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Archive for the ‘Obama administration’ Category

Tighter Lid on Records Threatens to Weaken Government Watchdogs

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One aspect of group loyalty is for members of a group to resist strongly (for reasons of loyalty) any investigation of the group and, when an investigation is launched, to attempt to conceal problems and wrong-doing from “outsiders.” We see this in how the Chicago Police Department lied about what happened and destroyed evidence in order to protect the murderer James Van Dyke, a member of the department. And now, we see it in US government agencies, as described in this NY Times story Eric Lichtblau:

Justice Department watchdogs ran into an unexpected roadblock last year when they began examining the role of federal drug agents in the fatal shootings of unarmed civilians during raids in Honduras.

The Drug Enforcement Administration balked at turning over emails from senior officials tied to the raids, according to the department’s inspector general. It took nearly a year of wrangling before the D.E.A. was willing to turn over all its records in a case that the inspector general said raised “serious questions” about agents’ use of deadly force.

The continuing Honduran inquiry is one of at least 20 investigations across the government that have been slowed, stymied or sometimes closed because of a long-simmering dispute between the Obama administration and its own watchdogs over the shrinking access of inspectors general to confidential records, according to records and interviews.

The impasse has hampered investigations into an array of programs and abuse reports — from allegations of sexual assaults in the Peace Corps to the F.B.I.’s terrorism powers, officials said. And it has threatened to roll back more than three decades of policy giving the watchdogs unfettered access to “all records” in their investigations.

“The bottom line is that we’re no longer independent,” Michael E. Horowitz, the Justice Department inspector general, said in an interview.

The restrictions reflect a broader effort by the Obama administration to prevent unauthorized disclosures of sensitive information — at the expense, some watchdogs insist, of government oversight.

Justice Department lawyers concluded in a legal opinion this summer that some protected records, like grand jury transcripts, wiretap intercepts and financial credit reports, could be kept off limits to government investigators. The administration insists there is no intention of curtailing investigations, but both Democrats and Republicans in Congress have expressed alarm and are promising to restore full access to the watchdogs.

The new restrictions grew out of a five-year-old dispute within the Justice Department. After a series of scathing reports by Glenn Fine, then the Justice Department inspector general, on F.B.I. abuses in counterterrorism programs, F.B.I. lawyers began asserting in 2010 that he could no longer have access to certain confidential records because they were legally protected.

That led to a series of high-level Justice Department reviews, a new procedure for reviewing records requests and, ultimately, a formal opinion in July from the department’s Office of Legal Counsel. That opinion, which applies to federal agencies across the government, concluded that the 1978 law giving an inspector general access to “all records” in investigations did not necessarily mean all records when it came to material like wiretap intercepts and grand jury reports. [That is, “all records” means “only some records.” This goes against the clear statement: “all records,” as most would clearly see, means “all records.” – LG]

The inspector-general system was created in 1978 in the wake of Watergate as an independent check on government abuse, and it has grown to include watchdogs at 72 federal agencies. Their investigations have produced thousands of often searing public reports on everything from secret terrorism programs and disaster responses to boondoggles like a lavish government conference in Las Vegas in 2010 that featured a clown and a mind reader.

Not surprisingly, tensions are common between the watchdogs and the officials they investigate. President Ronald Reagan, in fact, fired 15 inspectors general in 1981. But a number of scholars and investigators said the restrictions imposed by the Obama administration reflect a new level of acrimony.

“This is by far the most aggressive assault on the inspector general concept since the beginning,” said Paul Light, a New York University professor who has studied the system. “It’s the complete evisceration of the concept. You might as well fold them down. They’ve become defanged.”

While President Obama has boasted of running “the most transparent administration in history,” some watchdogs say the clampdown has scaled back scrutiny of government programs. [Indeed, the Obama administration consistently denies or delays FOIA requests, or provides materials so redacted as to be useless. The Obama administration is far from being transparent—it regularly refuses to cooperate with compensating victims of our undeclared warfare, such as those innocents tortured, or those killed in drone attacks. – LG]

“This runs against transparency,” said the Peace Corps inspector general, Kathy Buller.

At the Peace Corps, her office began running into problems two years ago in an investigation into the agency’s handling of allegations of sexual assaults against overseas volunteers. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

27 November 2015 at 10:13 am

The problem with trade agreements, exemplified by dolphin-safe tuna

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Public opinion cannot seem to halt the passage of the Trans Pacific Partnership agreement, strongly supported by many international corporations and President Obama, but trade agreements supersede national sovereignty and should be approached cautiously. David Dayen provides a good example in The Intercept:

International trade deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) need to be carefully examined piece by piece because they can take precedence over a country’s own laws.

Case in point: the World Trade Organization (WTO) on Friday ruled that dolphin-safe tuna labeling rules — required by U.S. law, in an effort to protect intelligent mammals from slaughter — violate the rights of Mexican fishers.

As a result, the U.S. will have to either alter the law or face sanctions from Mexico.

I wrote a few weeks ago about how the “investor-state dispute settlement system” baked into trade agreements can force countries to compensate corporations when regulations cut into their profits.

The long-running quarrel over tuna reveals another way that domestic laws can be overturned by trade agreements: when countries can file trade challenges on behalf of domestic industries.

“This should serve as a warning against expansive trade deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership that would replicate rules that undermine safeguards for wildlife, clean air, and clean water,” said the Sierra Club’s Ilana Solomon in a statement.

In the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) of 1972, the United States banned importation of yellowfin tuna harvested with netting that also scooped up dolphins, which often swim in the eastern Pacific Ocean above yellowfin schools. Since the 1950s, millions of dolphins have been killed in the tuna fishing trade, but the MMPA resulted in significant reductions in dolphin deaths.

Mexico, which has more lax fishing standards than the U.S., launched trade challenges in 1990 to overturn the import ban. Other nations piled on to the trade challenges, seeking to force the U.S. to change its dolphin conservation practices.

Congress did weaken the law in a series of amendments in 1997, replacing the import ban with a voluntary labeling policy. This allowed countries to use the same harmful netting that caught dolphins, as long as they ensured no dolphins were killed. Tuna caught without conforming to these standards can still be sold in the U.S., just without the dolphin-safe label.

But in 2008, Mexico launched a case against the revamped tuna labeling law, arguing that it still violated international trade agreements.

The WTO has ruled in Mexico’s favor on four separate occasions since 2011, most recently last Friday, in a final ruling that cannot be appealed. Though the U.S. changed its label standards several times, most recently in 2013, the WTO said that the law discriminates against tuna caught in Mexico, relative to other countries. Informing consumers of the fishing practices used to catch their tuna, the WTO concluded, represented a “technical barrier to trade.” . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

24 November 2015 at 10:40 am

Blowback from drone attacks

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A couple of articles of interest:

Former Drone Operators Say They Were “Horrified” By Cruelty of Assassination Program

Drone Strikes Fuel the Hatred that Led to Paris Attacks, Ex-Drone Pilots Say

15 wedding parties. (Signature strikes, since the identities of those attacked were clearly not known. But the US has decided that it can fire missiles at those whose behavior indicates that they are terrorists—like a few cars driving together to a wedding—and the dead are counted as enemy combatants unless someone raises a stink.)

But 15 wedding parties is only the partial toll.

Those whose children were killed in the US attack on the Doctors Without Borders hospital are also likely to have some negative feelings about the US. It was a hospital, for the love of God. (Still, I should await the results of the investigation of the attack, done by those responsible for the attack. But I think I know how it will work out.)

Written by LeisureGuy

19 November 2015 at 1:58 pm

Wall Street’s biggest players are at war with each other

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Pam Martens and Russ Martens report in Wall Street on Parade:

Until March 30, 2014, most Americans and even long-term veterans on Wall Street had no idea how the electrical plumbing responsible for transacting buy and sell orders at stock exchanges and other trading platforms actually worked. That all changed on March 30 when author Michael Lewis went on 60 Minutes and told its 12 million viewers that “The United States stock market, the most iconic market in global capitalism is rigged.”

Lewis was promoting his new book, Flash Boys, which detailed in language the public could easily understand, (devoid of the intentionally cryptic acronyms used across Wall Street) how the stock exchanges, mega Wall Street banks and high frequency traders were conspiring through technology to front run orders from unknowing investors.

In the 60 Minutes interview with Steve Kroft, Lewis drilled down to how the legalized theft had escaped the notice of so many market watchers: “If it’s so complicated you can’t understand it, then you can’t question it,” said Lewis.

At first, the Securities and Exchange Commission denied that the markets were “rigged” and simply tried to ride out the public uproar. Then it decided to create an Equity Market Structure Advisory Committee, effectively bringing together in one room the Wall Street people involved in the mad-scientist technology and market rigging devices to hash it out in a public venue.

The Committee most recently held a meeting on October 27, where slurs, barbs and accusations were thrown at opposing sides by meticulously tailored men using their most polite voices.

Jamil Nazarali, head of Citadel Execution Services, landed the best insult of the day with this gem directed at the stock exchanges:

“This industry is the only one that I am aware of where a for-profit public company regulates its customers and competitors. And I understand that you guys think that that’s important but what is it that you guys do that someone else couldn’t do. All those regulatory functions that you described, why couldn’t some other entity do that? Why does it have to be within your four walls?”

Citadel is a hedge fund and dark pool operator. (Dark pools are trading venues which lack full SEC oversight and trade in the dark without public transparency.)

Nazarali heads up Citadel’s trading operations, also known as “execution” services. Nazarali was throwing a jab at the men from the stock exchanges that had given testimony during the full day conference on how they served a public interest function by regulating their members. Dark pools compete with exchanges for customers and trading volume, are typically also broker dealers and members of the exchanges, and resent being regulated by a competitor.

Citadel is an unlikely candidate to be slinging mud, as we explained in an in-depth article on August 14, 2014.

Thomas Wittman, Executive Vice President of the Nasdaq stock market and Global Head of Equities, zinged both the SEC and dark pools, which are also known as “unlit” markets. Wittman told the Committee:

“Given the intense price competition, we question the time and resources spent by the Commission [SEC] analyzing whether exchanges have fully justified proposals reducing their fees. Nearly 40 percent of the executions occur on venues that lack not only pre-trade price discovery but operational and fee transparency. Yet Nasdaq has encountered difficulty in gaining Commission approval for a fee reduction for members that transact the most volume across three of its options exchanges. I ask, again, in what other industry would a company be prohibited from lowering prices for the most value and value contributing investors.”

As for the value of exchanges versus dark pools, Wittman said: “If you take a look at high volatility times like August 24, you saw that the amount of off-exchange trading almost was cut in half as flow moved to the lit venues which underscores the importance of the lit venues in capital formation.”

The Dow Jones Industrial Average plunged by 1,089 points in the opening minutes of trading on August 24. (See related article below.) Finger-pointing and hostility have grown among competing factions since that day.

Andrew Silverman, a Managing Director at the giant retail broker and investment bank, Morgan Stanley, which also operates dark pools, effectively told the Committee panel: “Look at me, I’m Sandra Dee, lousy with virginity.” For example, Silverman testified: . . .

Continue reading. Silverman’s statement is interesting.

The SEC is a failure as a regulatory agency, fully captured by the business interests it is supposed to regulate (with the cooperation of President Obama, who appointed a Wall Street lawyer to head the commission).

Written by LeisureGuy

19 November 2015 at 11:18 am

No news yet on why the US military struck the Kuduz hospital

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The military promised a full investigation, and just to be extra sure that the investigation proceeds to a good conclusion, the military (and President Obama) have absolutely rejected any independent investigation. In their experience, if an organization makes a serious error, it works best for the organization to investigate itself. And, no doubt, it’s best of all if those directly responsible for the error do the investigation—after all, they were right on the spot when it happened, so they know more about what happened than anyone else. Do you see any problem with that?

Still, it would be good to have an update, especially since the military floated several different stories. From this excellent summary by Laura Gottesdiener at TomDispatch (and the whole column is definitely worth reading), following her detailed summary of the events of the attack:

. . . That’s one version of the story, based on a Doctors Without Borders preliminary report on the destruction of their hospital, released on November 5th, as well as on articles published by Reuters, the Associated Press, theWashington Post, the New York Times, and Al Jazeera, the testimonies of medical staff published by MSF, and a Democracy Now! interview with the executive director of MSF USA.

Here’s the second version of the story, the one we in the United States are meant to believe. It’s far more confusing and lacking in details, but don’t worry, it’s much shorter.

On October 3rd, an American AC-130 gunship “mistakenly struck” a hospital run by Doctors Without Borders in Kunduz. The attack was ordered by U.S. Special Operations forces, possibly at the behest of the Afghan army (ormaybe not).

Earlier contradictory accounts, all issued within the span of four days, go as follows: (1) it may not have been an American air strike; (2) the U.S. launched airstrikes in the neighborhood of the hospital and the facility was hit by accident; (3) the hospital was hit because American Special Operations forces were under fire near the hospital and called in the strikes in their own defense; (4) the facility was hit because Afghan forces supported by that Special Ops unit “advised that they were taking fire from enemy positions and asked for air support from U.S. forces.”

As the story changed, culpability shifted back and forth. The Afghans, not the Americans, had called in the attack. No, the Afghans never directly called in the attack. The Americans called in the attack from within the U.S. chain of command.

In the end, the bottom line from Washington was: we’re conducting a full investigation and one of these days we’ll get back to you with the details.

This second version of the story (in its many iterations) came from commander of the U.S. mission in Afghanistan General John Campbell, White House spokesperson Josh Earnest, and Pentagon spokesperson Peter Cook. Unnamed sources added some colorful, although unsupported allegations about a Pakistani intelligence agent or armed Taliban fighters being inside the hospital — despite all evidence to the contrary.

Campbell offered his “deepest condolences.” President Obama called the head of MSF and personally apologized for the “tragic incident.” The Pentagon promised to make “condolence payments” to the families of those killed.

Several investigations into the “incident” were launched by the Pentagon and a joint Afghan-NATO team. However, MSF’s repeated call for an independent investigation by the International Humanitarian Fact-Finding Commission, established under the additional protocols to the Geneva Convention, have been ducked or ignored.

There is, at least, one aspect both accounts agree on: the timing.

It’s undisputed that the attack occurred on October 3, 2015 — just over nine months after President Obama officially declared the ending of the U.S. combat mission in Afghanistan. . .

One thing I had realized: the number of US attacks on wedding parties is greater than I thought. From the column introduction by Tom Englehardt:

. . . [A]t least eight wedding parties wiped out in whole or in part between December 2001 and December 2013 in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Yemen by U.S. air power, and evidently two more barely a week apart this fall by the U.S.-backed Saudi air force, also in Yemen. In the first of those, two missiles reportedly tore through wedding tents in a village on the Red Sea, killing more than 130 celebrants, including women and children; in the second, a house 60 miles south of Yemen’s capital, Sana’a, “where dozens of people were celebrating,” was hit leaving at least 28 dead. Cumulatively, over the years (by my informal count) close to 450 Iraqis, Afghans, and Yemenis have died in these disasters and many more were wounded.  Each of the eviscerated weddings made the news somewhere in our world (or I wouldn’t have noticed), though with rare exceptions they never made the headlines and, of course, never did any of them get anything close to the 24/7 media spotlight we’ve grown so used to; nor, except perhaps at this website, has anyone attended to these disasters as a cumulative, repetitive set of events. . .

We lucky that this slaughter of civilians has not triggered a backlash from inhabitants of the region. Or, come to think of it, perhaps it has.

Written by LeisureGuy

19 November 2015 at 8:38 am

From Paris to Boston, Terrorists Were Already Known to Authorities

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A good point: even as officials of the national-security state (such as John Brennan, James Comey, et al.) claim they need ever-greater powers to strip away privacy, the fact is that they generally know who the terrorists are. Ryan Gallagher reports in The Intercept:

Whenever a terrorist attack occurs, it never takes long for politicians to begin calling for more surveillance powers. The horrendous attacks in Paris last week, which left more than 120 people dead, are no exception to this rule. In recent days, officials in the United Kingdom and the United States [at the link, John Brennan makes the case for the government being able to do whatever it wants regarding surveillance – LG] have been among those arguing that more surveillance of Internet communications is necessary to prevent further atrocities.

The case for expanded surveillance of communications, however, is complicated by an analysis of recent terrorist attacks. The Intercept has reviewed 10 high-profile jihadi attacks carried out in Western countries between 2013 and 2015 (see below), and in each case some or all of the perpetrators were already known to the authorities before they executed their plot. In other words, most of the terrorists involved were not ghost operatives who sprang from nowhere to commit their crimes; they were already viewed as a potential threat, yet were not subjected to sufficient scrutiny by authorities under existing counterterrorism powers. Some of those involved in last week’s Paris massacre, for instance, were already known to authorities; at least three of the men appear to have been flagged at different times as having been radicalized, but warning signs were ignored.

In the aftermath of a terrorist atrocity, government officials often seem to talk about surveillance as if it were some sort of panacea, a silver bullet. But what they always fail to explain is how, even with mass surveillance systems already in place in countries like France, the United States, and the United Kingdom, attacks still happen. In reality, it is only possible to watch some of the people some of the time, not all of the people all of the time. Even if you had every single person in the world under constant electronic surveillance, you would still need a human being to analyze the data and assess any threats in a timely fashion. And human resources are limited and fallible.

There is no doubt that we live in a dangerous world and that intelligence agencies and the police have a difficult job to do, particularly in the current geopolitical environment. They know about hundreds or thousands of individuals who sympathize with terrorist groups, any one of whom may be plotting an attack, yet they do not appear to have the means to monitor each of these people closely over sustained periods of time. If any lesson can be learned from studying the perpetrators of recent attacks, it is that there needs to be a greater investment in conducting targeted surveillance of known terror suspects and a move away from the constant knee-jerk expansion of dragnet surveillance, which has simply not proven itself to be effective, regardless of the debate about whether it is legal or ethical in the first place.

Map of 10 recent attacks carried out in Western countries by Islamic extremists: . . .

Continue reading.

It should also be kept in mind that the US was a great supporter of radical jihadists, giving them arms, money, and training. This was at the time Russia invaded Afghanistan, and the CIA and Rep. Charlie Wilson (see Charlie Wilson’s War) were eager to support radical jihadists and help them perfect their techniques.

And then the US invaded Iraq, based on deliberate lies manufactured within the Bush administration, and put radical jihadists from all over into the same concentration camps and prisons, allowing them to exchange information, forge alliances, and in general build terrorist networks for the future.

The US often does not always think through the likely long-term effects of its actions (such as when the US overthrew the democratically elected government of Iran to install a dictator—something the Iranians certainly have not forgotten), but it still acts surprised and offended by the effects of its own actions.

Written by LeisureGuy

18 November 2015 at 11:48 am

Mass Surveillance Isn’t the Answer to Fighting Terrorism

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The NY Times Editorial Board writes:

It’s a wretched yet predictable ritual after each new terrorist attack: Certain politicians and government officials waste no time exploiting the tragedy for their own ends. The remarks on Monday by John Brennan, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, took that to a new and disgraceful low.

Speaking less than three days after coordinated terrorist attacks in Paris killed 129 and injured hundreds more, Mr. Brennan complained about “a lot of hand-wringing over the government’s role in the effort to try to uncover these terrorists.”

What he calls “hand-wringing” was the sustained national outrage following the 2013 revelations by Edward Snowden, a former National Security Agency contractor, that the agency was using provisions of the Patriot Act to secretly collect information on millions of Americans’ phone records. In June, President Obama signed the USA Freedom Act, which ends bulk collection of domestic phone data by the government (but not the collection of other data, like emails and the content of Americans’ international phone calls) and requires the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to make its most significant rulings available to the public.

These reforms are only a modest improvement on the Patriot Act, but the intelligence community saw them as a grave impediment to antiterror efforts. In his comments Monday, Mr. Brennan called the attacks in Paris a “wake-up call,” and claimed that recent “policy and legal” actions “make our ability collectively, internationally, to find these terrorists much more challenging.”

It is hard to believe anything Mr. Brennan says. Last year, he bluntly denied that the C.I.A. had illegally hacked into the computers of Senate staff members conducting an investigation into the agency’s detention and torture programs when, in fact, it did. In 2011, when he was President Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser, he claimed that American drone strikes had not killed any civilians, despite clear evidence that they had. And his boss, James Clapper Jr., the director of national intelligence, has admitted lying to the Senate on the N.S.A.’s bulk collection of data. Even putting this lack of credibility aside, it’s not clear what extra powers Mr. Brennan is seeking. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

18 November 2015 at 9:43 am


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