchildren understand that bees do something useful, pollinating flowers.
What’s a little bit harder is the next step, but I think bees are a good way into talking about this. . .
Take a look at this column by Andrea Peterson in the Washington Post. It turns out that if you deliberately weaken encryption, it doesn’t work well. Huh.
Another week, another dire warning about the technology used to secure online communications. Internet security researchers are warning about apreviously undisclosed vulnerability that affected all modern Web browsers — a weakness that could allow an attacker to snoop or even change communications thought to be secure.
The origins of the problem can be traced to the 1990s, when the government waged a policy debate known as the “Crypto Wars” over the digital technologies now widely used to keep online communications safe. But the debate, once counted as a win by privacy advocates, is now raging again — and technologists warn it could have similarly dire consequences.
The government classified encryption — a process that scrambles up information so that only those authorized can decode it — as a munition and tried to limit the spread of the most robust forms outside the United States through strict export rules on military technologies. But even though the United States reversed course by the end of the decade, the rules were so ingrained in technologies that make the Web run, they’re still causing problems today.
“The original goal of export controls was to keep strong encryption inside the U.S. — the hope was that by forcing the software industry to use weak encryption we could keep strong security out of the hands of bad guys,” said Alan Davidson, who worked on the issue at the Center for Democracy & Technology during the ’90s and was the director of New America’s Open Technology Institute when interviewed. (He just accepted a position as digital economy director at the Commerce Department.)
“But even then the notion of making strong encryption a thing for people in the U.S. that couldn’t be accessed by those outside of the U.S. didn’t make sense,” Davidson said. It created a double standard that left innocent Internet users abroad less secure, he said, and once the encryption genie was out of the bottle, it was impossible to shove back in.
And even now, long after the most restrictive export rules on encryption have been lifted, the legacy of that policy is still leaving Internet users around the world less secure, experts say.
“You mandate people do certain things that are insecure, you’re going to have a lot of nasty unintended consequences that last for a long time,” said Matt Green, one of the authors of the report that revealed the latest vulnerability, dubbed “LogJam,” and a computer science professor at Johns Hopkins University. . .
And Andrea Peterson has another column on the UN’s position that encryption (strong encryption) is important for human rights, and backdoors undermine it:
A new report from the United Nation’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights says digital security and privacy are essential to maintaining freedom of opinion and expression around the world — and warns that efforts to weaken security tools in some countries may undermine it everywhere.
The report written by special rapporteur David Kaye says that encryption — the process of digitally scrambling information so that only authorized persons can access it — and anonymity tools “provide the privacy and security necessary for the exercise of the right to freedom of opinion and expression in the digital age.” The report will be presented to the U.N. Human Rights Council next month.
It comes amid a growing debate in the U.S. about how to best balance personal privacy rights and national security. Since former government contractor Edward Snowden’s revelations about National Security Agency surveillance programs, tech companies have scrambled to encrypt more of their products.
Now, some U.S. law enforcement officials are pushing to have tech companies build ways for the government to access secure content passing through their products — so-called “backdoors.” . . .
“Bleeding Kansas” was the name prompted by the bloody conflicts as defenders of slavery clashed with those who believed in human freedom in the period 1854-1861. Nowadays, however, Kansas is bleeding jobs, thanks to Gov. Sam Brownback’s policies; he has ambitions of doing the same thing to the US as a whole.
Take a look at the non-farm job situation, comparing the US as a whole (upper line) to Kansas (lower line), both lines normalized with jobs on Jan 2011 as 100. From that starting point, where both were the same (100), you see what happens with the Brownback plan:
The chart is from Paul Krugman’s blog post, which is worth reading (it’s brief) for the discussion and links. And the comments there are also interesting.
UPDATE: More here—and Kansas is finally thinking about restoring some of the taxes they have cut, so long as the tax burden falls mostly on the poor.
Very good column by John Cassidy:
Thanks to the sterling efforts of Sylvia Nasar, Ron Howard, and Russell Crowe, many people are aware that John Nash, the Princeton mathematician who was killed over the weekend in a car crash on the New Jersey Turnpike, lived a remarkable life. It included early academic stardom, decades of struggling with schizophrenia, and, in 1994, a shared Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences. But outside the field of economics, Nash’s contribution to game theory, for which he was awarded the Nobel, remains rather less well understood.
Although it is often used in economics, game theory can be applied to any venue where people, or other decision makers, interact strategically and follow rules-based behavior. The setting could be nuclear negotiations, such as the ones currently taking place between Iran and the great powers. It could be a product market, in which a number of firms compete for business. Or it could be a political campaign, in which various candidates try to outdo each other. The word “strategically” is important, because the various players, in choosing from a variety of possible moves, take account of one another’s actions, or likely actions. And the phrase “rules-based” means that the players are acting purposefully and seeking to maximize their own advantages, rather than behaving passively, or randomly.
On one level, Nash’s contribution to game theory was highly mathematical, and, ultimately, somewhat trivial. That is how his intellectual rival at Princeton, John von Neumann, reputedly described it back in 1949, anyway, and he had a point. In co-authoring the 1944 magnum opus “Theory of Games and Economic Behavior,” von Neumann had virtually invented a new subject, complete with its own language. Nash, in diverting from his studies in pure mathematics to this nascent field, showed that in a certain class of games a certain set of outcomes exists: those outcomes are now called “Nash equilibria.”
Many of Nash’s fellow mathematicians were more impressed by his work in algebraic geometry. Over time, though, the game-theoretical methods he pioneered became widely used in the social sciences, and especially in economics. Indeed, in a 2004 article for the National Academy of Sciences that reviewed the genesis and development of Nash-based game theory, the economists Charles Holt and Alvin Roth noted, “Students in economics classes today probably hear John Nash’s name as much as or more than that of any economist.”
To understand why that is, you need to know a bit about the history of economics. Before game theory was invented, . . .