Tag Archives: politics

NSA Surveillance is an Ineffective Invasion of Privacy

General Keith Alexander, head of the National Security Agency, told the House Intelligence Committee on June 18th that American surveillance had helped prevent “more than 50 terrorist events” since 9/11 including 10 “homeland-based threats.”  However, when Deputy Director Sean Joyce of the FBI told the committee about two of the cases, the first was of a Kansas City man who contacted an extremist in Yeman who was already being watched by U.S. agencies, and the second was a man from San Diego who wanted to send money to a terrorist group in Somalia who was identified through the use of the NSA database. 

 In other words, two of the ten “homeland-based threats” were really the results of surveillance of known terrorist groups overseas, rather than plots by people in the U.S. who were not already being watched.  The article goes on:

 “In a rare note of skepticism, Representative Adam B. Schiff, a California Democrat, pressed Alexander about why the FBI could not use subpoenas to get the necessary domestic phone logs surrounding a suspicious number without the government’s obtaining logs of everyone’s calls. Alexander said he was open to discussion, but added, “The concern is speed in a crisis.”

 Note that the speed in a crisis excuse here is a re-run of the Bush administration’s justification for the use of torture – the bomb is ticking so we need to use water-boarding.  However, the police work necessary to prevent terror plots seldom involves the kind of Jack Bauer “24” style drama.  Even the cases cited by Deputy Director Joyce were initial conversations, not bomb ticking crisis.

 Big Data vs. Real Police Work

 In short, anti-terrorism work is police work, it is detective work, it is connecting evidence and figuring things out work.  NSA is unable to publically disclose even one case where big data was the principle means by which the agency deterred a real terrorist plot in the United States.  If there was such a case, it would be easy for General Alexander to release general details – for example, three men from Ohio were arrested for suspicious activities – without compromising agency methods.

 In fact, I believe the scale of the NSA data program (there are numerous stories about thousands of employees and billions of dollars spent on software and giant computer facilities) makes it less effective right now at tracking people who are possible terrorists.  That is, having billions of pieces of data and millions of people on watch lists, with more added daily, results in a process too vast to be used by people – the use of intuition and flashes of insight which are important in detective work is removed. 

We in Boston are especially sensitive to this issue.  The oldest Boston Marathon bomber, targeted for NSA and the FBI by his native Russian government, was not monitored closely enough to prevent his lethal attack.  Even more stunning are the hostile Twitter posts of his younger brother.  Why were these not flagged?  As least part of the answer is the agencies were busy siphoning up billions of pieces of data instead of carefully examining the ones that really mattered.  The fascination with technology is pushing aside more tradition and more effective methods of police work.

Now is the Time for Limits

The nature and scale of this surveillance program will only grow larger if we don’t create limits and safeguards while we are in this moment of national debate.  Already, there are more than 1,000 government security agencies and over 1,000 private companies invested in surveillance and data management.  More than one million people in these agencies and companies have top-secret security clearances.  As James Carroll pointed out:

“Such massive bureaucracy, staffed by un-named millions but commanded by no one, generates an impersonal dynamic of its own…Moral responsibility is diffuse.  Such a massive institution gathers its own momentum, and neither laws nor the Constitution nor oath-bound authorities may be able to channel it or stop it.”

Remember, this is only a point in time; the expansion of the power to watch you and track your movements is an on-going process.  If nothing is done now, I believe the next phase will be a greatly expanded use of surveillance drones, justified as fighting crime.

 We suffered grievously when we pushed aside fighting terrorism with police work in favor of using military power to invade and crush our enemies.  Let’s not make another terrible error by using computer technology to invade and crush our freedoms.


Politics and Unintended Consequences

Who knew that the German military theorist Carl von Clausewitz came up with a brilliant theory about politics that explains why it is shot through with unintended consequences and unusual twists and turns.

His “fascinating Trinity” offers a unique way to think about political life.

One of my good friends is always cautioning me about my bold statements about politics and what will happen next.  He is a devotee of the notion that life is extremely complex and all actions lead to unintended consequences.  It turns out that Clausewitz, who fought in the Prussian and Russian armies against Napoleon, felt the same way.

After Waterloo, he became the Director of the Prussian equivalent of West Point and wrote On War, one of those complex 19th century books that everyone talks about and nobody reads.  However, he still generates plenty of controversy amongst military theorists – the internet is crowded with debates about his ideas.

Clausewitz describes war as a “fascinating Trinity.”  In all wars, he says, both full tilt combat between major powers and guerrilla wars, there are three dimensions. First is the realm of passion and emotion, anger, loyalty, and violence because war is like a heavyweight wrestling match – direct and brutal.  Another realm is the element of chance, intuition, military genius, willpower, and “friction,” his term which is the genesis of the idea we know as the fog of war.  Finally, there is the realm of rational planning, policy making, and strategic decision making.

The course of every war veers around in a non-linear, chaotic fashion between these three elements. Clausewitz says it is like a metal object hanging on a string that is being attracted simultaneously by three magnets set up in a triangle arrangement.  I saw a demonstration of this situation on a video.  What happens is the metal object careens around wildly, being pulled almost randomly this way and that way between the three magnets.  It is a fascinating multi-dimensional demonstration that smashes the cramped linearity of lines and arrows and circles on a piece of paper.

Thus, war is unpredictable and all planned activities generate unforeseen, unintended consequences. Once a war starts, no one can predict its course.  Therefore, a nation must plan carefully for a war, trying to examine a wide array of possible outcomes to events. It must then be flexible and ready to re-evaluate frequently as the war continues.  He also says that politics is like war, except that there is no (or at least little) violence in the passion-emotion element.  That is why he pens the famous statement: “war is an extension of politics by other means.”

I hope to use this multi-dimensional trinity imagery to think more deeply about politics in the future.  For now, I will use Mr. Clausewitz in some future posts about Iraq and Afghanistan. I believe he can help us understand the disasters that occurred in those countries.

Atheists, Pagans, and Christians

Atheists are usually secular humanists – focused on the immediate world of human experience. Pagans are more like Christians because they both believe that there is a spiritual realm outside of human experience.

I know, at first blush, it seems logical that atheists would be the ones who are more like pagans.

Instead of juggling definitions, it is easier to understand these relationships from an historical perspective. As I explain in my book, Perils of Empire, like most pagans, the Romans did not understand why many things happened – people fell ill and died suddenly, some soldiers survived many battles while others died in their first skirmish, winter came and went – so they felt that gods or spirits must control these events and did so without seeming to care much about the fate of mere individuals. Through ceremonies, the many different pagan cults acknowledged the power of these gods, requested their assistance, and gave people a way to express uncertainty about their fate. This went on for thousands of years and was deeply embedded in all human cultures.

As the Christian religion developed and grew, many Christian holidays and traditions were borrowed from the pagan ceremonies already prevalent in the ancient world. Appropriating pagan-like traditions (for example the Christmas holiday occurs very close to the pagan solstice holiday) made it easier for pagans to convert to Christianity.

In addition, one of the attractions of the new religion was the idea that unlike pagan gods, the Christian God cared about you as an individual. Note that, in The Iliad, the gods openly meddle in the war between the Greeks and the Trojans, playing out their own feuds with no thought about the consequences for humans. A God who was eager to provide human believers with life after death was a very positive difference.

In contrast to this ancient contest, modern secular atheists don’t have a lot of ceremonies or teachings or traditions. Most atheists are “humanists” in some way – simple truths about the dignity and value of human life form the basis of their ethical beliefs and behavior.

Now, some atheists are “spiritualists” who consciously take up pagan rituals to create ties with old cultures and with nature. However, modern spiritualists don’t literally believe that pagan gods or spirits exist outside of the human realm. Remember, ancient pagans felt that nature really was populated with gods who were independent of humans and did their own thing. Modern spiritualists are more descendents of Jung’s ideas about a spiritual connection between humans and other living things – some sort of collective unconscious – so in that sense they are not truly pagan.

As a result, I think Christians, who believe in a God who exists outside of the human realm, are more like pagans than either atheists or spiritualists, who have a more human-based ethical system. Keep in mind that both monotheism and polytheism are religious perspectives; their differences are over the number of Gods and their relationship with humans.


The Big Banks, Big Media Screen Play

Big Banks and hedge funds usually have a cozy relationship with government regulators; a situation that Congress supports and the media seldom reveals to the public.

The term for this is “regulatory capture” and each actor has a role to play.

We begin our story with an article last week in the business section of the Boston Globe that was written by a journalist with the Associated Press. The article informed readers that Mary Jo White, the president’s nominee to be chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission (which regulates stocks and bonds and the companies that trade them) is a former federal prosecutor. During her confirmation hearing before the Senate Banking Committee, she said “Strong enforcement is … essential to the integrity of our financial markets.” The article concluded that the president’s nomination of a former prosecutor sent “a signal that he wants the government to get tougher with Wall Street.”

However, readers of Truthout, a much smaller group of Americans, discovered that Mary Jo White left government more than ten years ago to join a Wall Street law firm and represent clients such as JPMorgan Chase, UBS, General Electric, and a former Goldman Sachs board member who is appealing an insider trading conviction. Her role at the firm was to “concentrate on internal investigations and defense of companies and individuals accused by the government of involvement in white collar corporate crime or Securities and Exchange Commission and civil securities law violations.”

While serving as SEC Chairperson, she will be receiving $42,000 a month in retirement pay from her former firm, Debevoise and Plimpton LLP, which pays partner retirement benefits out of its current operating income – i.e. fees from large banks and corporations.

The Senate Banking Committee did not find this apparent conflict of interest troubling. In fact, the Washington Post noted that no senator voiced opposition and some of the time was spent discussing Ms. White’s active recreational habits such as riding motorcycles.

After exchanging pleasantries with Ms. White, the Republicans on the Banking Committee spent the rest of the day attacking Richard Cordray, who the president re-nominated to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. These ever aggressive defenders of big corporations and big banks denounced the Bureau and said they would filibuster Mr. Cordray’s nomination.

I believe this situation presents a good case study of regulatory capture in action. The less obvious, but still important things to note are:

(1) even Democratic liberals on the committee – including Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Jack Reed of Rhode Island, Robert Menendez of New Jersey, and Charles Schumer of New York – were not willing to challenge the president’s nominee or Wall Street influence, and

(2) voters who read only the Associated Press account of the hearing would have no idea of the compromised politics involved in the nomination.

I believe that regulatory capture, which happens everywhere in Washington, can only be prevented by interventions carried out by a political movement that pressures Democrats and demands media attention.  We can not wait for them to stand up to Wall Street and big business.


Inside Obama’s Election Strategy

In spite of media stories about a tightening race, Barack Obama has all but locked up an Electoral College majority.  He has held solid leads in New Mexico, Colorado, Iowa, and Virginia since the beginning of October and the website ‘Real Clear Politics,’ which has the best electoral college map on the internet, shows him pulling into a commanding lead in Nevada.  This means that the attention being paid to Ohio, Florida, North Carolina, Indiana, and Missouri are beside the point.  Obama can claim 291 electoral votes without winning any of these “swing” states.  Essentially, the campaign is now being waged around the size of Obama’s mandate.

Obama has assembled this commanding lead by combining the strategies advocated in two “big picture” books by Democratic political strategists.  The first, The Emerging Democratic Majority, written in 2001 by John Judis and Ruy Teixeira, said the Democrats could become the dominant party in the 21st century by appealing to people who live in urban areas with predominantly information/high tech economies – areas that are generally multi-cultural, socially liberal, and internationalist.  Their research showed that urban areas with these characteristics are growing in electoral importance in many states that traditionally have leaned Republican.  For example, the metro-Denver area in Colorado; the fast-growing suburban areas of northern Virginia; the Las Vegas-Reno area in Nevada, and the sprawling metro areas of Phoenix, Arizona and Santa Fe, New Mexico now have more voters than the conservative rural areas that have previously defined politics in those states.  They pointed out that several states considered swing states in the 1960s and 70s, for example Washington and California, had already become Democratic strongholds by 2001 because of the rising importance of metro-Seattle and the cultural transformation of the metro-Los Angeles area.

The second book, Whistling Past Dixie, written in 2006 by Thomas Schaller, says that the Democrats should focus on capturing western and northern states with culturally diverse populations rather than becoming more conservative on racial or cultural issues in a vain attempt to best the GOP in the south.  He specifically pointed to the southwestern states of Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado, but included states with tight presidential races in 2004 like Iowa, Wisconsin, New Hampshire, and Oregon.  His strategy is to confine the GOP to the conservative, religious, non-urban states of the deep South, Texas, and the lightly populated Great Plains.

Note that in both of these portraits of the American electorate, Ohio is a swing state outlier in the North because it doesn’t have a high tech urban area and southern Ohio is culturally similar to Kentucky and Tennessee.  In addition, Florida is a swing state outlier in the South because it has some high tech areas and a diverse mix of people due to immigration and retirement communities.

The attention and false claims of a McCain surge directed toward Pennsylvania reveal the nature of Obama’s success.  Unless McCain can somehow come from behind to win in Pennsylvania, victories in Ohio, Florida or other “swing states” of the past will make no difference.  We will know quickly on Tuesday night whether the Obama strategy of winning in the west and in multi-cultural urban areas has succeeded.  If he captures the eastern time zone states of Pennsylvania and Virginia then it will be time to discuss color patterns for the Obama White House drapes.

Darth Vader Visits Georgia

Under cover of the Republican convention, Vice President Dick Cheney journeyed to Georgia, Ukraine, and Azerbaijan during the first week of September, hoping to stir the pot and whip up a new cold war for the next president.  Cheney made a joint appearance with Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili and was as provocative as possible.  “Russia’s actions have cast grave doubt on its intentions and on its reliability as an international partner, not just in Georgia, but across this region and indeed throughout the international system,” intoned the man who masterminded the unilateral U.S. invasion of Iraq.  Saakashvili, a vocal U.S. ally, whose surprise attack on the break-away province of South Ossetia triggered a devastating Russian counter-attack, needs support from Washington because he is now under attack by Georgia’s opposition parties.  For example, David Gamkredlidze, leader of the New Right party, said last week, “Despite numerous warnings Saakashvili unilaterally took the criminal and irresponsible decision to shell (the South Ossetian capital) Tskhinvali, which led to catastrophic consequences for the country.”

Saakashvili seems to have been lured into initiating the war with Russia by the Bush administration’s push for Georgia to be admitted into NATO.  If so, the war and its aftermath are the result of a series of aggressive U.S. moves since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1990.  While dragging his feet on a nuclear arms reduction treaty with Boris Yeltsin, President Bill Clinton initiated a policy of offering NATO membership to the former communist countries of Eastern Europe.  The Bush administration enhanced this policy by pushing for NATO membership for former Soviet Republics, like Ukraine and Georgia, on Russia’s borders.

It is here, as with the situation in Iraq before the invasion, that national security policy intersects with oil.  The Clinton administration and now the Bush administration have been pushing for the building of pipelines from oil-rich Azerbajain (Georgia’s neighbor to the east), Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan through Georgia to the Black Sea.  This would by-pass the largest existing pipeline route to the large European market.  That pipeline runs through Russia.  Once again, Cheney is working toward an expansion of the American empire into an unstable oil region through armed diplomacy.  In fact, as Sarah Palin pointed out last week in her TV interview, if our European allies had given in to Bush administration pressure last spring and admitted Georgia into NATO, then the U.S. would have had a treaty obligation to send soldiers into Georgia to confront the Russian threat.  “Asked whether the U.S. would have to go to war with Russia if it invaded Georgia, and the tiny country was part of NATO, Palin said, ‘Perhaps so.”

Into this potent mix of military treaties and oil scheming steps John McCain.  The Republican presidential candidate was quick to support Saakashvili, telling an audience, “I told him that I know I speak for every American when I say to him, ‘Today, we are all Georgians.'”  McCain has already signaled his intention to take an aggressive stance against Russia, proposing last spring to evict Putin’s country from the Group of Eight industrial nations that meet yearly to discuss the world economy because Russian is not a functioning democracy.  Thus, election of the McCain-Palin ticket is likely to mean a return to a confrontational cold war relationship with Russia – just as Cheney has planned it.

Hail to the Commander-in-Chief?

Perhaps no single aspect of American politics is as revealing as the persistent question, “Does Barack Obama have what it takes to be Commander-in-Chief?”  Step back for a moment and think about what that question says about the role of an American president.  Commander-in-Chief, leader of the armed forces, in charge of military engagements anywhere and everywhere in the world.  It is now widely believed that Obama’s lead in the polls is being held back because voters are unsure of his readiness to command the American military machine.  Last week Obama took the bait, journeying to Afghanistan to proclaim his willingness to escalate the fighting there.  Isn’t that what a good Commander-in-Chief does, decide where to send the troops?

Hillary Clinton’s whole campaign was based on her perceived readiness to be Commander-in-Chief.  Remember the ringing telephone ad, “Its 3 a.m., somewhere in the world, something is happening” breathes an excited voice.  Couldn’t you just see Hillary leaping out of bed and launching cruise missles in her presidential pajamas?  The sad thing is that the ad helped her win the Ohio and Texas primaries.  According to the Wall Street Journal , by a 57% to 40% margin, Ohio voters felt Mrs. Clinton would be a better Commander-in Chief.  So it isn’t just the power mad neo-conservatives or the hard-nosed realists who are looking for a Commander-in-Chief, a significant portion of Democratic voters are, too.

All of these individuals, journalists, academics, military leaders, Republicans, and Democrats are assuming the empire.  We assume a President’s main job is to use our massive military machine to the run the world for our benefit.  Do the British or the Germans or the Japanese debate whether their candidates for high office will make a good Commander-in-Chief?  Of course not, they don’t assume that their country has the power to get involved in every conflict, assume it has the right to impose its will on other countries, in short, the right to act with imperial pretentions.  Oh, there were times when they did, and all three countries suffered in the 20th century because of those pretentions.  Perhaps that is why they are so wary when Americans point our cruise missles at another “enemy of freedom.”  While we claim to be coming to help, what we are really doing is meddling in someone else’s business.

There is an ancient parallel to our Commander-in-Chief syndrome.  Voters in the Roman Republic elected two consuls each year.  In addition to presiding over meetings of the Senate, the consuls were literally the generals in charge of Rome’s armies.  Voters, knowing that their consuls would also be generals, usually elected political leaders with good military credentials to both minor and major political offices.  As a result, ambitious men sought opportunities to enhance their military reputations, sought opportunities to incite warfare with neighboring tribes and peoples.  Politics in Rome became a viscious cycle, seeking military glory, individuals went out and provoked wars and clashes with other nations; those who were most successful at this bloody game won election to higher office.  Is it any wonder that the Roman Republic ended up beseiged, with an unruly empire, plagued by revolts by conquered peoples and demands from her generals for more soldiers, more money, and more power.  Ultimately, the political system collapsed into civil war and the elections and civil liberties that had distinguished the Roman Republic were sacrificed for the efficiency and order of an Emperor.

Read more about this dynamic in my new book – Perils of Empire: the Roman Republic and the American Republic, just click on the golden book cover to your right and order it from Algora Publishing (algora.com) or Amazon.com.