Saturday, June 8, 2013

Freedom vs Security

I'm pretty ambivalent about this National Security Administration's phone surveillance.   I remember back in 2002, when George W. Bush had his counterterrorism office plan for the "Total Information Awareness" data mining program," with Admiral John Poindexter as head of it.   Poindexter had been Reagen's National Security Adviser and was convicted of lying about his role in the Iran-Contra affair.   I was horrified at the big brother aspect of the TIA program -- mind you, this was the year following 9/11/2001.

Congress was also outraged and voted to defund the program.   Some aspects of it were continued under the revised name of "Terrorism Information Awareness."   Apparently, under the Obama administration, and with enhanced technology, some aspects of the original ambitious program have been resurrected, though just how much is getting muddy from all the oppositional rhetoric.
That we are collecting data should come as no surprise to us, despite the furor of the "leak" to the Guardian newspaper.   There is a blurb from over a year ago readily available on the internet, which says that AG Eric Holder signed new guideline that would "relax restrictions on how counterterrorism analysts may retrieve, store, and search information about Americans gathered by government agencies for purposes other than national security threats" (CLG Breaking News and Commentaryll, March 12, 2012).

So how come, all of a sudden, this is a scandal?

President Obama today addressed these questions in a speech given in San Jose, CA where he is meeting with the Chinese leader:
 "The programs are secret in the sense that they are classified. They are not secret, in that every member of Congress has been briefed. . .  These are programs that have been authored by large bipartisan majorities repeatedly since 2006. . . .

"I don't welcome leaks. . . .  There's a reason these programs are classified."

"Some of the hype we've been hearing over the past day or so -- nobody has listened to the content of people's phone calls. . . I welcome this debate and I think it's healthy for our democracy."
Portraying the programs as a trade-off between security and civil liberties, he said:
"I think it's important to recognize that you can't have 100 percent security, and also then have 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenienceWe're going to have to make some choices as a society. . . . .  I don't welcome leaks."
I have to admit, I am less horrified to have it coming from the Obama administration than I was when it was the Bush administration.   That's because I trust Obama and I don't trust Cheney/Bush.   But . . . truth be told . . .things like this ought to be decided on principle, not on the basis of who is in office.

So let's revisit the underlying problem of deciding the balance between our need for security in a threatening world and our commitment to individual freedom and privacy.    It's not just about mining phone records.   It's about airport security, border security, shipping and dock security, mail security.   How much freedom will we give upand how much surveillance will we tolerate to be secure?


Friday, June 7, 2013

Now comes the PRISM program of internet searches

Just as it was seeming that the NSA- Verison data mining might not be so bad after all, that it might not really violate the existing laws, now we hear about PRISM.   This is not about simply storing data about phone contacts without content of the calls.   PRISM is about surveying -- in real time -- internet searches, photos posted, etc. which does include content.   The government can be "listening in" as you type or chat online.  And it seems to involve more companies, more people, and is more like real "spying on us."

Now that could be vital in detecting terrorists plotting action against us;  but where do we draw the line in putting everybody under that microscope?

All this is stirring up fears of Big Brother totalitarianism, which is probably exaggerated and inflamed by hysterical reporting and ratings-hungry news media.

Trying to combat this tide, the national security director has declassified part of the program that concerns the leaks, while also saying that they have operated it within the law and that the leak will undoubtedly hurt our security because it will alert terrorists to how they are being watched and allow them to change their ways of communicating.

Ultimately it focuses the basic questionshow much freedom do we want to give up in order to be safe?   And how much do we trust our own government?

This is a bad time to ask that second question, when trust of our government is so low to start with.


Scandal . . . schmandal . . . bah, humbug

With no viable programs to propose, and with disarray in their ranks, and with the president's popularity far exceeding their own, Republicans put all their efforts in trying to bring down a popular president.   At least give them credit for doing it openly:   Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said four years ago that their goal was to make sure Obama was a one-term president.   We see how that worked out for them;  but here we are in the second term, and they've only doubled down on the obstructionism.

For months now, their meme has been "SCANDAL" --  First, it was the loss of guns in a program that tried to trace illegal gun-running into Mexico;  it mostly happened before Eric Holder became Attorney General, but Darrel Issa's witch hunt committee tried to hold him in contempt of Congress for not giving them all the documents they asked for.

Then they tried -- actually Issa is still trying -- to make something sinister out of the awkward attempt to script an explanation of the Benghazi attack for the immediate consumption of the news media's voracious maw.    There's really no there, there, folks.   Nothing to see here;  please keep moving.   But the Republicans won't move on.

Then it was the much-ado-about-not-much IRS going after Tea Party groups;  and then the various other attempts by the Department of Justice to keep America safe.  Now isn't that the usual preoccupation of the conservative wing?   Strong defense and keeping American safe?   Well, no, not when Obama and Holder can be blamed for over-reaching.

Of course, both liberals and civil libertarians are up in arms about the level of surveillance and tapping of phones on ordinary citizens and especially going after the emails of journalists.   But that's what was authorized in the Bush/Cheney Patriot Act, widely supported by Republicans.

Senator Diane Feinstein (D-CA) put this in perspective today.  She's chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee and as such is kept informed about our intelligence on a confidential basis by the administration.   She said today that this latest flap over the collection of phone data of all Verizon phone users is nothing new.   It was merely a renewal of what's been authorized by the special  FISA court -- as prescribed by laws that Congress passed as a protection against excessive, unwarranted government surveillance -- and it has to be renewed every three months, for seven years now.

Sen. Feinstein said:  "I read intelligence carefully, and I know that people are trying to get to us. . .  This is to ferret this out before it happens. It's called protecting America."

Sen. Saxby Chambliss, (R-GA) ranking Republican on the Intelligence Committee, added that this is nothing particularly new, that every senator had been advised of this before, and that there had been no previous objection.

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), also a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said this:
For over a decade, we've debated how best to protect America from terrorism while preserving the most basic constitutional rightsToday's revelation is disturbing, but it should not be surprising.  I have tried to reform this provision of the Patriot Act for years, introducing legislation and offering amendments to ensure that secret demands for sensitive personal information on Americans. is limited only to those individuals suspected of being involved in plots against our country. As I said when I offered my amendment in 2009, 'someday the cloak will be lifted and future generations will ask whether our actions today meet the test of a democratic society -- transparency, accountability and fidelity to the rule of law and our Constitution.' Today that cloak has been lifted and this important debate must begin again."

I was then, and am now, somewhat uncomfortable with the power to look into our lives without our knowledge.   I don't think the Obama administration would abuse the privilege;  but you can bet the farm that Richard Nixon would have.   And Dick Cheney, to be sure.

But remember:   the actions of the DOJ that are being called scandalous have been conducted in accordance with the law passed by Congress and signed by the president, including getting the required warrants from the special FISA court set up for this purpose.

If we don't like that, then we need to change the Patriot Act that authorizes it -- not blame Obama for using the tools given to him by Congress to uphold his duty to keep us safe.

The real scandal here, in my opinion, is that the Republicans are spending all their time and energy trying to bring down the president instead of working with him to do what's good for the country and the people.

A possible second scandal here is that somebody "leaked" this to a foreign newspaper (albeit a highly regraded one, the Guardian of London) -- and then used the news item to create an uproar.   Who could that have been, do you suppose?   Was it political?   Or was it a whistleblower in the intelligence network that felt it was going too far?   Stay tuned.


Thursday, June 6, 2013

Republicans throw students under the bus

Driven by their mania for undercutting anything President Obama is for, Republicans have just shrunk to a new low (is that possible?).

They just blocked a vote (that thing that's called a filibuster but really just means it now requires 60 votes to pass anything in the Senate) on the bill that would have frozen the Stafford student loan interest rate at 3.4% for the next two years.   If this doesn't pass, it will automatically double to 6.8% on July 1.

This is a separate bill from the one introduced by Senator Elizabeth Warren, which would lower that 3.4% to the same rates that banks pay to borrow the money they turn around and lend students.  Currently that rate is 0.75%.    Surely that bill is doomed too if they blocked this one.

This means that fatcat banks are raking in money on student loan debt.   Sure, they should get some profit and an offset for loans that cannot be collected.  But that is an obscene profit at the expense of students.  Think what it will be if it doubles to 6.8% and the banks still borrow at 0.75%.

Just another example of Republicans playing politics at the expense of the needs of the people.


Obama and strong women

First, there was his mother, a bit unconventional but smart and determined.   Then there is Michelle.

Both Susan Rice and Samantha Power have been important members of Obama's foreign policy advisory team from the beginning.  Each ran into a patch of political trouble that interfered with their ability to be confirmed by the senate, Rice as Secretary of State and Power before a specific position was even defined.

An important member of his foreign policy advisory team during his first campaign, Samantha Power was set for an important position in the administration.  But she made an unfortunate remark about then-competing-candidate Hillary Clinton while visiting Ireland on a book tour, and it became necessary for her to resign.   She rejoined the team after the election in the position of Senior Adviser, while also becoming a Harvard professor and publishing a Pulitzer Prize winning book on genocide and world affairs.   She has also worked with Hillary in the State Department.

Susan Rice also has an impressive background both in the Brookings Institute and in the Clinton administration, serving on the National Security Council and in the State Department.   She has served as Obama's Ambassador to the United Nations since 2009.  Rice was the expected replacement for Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State until that fateful Sunday morning when Rice was the voice of the administration on Sunday morning talk shows to give a preliminary explanation of what had just happened in Benghazi, which Republicans are still trying to use against her and Obama.   It derailed her appointment as SoS.

Now President Obama has announced Rice's appointment as the next National Security Adviser and Power's appointment as Ambassador to the United Nations.

Good for him for recognizing extraordinary talent in strong women and, instead of booting them out when they ruffle the political waters, biding his time and then finding alternate positions to make use of their knowledge and talents.

In addition, two of the three nominations he has made to fill three vacancies on the D. C. Court of Appeals are women.


Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Rachel debunks FoxNews

Absurdities abound at FoxNews.  That's not news.  But this one sort of stands out.

Last week, Bill O'Reilly broke the "smoking gun" story that the former IRS Commissioner had visited the White House 157 times since 2009.  O'Reilly put on this mock innocent pose of "just reporting the facts;  we don't know what it means, but it looks awfully suspiciously like a smoking gun."  Implication:  Obama directed the IRS to go after the Tea Party.

Well, it turns out to be another big fat fake story.   Here are the facts, as best MSNBC has been able to discover.   It's true that Douglas Shulman, IRS Commissioner from March 1998 to November 2012, was put on the clearance list at the White House gate 157 times -- so that, if he wanted to attend any of the meetings concerning health care reform, he was cleared to do so.   Being on the clearance list did not mean he attended -- or had secret meetings with President Obama, or anything like that.   He was just one of many many people cleared to attend meetings, if he so chose.

The only evidence that MSNBC has been able to find of Shulman's actually visiting the White House during that time shows him going there 11 times -- in all of the four years of President Obama's first term.   That's an average of less than three times a year.   And that doesn't mean he visited the president on any of those visits.   He could have visited any of a hundred different people.

For a commissioner of a major arm of our government to visit the White House complex -- which includes all of the Executive Office Building offices -- this is a smoking gun of something nefarious?

And, by the way, Shulman was appointed by President George H. Bush and took office in 2008, while Barack Obama was still a candidate for the office.

Well, never let it be said that FoxNews gave up on a good story -- good, here, meaning attracts viewers.   Even after this was debunked by an article in Atlantic Magazine last week, they're still going with the fake story this week, doubling down on this fake pose of "we're not accusing, or hinting anything;  just stating the facts."  And then they repeat the "visited 157 times" story which has been proved false.   So much for facts.

So, the folks that bring us "fair and balanced" news can't even quit lying when they've been proved wrong.   Because their gullible viewers don't care about facts.   If it's anti-Obama, it's go-oo-od.   Remember the study a couple of years ago that showed the people who watch FoxNews are LESS WELL-INFORMED than people who watch no news programs at all?     Of course they are;   just as in this, they are mis-informed.


Tuesday, June 4, 2013

More women in Congress . . . please !!

Today, we have a record number of women in Congress:   20 out of 100 in the Senate (20%) and 78 of the 435 in the House (17.9%).

In addition, the number of women on the Senate Armed Services Committee has increased to 7 of 26 (26.9%).  It's making a big difference, currently most dramatically in the way the committee is dealing with sexual assaults in the military.   But it's still not enough.

They have a lot of educating to do, just among the committee members, however.   Here's what Saxby Chambliss (R-GA) said to top military officials who were appearing at an Armed Services Committee meeting.

Chambliss was calling on them to crack down on the rape of young women in the military, but then he revealed his "old boys" thinking when he added that it may be difficult to stop because:
"The young folks who are coming into each of your services are anywhere from 17 to 22 or 23Gee whiz, the hormone level created by nature sets in place the possibility for these types of things to occur. So we've got to be very careful how we address it on our side."
Let's be clear about what Sen. Chambliss is saying.   Let me translate:
'OK, Generals.    This is a situation we can't let go on.   We have to protect these little ladies in the ranks.   But, you know, [wink, wink],  Don't be too hard on the boys.   Boys will be boys, given all those hormones raging through their bodies.   So go easy on them, you know?   After all, it's Mother Nature's fault, not theirs.'
He doesn't differentiate between sex for mutual pleasure and rape. Listen up, Senator.   Sexual rambunctiouness is not the same as rape.   Men do not rape women just to relieve their nature-driven sexual tensions.  Rape is about power and violent feelings, not sex.

Well, Sen. Chambliss isn't running for re-election, so he'll be gone in another 18 months.   Let's do something really radical.   Let's put women in charge of the Armed Service Committees and the Joint Chiefs of Staff.


PS:  At the hearing, Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO) set the generals straight, insisting that they stop "mushing together" data about "non-wedded sexual behavior" and "rape."  "Looking at somebody sideways when you're not supposed to, and pushing somebody up against a wall and violently raping them are not the same thing at all.  We need to know how many cases of violent sexual assault are occuring against women and men;  and you're reporting them all mushed up together, so we have no idea how many cases of violent rape are occuring.   Rape is not about sex;  it is about dominance and violent assault"  Brava !!

Without women on the committee, it's not likely we would have gotten such clear thinking.  It certainly didn't come from Chambliss or the generals.