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Your retirement plan and Wall Street

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A new book is out that takes a look at how Wall Street siphons money from US retirement plans. Pam Martens reviews it in Wall Street on Parade:

The riveting writer, Michael Hudson, has read our collective minds and the simmering anger in our hearts. Millions of American have long suspected that their inability to get financially ahead is an intentional construct of Wall Street’s central planners. Now Hudson, in an elegant but lethal indictment of the system, confirms that your ongoing struggle to make ends meet is not a reflection of your lack of talent or drive but the only possible outcome of having a blood-sucking financial leech affixed to your body, your retirement plan, and your economic future.

In his new book, “Killing the Host,” Hudson hones an exquisitely gripping journey from Wall Street’s original role as capital allocator to its present-day parasitism that has replaced U.S. capitalism as an entrenched, politically-enforced economic model across America.

This book is a must-read for anyone hoping to escape the most corrupt era in American history with a shirt still on his parasite-riddled back.

Hudson writes from his most powerful perch in chapters describing how these financial parasites have tricked our society into accepting them as a normal, productive part of our economy. (Since we write about these thousands of diabolical tricks four days a week at Wall Street On Parade, poignant examples came springing to mind with every turn of the page in “Killing the Host.” From the well-placed articles in the Wall Street Journal to a front group’s pleas for more Wall Street handouts in a New York Times OpEd, to the dirty backroom manner in which corporate speech was placed on a par with human speech in the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, to Wall Street’s private justice system and the Koch brothers’ multi-million dollar machinations to instill Ayn Rand’s brand of “greed is good” in university economic departments across America — America has become a finely tuned kleptocracy with a sprawling, sophisticated public relations base.

How else to explain, other than kleptocracy, the fact that Wall Street’s richest mega banks collect the life insurance proceeds and tax benefits on the untimely deaths of their workers – all codified into law by the U.S. Congress – making death a profit center on Wall Street. Or, as Frontline revealed, that two-thirds of your 401(k) plan over a working lifetime is likely to be lost to financial fees.

Hudson writes: “A parasite’s toolkit includes behavior-modifying enzymes to make the host protect and nurture it. Financial intruders into a host economy use Junk Economics to rationalize rentier parasitism as if it makes a productive contribution, as if the tumor they create is part of the host’s own body, not an overgrowth living off the economy. A harmony of interests is depicted between finance and industry, Wall Street and Main Street, and even between creditors and debtors, monopolists and their customers.”

What has evolved, says Hudson, is that Wall Street banks have “become the economy’s central planners, and their plan is for industry and labor to serve finance, not the other way around.”

To gloss over the collapse of this depraved economic model in 2008, Hudson says these Wall Street central planners simply depict “any adverse ‘disturbance’ as being self-correcting, not a structural defect leading economies to fall further out of balance. Any given development crisis is said to be a natural product of market forces, so that there is no need to regulate and tax the rentiers.”

Similarly, when citizens rise up en masse to demand a realignment of their economy, as happened with the Occupy Wall Street movement, first the public relations masterminds dismiss them as an unhinged gathering of smelly hippies, followed by their violent eviction in the middle of the night, with military precision, by the Praetorian Guard of the kleptocracy. In Manhattan, the Praetorian Guard (NYPD) has a high-tech surveillance center mutually staffed by cops and Wall Street personnel – andmainstream media find nothing unusual about this.

Hudson correctly calls 2008 a “dress rehearsal,” writing that “Wall Street convinced Congress that the economy could not survive without bailing out bankers and bondholders, whose solvency was deemed a precondition for the ‘real’ economy to function. The banks were saved, not the economy.” Hudson adds that the “debt tumor” was left in place. (This is the nightmare we are presently watching unfold.)

The result of the systemic disabling of regulations on Wall Street has resulted in the following, says Hudson: “…the wealthiest One Percent have captured nearly all the growth in income since the 2008 crash. Holding the rest of society in debt to themselves, they have used their wealth and creditor claims to gain control of the election process and governments by supporting lawmakers who un-tax them, and judges or court systems that refrain from prosecuting them. Obliterating the logic that led society to regulate and tax rentiers in the first place, think tanks and business schools favor economists who portray rentier takings as a contribution to the economy rather than as a subtrahend from it.” (But, of course, those business schools are financially incentivized to think that way.)

The outgrowth of these tricks to make parasites appear to be a natural appendage to a well-functioning economy results in a “veritable Stockholm Syndrome.” Hudson explains:

“Popular morality blames victims for going into debt – not only individuals, but also national governments. The trick in this ideological war is to convince debtors to imagine that general prosperity depends on paying bankers and making bondholders rich – a veritable Stockholm Syndrome in which debtors identify with their financial captors.”

Hudson has much to say on the perversity of corporations buying back their own stock. In one chapter, Hudson writes:

“In nature, parasites tend to kill hosts that are dying, using their substance as food for the intruder’s own progeny. The economic analogy takes hold when financial managers use depreciation allowances for stock buybacks or to pay out as dividends instead of replenishing and updating their plant and equipment. Tangible capital investment, research and development and employment are cut back to provide purely financial returns.”

On the timely debate over wealth and income inequality, Hudson writes that “Asset-price inflation is the primary dynamic explaining today’s polarization of wealth and income. Yet most newscasts applaud daily rises in the stock averages as if the wealth of the One Percent, who own the great bulk of stocks and other financial assets, is a proxy for how well the economy is doing. What actually occurs is that financing corporate buyouts on credit factors interest payments and fees into the prices that companies must charge for their products.”

Where this leads, says Hudson, is that “Paying these financial charges leaves less available to invest or hire more labor. Likewise for the overall economy, the effect of a debt-leveraged real estate bubble and asset-price inflation is that interest payments and fees to bankers and bondholders leave less available to spend on goods and services. The financial overhead rises, squeezing the ‘real’ economy and slowing new investment and hiring.”

Hudson is clearly on to something. The U.S. seems to be crashing like clockwork every 8 years with the crashes gaining in intensity. The 2000 crash wiped $4 trillion out of investment accounts while, 8 years later, the 2008 crash brought down the whole financial system, the U.S. and global economy, and it’s still producing a dead weight on economic growth. Next year will mark the eighth year since the 2008 crash and if last week’s market convulsions were any indication, we’re in for some very rough sledding.

Chapter 8 of “Killing the Host” begins with this quotation from John Maynard Keynes: “When the capital development of a country becomes a by-product of the activities of a casino, the job is likely to be ill-done.” Hudson expands further: . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

31 August 2015 at 12:53 pm

Those Who Compare the Iran Deal to Munich Are Right—but Not in the Way They Think

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Very interesting thoughts about the Iran Deal from a couple of readers of James Fallows’s series on the matter. Worth reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

18 August 2015 at 10:47 am

How Wall Street’s Bankers Stayed Out of Jail

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The lack of criminal convictions of those responsible for a corporation’s breaking the law is quite common—so common that it’s somewhat shocking when a corporation office does go to prison, as seems likely to happen for some corporate officials at Peanut Corporation of America. William Cohan in the Atlantic takes a look at why Wall Street bankers never faced prison:

On May 27, in her first major prosecutorial act as the new U.S. attorney general, Loretta Lynch unsealed a 47-count indictment against nine FIFAofficials and another five corporate executives. She was passionate about their wrongdoing. “The indictment alleges corruption that is rampant, systemic, and deep-rooted both abroad and here in the United States,” she said. “Today’s action makes clear that this Department of Justice intends to end any such corrupt practices, to root out misconduct, and to bring wrongdoers to justice.”

Lost in the hoopla surrounding the event was a depressing fact. Lynch and her predecessor, Eric Holder, appear to have turned the page on a more relevant vein of wrongdoing: the profligate and dishonest behavior of Wall Street bankers, traders, and executives in the years leading up to the 2008 financial crisis. How we arrived at a place where Wall Street misdeeds go virtually unpunished while soccer executives in Switzerland get arrested is murky at best. But the legal window for punishing Wall Street bankers for fraudulent actions that contributed to the 2008 crash has just about closed. It seems an apt time to ask: In the biggest picture, what justice has been achieved?

Since 2009, 49 financial institutions have paid various government entities and private plaintiffs nearly $190 billion in fines and settlements, according to an analysis by the investment bank Keefe, Bruyette & Woods. That may seem like a big number, but the money has come from shareholders, not individual bankers. (Settlements were levied on corporations, not specific employees, and paid out as corporate expenses—in some cases, tax-deductible ones.) In early 2014, just weeks after Jamie Dimon, the CEO of JPMorgan Chase, settled out of court with the Justice Department, the bank’s board of directors gave him a 74 percent raise, bringing his salary to $20 million.

The more meaningful number is how many Wall Street executives have gone to jail for playing a part in the crisis. That number is one. (Kareem Serageldin, a senior trader at Credit Suisse, is serving a 30-month sentence for inflating the value of mortgage bonds in his trading portfolio, allowing them to appear more valuable than they really were.) By way of contrast, following the savings-and-loan crisis of the 1980s, more than 1,000 bankers of all stripes were jailed for their transgressions.

At an event at the National Press Club last February, Holder said the virtual absence of convictions (or even prosecutions) this time around did not result from a want of trying. “These are the kinds of cases that people come to the Justice Department to make,” he said. “The inability to make them, at least to this point, has not been as a result of a lack of effort.” Preet Bharara, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, made a similar argument to me. The evidence, he said, does not show clear misconduct by individuals. It’s possible that Bharara is correct about that: Wall Street bankers make it their daily business to figure out ways to abide by the letter of the law while violating its spirit. And to be sure, much of the behavior that led to the crisis involved recklessness and poor judgment, not fraud. But even so, in light of various whistle-blower allegations—and the size of the settlements agreed to by the banks themselves—this explanation strains credulity. The Justice Department’s ethos regarding Wall Street, and the way the department went about its business, appear to be a large part of the story.

Any narrative of how we got to this point has to start with the so-called Holder Doctrine, a June 1999 memorandum written by the then–deputy attorney general warning of the dangers of prosecuting big banks—a variant of the “too big to fail” argument that has since become so familiar. Holder’s memo asserted that “collateral consequences” from prosecutions—including corporate instability or collapse—should be taken into account when deciding whether to prosecute a big financial institution. That sentiment was echoed as late as 2012 by Lanny Breuer, then the head of the Justice Department’s criminal division, who said in a speech at the New York City Bar Association that he felt it was his duty to consider the health of the company, the industry, and the markets in deciding whether or not to file charges.

In the aftermath of the crash, the Justice Department did not refrain from prosecutions altogether. In 2009, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York tried two Bear Stearns hedge-fund managers—Ralph Cioffi and Matthew Tannin—who had effectively run their $1.6 billion fund into the ground in the spring of 2007, an event that many believe was the canary in the coal mine of the financial crisis. But a jury acquitted the two men in November 2009. Added to the general fear that the economy was extraordinarily fragile, the unexpected acquittal seemed to put a deep freeze on Wall Street prosecutions for close to three years.

A serious national investigation of the practices of Wall Street’s pre-crash mortgage-banking activities did not begin in earnest until mid-2012—at least five years after the worst of the bad behavior had occurred—following President Obama’s call to action in the State of the Union address that January and the issuance of subpoenas to Wall Street’s biggest banks. The five-year statute of limitations for ordinary criminal fraud charges had passed while the Justice Department dithered, but civil prosecution of banks and individual bankers, which has a 10-year statute of limitations under a particular banking law, was still a possibility. Holder gave his various U.S. attorneys around the country responsibility for investigating.

A team led by Benjamin Wagner, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of California, investigated alleged wrongdoing at JPMorgan Chase, for instance. In many ways, Wagner’s investigation was typical of the Justice Department’s approach: hoover up hundreds of thousands of pages of e-mails and documents, interview current and former employees about their business practices, and use the findings as a cudgel to extract a financial settlement. Wagner and his team drafted—but did not file—a complaint against the firm in September 2013 that reportedly detailed how JPMorgan Chase itself (not merely Bear Stearns or Washington Mutual, two banks that it bought at the height of the crisis) knowingly packaged shoddy mortgages into securities that did not meet its credit standards and then sold them off to investors. As part of its investigation, Wagner’s team had deposed Alayne Fleischmann, a JPMorgan Chase banker turned whistle-blower, who’d told the team about what was going on. She had also detailed how, before the crash, her warnings about continuing to package up the bad mortgages into securities and sell them off as investments had gone unheeded by her superiors. After sharing her concerns with her boss in a 13-page letter, Fleischmann had been marginalized and then fired. (Disclosure: JPMorgan Chase also fired me, as a managing director, in 2004, and I am in litigation with the bank resulting from a soured investment I made in 1999.)

In November 2013, as part of a deal that kept Wagner’s complaint from becoming public—and the specifics of Fleischmann’s revelations from being widely disseminated—JPMorgan Chase agreed to a $13 billion settlement with various federal and state agencies, then the largest of its kind. Holder heralded the settlement as an important moment of accountability for Wall Street. But extracting large settlements paid with shareholders’ money is not the same as bringing alleged wrongdoers to justice. Instead of presenting a detailed picture of JPMorgan Chase’s misdeeds—as would have happened had Wagner’s complaint been filed and the matter adjudicated in court—the government and the bank negotiated an anodyne 11‑page “Statement of Facts” that glossed over many of the details of the behavior Fleischmann was trying to stop, and did not name any JPMorgan Chase bankers.The Justice Department reached agreements with other Wall Street banks, among them . . .

Continue reading.

It perhaps is relevant that, prior to working for the Federal government, Eric Holder worked as a lawyer for Covington & Burling, a corporate law firm that serves Wall Street clients, and he has now returned to work for that firm. That does seem a possible conflict of interest overall, particularly if he tailored his decisions to ensure his return would be welcomed.

Written by LeisureGuy

15 August 2015 at 9:33 am

What If Barack and Bibi Are Both Right?

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James Fallows continues his interesting series on the Iran Deal:

Robert Hunter, a former ambassador and longtime foreign-policy eminence, has written that the Iran debate has reached the familiar “cairn-building” stage. That’s the stage in which each side adds a new rock—of argument, endorsement, rebuttal—to the piled-up cairn it has created. “The merits of the arguments are politically meaningless,” Hunter says. “The side with the highest pile of stones wins!” But as he goes on to say, these piles themselves also become meaningless. All that matters is what actually weighs on the senators and representatives who will cast up or down votes.

Recognizing that the cairn-building is reaching its useful end, and while taking a break from my article-writing duties of the moment, let me introduce three more reader messages on Iran. All bear on an aspect of the debate I’ve mentioned before but keep coming back to.

That aspect is: What lies behind the “existential” complaints?

Of course, the front-and-center reason for Israel’s existential fear of a nuclear- armed Iran is obvious. As The Atlantic’s own Jeffrey Goldberg wrote recently, “My position on this is simple: If, in the post-Holocaust world, a group of people express a desire to hurt Jews, it is, for safety’s sake, best to believe them.” This has been the consistent theme of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin (“Bibi”) Netanyahu’s speeches as well, and its emotional and psychological logic is undeniable.

But the strategic logic of the concern is more puzzling. No one doubts (although no officials can publicly say) that Israel has a large nuclear-retaliatory force, including on submarines. Thus any leader in Iran knows that an attack on Israel would with 100-percent certainty mean devastation for Iran as well (as Thomas Friedman went into on Wednesday). So to think that Iran might actually try to “wipe Israel off the map” requires assuming either that its leadership is literally suicidal, or that, like the Nazis in Germany, Iranian leaders are so bent on destruction that nothing other than brute force can hold them back.

The problem with the suicidal martyr-state assumption is that never in its 36-plus years in office has the Iranian leadership taken a move that rashly jeopardized its own well-being or hold on power. Iran’s leadership has been theocratic but not psychopathic. A serious problem for the United States, Israel, and others: yes. A Reich-like monster-state: no. Under its Islamic leaders, Iran has been at war once—a war that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq started when it invaded Iran in 1980. So the “existential” argument would be stronger were there any evidence of Iran’s leaders ever taking suicidal risks.

As for the comparison with Nazi Germany, last week Peter Beinart carefully laid out the reasons that modern Iran and Hitler’s Reich have exactly one point in common: their anti-Semitic rhetoric. In every other strategic, political, and military dimension they are completely different.

I am sure that officials in Israel’s security and military services realize this. Perhaps even Netanyahu does as well. So what lies behind the over-the-top claims?

That is what these posts address. The first is from Samuel J. Cohen, who was born in the United States and graduated from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies but has lived in Israel since 1977. For 20 years he was a trade negotiator for the Israeli government. He argues that the U.S. government under Obama and the Israeli government under Netanyahu may both be sanely pursuing their national interests, but that these interests may be diverging. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

13 August 2015 at 2:23 pm

Putting a Wall Street lawyer in charge of the SEC: SEC Admits It’s Not Monitoring Stock Buybacks to Prevent Market Manipulation

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President Obama named Mary Jo White, a lawyer who worked on behalf of big Wall Street firms for years, to be head of the SEC. This apparently is part of his overall protectiveness of Wall Street, and I imagine the reasons for the attitude will become clear once he’s out of office and in a position to receive the quid pro quo.

David Dayen reports in The Intercept:

The Securities and Exchange Commission has admitted that it has no ability to enforce the main rule intended to prevent market manipulation when companies buy back their own stock, and has no intention to do so.

SEC Chair Mary Jo White made the acknowledgement in a response to Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wisc., who queried the agency about stock buybacks. Baldwin is one of agrowing number of politicians — including presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders — who are citing buybacks as an example of deliberate financial engineering that bolsters concentration of wealth and keeps working-class wages stagnant.

Stock buybacks are an increasingly common practice in which corporations take profits, and instead of investing in facilities, research and development, or boosting worker wages, buy shares of their own stock on the open market, thereby boosting demand and driving up its price. Companies bought back over half a trillion dollars’ worth of their own shares last year.

The practice creates short-term rewards for executives who are paid in stock and stock options, and benefit from an increased price. They also make corporate earnings look better by reducing outstanding shares and increasing the commonly reported ratio of earnings-per-share.

Prior to the Reagan era, executives avoided buybacks due to fears that they would be prosecuted for market manipulation. But under SEC Rule 10b-18, adopted in 1982, companies receive a “safe harbor” from market manipulation liability on stock buybacks if they adhere to four limitations: not engaging in buybacks at the beginning or end of the trading day, using a single broker for the trades, purchasing shares at the prevailing market price, and limiting the volume of buybacks to 25 percent of the average daily trading volume over the previous four weeks.

In White’s letter to Baldwin, dated July 13, she admits that the SEC doesn’t collect data that would let it know whether companies breach even these generous limits. “Performing data analyses for issuer stock repurchases presents significant challenges,” White writes, “because detailed trading data regarding repurchases is not currently available.”

Initially, Rule 10b-18 didn’t include any disclosure whatsoever on the part of companies. A 2004 revision requires companies to report monthly buyback totals at the end of each quarter, as part of their 10-Q SEC disclosures. But they do not have to disclose how much they repurchase on a particular day.

“The companies have that information, but the SEC doesn’t collect it,” said William Lazonick, a professor of economics at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, who has done extensive research on buybacks, and who provided the White letter to The Intercept. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

13 August 2015 at 11:51 am

The Iran Deal discussed by readers of Fallows’s column

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I may have already linked to this column by James Fallows, in which a reader named Betsy marshals her arguments on why we reject the deal. (Trigger warning: Betsy’s writing is jarring in many ways, but (as Fallows points out) it is not an outlier but is typical of the mail attacking the Iran Deal.)

In a column today, Fallows includes three additional emails, these being from readers commenting on Betsy’s email. The first one is difficult: he seems enraged that Fallows quote Betsy (the writer of this email clearly has a very low opinion of Betsy), but seems unaware of Fallows’s point: that Betsy’s email was typical of those emails that opposed the deal. The other emails are more interesting.

Today’s column begins:

On Monday I mentioned again that I hope the U.S. Congress does not manage to block the Iran deal. For more on the reasons why, consider this new letter from three dozen retired U.S. flag officers arguing that the deal makes sense from a military perspective. They join the 100-plus former U.S. ambassadors, the 60-plus former senior U.S. national-security officials, the 29 physicists from America’s nuclear-weapons programs, and the five former U.S. ambassadors to Israel and three former U.S. undersecretaries of state who have all recommended the agreement. [Update: plus the head of an organization set up to oppose the deal, who after studying its terms now recommends it.]

Obviously diplomatic judgments are not simple numbers games, and experts can be wrong. But think for a moment how this deal’s prospects would look if comparably experienced and bi- or non-partisan groups kept emerging to warn against it—rather than emerging to recommend it, as they have done.

In that post on Monday I also quoted a letter from a reader named Betsy that was representative of the anti-deal mail I get round the clock. I’m about to disappear from online life for a week or so to finish writing an article for the magazine. Before I go, three letters with three perspectives on Betsy’s letter.

First, from a tech-world veteran who is now a government contractor in the D.C. area. He does not at all like the fact that I quoted this letter: . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

12 August 2015 at 12:31 pm

NSA writer welcomes surveillance, except he doesn’t

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Talk about self-justification: a writer for NSA publishes a column (internal to NSA) about how he in fact welcomes surveillance and totally transparency of his private life because it makes everything simpler and easier to understand. This realization was, apparently, not in his mind elated to any sort of self-justification for his job: just an honest recognition that surveillance was good.

That feeling lasted exactly as long as he was not under surveillance and right up until he felt his privacy was invaded. Then his feelings suddenly changed: being under surveillance was not such a good thing, after all. Not if it was he who was the subject. Peter Maas has the grimly entertaining story at The Intercept:

“Are you the Socrates of the National Security Agency?”

That was the question the NSA asked its workforce in a memo soliciting applications for an in-house ethicist who would write a philosophically minded column about signals intelligence. The column, which would be posted on a classified network at the NSA, should be absorbing and original, the memo said, asking applicants to submit a sample to show they had what it takes to be the “Socrates of SIGINT.”

In 2012, the column was given to an analyst in the Signals Intelligence Directorate who wrote that initially he opposed the government watching everyone but came around to total surveillance after a polygraph exam did not go well. In a turn of events that was half-Sartre and half-Blade Runner, he explained that he was sure he failed the polygraph because the examiner did not know enough about his life to understand why at times the needle jumped.

“One of the many thoughts that continually went through my mind was that if I had to reveal part of my personal life to my employer, I’d really rather reveal all of it,” hewrote. “Partial revelation, such as the fact that answering question X made my pulse quicken, led to misunderstandings.”

He was fully aware of his statement’s implications.

“I found myself wishing that my life would be constantly and completely monitored,” he continued. “It might seem odd that a self-professed libertarian would wish an Orwellian dystopia on himself, but here was my rationale: If people knew a few things about me, I might seem suspicious. But if people knew everything about me, they’d see they had nothing to fear. This is the attitude I have brought to SIGINT work since then.”

When intelligence officials justify surveillance, they tend to use the stilted language of national security, and we typically hear only from senior officials who stick to their platitudes. It is rare for mid-level experts — the ones conducting the actual surveillance — to frankly explain what they do and why. And in this case, the candid confessions come from the NSA’s own surveillance philosopher. The columns answer a sociological curiosity: How does working at an intelligence agency turn a privacy hawk into a prophet of eavesdropping?

Not long after joining the NSA, Socrates was assigned a diplomatic target. He knew the saying by Henry Stimson that “gentlemen do not read each other’s mail,” and he felt uncomfortable doing the digital equivalent of it. As he wrote, “If there were any place in the world that idealism should rule and we should show voluntary restraint in our intelligence work, diplomacy was that place. Terrorists who meant harm to children and puppies were one thing, but civil servants talking about work while schlepping their kids to soccer practice seemed a little too close to home.”

His polygraph was an epiphany, however.

“We tend to mistrust what we do not understand well,” he noted. “A target that has no ill will to the U.S., but which is being monitored, needs better and more monitoring, not less. So if we’re in for a penny, we need to be in for a pound.”

I wanted to know more about Socrates, but one of the asymmetric oddities of the NSA is that the agency permits itself to know whatever it wants to know about any of us, yet does everything it can to prevent us from knowing anything about the men and women who surveil us, aside from a handful of senior officials who function as the agency’s public face. An NSA spokesperson refused to confirm that Socrates even worked there. “I don’t have anything to provide for your research,” the spokesperson wrote in an email.

The “SIGINT Philosopher” columns, provided to The Intercept by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, gave me the opportunity to learn more without the agency’s assistance, because they included his name. Heading down the path of collecting information about Socrates (whose name we are not publishing — more on that later), I was in the odd position of conducting surveillance on a proponent of surveillance, so I had a get-out-of-guilt-free card.

Unlike the paranoid eavesdropper played by Gene Hackman in The Conversation, or the quiet Stasi agent at the center of The Lives of Others, Socrates lives in the age of Google and data-mining. Like the rest of us, he cannot remain invisible. Socrates was an evangelical Christian for seven years, got married at 19, divorced at 27 and remarried not long after. He is now a registered Democrat and lives in a Maryland suburb with his son and wife, a public school teacher. I’ve seen the inside of their house, thanks to a real estate listing; the home, on a cul de sac, has four bedrooms, is more than 2,000 square feet, and has a nice wooden deck. I’ve also seen pictures of their son, because Socrates and his wife posted family snapshots on their Facebook accounts. His wife was on Twitter.

Conducting surveillance can be a creepily invasive procedure, as Socrates discovered while peering into the digital life of his first diplomatic target, and as I discovered while collecting information about him. In the abstract, surveillance might seem an antiseptic activity — just a matter of figuring out whether a valid security reason exists to surveil a target and then executing a computer command and letting the algorithms do the rest. But it’s not always that clinical. Sheelagh McNeill, the research editor with whom I worked on this story, was able to find Socrates’ phone number, and although he did not respond to voicemails, he eventually got on the line when I called at night. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

11 August 2015 at 10:31 am


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