Saturday, August 31, 2013

Conciliatory rhetoric as ruthless strategy - Syria edition

For years now I've been writing about how President Obama employs conciliatory rhetoric as a ruthless strategy. After his remarks this morning regarding Syria, I think a few more people are catching on to what I mean by that. For example, here's one of my favorite quotes that describes what it looks like.
One way to deal with that kind of bad-faith opposition is to draw the person in, treat them as if they were operating in good faith, and draw them into a conversation about how they actually would solve the problem. If they have nothing, it shows. And that's not a tactic of bipartisan Washington idealists -- it's a hard-nosed tactic of community organizers, who are acutely aware of power and conflict. It's how you deal with people with intractable demands -- put ‘em on a committee.
What the President just did today was put the United States Congress on the "committee" to decide what we'll do about Syria's use of chemical weapons. That is a bold move that seems to have caught most everyone off guard. But it totally eliminates the position of "arm chair quarterbacks" who have taken up residence on the sidelines bitching about what is happening on the field.

Men with an ego to feed can't make this play...they're too busy thinking about how to position themselves for the "win." But, as we know, President Obama plays the long game. He knows that one way to shut up your critics is to give them some responsibility and then hold them accountable. Over the course of his Presidency, he's been asking Congress to step up to the plate and make some tough calls. After all the screaming about him needing to get Congressional approval for these actions, they're going to look like damn fools if they refuse to do so on this one. The outcome of that battle far outweighs the importance of what we do in Syria. And on this one, President Obama wins either way. Either we get a Congress that steps up to the plate, or he has demonstrated beyond a shadow of a doubt that they are incapable of doing so.

Nice play, Mr. President!

"For everyone who thinks they know Obama's views on war and peace"

I totally agree with Jon Favreau.

But I would also suggest that folks re-read President Obama's speech at Cairo University...particularly this passage.
Of course, recognizing our common humanity is only the beginning of our task. Words alone cannot meet the needs of our people. These needs will be met only if we act boldly in the years ahead; and if we understand that the challenges we face are shared, and our failure to meet them will hurt us all.

For we have learned from recent experience that when a financial system weakens in one country, prosperity is hurt everywhere. When a new flu infects one human being, all are at risk. When one nation pursues a nuclear weapon, the risk of nuclear attack rises for all nations. When violent extremists operate in one stretch of mountains, people are endangered across an ocean. When innocents in Bosnia and Darfur are slaughtered, that is a stain on our collective conscience. That is what it means to share this world in the 21st century. That is the responsibility we have to one another as human beings.

And this is a difficult responsibility to embrace. For human history has often been a record of nations and tribes -- and, yes, religions -- subjugating one another in pursuit of their own interests. Yet in this new age, such attitudes are self-defeating. Given our interdependence, any world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another will inevitably fail. So whatever we think of the past, we must not be prisoners to it. Our problems must be dealt with through partnership; our progress must be shared.

The bar is once again raised for President Obama

When it comes to Syria, what we know at this point is that the Obama administration is making the case for the fact that the Assad regime is responsible for chemical weapons attacks on his own people and that they think a response is required. We're hearing a lot of chatter about what that response might be, but the administration has not publicly endorsed anything in particular.

But it seems that the conversation today is mostly about whether or not President Obama is constitutionally required to get approval from Congress for a military response. There is even talk about the idea that if he doesn't do so - it would be grounds for impeachment.

This is - once again - an example of raising the bar for this particular president (you can decide for yourself whether its because he happens to be black - but its certainly not an irrelevant question). Does anyone remember Reagan getting Congressional approval for the invasion of Grenada? Or Bush I getting it for the invasion of Panama? Or Clinton for the bombing of a factory in Sudan? I certainly don't. And while those actions were met with a fair amount of derision for various reasons, I also don't remember any talk of them being unconstitutional or resulting in impeachment hearings.

The truth is, as constitutional expert Stephen Vladeck said, "this is one of the more perversely gray areas of U.S. constitutional law.” Those making definitive statements about the constitutional requirement for Congressional approval for military strikes against Syria are simply playing the same game they've played over and over again with this president...holding him to a different standard than those (white guys) who preceded him.

Friday, August 30, 2013

In the meantime...progress

As we've all been consumed with what President Obama will do in Syria, this administration is making some serious progress in other areas. For example:

President Obama took executive action to close gun purchase loopholes.

The IRS will recognize all gay marriages.

HHS announced that Medicare benefits will be extended to same-sex couples.

In yet another step to end the "war on drugs," Attorney General Eric Holder gave a green light to state measures legalizing recreational use of marijuana.

But yeah, to some folks, Obama is just like Bush. LOL

White progressive assumptions about African American politics

I am becoming aware of something that I'll bet many African Americans have known for a while now. So I'm hoping you'll apply that sentiment of "better late than never" to my awakening consciousness.

We all know that since the passage of the Civil Rights Laws in the 60's and the Republican Southern Strategy, African Americans have been the most loyal base of the Democratic Party. And I'd suggest that since that base was responsible for one of the most successful movements for change in this country, white progressives on the left have - for decades now - assumed that African Americans generally align with their political views (notice that word "assumed" - its always the basis of privilege).

And so, when an African American gets the Democratic nomination for president, the left wing of that party naturally assumes that he will align himself with their cause.

Whoops! Not so fast. If those white progressives had ever taken the time to learn about what black people in their communities actually believe, they might have been spared all this "disappointment" in President Obama. And they might have better understood why African Americans have remained so loyal.

I'll give you an example that I've noticed for a while now but haven't talked about here because it is a contentious issue that I don't (yet?) have a firm position about. If there's anything that's clear when you talk to African Americans, its that their number one issue right now is what is happening to their young people - on the streets, in school, and in the juvenile justice system.

In my professional work in this community I've noticed for some time now that many African Americans don't align themselves with a large portion of the left on their views about education. With a healthy skepticism about the intentions of Republicans, many of them have embraced the idea of alternatives to our public schools (ie, charters and private schools). That's because it is THEIR children who are failing and they don't necessarily have the time or patience to deal with the politics associated with teacher's unions in the public schools.

Most Democrats want to avoid this controversy because it pits one part of our coalition against another. But from the early days, progressives have been critical of President Obama's education reforms.

I noticed this also when I was rather surprised by the strong backlash from many progressives to Cory Booker's Senate campaign. It was interesting for me to see folks who hadn't weighed in on electoral politics in some time get so vehement in their opposition to Booker. I think that rather than simply an overt showing of racism in going after one of the few African Americans to run for Senate, it was more of a privileged ignorance about his positions. Matt Yglesias does a good job of explaining how that happened with respect to education reform.
So there's a lot at stake in painting Booker not as a fairly conventional Democrat who (like Barack Obama and lots of other Democrats) happens to disagree with teachers unions about K-12 issues. Instead, they want to paint Booker as an across-the-board demonic corporate sellout figure who disagrees with teachers unions as part of a general agenda of overclass madness.
The truth is that African Americans are often as divergent in their political positions as white Americans are - with the exception of things like voting rights. But there are strains within the community that part ways very strongly with progressives, not just on issues like education reform but on things like the value of military service and the role of religion in politics (another one where both President Obama and Booker have come under fire from progressives).

Recently there was a lot of talk about how Republicans need to reach out to minority communities if they are going to survive in this new America. I'm beginning to understand that white progressives are going to need to do the same thing in order to avoid alienating themselves with their privileged assumptions.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Reflections on the power of "we"

Remember this?

When I hear constant cries about "Obama should do ________?" it strikes me that too many of us have forgotten the meaning of "we" in the slogan "Yes We Can!"

As I watch and listen to President Obama, what I've heard as his one overriding message is that he wants us to recognize the power of "we." For example, his entire speech at the 2012 Democratic Convention was dedicated to the idea of citizenship. And yesterday in honor of the 1963 March on Washington, he took up that theme again.
The March on Washington teaches us that we are not trapped by the mistakes of history; that we are masters of our fate. But it also teaches us that the promise of this nation will only be kept when we work together. We’ll have to reignite the embers of empathy and fellow feeling, the coalition of conscience that found expression in this place 50 years ago...

America, I know the road will be long, but I know we can get there. Yes, we will stumble, but I know we’ll get back up. That’s how a movement happens. That’s how history bends. That's how when somebody is faint of heart, somebody else brings them along and says, come on, we’re marching...

Everyone who realizes what those glorious patriots knew on that day -- that change does not come from Washington, but to Washington; that change has always been built on our willingness, We The People, to take on the mantle of citizenship -- you are marching.

And that’s the lesson of our past. That's the promise of tomorrow -- that in the face of impossible odds, people who love their country can change it. That when millions of Americans of every race and every region, every faith and every station, can join together in a spirit of brotherhood, then those mountains will be made low, and those rough places will be made plain, and those crooked places, they straighten out towards grace, and we will vindicate the faith of those who sacrificed so much and live up to the true meaning of our creed, as one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.
As much as we all want to make this about President Obama, he keeps pointing the finger back at us - at the power of "we."

P.S. That's just what John Favreau was talking about yesterday too.
But the president has always been careful to say that no one individual can change Washington, be it the most powerful politician on Earth or the most inspiring preacher known to man. Change—real change—requires a movement, and building a movement requires time. It requires the sustained commitment, courage, passion, and participation of millions of ordinary citizens...

The perpetual coziness and close proximity to power, money, and the blood sport of politics may never position this city and all its dysfunction at the leading edge of a great movement for sweeping change. But as citizens, we always have the ability to build such a movement that forces Washington to respond. In fact, we are expected to.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Where courage comes from

"And I believe that spirit is there, that truth force inside each of us. I see it when a white mother recognizes her own daughter in the face of a poor black child. I see it when the black youth thinks of his own grandfather in the dignified steps of an elderly white man. It’s there when the native-born recognizes that striving spirit of the new immigrant; when the interracial couple connects the pain of a gay couple who are discriminated against and understands it as their own.

That’s where courage comes from -- when we turn not from each other, or on each other, but towards one another, and we find that we do not walk alone. That’s where courage comes from."

President Barack Obama, August 28, 2013

President Obama's pragmatic foreign policy

As I read various people discuss what they think the U.S. is preparing to do in Syria, I think Jonathan Chait has an excellent point. His title gets the ball rolling: Syria Isn't Iraq. Everything Isn't Iraq.
The generation that came of age during World War II famously — and, in time, tragically — came to apply the formative lessons to every foreign-policy event that followed it. The generation that came of age during the Vietnam War, and then, more recently, the Iraq War, was imprinted with the opposite lessons.
Basically what he's saying is that its important to see what is being considered in Syria on its own merits (or demerits) and not project one's feelings about America's past onto this situation.

I see evidence of this in commentators who can't quite wrap their minds around the idea that the United States would take military action in a country minus a goal for regime change. Its understandable that this would be difficult given our country's past. Whether via overt invasions or covert means, we have a long history of assuming the exceptionalist position that we have the right to determine another country's leadership and fate.

President Obama has demonstrated that he does not simply shy away from the use of military force - much to the chagrin of many people on the left. What he has also demonstrated is that when he makes that call, it is often in support of giving the people of a country the opportunity to decide their own fate...and live with the consequences. We saw that in Libya where the goal of intervention was to stop a massacre of the Libyan people, not regime change. As Chait points out:
The argument for intervening in Libya was not that doing so would turn the country into a peaceful, Westernized democracy moving rapidly up the OECD rankings. It was that it would prevent an immediate, enormous massacre of civilians. Libya remains an ugly place; it would have been so regardless of whether NATO intervened. But the narrow, humanitarian goal that drove the U.S. to act was unambiguously accomplished without the larger dangers of mission creep that foes warned against.
Julia Ioffe sees the same thing happening in discussions at the White House about Syria.
As always, the administration is split on action in Syria, and on what, if anything, should be done...Looking at the roster of the fifteen people at the President's meeting to discuss the Syria crisis, they split roughly in two: the do more camp, and the do less camp. "People have been pretty stable in their positions," said a source familiar with the situation. "I don’t think anyone has changed their position."...

By Monday evening, the policy was still very much up in the air, but the "do less" camp seemed to be winning, probably because of Obama's notorious reluctance on such things. The outlines of what the Obama administration is likely to do was starting to take shape: the U.S. would likely act, but it would act mostly to impose a sense of consequence, stopping short of doing something obviously designed to shift the balance inside Syria between Assad and the motley rebel crew...That is, it would do enough damage to show the world that Obama's word is bond, that a red a red line, but would stop short of weakening Assad enough to let some increasingly shady people topple him. Retaliating for chemical weapons use, says one administration official, "would not be because of a desire to intervene in Syria, but to prevent future chemical weapons use."
(Emphasis mine)

Whether or not you agree with whatever action the President decides to take in Syria, it is important to note the significant change this represents in U.S. foreign policy.  I suspect that the reason so many people are struggling with understanding it is that they have a hard time envisioning an American foreign policy that recognizes our moral obligation to our principles - including both standing up for human rights abuses and ceding control of a country's fate to their own people.

Most often arguments about foreign policy have been limited to a binary choice between interventionists and isolationists. As his domestic policy has shown over and over again, the pragmatist in President Obama has refused those ideological positions and looked for "what works" from either one. That, as VP Biden said, is a BFD when it comes to a change in our foreign policy.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Obama on Syria: Past as Prologue

Back in March of 2011, the discussion was all about whether or not President Obama would/should embrace a no-fly zone in Libya. As we see now with the talk about whether or not he will/should fire cruise missiles into Syria, there aren't clear ideological lines being drawn in that debate. There are those who are honestly grappling with difficult questions and there are those who are attempting to position themselves to critique whatever side the President choses.

We might want to remind ourselves that the discussion that was happening publicly in March 2011 about Libya was not the one President Obama was willing to engage. Michael Lewis wrote about exactly what happened. On March 15th, the President had a meeting with all the "principals" to discuss the situation in Libya.
Before big meetings the president is given a kind of road map, a list of who will be at the meeting and what they might be called on to contribute. The point of this particular meeting was for the people who knew something about Libya to describe what they thought Qad­da­fi might do, and then for the Pentagon to give the president his military options. “The intelligence was very abstract,” says one witness. “Obama started asking questions about it. ‘What happens to the people in these cities when the cities fall? When you say Qaddafi takes a town, what happens?’” It didn’t take long to get the picture: if they did nothing they’d be looking at a horrific scenario, with tens and possibly hundreds of thousands of people slaughtered. (Qaddafi himself had given a speech on February 22, saying he planned to “cleanse Libya, house by house.”) The Pentagon then presented the president with two options: establish a no-fly zone or do nothing at all. The idea was that the people in the meeting would debate the merits of each, but Obama surprised the room by rejecting the premise of the meeting. “He instantly went off the road map,” recalls one eyewitness. “He asked, ‘Would a no-fly zone do anything to stop the scenario we just heard?’” After it became clear that it would not, Obama said, “I want to hear from some of the other folks in the room.”

Obama then proceeded to call on every single person for his views, including the most junior people. “What was a little unusual,” Obama admits, “is that I went to people who were not at the table. Because I am trying to get an argument that is not being made.” The argument he had wanted to hear was the case for a more nuanced intervention—and a detailing of the more subtle costs to American interests of allowing the mass slaughter of Libyan civilians. 
It turns out that the people not at the table were asking the same question the President was do we stop a massacre.
The president may not have been surprised that the Pentagon hadn’t sought to answer that question. He was nevertheless visibly annoyed. “I don’t know why we are even having this meeting,” he said, or words to that effect. “You’re telling me a no-fly zone doesn’t solve the problem, but the only option you’re giving me is a no-fly zone.” He gave his generals two hours to come up with another solution for him to consider, then left to attend the next event on his schedule, a ceremonial White House dinner.
We know that the content of the meetings the President has been having about Syria the last few days is different. But I expect that he will have demonstrated the same process...identifying the questions that clarify the goal and then demanding options that offer the best chance of reaching that goal. That's the same process that was described when he made the decision to go after bin Laden.

As I've listened to the current debate about cruise missiles/no cruise missiles, I suspect we're once again missing the point. The question we should be asking is "what is the goal in Syria and what are the options for reaching that goal?" That's the discussion I'm sure the President has been having.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Who has Obama's back? Those who've been in the struggle all along

Today I'd like to point you all to a diary my friend Denise Oliver Velez wrote back in 2008 when the FISA bill was going through Congress. I don't agree with everything she said (as the saying goes, if I did, one of us would be unnecessary) - but the message is clear.
I have never had privacy. My parents had no privacy. I grew up under the persecution of the McCarthy period, and watched family friends driven out of jobs, and some driven to suicide. I watched my father watch the backs of his friends, and I have learned how to be a trooper since the day I could walk...

The Constitution that has been bandied about here in hysterical FISA diaries of outrage in the last few days has very little meaning for me...The privacy that you are so willing to throw Obama under the bus for has no meaning for me. I’ve never had the luxury to have any...

The Constitution was a series of compromises, and black folks got the worst of them. Legislation is a series of compromises. This country is a series of compromises. The young are impatient. It makes them refreshing but it also makes them stupid. They will throw themselves at the barricades and commit revolutionary suicide in the name of purity...

And so they rant diary after diary after diary...and I sit in wonder and wonder – where were you when we were dying? Where are you when were crying? Who among you challenged COINTELPRO? Who fought J Edgar Hoover? Who among you will go to jail for me? Will die for me, will call out the names of the dead killed by that piece of paper you now brandish like a sword to impale your former Hero? Oh how your Champion has fallen and will you banish him from your side of this game called politics? For I see now that for you it is but a game.

I don’t play games. Games are for children. I’m not in a tournament. Tournaments are for athletes and Knights of the Roundtable in fairy tales. I’m in a war – and this is just one battle, one skirmish in a war that has gone on since Christopher Columbus got lost on his way to despoil India. A war that I will not see the end of. A war that requires a patience that transcends death. A war that may determine if any human beings remain alive to carry on the struggle on this planet when I am turned to dust.

But I know my role in that war. I’m an aging foot soldier. I’m a protective grandmother, a woman, a black woman. I don’t forget, and I don’t forgive, but I do my duty and I stand as one among thousands. I say proudly, "Barack. Young man. I got your back." I will fight all and any who have falsely claimed to be a part of this struggle, but turned tail at the sight of the first puff of smoke. I will denounce them as cowards.
The way I see it, women and people of color know that RIGHT NOW they are in the fight of their lives to maintain the forward movements people like Denise and her generation struggled to attain.  And she's not about to get distracted from that fight by the games the purists want to play. You go girl!!!!

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Arrow's Story (reprised)

I feel deeply for the President as he struggles with our response to the situation in Syria. There don't seem to be any "good" answers to that question (including doing nothing). If I  was the praying type, I'd be asking God to give him wisdom and let him know that we recognize the burdens he has to bear in making this kind of call on our behalf.

In the meantime, in honor of the good people of Syria, I'm going to reprise a diary I wrote over 2 years ago - with a few adjustments.

Over the last week or so when people talk about our involvement in Libya Syria, a comparison is often made to our intervention in Bosnia. How valid that comparison is will have to be the topic for someone else. Because bringing up Bosnia always reminds me of one of the most beautiful books I've ever read, The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway. It is a fictionalized account of 4 people's lives during the Siege of Sarajevo, which went on from 1992 to 1996...

As Galloway tells us in the afterword of the book, it is based on a true story of something that happened during the siege.
At four o'clock in the afternoon of May 17, 1992, during the Siege of Sarajevo, several mortar shells struck a group of people waiting to buy bread behind the market on Vase Miskina. Twenty-two people were killed and at least seventy were wounded. For the next twenty-two days Vedran Smailovic, a renonwned local cellist, played Albinoni's Adagio in G Minor at the site in honor of the dead. His actions inspired this novel.

One of the characters portrayed in the book is a woman who's pseudonym during the siege is "Arrow" because she is hired by the government forces as a sniper to fire back at the enemy in the hills conducting the siege. She explains that she has adopted the pseudonym while she does this in order to draw a definitive line between the person she was before and the person she has become in hopes that someday she can return.

Here is one of our first introductions to Arrow.
Ten years ago, when she was eighteen and was not called Arrow, she borrowed her father's car and drove to the countryside to visit friends. It was a bright, clear day, and the car felt alive to her, as though the way she and the car moved together was a sort of destiny, and everything was happening exactly as it ought to. As she rounded the corner one of her favorite songs came on the radio, and sunlight filtered through the trees the way it does with lace curtains, reminding her of her grandmother, and tears began to slide down her cheeks. Not for her grandmother, who was then still very much among the living, but because she felt an enveloping happiness to be alive, a joy made stronger by the certainty that someday it would all come to an end. It overwhelmed her, made her pull the car to the side of the road. Afterward she felt a little foolish, and never spoke to anyone about it.

Now, however, she knows she wasn't being foolish. She realizes that for no particular reason she stumbled into the core of what it is to be human. It's a rare gift to understand that your life is wondrous, and that it won't last forever.

So when Arrow pulls the trigger and ends the life of one of the soldiers in her sights, she'll do so not because she wants him dead, although she can't deny that she does, but because the soldiers have robbed her and almost everyone else in the city of this gift. That life will end has become so self-evident it's lost all meaning. But worse, for Arrow, is the damage done to the distance between what she knows and what she believes. For although she knows her tears that day were not the ridiculous sentimentality of a teenage girl, she doesn't really believe it.
And so, Arrow learns what it means to hate. Here are her thoughts as she watches some girls who leave flowers for the cellist.
Arrow wonders about the two girls who laid flowers in front of the cellist. Do they hate the men on the hills as much as she does? Do they hate them for being murderous bastards, killers without remorse? She hopes not. That's too easy. If they hate the men on the hills, then they are forced to hate her too. She kills just the same as they do. On days like today when she doesn't kill, she feels a loss that reveals a hostility within her that goes deeper than the lack of remorse. It's almost a lust.
But the cellist finally breaks through Arrow's hatred.
Arrow let the slow pulse of the vibrating strings flood into her. She felt the lament raise a lump in her throat, fought back tears. She inhaled sharp and fast. Her eyes watered, and the notes ascended the scale. The men on the hills, the men in the city, herself, none of them had the right to do the things they'd done. It had never happened. It could not have happened. But she knew these notes. They had become a part of her. They told her that everything had happened exactly as she knew it had, and that nothing could be done about it. No grief or rage or noble act could undo it. But it could all have been stopped. It was possible. The men on the hills didn't have to be murderers. The men in the city didn't have to lower themselves to fight their attackers. She didn't have to be filled with hatred. The music demanded that she remember this, that she know to a certainty that the world still held the capacity for goodness. The notes were proof of that.
My prayer for the people of Libya Syria is that, in the midst of all of this madness...they have a cellist.

Good crazy - Antoinette Tuff walks in the footsteps of Dr. King

Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. 
- Martin Luther King, Jr.
As we commemorate the life and work of Martin Luther King, Jr, I have to wonder just how much we're really ready to embrace his teachings. And - believe me - I put myself right in the middle of that "we." His life was a testament to how much he believed those words... he walked his talk.

We know that Dr. King grounded that belief in the teachings of another radical...Jesus.
You have heard that it was said, ‘AN EYE FOR AN EYE, AND A TOOTH FOR A TOOTH.' But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, let him have your coat also. Whoever forces you to go one mile, go with him two. Give to him who asks of you, and do not turn away from him who wants to borrow from you.

You have heard that it was said, ‘YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.

- Matthew 5
This is what Rev. Joseph Lowery was referring to when he talked about "good crazy."

It is a beautiful testament to these radicals that - just as we were preparing to celebrate Dr. King's legacy this week - Antoinette Tuff came along to demonstrate just how much power is packed into that kind of "good crazy."

Yes, most of us would find it crazy to identify our own personal struggles with those of a mad man pointing an AK47 at us...much less tell him we love him. But what other weapons did Antoinette have other than the power of her humanity finding a way to touch his heart? In the end, that light proved itself to be more powerful than his darkness. It was a crazy leap of faith in humanity...just what Jesus and Dr. King called on us to do.

It is humbling to ask ourselves if we would have the kind of strength and courage Antoinette demonstrated when faced with that kind if situation. I don't know that I do. But I suspect it all starts with "letting my little light shine" in everyday mundane life.

P.S. Don't ever let anyone tell you that these teachings are about being "passive." Antoinette could have stayed silent or crouched in fear. Instead, she took the bold step of doing just what Rep. Lewis admonished us to do yesterday. She didn't stand by. She stood up, spoke up and got in the way.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Linda Ronstadt

This is sad news for one of the greatest female vocalists of my lifetime.

A New America

Rev. Sharpton BROUGHT IT this morning in his speech commemorating the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington.

He ended his remarks with something that might sound familiar to regular readers here.
I come to tell ya, I know why they're screeching and hollerin and talkin crazy...cause old America has passed away. Old America that only worked for white males has passed away. Old America that only worked for English-speaking has passed away. Old American that'd tell you who to sleep with, but don't put food in the kitchen has passed away. Old things have passed away. We see a new America. We see an America of equality...of justice...of fairness. We march because we're gonna bring a new America - one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice - not just for some, not for who you chose, not for who you like - but for all. We believe in a new America.

Lift Every Voice and Sing

The journey towards the dream.

Friday, August 23, 2013

The left's version of white male patriarchy

About a week ago, @root_e tweeted a link to this story. Fair warning: it literally made me sick to my stomach.

Personally, I enjoy mavericks. In the article, its clear that Matt Taibbi and his pal Mark Ames are trying to cast themselves as such. But its also clear that Taibbi and Ames have an even darker view of that role than Sarah Palin does. In their version, it gives you a pass to abuse and exploit vulnerable people. For example, talking about their time in Russia:
They say they also take advantage of what they like to call the “white god factor” and make trips to the provinces. “Tens of millions of people live in dire circumstances, stranded in the center of the world’s largest continent, with little hope of going anywhere,” said Mr. Ames. “Which means–sexual opportunity for me.”
I'm really at a loss to describe how vile that is. But then, I probably don't need to. Most human beings with an ounce of empathy get it.

All of this is part of telling the story of these two privileged white boys and their struggle with finding meaning in status-driven capitalist America.
Mr. Ames and Mr. Taibbi are fairly typical men of their generation: raised in upper-middle-class America (Mr. Ames in San Jose, Mr. Taibbi in Boston) in the ideal-light Reagan and Bush years, they are well-educated but defeated by regular work and frustrated by American women, whom they find smug and ambitious. Mr. Ames and Mr. Taibbi say that in Moscow they finally found a home; a city as chaotic and as brutish as they are, a place where a man can still make a beast of himself and write about it with impunity.
I suppose its possible to feel some empathy for the challenge it is to grow up white, privileged and male in this country (cough..cough). The truth is, I think that racism, sexism and greed take their toll on all of us. This article pretty well describes the sickness that can ensue for this particular group. But rather than owning it as part of their own dysfunction, these two seem to be reveling in it. They come off just like two alcoholics celebrating their illness.

That is the form that white male patriarchy takes on the left side of politics. And of course the Rolling Stone now gives a platform for Taibbi to continue to share his disoriented rambling rants with the rest of us while Ames looks to be relegated to the more obscure pages of something called the Not Safe for Work Corporation (subscription required). I don't know about you, but it looks to me like these two have settled into some comfort with their privileged status rather than challenging the beast within.

Tackling that beast should be even more important on the left than it is on the right. Until men like this take that on - I have no more use for their brand of maverick than I do Palin's.

Greenwald jumps Sharknado

Just when I think I'm about done writing about the hysteria being flamed by Team Greenwald these days, along comes another story that grabs me. Part of my soul-searching about all this has been a recognition that this whole story is like finding yourself in the grips of a mystery novel and getting caught up in trying to guess the ending. So todays' installment is written with a bit of humor at watching the wheels come off the charade.

It all started last night when The Independent published an article touting the latest Snowden revelation that the UK government has a facility that spies on people in the Middle East (yes, quell your shock at that one). The trouble is...they didn't explain how they got access to this leak.

Enter Team Greenwald. He provides a quote from Snowden saying that he is not the source of this leak  and that what is happening here is that the UK government leaked harmful information to The Independent to create the illusion that previous leaks are harmful. Got that? But gets worse.

Greenwald then goes on to try to buttress Snowden's statement by suggesting that this leak is "exactly the type of disclosure the UK government wants but that has never happened before." Wait a Greenwald contradicting Snowden's contention that this leak is harmful? Or is he suggesting that the UK wants harmful leaks to occur?

Oh well, nevermind. The point here is that this is all the government's fault (UK/US? - you decide). Isn't that always Greenwald's point?

What I find interesting is that this is the first time Greenwald has reacted negatively to the publication of leaks about surveillance in places other than The Guardian. He's had no problem with leaks in the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, Der Speigel, etc. As a matter of fact, he has usually applauded those stories. So why did this story in The Independent spark this attack? It seems that the answer to that question goes back to who did the leaking.

Joshua Foust laid out the 3 possibilities he sees in answer to that question. The 3rd one is the most likely scenario.
A new party, unknown to us, also has control of said documents and is spreading them to new outlets. This would also imply that, contrary to their constant public assertions, Team Greenwald-Poitras has lost control of their cache of source material.
Now, if you want to join me in trying to guess how this mystery novel ends, here are my two guesses about who that "new party" is.

Foust points out that The Independent is owned by Russian oligarch Alexander Lebedev. The dots seem to connect automatically in my head. Perhaps I'm missing something, but isn't it possible that the Russian government (now so thoughtfully providing Snowden with asylum) might be involved?

But the other possibility is Julian Assange. Just last week he said this to the Australian press:
Former hacker Assange, who has said the US owes a "debt of gratitude" to Snowden for exposing the surveillance on Internet and telephone usage, hinted at more material from Snowden being made available.

"Hopefully one day, not too far in the future, we will see a WikiLeaks file rollout to media organisations," said Assange.
And in what seemed like a direct swipe at Greenwald/Guardian, Wikileaks (ie, Assange) recently tweeted this:
Could there be division brewing amongst Snowden's handlers? Note the title of the linked article: "Fuck the Guardian." The whole point of it seems to be that the author is mad at Greenwald/Guardian for their slow walk-out of the Snowden leaks (one of the main reasons Assange threatened to sue The Guardian during the roll-out of the Manning leaks).

I suppose we'll have to continue reading this mystery novel to find out. But let it be noticed that Mr. Greenwald just might be having a really bad awful week. First his partner was detained while shuffling Snowden documents between he and Poitras. It is now clear that whatever Miranda was carrying is in the hands of the UK (and likely US) government. And yesterday he finds out that he's losing control of this narrative about the Snowden leaks.

Those of us who have watched how Greenwald reacts are aware that when his narrative is falling apart, he attacks. So it comes as no surprise that people like Joshua Foust are currently on the receiving end of his smears. And when in doubt, he's always good for a ridiculous conspiracy theory about how government is leaking false flag ops against itself.

I'd suggest that Greenwald jumped the shark years ago. Today he managed to jump sharknado. LOL

Thursday, August 22, 2013

President Obama follows through on promises...poutragers set their hair on fire

Two weeks ago President Obama held a news conference to talk about NSA surveillance. At the time, he proposed several things to improve the system.
  1. Release more information about surveillance programs.
  2. Work with Congress to reform the Patriot Act.
  3. Establish an opposition advocate on FISC.
  4. Establish a Civil Liberties officer at NSA.
  5. Set up a website as a “hub” for information on surveillance policies.
  6. Set up an NSA review panel to consider how we can maintain the trust of the people and ensure no abuse in how surveillance technologies are used.
In just two short weeks, he's made good on #'s 1, 5, and 6. Today the White House will announce the members of the review panel and yesterday they launched the web site - including the release of a whole trove of previously classified documents from NSA. 

Among the documents released were 3 FISA court rulings - one of which (from Oct. 3, 2011) involved the court's opinion that procedures related to collecting internet data on foreign targets violated the 4th Amendment of the constitution because of the inadequacy of the minimization procedures used to protect the data of US persons. Here's how AP described what happened
The National Security Agency declassified three secret court opinions Wednesday showing how in one of its surveillance programs it scooped up as many as 56,000 emails and other communications by Americans not connected to terrorism annually over three years, revealed the error to the court — which ruled its actions unconstitutional — and then fixed the problem.
One of the other documents that was released yesterday is the FISA court ruling from Nov. 30, 2011 in which the court reviewed the proposed changes to the minimization procedures and declared them to be consistent with the 4th Amendment.

Problem solved...right? Not so fast. The poutragers decided to ignore the big picture of what happened and zero in on one footnote from the Oct. 3rd ruling.

For the "hair on fire" crowd, of course this demonstrates - not that the FISA court is way beyond a "rubber stamp" for NSA - but that nothing government officials say about NSA can ever be trusted (forget the fact that it was those same government officials who brought all this to the FISA court's attention).

But lets break it down, shall we? The court was reprimanding NSA for actions that occurred between May 2006 and March 2009. Anyone remember who was in charge during the bulk of that time? What we also know is that it was in 2009 in response to "serious violations" that the Obama administration quadrupled the number of NSA's oversight staff. That was very likely in response to this finding from the FISA court.

So what this footnote actually suggests is that the Obama administration has been very busy trying to fix yet another mess that was left to them from the Bush administration. Cue look of surprise from everyone.

What we can learn from this is that the more information the Obama administration makes public about these programs, the more the poutragers will pick through the minutiae until they find something to set their hair on fire about. It will be up to folks like us to get the facts out there for people interested in a reality-based look at these issues.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

An adversarial approach vs the aikido way

In my line of work, I occasionally deal with lawyers - often the type who spend a lot of time in a court room. When we have trouble working together on tackling community issues, its often because they approach things in the way they've been trained to practice law in a system that is designed to be adversarial. Too often the goal of our legal system is "winning" (or at least not losing) rather than finding the truth. And so facts that could hurt one's chance of winning are left out or distorted in order to go for the win.

It should come as no surprise then that Glenn Greenwald (a former lawyer) describes himself as an adversarial journalist. His job is to present information in such a way that he wins the argument. If you understand that about him, you've basically got his MO.

And so, when President Obama says that, despite the fact that what Edward Snowden did was illegal, he welcomes the conversation about US surveillance, that presents some real cognitive dissonance for folks like Greenwald. The response is often to declare a win and say this vindicates Snowden as a whistleblower with prosecution being nothing more than intimidation.

Jeffrey Toobin has a wonderful response to that argument.
The assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert F. Kennedy led directly to the passage of a historic law, the Gun Control Act of 1968. Does that change your view of the assassinations? Should we be grateful for the deaths of these two men?

Of course not. That’s lunatic logic. But the same reasoning is now being applied to the actions of Edward Snowden.
One of the issues this all raises is that adversarial approaches are often at odds with a democratic problem-solving process. When your only goal is to win and your opponent provides an opening for conversation/compromise, the response of an adversary is to "go in for the kill" rather than negotiate. That doesn't work if your opponent refuses to play the game.
There are no kicks and no punches within Aikido itself, though the person playing the role of the attacker may well use both, as well as weapon strikes. Instead, there is an emphasis on blending with a partner's attack and the use of techniques to lead that attack safely to a conclusion that is good for everyone.
What we're witnessing right now is Team Greenwald's adversarial approach against President Obama's aikido way. It will be fascinating to observe. But we've long known what the President's goal is.
Our goal should be to stick to our guns on those core values that make this country great, show a spirit of flexibility and sustained attention that can achieve those goals, and try to create the sort of serious, adult, consensus around our problems that can admit Democrats, Republicans and Independents of good will. This is more than just a matter of "framing," although clarity of language, thought, and heart are required. It's a matter of actually having faith in the American people's ability to hear a real and authentic debate about the issues that matter.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Another one bites the dust

When it comes to foreign policy issues related to the Middle East, one of my "go to" sources has always been Juan Cole. Its not that I always agree with him. Its that he knows legions more about that topic that I do. So I pay attention to what he says.

That's why I am so terribly disappointed in him - much like I am in so many other reporters lately. You want hyperbole? Take a look at this headline from Cole.

And then his opening statement makes it even worse.
How to turn a democracy into a STASI authoritarian state in 10 easy steps:
Since "Greenwald's partner" was detained by the UK government, its interesting that his "10 steps" are focused completely on the US - not the UK. But what's a little omission like that when you're talking about a "STASI authoritarian state?"

Then he goes on to make several outrageous claims:
  1. Classify all crimes and violations of the Constitution as secret. What would those crimes and violations be? Japanese internment? Secretly sponsoring coups in places like Iran and South America? Gulf of Tonkin lies? Nixon's lies?  Iran/Contra? Bush's torture? Oops, we know about all that so they're hardly secrets. I suspect he's actually talking about our current intelligence programs...more on that in #2. 
  2. Spy on the public in violation of the Constitution. Yeah, we know Bush did that by refusing to get warrants. But show me where the Obama administration is continuing that practice. Specifically, what violations of the Constitution is he talking about?
  3. Sharing of NSA info on drug trafficking is only to protect pharmaceuticals and liquor industry against pot. Whaaa??
  4. Criminalize the revelation of government crimes and spying as espionage. When has spying NOT been classified as espionage and what government crimes?
Anyway, there's 10 of them. Some have merit but should lead to policy discussions and not hyperbole about dictatorships and STASI authoritarian states. 

This is why we can't have a rational discussion these days about this topic. The entire conversation has been overtaken by the latest iteration of Godwin's Law. Juan Cole just jumped that shark.

A little soul-searching

As regular readers here know, I've been pretty consumed lately by the NSA/Snowden story. That hasn't come without a lot of soul-searching. You all know that I've been following Glenn Greenwald for years and have no love lost for his reporting. So just as we see people who seem to be motivated by "Obama Derangement Syndrome," I've been worried that I'm suffering from "Greenwald Derangement Syndrome." I don't want my view of these important issues to be driven by my feelings about any particular individual.

And while I've obviously been a strong supporter of President Obama, I also regularly question myself about whether or not I'm "blindly" supporting his administration. I'm very aware of the history of the intelligence community in this country. Their record is abominable. But I also want to think about what it looks like when we want to change that. Its a much more complex process than simply saying "shut it all down!" And so I wonder if that is what we are witnessing.

Ultimately what it comes down to is that I'm a bit depressed about how our so-called "liberal" media is handling this issue. I'm not just talking about the MSM. I'm talking about people I've looked to for guidance on understanding important Steve Benen and Greg Sargent and Ezra Klein and Kevin Drum and - to a certain extent - BooMan. I've occasionally disagreed with all of those writers. That's not what bothers me. What does bother me is that, as I've said, I've done a lot of soul-searching through all of this and am NOT reacting simply from anti-Greenwald or pro-Obama.

What all of those writers have failed to do is ask any real substantive questions about Greenwald and The Guardian's reporting. They're more than happy to question the Obama administration, but don't see any reason to question the hysterical claims in the reporting on Snowden's leaks, even after - as Bob Cesca documents here - so many of those claims have been proven to be false. Its gotten so bad that Cesca has coined the "24 hour rule" - wait 24 hours and the real story will surface. But by then the link bait has worked and everyone has moved on to the next outrageous claim.

As an example, I found this particular article by Andrea Peterson at Wonkblog (Ezra Klein's blog) to be particularly noxious given the circumstances. She is defending Greenwald for saying this following his partner's detention at London's airport:
I will be far more aggressive in my reporting from now. I am going to publish many more documents. I am going to publish things on England too. I have many documents on England’s spy system. I think they will be sorry for what they did. [...] They wanted to intimidate our journalism, to show that they have power and will not remain passive but will attack us more intensely if we continue publishing their secrets.
She totally buys into Greenwald's claim that other news outlets "sensationalized" this quote in suggesting it was retaliation against the UK. Does anyone else find it unbelievably ironic that Greenwald would be complaining about "sensationalized" reporting? Many of us have been working feverishly to follow up on his sensationalized stories to try and get the basic facts. So while Peterson feels it necessary to devote an entire blog post to defending Greenwald against sensationalism, I don't see the same dedication to challenging his outrageous claims.

Greenwald is really good at bullying reporters when he thinks they've misinterpreted what he said. We saw that with his reaction to this quote as well as the Walter Pincus article. But no one seems interested in pushing back when he says equally outrageous things like "the Obama administration is waging a war on whisleblowers" or insinuates they'll be "disappeared."

In the article I linked by Benen up above, he finds the detention of Miranda to be outrageous. And yet his reporting never once mentions that Miranda was carrying stolen classified documents that Snowden leaked. Doesn't he think that is a significant part of this story? And does he not find it equally outrageous that Snowden lied when he said that as an analyst he could read anyone's emails...even the President's? Not a word from Benen about that one.

Greg Sargent wrote a whole blog post giving Greenwald the chance to explain how the timing of Snowden contacting him before he took his job at Booz Allen didn't implicate he was involved in Snowden taking the job in order to steal classified documents. But has he written anything about how "direct access" was a total hoax? Zero, zilch, nada.

I don't need any of these guys to agree with me. I'd just like to see some actual reporting on this story because its important. And yes, I get pissed when they don't do that. What happens when I get pissed is that I get defensive and have taken "sides." I'll continue to do so until they start doing their job. If that makes me an "Obot" in Kevin Drum's patronizing characterization of "the great emo/Obot debate" be it.

Monday, August 19, 2013


Meet the newest member of the Obama family...Sunny.

Greenwald's challenge

I'm not going to recount the whole hysterical drama that unfolded last night as the story about Glenn Greenwald's partner being detained at the London airport unfolded. Bob Cesca has done a great job of breaking it down.

But this whole story about Edward Snowden and his handlers ignites my sometimes dormant "recovering therapist" mode and so I find myself considering Greenwald's challenge as the public mouthpiece of the handlers. That challenge, as I see it, is to maintain their role as merely victims of the big bad surveillance state while simultaneously aggrandizing their role in uncovering the "story of the century." Give the guy some chops...he's pretty good at it.

The first ingredient in pulling this off is to hype the hell out of stories about stuff most of us knew already. They did this by using documents Snowden had stolen while working as a contractor of NSA. So now we don't just know that NSA collects metadata on our telephone calls, we get to see one of the warrants issued by FISA to do so. And we don't just know that NSA surveils foreign targets, we get to see documents that describe the actual programs they use to do so (PRISM and XKEYSCORE).

All of this reignited a conversation we'd had years ago about government surveillance post 9/11. Perhaps that's a good thing. From other releases of information (from both Snowden and the government), we now know that getting access to the phone call content for Americans requires a warrant and that via audits the NSA has compliance issues on 0.001% of its queries.

But you only know that kind of thing if you've followed these stories through for a few days. Greenwald's job is to hype the hell out of each disclosure and pretend that something REALLY BIG is happening before you get the rest of the information. He does that well by not actually reporting - but by telling you only the information he wants you to hear (lies of omission).

The bigger challenge for Greenwald though is actually the other part of his job - to cast he and his partners as victims while they're pulling off all this hysteria. The story about his partner Miranda is a perfect example.

Glenn's version of that story casts Miranda as an innocent traveler who was besieged by the big bad authorities simply because he is Glenn's partner. And he vows to "fight on" against these horrible abuses of power. Do you see how the stage is set for the government as the bad actor and Greenwald, et al as the reactive victims in the situation?

Of course nowhere in his account is it mentioned that this whole drama started when Edward Snowden stole classified government documents. Or that Miranda was traveling at the Guardian's expense to transfer those documents between Poitras and Greenwald. Its all simply a matter of the government's attempt to intimidate these poor innocent people.

Finally, as I said yesterday, all of this totally ignores the fact that Glenn's partner in crime - Julian Assange - had just issued a blackmail threat to the government the day before all this happened.

On a couple of occasions here I've talked about the drama triangle as a mode of communication. It posits that unhealthy relationships are often characterized by traveling around the triangle to assume various roles as well as see other actors playing one of them.

This is the source of the "drama" that we see emanating from Greenwald. In its current iteration, he (and Miranda as well as all the other handlers) are both the victim of the big bad persecutor (government) as well as those that are out to rescue all of us from said persecutor. Maintaining that conflagration means denying that they have any agency in the events that are currently underway. 

Trouble is...that's a totally powerless position to be in. So when the time comes to take credit for these "bombshells," Greenwald needs to flip the whole thing and pretend like he (and the other handlers) hold the key to toppling the entire government (shifting into the role of persecutor). 
"Snowden has enough information to cause harm to the U.S. government in a single minute than any other person has ever had," Greenwald said in an interview in Rio de Janeiro with the Argentinean daily La Nacion.

"The U.S. government should be on its knees every day begging that nothing happen to Snowden, because if something does happen to him, all the information will be revealed and it could be its worst nightmare."
If your head is spinning now from all that, just remember - that's what communicating with someone who employs the drama triangle will do to you.

If we know nothing else these days - its that our media loves a drama. And right now, Greenwald's challenge is to give them one. I'm sorry to say that even folks like Steve Benen are buying it.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Assange's latest op underway (updated)

On Friday I remember seeing this tweet. But, being terribly tech-impaired, I didn't know what it meant.

Well, I just found out and thought I'd share it with you.
Someone remind WikiLeaks that the U.S does not respond well to blackmail.

We'd think this was some kind of interactive Internet mystery if we didn't know better, but in fact WikiLeaks has released about 400 gigabytes' worth of mysterious data in a series of encrypted torrent files called "insurance." And no one can open it.

With nothing better to go on, the Internet has decided that "insurance" may be code for "back off" to the U.S. government...

File encryption means that the data is hidden and no one can see what's in the shared files without a key to unlock them—which, of course, hasn't been publicly released...

WikiLeaks abruptly released the files and asked the public to mirror them—on Facebook and Twitter, no less, hardly the place you go to drop off highly classified intelligence...

As long as the files are released without the keys that unlock them, it's impossible for anyone, even the government, to get inside.

But if WikiLeaks releases the keys to the public—and all the governments of the world at once—then it's possible that the war on unauthorized access to government secrets could get a lot more dangerous.
Of course people are speculating all over the place about what's in these files. Its possible that its all a hoax. But from what I've seen, Julian Assange is not the joking type. He obviously has copies of everything Snowden stole and has already hinted at doing one big data dump - the same way Wikileaks released the cablegate documents. Perhaps Mr. Assange grows tired of Greenwald being in the limelight and drib-drabbing the stories out. Who knows?

Whatever is going on, Assange is making a hardball power play. This should disabuse anyone who thinks any of this is about the privacy of ordinary Americans or that Assange is some kind of innocent bystander being needlessly surveilled by the US government. This is Mr. Assange's version of cyber war.

UPDATE: So this happened on Friday morning.  Early Sunday morning Glenn Greenwald's partner David Miranda was detained at the London Heathrow airport on his way home to Brazil after spending time in Germany with Laura Poitras and Jacob Applebaum (his Wikileaks collaborators) at the Guardian's expense. Its not real difficult to connect the dots.

Sirota goes all in on the "incompetent or liar" argument its David Sirota and he's an idiot with an acute case of Obama Derangement Syndrome. I should probably ignore him. But he's taken something we see pretty regularly to an extreme. So I'll just use him as a test case to make a point.

Sirota dusts off the argument of "either he's incompetent or a liar" and applies it to President Obama. Of course President Obama is too smart to be incompetent - and so he is, by default, a liar. The line about incompetence vs liar made sense when President Reagan said he didn't know about Iran/Contra. But its not like President Obama is suggesting he doesn't know about NSA surveillance. What it comes down to in Sirota's case is that he's using it as a tool to try to stop people from considering the President's arguments. In other words, its a rhetorical device used to distract rather than engage.

So lets take Sirota's three examples and break them down. First he suggests that President Obama said the FISA court is transparent. Here's what the President actually said in speaking about warrants issued by FISC.:
It is transparent...that's why we set up the FISA court. Look, the whole point of my concern before I was president...has always been not that we shouldn't do intelligence gathering to prevent terrorism, but rather, are we setting up a system of checks and balances...
He didn't say - as Sirota suggests - that the FISA court was transparent. He said the process was transparent. As I pointed out recently, the President admitted during his press conference a week ago that he had assumed - like all presidents since the Church Committee (when the FISA court was formed) - that court and Congressional oversight of intelligence programs were sufficient transparency as a system of checks and balances on the executive branch.

The conversation Sirota wants to avoid by creating this distraction is that we are now in the midst of creating a new historical precedent of including the American public in the conversation. That is a leap forward by this President that Sirota won't acknowledge.

His second example is the President saying "we don't have a domestic spying program." Sirota is referring to the telephone metadata collection program. The crux of the issue here is how one defines "spying." As we've already seen, the Supreme Court has been pretty clear on that question. If Sirota wanted to engage the questions that are actually on the table, he might talk about whether or not this program that allows the NSA to track who is talking to known terrorists and get warrants to review the content of their communications (something that might have alerted the government to the activities of the 9/11 hijackers in this country) is something we want to continue.

Finally, Sirota suggests that the President lied when he said the NSA programs were not being "abused." Of course he's basing that on the recent developments about the number of compliance violations noted in the latest Snowden leak. This is yet another word game Sirota is playing. When the President suggested there was no abuse, I'm sure he wasn't including the computer/human errors that were documented or that 70% of the compliance violations included foreign targets who had entered the US unbeknownst to NSA and were therefore now considered "US persons."

I can only suggest that Sirota has a different definition of the word "abuse" than I do. Usually I assume that word includes things like Hoover spying on Martin Luther King, Jr.  But once again, we are distracted from the whole discussion about adequate systems and safeguards that would prevent both compliance violations and abuse in an attempt to paint President Obama as a liar.

I'll grant that perhaps Sirota suffers from the same dysfunction as Greenwald in starting any discussion with the assumption that your opponent is lying. It then makes sense that whenever there is disagreement, you simply call them a liar.  But its really just a way of shutting down any meaningful discussion and therefore becomes a tool to ensure epistemic closure...blocking out any information that might challenge what you already believe. This is ultimately what separates the ideologues on both the left and right from the pragmatists. Their loss.

One library at a time

A little over 7 years ago, the nonprofit where I work moved into a new building that is located directly across the street from one of our city's public libraries. In the spirit of being a good neighbor, I went for a visit to introduce myself to the director. As we talked, she said that one of their biggest challenges was unruly kids in the library disrupting other patrons. As a matter of fact, things often got so out of control that they had to call the police to intervene.

I told her that - given that our agency's mission was "to redirect youth who are starting to get in trouble at home, at school or with the law" - I thought we could help. And so we got her staff together to provide some training/consultation. This issue was only partly about librarians not being trained in behavior management, it was also infused with the reality that most of the unruly youth were black and the librarians were white. What we might call these days the "Trayvon affect" was kicking in and so part of our task was to humanize these young people.

That experience was so successful that this particular library went from calling the police once a day on average to going a whole summer with not one call. It also meant that we went on to work with several other libraries in this community and around the country (we're also doing this work with schools and other after-school programs).

But our work with the library across the street didn't end there. They're now working with us to provide jobs to some of the youth we work with.

There are times I get discouraged about the state of race relations in our country. I see the entrenched fear and privilege that is both individually and systemically built into our culture. And then I think about things like this story and remember that at some point I have to quit screaming about it, get up off my butt, and do library at a time.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Snowden leak contradicts Snowden's assertions

By now you've probably heard about the latest Snowden leak published by Bart Gellman in the Washington Post. It is a report issued by SID Compliance and Oversight (the agency tasked with producing compliance reports on FISA implementation) on the NSA. With a screaming headline about "thousands of violations a year" sucking up most of the reaction to this report, it seems to me that a lot of folks are missing how this particular leak contradicts at least one of Snowden's assertions.

Let's go back to what he said in the online chat The Guardian hosted just after Snowden had "outed" himself as the leaker.
...audits are cursory, incomplete, and easily fooled by fake justifications. For at least GCHQ, the number of audited queries is only 5% of those performed.
I'll admit that I had to google GCHQ to find out what it is...the UK's version of the NSA.  I suppose that Snowden's intent in referring to them was to suggest that - like the UK - the NSA only audits 5% of the queries performed. With this latest release by Gellman, we know that to be false. As a matter of fact, what this document shows is that rather than being cursory and incomplete, SID audits are remarkably thorough.

In Glenn Greenwald's report on XKEYSCORE (the program the NSA uses to conduct these queries), he repeats a similar claim by Snowden.
Some searches conducted by NSA analysts are periodically reviewed by their supervisors within the NSA. "It's very rare to be questioned on our searches," Snowden told the Guardian in June...
Regardless of what you make of these "violations," one has to assume that either Snowden didn't know about the oversight being conducted on these queries (hard to imagine since he's the one who leaked this report to Gellman and Greenwald said that Snowden thoroughly reviewed everything he leaked) or he was lying. It is therefore important to note how this story has morphed from its early form of hysteria. Right out of the gate, Snowden made an explosive claim.
I, sitting at my desk could wiretap anyone, from you or your accountant, to a federal judge or even the president, if I had a personal email.
Then in that on-line chat at The Guardian, he equivocated a bit. general, the reality is this: if an NSA, FBI, CIA, DIA, etc analyst has access to query raw SIGINT databases, they can enter and get results for anything they want. Phone number, email, user id, cell phone handset id (IMEI), and so on - it's all the same. The restrictions against this are policy based, not technically based, and can change at any time.
Here he is suggesting that there are policies that prohibit an analyst from wiretapping anyone. But his qualification is what I quoted above...that audits on those policies are cursory, incomplete and rare. Now we know that is not true. So the goalposts have been moved once again.

Duly noted. Please proceed, Mr. Snowden.

P.S. In reviewing some of Mr. Snowden's early statements, I watched this video again.

I'll just note that at approximately 3:50 he makes the now totally discredited claim about NSA having "direct access" to internet company's systems. But its what he says at about 4:50 that I find incredible for anyone who has even cursory knowledge of the internet - much less a "systems administrator."
I grew up with the understanding that the world I lived in was one where people enjoyed the freedom to communicate with each other in privacy without it being monitored...without it being measured or analyzed or sort-of judged by these shadowy figures and systems anytime they mentioned anything that travels across public lines. I think a lot of people of my generation - anybody who grew up with the internet - that's their understanding.
I'm really trying to wrap my head around that one. He's talking about "privacy" of information that travels across "public" lines. It seems that he has absolutely no awareness of the contradiction. And of course when he talks about those "shadowy figures and systems," he wants us to only think about the government and not the 1,500 data points on 700 million people that Acxiom is collecting to distribute to its corporate clients. Can he really be that clueless about the fact that there is no such thing as privacy online?

Friday, August 16, 2013

There's no such thing as "privacy" online

Earlier I wrote about the fact that Edwards Snowden's "handlers" aren't really concerned about privacy. If they were, they surely wouldn't completely ignore things like this:
...Acxiom [a commercial data broker] reportedly has information on about 700 million active consumers worldwide, with some 1,500 data points per person. Such data brokers learn about us from the cookies that hitch rides as users travel online and from the social media sites where we post everything from home addresses to pictures to magazine subscriptions and store purchases, as well as deeds on file in towns and counties. They load all this data into sophisticated algorithms that spew out alarmingly personal predictions about our health, financial status, interests, sexual orientation, religious beliefs, politics and habits.
As Bob Cesca pointed out the other day, visiting Glenn Greenwald's article about XKEYSCORE at The Guardian would have provided information to 27 different trackers for this kind of data. While Glenn and The Guardian are hyperventilating about the fact that the US government might get access to that information (when in reality, NSA's online searches are restricted to non US persons), they obviously don't give a shit about the actual dossier on almost every American that companies like Acxiom make available to the corporate world.

That's what makes the whole conversation about all of this so ridiculous and infuriating. If there were two messages I'd like to scream at everyone they would be:
  1. Take a look at the real agenda of folks like Greenwald, Assange, and Applebaum - it has absolutely nothing to do with privacy.
  2. There is no such thing as privacy online. If we want to take advantage of the internet, we just have to accept that.
If we could understand those two things, we might actually be able to have a reasonable conversation about the very real issues that are involved.

The battle for the world-wide web

I think its high time we took a look at the people who are "handling" Edward Snowden and what their agenda is in all of this. That's because I think the questions are more broad than the one's we're currently hearing about related to NSA surveillance and actually go to the question of who controls the world-wide web. There is a battle raging beneath all this that has serious implications for all of us.

But first its important to recognize that Snowden is being handled. The question is "by whom?" Yesterday we saw that his father (and his father's lawyers) are starting to speak out about what's happening.
More fractious is the relationship among Lon Snowden, WikiLeaks and Mr. Greenwald. Mr. Fein's wife and spokeswoman, Mattie Fein, said Lon Snowden's legal team doesn't trust the intentions of Mr. Greenwald or WikiLeaks and worry they are giving Edward Snowden bad advice.

"The thing we have been most concerned about is that the people who have influence over Ed will try to use him for their own means," Ms. Fein said. "These guys have their own agenda here and we aren't so sure that it has Ed's best interest in mind."
In response, the Huffington Post received an email that is reportedly from Edward Snowden saying everything is cool. But its important to note that the HuffPo article is based on an email (that anyone could have written). I found this portion particularly sad:
Neither my father, his lawyer Bruce Fein, nor his wife Mattie Fein represent me in any way. None of them have been or are involved in my current situation, and this will not change in the future. I ask journalists to understand that they do not possess any special knowledge regarding my situation or future plans, and not to exploit the tragic vacuum of my father's emotional compromise for the sake of tabloid news.
In other words, we should not pay any attention to his father's anguish over what is happening to his son.

So, who are these people that are handling Edward Snowden? To understand the stakes, one of the best examples to look at is the battle that raged between Wikileaks and Bank of America. The story starts with the troves of donations Wikileaks was banking based on their "handling" of the Bradley Manning leaks (20,000 euros a month). Several banking institutions responded by refusing to process these donations. And Julian Assange (founder of Wikileaks) fought back by hacking into the hard drive of an executive at Bank of America and threatening to "take them down."

What we know now is that the Bank of American began working with HB Gary to develop a strategy to go after Wikileaks. We know that because the group Anonymous (which works closely with Wikileaks) hacked HB Gary's system and released 44,000 of the company's emails - including a plan to go after Wikileaks and Glenn Greenwald (who they saw as the critical spokesperson for Wikileaks...interesting).

Personally, I don't have a dog in the fight between Wikileaks and the Bank of America. But I tell that story to point out the agenda of some of the players involved in the Snowden situation. Does it strike you that they're really interested in anyone's "privacy" when their modus operandi is hacking into other people's computer systems? Take just a moment to review that Wikipedia article I linked to above about Anonymous and count up all the private information about innocent people they've hacked and released.  And then take a moment to read the speech Jacob Applebaum (Wikileak's promoter) gave about the importance of the work of Anonymous.

THE ISSUE HERE IS NOT ABOUT PRIVACY!!!!! Its about who controls the world-wide web. The battle has also been engaged in the fight between those who oppose any effort to control piracy and the proprietary rights of creators/artists/entrepreneurs. As with privacy in this technological age, that is a complex issue. But those that are screaming the loudest about government surveillance have planted themselves squarely on the side of open access, regardless of individual/business claims to proprietary rights.

Enter China and Russia. We know that the United States is in a heated battle with China over this issue. We should not forget that the Snowden revelations came out (with Snowden safely ensconced in Hong Kong) just as President Obama was about to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping to talk about cyber security. No one can doubt that the leaks significantly weakened the President's hand in those negotiations. Here's how Catherine Fiztpatrick explains it:
...the purpose is to weaken and discredit America as a champion of Internet freedom; to claim that it is a hypocrite and not true to its ideals; to act as if it is no different than the surveillance states of Russia and China; and to make it seem as if the "sovereign Internet" plans of these authoritarian governments then are justified due to the discreditation of both US commercial and government involvement in the World Wide Web.
By now we all know that Snowden has received asylum in - of all places - Russia. But it is Julian Assange's relationship with Russia that is most revealing. Perhaps the best example of that is that back in April 2012, he got a talk show on Russian-sponsored media. We also know that Snowden's legal issues in Russia have been jointly handled by Wikileaks and Anatoly Kucherena.
...he is a political supporter of Mr. Putin’s and serves on the Public Chamber, an advisory body that critics have long derided as a Potemkin construct of actual government oversight. He also serves as a member of another board that oversees the Federal Security Service, or F.S.B.
When folks like Julian Assange, Jacob Applebaum and Laura Poitras say that they are being surveilled by the US government (and therefore we should all be scared shitless about being surveilled ourselves), this is why. They are not innocent players in this world-wide battle over the internet. And they're fighting back...with the likes of Edward Snowden. Just like they fought back against Bank of America by hacking their secrets.

There are HUGE issues at stake here...privacy, piracy, hacking, who controls the internet, and the international balance of power with cyber security threats. But the idea that the Assange's and Greenwald's and Applebaum's of the world are taking up this cause on behalf of everyday Americans is pure hogwash.

"With fear for our democracy, I dissent."

My title is how Justice Sonia Sotomayor concluded her dissenting opinion to the Supreme Court case granting presidents criminal immunity for...