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An Absurd Column by Walter Pincus

Thursday, December 26th, 2013

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. "zen"]

Walter Pincus, taking notes for the embattled bureaucrats of the creepy-state here:

‘Front-Page Rule’ is unprecedented in U.S. intelligence community 

….“Accountability and secrecy” were two watchwords a former senior intelligence official said guided operations during his 40-year career, not whether the public would approve of everything he was doing.

However, that’s not what President Obama’s Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies said last week after its study of intelligence gathering in the wake of disclosures generated by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden’s leaking of tens of thousands of previously secret NSA documents.

The president’s five-member panel called for reinstituting what it called the “Front-Page Rule,” which it described as an “informal precept, long employed by the leaders of U.S. administration.” It said such activities should not be undertaken if the public couldn’t support them if exposed.

In some 40 years of covering intelligence, I have never heard of such a rule, nor have several former senior intelligence officials with whom I have talked.

….Today, within the ranks of the intelligence community, there is concern that, in the face of the political uproar growing out of the Snowden disclosures, Obama might be backing away from the NSA after initially supporting the agency. “The White House may be looking to escape responsibility,” the former official said, adding that recently not enough public support has been given to Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. and NSA Director Gen. Keith B. Alexander, who are out front defending the programs.

There are other recommendations and statements put forward by the president’s review board that run contrary to past and present operations.

For example, the panel said a collection effort should not be initiated “if a foreign government’s likely negative reaction” to it being revealed “would outweigh the value of the information likely to be obtained.” That’s a judgment call that every CIA officer, from junior to senior, routinely makes.

….The president’s review board writes that “if we are too aggressive in our surveillance policies under section 702 [a program that permits collection of intelligence from foreign targets associated with terrorists], we might trigger serious economic repercussions for American businesses.”

It is true that the Church and Pike hearings left a generation of IC personnel feeling burned and very risk averse toward covert operations and distrustful of politicians as a career philosophy. We are seeing that longstanding IC bureaucratic preference for risk aversion here in the veiled threat by senior insiders that the IC will have to sit on their hands vis-a-vis foreigners unless the NSA is greenlighted to spy on Americans to an unlimited degree.

What utter rubbish.

The Church and Pike hearings were primarily about the so-called CIA “crown jewels” – clandestine operations, actual and proposed, against foreign targets that were hostile to the United States and usually sympathetic to the Soviet Union when not outright Communists. Some of these operations were ill-considered and harebrained while others were well conceived if not executed, but the driving force behind the hearings was that many prominent committee members were very liberal to leftist antiwar Democrats, some had monumental egos or presidential ambitions and many strongly opposed anti-communist and interventionist foreign policies for ideological reasons.

It is also true that this 1970′s history has little or nothing to do with the NSA becoming an unconstitutional organ of mass domestic surveillance. Apples and oranges. Letting the NSA control all our private data data does not mean the CIA then runs a more robust HUMINT clandestine program against the Iranians, al Qaida, the Chinese or Pakistanis. Likely it will produce the opposite effect as relying systemically more and more on SIGINT is a dandy bureaucratic excuse to approve fewer and fewer covert operations or risky espionage targets.

Americans, outside State Department personnel who have to deal with the resultant headaches, could really care less if the NSA bugs the German chancellor’s cell phone or the ex-terrorist Marxist president of Brazil. To the extent they think of it at all, most would probably say “Hell, yeah!” because that is exactly what a foreign intelligence service is for. If Americans heard the NSA or CIA conducted some surveillance that resulted in Ayman al-Zawahiri being killed in a horrible way it is likely to meet with high approval ratings.
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The idea that Americans as a whole, outside of the usual anti-American activist-protestor crowd, dislike successful covert ops against our enemies is a proposition for which there is scant evidence. The so-called “Frontpage rule” being touted by Pincus is complete B.S. intended to blur the lines of what institutional missions are really being discussed.
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If senior managers of the NSA and CIA would rather investigate American citizens on a national scale in secret then they are in the wrong line of work and should resign or retire so that people more motivated to harry our enemies can take their places. Mass surveillance is the job of a secret police, not a foreign intelligence or even a counterintelligence service. In some countries a secret police agency is a normal and legal part of the government structure. The United States is not one of those nations and the “big boy rules” for IC operations overseas against specific, dangerous, hostile foreign targets cannot apply inside the United States against the broad mass of citizens while having the US remain a constitutional democracy anchored in the rule of law.
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You can have one or the other but not both.
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Irony

Tuesday, May 14th, 2013

From the State Department Human Rights Report on Russia under the Putin administration:

….The law forbids officials from entering a private residence except in cases prescribed by federal law or on the basis of a judicial decision. The law also prohibits government monitoring of correspondence, telephone conversations, and other means of communication without a warrant and prohibits the collection, storage, utilization, and dissemination of information about a person’s private life without his or her consent. While these provisions were generally followed, there were allegations that government officials and others engaged in electronic surveillance without judicial permission and entered residences and other premises without warrants.

News from yesterday about the United States government under the Obama Administration:

….The IRS sent Crossroads’ application to ProPublica in response to a public-records request. The document sent to ProPublica didn’t include an official IRS recognition letter, which is typically attached to applications of nonprofits that have been recognized. The IRS is only required to give out applications of groups recognized as tax-exempt.

“In an email Thursday, an IRS spokeswoman said the agency had no record of an approved application for Crossroads GPS, meaning that the group’s application was still in limbo.

and:

Internal Revenue Service officials in Washington and at least two other offices were involved with investigating conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status, making clear that the effort reached well beyond the branch in Cincinnati that was initially blamed, according to documents obtained by The Washington Post.

IRS officials at the agency’s Washington headquarters sent queries to conservative groups asking about their donors and other aspects of their operations, while officials in the El Monte and Laguna Niguel offices in California sent similar questionnaires to tea-party-affiliated groups, the documents show.

and:

The Justice Department secretly obtained two months of telephone records of reporters and editors for The Associated Press in what the news cooperative’s top executive called a “massive and unprecedented intrusion” into how news organizations gather the news.

The records obtained by the Justice Department listed outgoing calls for the work and personal phone numbers of individual reporters, for general AP office numbers in New York, Washington and Hartford, Conn., and for the main number for the AP in the House of Representatives press gallery, according to attorneys for the AP. It was not clear if the records also included incoming calls or the duration of the calls.

In all, the government seized the records for more than 20 separate telephone lines assigned to AP and its journalists in April and May of 2012. The exact number of journalists who used the phone lines during that period is unknown, but more than 100 journalists work in the offices where phone records were targeted, on a wide array of stories about government and other matters.

In a letter of protest sent to Attorney General Eric Holder on Monday, AP President and Chief Executive Officer Gary Pruitt said the government sought and obtained information far beyond anything that could be justified by any specific investigation. He demanded the return of the phone records and destruction of all copies.

“There can be no possible justification for such an overbroad collection of the telephone communications of The Associated Press and its reporters. These records potentially reveal communications with confidential sources across all of the newsgathering activities undertaken by the AP during a two-month period, provide a road map to AP’s newsgathering operations and disclose information about AP’s activities and operations that the government has no conceivable right to know,” Pruitt said.

I look forward to the report by the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Human Rights in the United States.

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Concerning the enforcement of morals

Wednesday, January 30th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron -- enforcement of moral codes in the UK, US, Israel and KSA, unofficial and official, worsening, continuing and improving, quite the smörgåsbord ]
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Moral vigilantism appears to be on the rise in parts of London, according to this first-person piece by Jane Kelly, consulting editor of the Salisbury Review, which identifies itself as “seriously right” — ‘I feel like a stranger where I live’ [Telegraph, 29 January 2013]:

“When you go swimming, it’s much healthier to keep your whole body completely covered, you know.” The Muslim lady behind the counter in my local pharmacy has recently started giving me advice like this. It’s kindly meant and I’m always glad to hear her views because she is one of the few people in west London where I live who talks to me.

[ … ]

More worryingly, I feel that public spaces are becoming contested. One food store has recently installed a sign banning alcohol on the premises. Fair enough. But it also says: “No alcohol allowed on the streets near this shop.” I am no fan of street drinking, and rowdy behaviour and loutish individuals are an aspect of modern British ”culture’’ I hate. But I feel uneasy that this shopkeeper wants to control the streets outside his shop. I asked him what he meant by his notice but he just smiled at me wistfully.

Perhaps he and his fellow Muslims want to turn the area into another Tower Hamlets, the east London borough where ”suggestive’’ advertising is banned and last year a woman was refused a job in a pharmacy because she wasn’t veiled.

On the other hand, maybe I should be grateful. At least in Acton there is just a sign in a shop. Since the start of the year there have been several reports from around London of a more aggressive approach. Television news footage last week showed incidents filmed on a mobile phone on a Saturday night, in the borough of Waltham Forest, of men shouting “This is a Muslim area” at white Britons.

The video commentary stated: “From women walking the street dressed like complete naked animals with no self-respect, to drunk people carrying alcohol, we try our best to capture and forbid it all.”

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It also appears to be present in parts of Brooklyn, according to Modesty in Ultra-Orthodox Brooklyn Is Enforced by Secret Squads, [New York Times, January 29, 2013]:

In the close-knit world of ultra-Orthodox Judaism, community members know the modesty rules as well as Wall Street bankers who show up for work in a Brooks Brothers suit. Women wear long skirts and long-sleeved, high-necked blouses on the street; men do not wear Bermuda shorts in summer. Schools prescribe the color and thickness of girls’ stockings.

The rules are spoken and unspoken, enforced by social pressure but also, in ways that some find increasingly disturbing, by the modesty committees. Their power is evident in the fact that of the half dozen women’s clothing stores along Lee Avenue, only one features mannequins, and those are relatively shapeless, fully clothed torsos.

The groups have long been a part of daily life in the ultra-Orthodox communities that dot Brooklyn and other corners of the Jewish world. But they sprang into public view with the trial of Nechemya Weberman, a prominent member of the Satmar Hasidim in Brooklyn, who last week was sentenced to 103 years in prison after being convicted of sexually abusing a young girl sent to him for counseling.

[… ]

The details were startling: a witness for Mr. Weberman’s defense, Baila Gluck, testified that masked men representing a modesty committee in the Hasidic village of Kiryas Joel, N.Y ., 50 miles northwest of New Y ork City, broke into her bedroom about seven years ago and confiscated her cellphone.

The Brooklyn district attorney, Charles J. Hynes, who prosecuted the Weberman case, has now received allegations that members of a modesty committee forced their way into a home in the borough, confiscating an iPad and computer equipment deemed inappropriate for Orthodox children, officials say.

[ ... ]

“They operate like the Mafia,” said Rabbi Allan Nadler, director of the Jewish studies program at Drew University in Madison, N.J.

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And in Israel — from the same report, although perhaps more widely known? I’ve certainly seen mentions…

In Israel, there have been similar concerns. Though no modesty committee was overtly involved, there has been anger over ultra-Orthodox zealots who spit on and insulted an 8-year-old girl for walking to school through their neighborhood in a dress they considered immodest.

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Meanwhile, the Saudis seem to be decreasing the scope of their official equivalent, according to Saudi limits powers of the notorious religious police [Al Arabiya, 30 January 2013]:

Saudi Arabia has set new limitations on the powers of its notorious religious police, charged with ensuring compliance with Islamic morality but often accused of abuses, its chief said on Tuesday.

The Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice “once had much expanded powers, but with the new system… some of these powers, such as interrogating suspects and pressing charges,” will be restricted to the police and public prosecution, Shaikh Abdul Latif Abdel Aziz Al Shaikh told AFP.

The religious police may still arrest those carrying out “flagrant offences such as harassing women, consuming alcohol and drugs, blackmail and the practice of witchcraft,” Shaikh said of the new law approved by the cabinet.

and:

Relatively moderate Al Shaikh, appointed last year, has raised hopes that a more lenient force will ease draconian social constraints in deeply conservative Islamic country.

Two weeks into his post, Al Shaikh banned volunteers from serving in the commission, which enforces the kingdom’s strict Islamic rules.

H/t John Burgess at Crossroads Arabia.

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All these articles are worth reading in full, and you’ll be enriched by reading them together, comparatively — food for thought!

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The Controversial CTC Report

Friday, January 25th, 2013

The Center for Combating Terrorism at West Point released a report on domestic terrorism that raised hackles for a number of reasons. Despite the dismissals of liberal political pundits, the reasons for objections to the CTC report are legitimate but they did not need to arise in the first place and might have been avoided with a slightly different editorial approach or appropriate caveats (I just finished reading the report, which is primarily focused on the usual suspects). Here’s why I think the normally well-regarded CTC stumbled into a hornet’s nest:

First, in this foray into domestic terrorism analysis, the center chose to concentrate only on the threat of violence of the Far Right while ignoring other threats coming from the Far Left, infiltration by criminal insurgent networks from Mexico, notably the ultraviolent Zetas whose reach has stirred gang violence in Chicago and Islamist terrorism, either homegrown “lone wolves” or from foreign infiltration or subversion. In itself, this is understandable if the CTC plans a series of reports with a separate focus on different domestic threats; but without that context, it is a myopic analytic perspective, particularly given the demonstrated capabilities of various AQ affiliates or just south of the border, the criminal-insurgency of  the narco-cartels. Had all of these been addressed in one omnibus report, any complaints from conservatives were likely to have been muted or nonexistent. This is not to say that the radical American Far Right does not have a violent threat potential of it’s own worth studying; it does and it is real. But available evidence indicates it to be the least organized, least operationally active and least professionally competent in terms of terrorist “tradecraft” of the three.

The second and most problematic aspect of the report is an intellectually sloppy definition of a dangerous “antifederalist movement”  where noxious concepts like “white supremacy” and wacko conspiracy theories are casually associated with very mainstream conservative (or even traditionally bipartisan !) political ideas – coincidentally, some of the same ideas that contemporary “big government” liberal elites tend to find irritating, objectionable or critical of their preferred policies. Part of the equation here is that American politics are evolvng into a very bitterly partisan, “low trust” environment, but even on the merits of critical analysis,  these two passages are ill-considered and are largely responsible for most of the recent public criticism of the CTC:

….The antifederalist rationale is multifaceted, and includes the beliefs that the American political system and its proxies were hijacked by external forces interested in promoting a “New World Order” (NWO) in which the United States will be absorbed into the United Nations or another version of global government.  They also espouse strong convictions regarding the federal government, believing it to be corrupt and tyrannical, with a natural tendency to intrude on individuals’ civil and constitutional rights.  Finally, they support civil activism, individual freedoms, and self government

….In contrast to the relatively long tradition of the white supremacy racist movement, the anti-federalist movement appeared in full force only in the early to mid-1990s, with the emergence of groups such as the  Militia of Montana and the Michigan Militia. Antifederalism is normally identified in the literature as the “Militia” or “Patriot” movement. Anti-federalist and anti-government sentiments were present in American society before the 1990s in diverse movements and ideological associations promoting anti-taxation, gun rights, survivalist  practices,and libertarian ideas 

This is taxonomic incoherence, or at least could have used some bright-line specifics ( like “Posse Commitatus” qualifying what was meant by “anti-taxation” activists) though in some cases, such as “libertarian ideas” and “civil activism”, I’m at a loss to know who or what violent actors they were implying, despite being fairly well informed on such matters.

By the standard used in the first paragraph, Glenn Greenwald, Ralph Nader and the ACLU would also be considered “far right antifederalists”. By the standards of the second, we might be in physical danger from Grover Norquist,  Congressman John Dingell and Penn Jillette. No one who opposed the recent increases in income tax rates, dislikes gun-control or thought the DOJ may have abused it’s power in the prosecution of Aaron Swartz or in their stubborn refusal to prosecute Bankster racketeering is likely to welcome a report under the auspices of West Point that juxtaposes such normal and perfectly valid American political beliefs with neo-Nazism. A move that is simply going to – and quite frankly, did – gratuitously irritate a large number of people, including many in the defense and national security communities who are a natural “customer base” for CTC reports.

As I said previously, this could easily have been completely avoided with more careful use of language, given that 99% the report has nothing to do with mainstream politics and is concerned with actors and orgs with often extensive track records of violence. As the CTC, despite it’s independence, is associated so strongly with an official U.S. Army institution, it needs to go the extra mile in explaining it’s analysis when examining domestic terrorism subjects that are or, appear to be, connected to perfectly legitimate participation in the political process. This is the case whether the subject is on the Left or Right – few activists on the Left, for example, have forgotten the days of COINTELPRO and are currently aggrieved by the activities of Project Vigilant.

I might make a few other criticisms of the report, such as the need for a better informed historical perspective, but that is hardly what the recent uproar was about.

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Guns and The New Paternalism

Thursday, December 27th, 2012

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg      Photo credit: The New York Times 

Longtime reader and blogfriend Eddie Beaver sent me a link to an article by NYT columnist, Ross Douthat. In my view, Douthat has written a fairly important observation of a political dynamic that is broader than the simply the new push by the elite for new and stringent gun control legislation:

Bloomberg, LaPierre and the Void

FOR a week after the Newtown shooting, the conversation was dominated by the self-righteous certainties of the American center-left. In print and on the airwaves, the chorus was nearly universal: the only possible response to Adam Lanza’s rampage was an immediate crusade for gun control, the necessary firearm restrictions were all self-evident, and anyone who doubted their efficacy had the blood of children on his hands.

The leading gun control chorister was Michael Bloomberg, and this was fitting, because on a range of issues New York’s mayor has become the de facto spokesman for the self-consciously centrist liberalism of the Acela Corridor elite. Like so many members of that class, Bloomberg combines immense talent with immense provincialism: his view of American politics is basically the famous New Yorker cover showing Manhattan’s West Side overshadowing the world, and his bedrock assumption is that the liberal paternalism with which New York is governed can and should be a model for the nation as a whole.

….Unfortunately for our country, the Bloomberg versus LaPierre contrast is basically all of American politics today. Our society is divided between an ascendant center-left that’s far too confident in its own rigor and righteousness and a conservatism that’s marched into an ideological cul-de-sac and is currently battering its head against the wall.

….The establishment view is interventionist, corporatist and culturally liberal. It thinks that issues like health care and climate change and immigration are best worked out through comprehensive bills drawn up by enlightened officials working hand in glove with business interests. It regards sexual liberty as sacrosanct, and other liberties — from the freedoms of churches to the rights of gun owners — as negotiable at best. It thinks that the elite should pay slightly higher taxes, and everyone else should give up guns, SUVs and Big Gulps and live more like, well, Manhattanites. It allows the president an entirely free hand overseas, and takes the Bush-Obama continuities in foreign policy for granted.

Douthat’s criticism of a reflexively angry but unimaginative and politically inept Right is correct, but class trumps mere Left-Right distinctions regarding gun control, with celebrity pundit Fareed Zakaria and conservative press baron Rupert Murdoch aligning with fellow Manhattan West Side billionaire and gun control zealot, Mayor Michael  Bloomberg  and various worthies in calling for UK style “gun bans”.

Britain of course, does not have a 2nd Amendment or, for that matter, a written Constitution that acts as a bar to government curtailment of civil liberties and both Parliament and British courts have different views on the limits of basic rights of free speech, self-defense (not just with guns), property and other liberties than the American norm. In light of the  2nd Amendment and District of Columbia vs. Heller, that sort of draconian legislation that makes gun ownership a privilege of the very few, would be obviously unconstitutional. If Illinois, for example must comply with a Federal Appellate Court order to permit citizens under new legislation to carry concealed guns, it is rather unlikely the Federal courts will entertain a confiscatory national gun control law that would trample not only the 2nd Amendment, but the 4th, 5th and 14th along the way. Nor would the governors of a majority of American states be on board for this, nor most Congressmen from rural states or the high tens of millions of Americans who own guns and reside in zip codes outside of Georgetown and Manhattan.

However, a healthy disregard for the strictures of Constitutional law and the liberties of ordinary citizens is a hallmark of the New Paternalism of our increasingly oligarchic elite, composed of superwealthy billionaires, hedge fund managers, Fortune 500 CEOs and the technocratic-political-legal class sporting ivy league pedigrees. They are even worse on the 4th Amendment and individual privacy than on gun rights look disapprovingly at the First, which constrains their ability to censor and punish unenlightened opinions or political criticism. Outside of gay marriage and abortion, I am hard pressed to think of a single individual liberty our elite holds in unqualified esteem or at least in as much esteem in their own presumed competence to rule.

As Douthat noted, this not merely about guns, but of this small group having a searing contempt for the way the majority of Americans live their lives and a manifest, bipartisan, desire to regulate them for their own good in matters great and small. To decide how other Americans should educate their children; whether they should go to college and if so, what they should be permitted to study;  how much and what kind of food they should be allowed to eat or drink; whether their religion should be treated with deference in public policy or dismissed for the greater good; where they should live and how far back their “middle-class” living standards should be cut or pensions reduced, transformed or eliminated for the benefit of those whose incompetently  mismanaged companies, banks and   equities firms were so recently bailed out by taxpayers and the Federal Reserve.

It would be one thing, of course, if these high minded New Paternalists intended to live under the laws they eagerly want to impose on the rest of us, but largely they intend a different set of rules for themselves. They are ardent gun-control advocates who pack heat, public pension reformers who loot their employee’s pensions to enrich themselves, ed reformers who send their kids to posh private schools , crusaders against obesity who love junk food, zealous environmentalists with giant carbon footprints and advocates of tax reform whose corporations pay no taxes. Their mismatch between words and deeds is so vast as to almost be admirable – say what you like about this cabal’s lack of humility or sense stewardship, they hit the jackpot when it came to chutzpah.

If Hubris mated with Hypocrisy, their offspring would look much like the present American leadership class.

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