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Sunday, June 30, 2013

The function of dysfunction: to rig the game

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The system's rigged; time to revolt

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By Bob GaydosFrom http://www.flickr.com/photos/34267346@N06/9125418802/: Edward Snowden NSA Whistleblower From Hong Kong To Moscow To Ecuador Pissing Off US
Edward Snowden NSA Whistleblower From Hong Kong To Moscow To Ecuador Pissing Off US by zennie62
Edward Snowden, currently on the run and accused of being a spy, did more than reveal how much snooping our government does on its own citizens. For me, he provided a smack upside the head and a wakeup call to something I've believed for a long time but, being a bit lazy and self-absorbed, had dispatched to a dusty, unexercised corner of my brain.

To wit: The game is rigged. Put another way: "Dysfunction" has a function.

Consider this: With Congress' approval rating at historic lows, with Republicans rejecting out of hand every proposal put forth by Democratic President Barack Obama, with a Democrat-controlled Senate unable to pass meaningful legislation because of archaic filibuster rules used by Republicans, with both major political parties staking out rigid positions on opposite sides of every issue, what is the one thing on which Republicans and Democrats suddenly agree? That Edward Snowden is a traitor.

That is the Edward Snowden who blew the whistle on the most sweeping, secret domestic spying operation ever conducted by an American government on its people. It is an invasion of privacy condoned -- and now vigorously defended -- by both political parties as necessary for the security of the people being spied upon. Yes, the politicians also read George Orwell. But they've been caught with their "bad-is-good" pants down and have demonstrated that, when their power is in jeopardy, they can find true harmony. All together now: Snowden is a traitor.

The threat to the power brokers, of course, is that a lot of Americans will awaken from their self-absorbed delusion that their elected representatives are actually trying to do something positive for their constituents, as opposed to the reality they are doing whatever is necessary to maintain their membership in the power elite. That's the 1 percent who reap the fruits of the manufactured dysfunction.

Look at it this way: Democrats talk about jobs, immigration, education, the minimum wage, etc. Republicans talk about abortion, guns, rape, gay marriage, etc. The parties bicker and banter and do next to nothing  about any of those issues. Dysfunction. Or so it seems.

But they also ignore issues that would actually fix much of the apparent dysfunction -- campaign finance reform and revising the filibuster rules, for two.

It's planned dysfunction.  You keep your talking points; we'll keep ours. We'll all get re-elected anyway or, if not, move on to even more-lucrative lobbying jobs, book tours, top corporate positions or TV punditry. Rigged.

And it's not just Congress. Having plunged the world into the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, American banks and investment firms (which used to be separate entities) are now reaping the profits of their plundering of other people's wealth, thanks to a government bailout and the failure of the political powers that be -- who reap substantial campaign contributions from these financial institutions -- to send any of the bankers to jail.

In the sequel to "Wall Street," arch-villain Gordon Gekko says he was convicted of a "victimless crime," as if no lives are negatively affected when companies go under because of shady, immoral behavior by financial companies.

At least Gekko went to prison for his misdeeds. But then, that was in the movies and even his creator, Oliver Stone, tries to find some redeeming traits in his main character in the sequel. Meanwhile, in real life, no one can make any money today putting money in banks and, as Gekko also points out in the sequel, the task of investing money in the stock markets, where profits may be made, has been made so complex, only "about 75 people in the world understand it." 

That may be an exaggeration, but not by much. Most of us need to trust the very people who have proven to be untrustworthy with our money to make investments.

There are other dots to connect, but for now I'll limit it to major corporations that move top executives to influential government positions and back again, getting laws written to their liking (often by their own former employees), usually without a whimper from members of Congress. Think Monsanto and Halliburton.

Corporations pour tens of millions of dollars into political campaigns hoping to elect candidates who will then return the favor by promoting legislation that will improve corporate profits or opposing proposals placing restrictions on corporate power. The latter would include the public's right to sue and to obtain information on corporate practices. This is serving the private, not the public, good. It's part of the system.

Now, this rigging did not occur in a vacuum. There had to be at least an implicit acknowledgement from the rest of us that what the people to whom we had entrusted power and position was doing was right and proper for all of us. That may have simply come in the form of apathy or blissful ignorance. Don't bother to vote. Don't try to understand the issues. Hey, life is already too busy and complicated without such things.

But not for those whose motivation is accumulating more wealth and power. For them, an important part of the rigged system is making it seem so complicated and out of our control that it is impossible to change. That's not necessarily true. There are people, even politicians, who recognize that things have been rigged for a powerful elite and who speak out regularly about it. Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren and Rep. Jim Moran are three of the most outspoken. They need allies and support, vocal and financial.

So do the Internet activists campaigning for campaign finance reform and greater transparency in government and Wall Street. These are not obscure issues that don't impact us. Indeed, they are crucial to ending the grip of the 1 percent on our national wealth and positions of power.

There are some simple steps that can be taken by individuals, groups, towns to begin to reclaim some control over our lives. Registering to vote and actually voting is a start. Getting informed on the issues that matter and working to raise awareness (think the Occupy movement and social media) is another. The movement to sustainability and buying locally grown food, as opposed to that offered by corporate growers, are not just "feel-good" green ideas. Like using alternative energy, they challenge the influence of large corporations (and they don't come more influential than oil companies) and give people some control over their lives. People have even started turning their lawns into vegetable gardens. Seattle is planning the nation's first public food garden. Take a walk, pick an apple. Eat it.

Some of this may sound simplistic and even ineffectual in the face of such entrenched power and wealth, but all revolutions have to start somehow. And make no mistake, nothing less than an all-out revolution will serve to unrig the system and dislodge those who thrive within it. Some noise must be made. The alternative is to do what many of us have been doing for a long time -- complain that "they're all crooked, so what's the use?"

Some people are comparing Edward Snowden to Paul Revere. I won't go that far yet. There's too much information still unknown (and yes, the mainstream media stands suspect as being part of the system). But I'm not ready to call Snowden a traitor either, not when Republicans and Democrats somehow manage to agree that he is. That smells too much like the fix is in.  
Bob Gaydos is veteran of 40-plus years in daily newspapers. He began as police reporter with The (Binghamton) Sun-Bulletin, eventually covering government and politics as well as serving as city editor, features editor, sports editor and executive (more...)

Greg Kaufman: America's Poor Are Demonized To Justify Huge Cuts in Gov't Prgrams

News & Politics  

Many low-income Americans work extremely hard but need food stamps and other support to make up for low wages.

In the following interview with Bill Moyers, Greg Kaufmann, poverty correspondent for The Nation, says the poor in America are stereotyped and demonized in an effort to justify huge cuts in food stamps and other crucial programs for low-income Americans.

“People are working and they’re not getting paid enough to feed their families, pay their utilities, pay for their housing, pay for the healthcare… if you’re not paying people enough to pay for the basics, they’re going to need help getting food,” Kaufmann tells Moyers. “There are a lot of corporations that want to be involved in the fight against hunger. The best thing they can do is get on board for fair wages.”

The following is the transcript of an interview that originally appeared on BillMoyers.com


Bill Moyers: Food stamps were at the core of the monster farm bill that went down to defeat in the House of Representatives last week. That bill would have cut food stamps by some $20 billion over 10 years, but that was too little for House Republicans and too much for House Democrats, although Senate Democrats had already agreed to cuts of more than $4 billion.

Here to talk about food stamps and the farm bill is a journalist whose beat is hunger, politics, and policy. Greg Kaufmann is poverty correspondent for “The Nation” magazine and a contributor to our website, BillMoyers.com. He’s also an advisor to the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, founded by journalist Barbara Ehrenreich and the Institute for Policy Studies. Greg Kaufman, welcome.

Greg Kaufmann: Great to be with you, Bill.

Bill Moyers: There are almost 48 million people using food stamps a day, and over recent years that’s a 70 percent increase. What does your own reporting tell you about why?

Greg Kaufmann: Well, the biggest reason, I think, is the proliferation of low-wage work. People are working and they're not getting paid enough to feed their families, pay their utilities and pay for their housing, pay for the healthcare. We had 28 percent of workers in 2011 made wages that were less than the poverty line. Poverty wages.

Fifty percent of the jobs in this country make less than $34,000 a year. Twenty-five percent make less than the poverty line for a family of four, which is $23,000 a year. So, if you're not paying people enough to pay for the basics, they're going to need help getting food.

And food stamps expanded because we went through the greatest the worst recession since the Great Depression. And it did what it's supposed to do. And now, you know, mostly Republicans are saying, "Why are there so many people on food stamps?" You know, they're claiming the recession's over, but we know that most people on food stamps are, if they're getting work, it's low-wage work that doesn't pay enough to pay for food.

Bill Moyers: The farm bill that failed in Congress last week would've spent $743.9 billion on food stamps and nutrition over the next ten years. Republicans wanted to cut that by some $20 billion over the same period, ten years. Given that we're spending $75 to $78 billion a year now on food stamps, do they have a case?

Greg Kaufmann: Well, look, do they make a point that we’re spending too much? I mean, if they're comfortable saying two million people should be thrown off food stamps, 200,000 low-income children should not have access to meals, to their meals in school. Hey, they can make that argument all they want. I think it's out of sync with the values of this country.

Bill Moyers: Here is what Representative Steve King of Iowa said in the debate on the floor at the time the farm bill was up for consideration. Quote, "When we see the expansion of the dependency class in America, and you add this to the 79 other means-tested welfare programs that we have in the United States, each time you add another brick to that wall it's a barrier to people that might go out and succeed." What does your own reporting find?

Greg Kaufmann: Boy, I wish he would take a look at this great study done just in November of 2012, that was released. Dr. Hilary Hoynes at the University of California Davis and her colleagues looked at this issue of self-reliance and food stamps.

They looked at the rollout of food stamps county by county and adults who were born between 1956 and '81 who were born in disadvantaged families defined as parents not having a high school diploma. And they looked at those people in their adult outcomes who had had access to food stamps when they were young or even in utero.

And they found that the adults, all the adults had significant reductions in metabolic illnesses such as heart disease, diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure. And even more remarkable to me was women in particular had higher earnings, higher income, higher education attainment and less reliance on welfare assistance in general.

All these years these guys have been saying it's promoting dependence, and it's been building self-reliance. I wish that the congressman from Iowa would take a look at that study.

Bill Moyers: You watched the debate over the farm bill. You followed it very closely. What did you-- summarize it for me. What was going on there?

Greg Kaufmann: You know, with some exceptions of people who are committed to telling the truth, we heard that this was about the deficit. But food stamps, over the next ten years, are projected to be 1.7 percent of federal spending according to the Congressional Budget Office. We heard this was about fraud, but less than one cent on the dollar of food stamp spending is lost to fraud, less than one cent on the dollar.

And we heard fraud from the chairwoman Senator Stabenow, Democratic chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee. We heard a lot about this was, you know, rural districts versus urban districts and welfare on the back of farmers. But you know what? The truth is Food Research and Action Center has shown that the percentage of households in rural districts participating in food stamps is the same as the percentage of households in urban districts.

So my big takeaway is that if we don't insist on a fact-based discussion, these are the kinds of absurdities that we're going to hear. And we're going to get bad bills. You mentioned the House bill, but even the Democratic bill started with $4 billion in cuts. Senator Gillibrand had a good amendment, restoring those cuts which she would pay for by reducing the profit that the government guarantees to crop insurance companies. They guarantee a 14 percent profit. She said, "Let's do 12 percent and not do the food stamp cuts." Makes sense. Was trounced by Democrats who didn't want to stand up to the chairwoman and maybe lose their projects in the final farm bill.

Bill Moyers: And they weren't eager to stand up to agribusiness, either, were they? The big factory farms? Weren’t there still a lot of subsidies in that bill for big farms?

Greg Kaufmann: Yeah, what we saw in A Place at the Table in terms of the agribusiness subsidies was consistent in this farm bill, too. And if you look at the donations and I think some other reporters have done this and I know the Environment Working Group has worked on this if you look at the political contributions in the House ag committees to both Democrats and Republicans, and those businesses are giving big bucks to those campaigns.

Bill Moyers: What's the one most important thing you'd like for us to know about the issue as it plays out in Congress? What's going on up there when they're debating the farm bill and food stamps?

Greg Kaufmann: Well, they're catering to the most powerful interests, just like seems like with pretty much all legislation. You mentioned the agribusiness interests, the crop insurance interests. We aren't talking about hunger and what does it mean in this country to commit to ending hunger.

Bill Moyers: Why did you take this beat on as a commitment?

Greg Kaufmann: Well, on a personal level, I think I had worked for a Boys and Girls Club in Ohio for a few years and got to know so many of the families there didn't know what to expect. But all the things I've been describing about how hard people work, I mean, that was the first thing that hit me, how hard they work two jobs, how they hard they work to arrange child care, how hard they work to get their kids to a safe place. And I got tired of sort of annual articles on poverty -- not at “The Nation,” “The Nation” has always been committed to covering it.

But when the new poverty statistics would come out, you'd see screaming headlines, "Record Poverty," oh my god, poverty, poverty. Very few of the articles actually interviewed people who were in poverty. You know, the fact that over one in three Americans, over 100 million Americans are living at just twice the poverty level, so just—

Bill Moyers: Which is about what?

Greg Kaufmann: Less than $36,000 for a family of three. That's crazy. I mean, because we have poverty defined at, you know, at such a low level, $18,000 for a family of three. But really, if you think about poverty as access to the basics that we, that everybody needs food, housing, healthcare, a decent job, you know, education, you know, we know it takes a lot more than that.

Bill Moyers: What's your own sense of why this is the case, this vast inequality in a country as rich as ours? I mean, what does this say to you, the richest 400 people on the “Forbes” list made more from the stock market gains last year than the total amount of the food, housing and education budgets combined. I mean, the Walmart corporation made $17 billion last year, $17 billion.

Greg Kaufmann: Right.

Bill Moyers:Paying its workers so little, they have to use government programs to get by. In other words taxpayers are subsidizing Walmart's--

Greg Kaufmann: Right.

Bill Moyers: —low-income jobs.

Greg Kaufmann: Yeah. I mean, I think not having organized labor plays a huge role in that, the declining unionization rate. I think, yeah, I mean, Walmart's a great example. Paying employees, helping them sign up for food stamps. I mean, I'm glad that people can get food stamps but, like, why not just pay a wage? I mean, there are a lot of corporations that are, you know, want to be involved in the fight against hunger. And the best thing they can do is get on board for fair wages.

So, yeah, I think there has been turning away from real people and what they're experiencing in this country. That's why I was so disappointed as crazy as the House farm bill was, the fact that the Democrats started with a $4.1 billion cut almost made me angrier, because they're supposed to be the party that's in touch with people's real experiences.

Bill Moyers: What do you mean?

Greg Kaufmann: Well, like, why aren't they talking about that food stamps create nine dollars of economic activity for every five dollars in spending? Why aren't they talking about what Dr. Chilton talks about, the benefits socially, emotionally, cognitively, physically that's documented for children, and we care so much about children and what that means for their future opportunities. I mean, the Democrats are supposed to be connected to the experiences of ordinary Americans. And when you start with this defensive wimpy posture of, "Oh, okay, we'll cut this much," instead of fighting for what you believe in, we're in trouble.

Bill Moyers: Our viewers, what would you like them to know about what you know about hunger in America?

Greg Kaufmann: I would like them to know that there are great groups that they can get involved with who are trying to work on this. Witnesses to Hunger, Share our Strength is doing good stuff with communities to get school breakfast programs expanded, New York City Coalition Against Hunger, who, you know, Joel Berg was saying we need to do town halls. We've got to pressure all these congressmen to do town halls in every district to make it more visible.

Food Research and Action Center did a great lobbying day involving more people in the community. So, there are groups to get involved with that are really committed to using science and evidence to inform our policy and to pressure the candidates and make this issue more visible.

Greg Kaufmann is a Nation contributor covering poverty in America, primarily through his blog, This Week in Poverty. Through his writing he seeks to increase media coverage of poverty, share new research, elevate the voices of people living in poverty and offer readers opportunities to get involved with organizations working to eradicate poverty.

6 Insidious Ways Surveillance Changes the Way We Think and Act


  News & Politics  


6 Insidious Ways Surveillance Changes the Way We Think and Act

Like it or not, we’re being transformed as citizens, neighbors and human beings.

Photo Credit: Brian A Jackson/ Shutterstock.com

When I moved to a Czech village in 1994 to teach English, I was fascinated by the cultural difference between Americans like me and my new community. At that time, the oppressive memory of the dreaded Communist secret police, the StB, was still fresh. (Check out a haunting series of street photos snapped by agents in their heyday.) As a brash young ex-pat, born after the era of McCarthy and J. Edgar Hoover, I understood little of what it felt like to live under constant surveillance.
The Czechs knew better. Several decades under the watchful eyes of the StB (and before that, the spies of the Habsburg Empire) had molded their attitudes and behavior in ways that were both subtle and profound. They were on their guard with newcomers. When you got to know them, you might sense a tendency toward fatalism about the future. Signature Czech traits included a sophisticated gallows humor and a sharp sense of the absurd, honed by a lifetime of experiencing Kafka-esque political conditions (Kafka himself was a Czech).

Then there was that subversive streak. When you gained their trust, Czechs would often gleefully show you their old smuggled rock-and-roll records or describe a forbidden radio set up in some corner of the house. These proud tales of rebellious triumph over the StB were cast against stories of horror, like a student who told me of the day her daddy disappeared after “talking to the oven” where a radio was hidden. For most Czechs, the salient lesson of the police state was an us-against-them mentality. Only sometimes you didn’t know who “they” were.

1994 was the very beginning of the Information Age, and it has turned out rather differently than many expected. Instead of information made available for us, the key feature seems to be information collected about us. Rather of granting us anonymity and privacy with which to explore a world of facts and data, our own data is relentlessly and continually collected and monitored. The wondrous things that were supposed to make our lives easier—mobile devices, gmail, Skype, GPS, and Facebook—have become tools to track us, for whatever purposes the trackers decide. We have been happily shopping for the bars to our own prisons, one product at at time.

Researchers have long known that there are serious psychological consequences to being surveilled, and you can be sure that it's changing us, both as a society and as individuals. It’s throwing us off balance, heightening some characteristics and inhibiting others, and tailoring our behavior sometimes to show what the watcher wants to see, and other times to actively rebel against a condition that feels intrusive and disempowering.

If you think about it, “Prism” is the perfect name for a secret program of extensive watching that will shift our perspective and potentially fracture our view of each other and of ourselves as citizens. Public opinion is now sorting itself out, and we don’t yet know how Americans will come to feel about the new revelations of spying on the part of the government, private contractors, and their enablers. But whether we like it or not, surveillance is now a factor in how we think and act. Here are some of the things that can happen when watching becomes the norm, a little map to the surveillance road ahead.

1. Shifting power dynamics: When an NSA agent sorts through our personal data, he makes judgments about us—what category to place us in, how to interpret and predict our behavior. He can manipulate, manage and influence us in ways we don’t even notice. He gains opportunities for discrimination, coercion and selective enforcement of laws. Because the analysis of megadata results in a high number of false positives, he may target us even if our activities are perfectly blameless from his perspective.

As Michel Foucault and other social theorists have realized, the watcher/watched scenario is chiefly about power. It amplifies and exaggerates the sense of power in the person doing the watching, and on the flip side, enhances the sense of powerlessness in the watched. Foucault knew that knowledge is linked to power in insidious ways. Each time the watcher observes, she gains new knowledge about the watched, and correspondingly increases her power. That power is then used to shape reality, and the watcher’s knowledge becomes “truth.” Other perspectives are delegitimized, or worse, criminalized.

2. Criminal activity: Every apologist for the surveillance state will make the claim that spying on citizens protects us from things like terrorism, crime and violence. That may indeed be true. What is also true is that surveillance can be used just as easily to commit a crime as to prevent it. History shows us ample cases of governments, including our own, using surveillance to turn upon their own people in unlawful ways, in some cases launching attacks that are just as devastating as those feared from outsiders.

Surveillance also turns citizens into criminals, either by distorting laws to criminalize behavior which was once considered lawful, or in breeding hostility and rebellion on the part of the populace which can lead to crime.

Today’s private contractors also have incentives to use surveillance to commit crimes outside of any political agenda. How about a little insider trading? How about stealing business ideas? How about using collected data to sexually prey upon others? To blackmail for any purpose imaginable? To sell our information to the highest bidder? For every Snowden who balks at the use of data collected for surveillance, you can bet there are two other contractors using it to enrich or empower themselves. Unlike elected officials, there is no way for us to even attempt to make them accountable.

3. Diminished citizenship: In his article, “The Dangers of Surveillance,” Neil M. Richards warns that state scrutiny can chill the exercise of our civil liberties and inhibit us from experimenting with “new, controversial, or deviant ideas.” Intellectual privacy, he argues, is key to a free society. Surveillance protects the status quo and serves as a brake on change.

We’ve begun to see this in the places where we expect intellectual freedom to be most strongly protected. Recently, Harvard University administrators were found to be spying on the email accounts of 16 deans while trying to find the source of a media leak, an action which curtails cherished academic freedom. The U.S. government was outed as spying on journalists at the Associated Press, behavior which dampens reporters’ enthusiasm for investigating the government’s secrets and analyzing its actions.

When intellectual privacy, freedom of speech, and freedom of the press are restricted through surveillance, powerful ideas about truth, values, and how we live are increasingly imposed from the top down, rather than generated by citizens from the bottom up. When Big Brother is watching, Big Brother decides what's best for us. Citizens become apathetic, disengaged, and worst of all, feel a loss of dignity in their very status as citizens.

4. Suspicious minds: Surveillance makes everyone seem suspicous. The watched become instilled with an air of criminality, and eventually begin to feel culpable. Psychological researchers have found that surveillance tends to create perceptions and expectations of dishonesty.

The growing mutual distrust between the watcher and wathed leads to hostility and paranoia. One of the key features of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon was the notion that the inmates of an institution based on his design, such as a prison, would never be able to tell whether they were being watched or not, creating a heightened sense of unease. The tradition of secret police operatives and informants blending in with citizens prevents the watched from knowing the identity of the watcher, as does the distance of technology firms and government entities spying through computers and communication devices. All of these can breed an unhealthy social atmosphere as well as an individual sense of discomfort and suspicion.

5. Divided society: In his book, Brain on Fire, Tim McCormacks discusses the class divisions that tend to rise between the watcher and the watched. Rights, privileges and power become distributed according to who has the most access to observation. The watcher groups categorizes people based on who most arouses suspicion, which may be based on various prejudices or political agendas.
A watcher class may emerge which protects its interests by more watching, and more punishing and control of the watched. It increasingly wields power over technology, financial and legal systems, the political realms, and military capabilities. Those who hold power may become invisible to all but a few insiders, a nightmare scenario Orwell imagined in 1984.(Maybe that’s why sales of Orwell’s book have skyrocketed in the wake of revelations about Prism).

6. Unhappiness: Finallly, though you will not hear many pundits talking about it, surveillance tends to make us unhappy. Bentham's Panopticon was designed to inflict pain on a few (those in prison) for the sake of the happiness of the many in the community. But when everyone is being watched, everyone is experiencing pain, even, perhaps, the watcher. The brilliant  German film "The Lives of Others" depicts the mental anguish of an agent of the East German secret police as he spies on his neighbors.

Some kind os surveillance may make us feel happier, at least initially.  The presence of cameras on the street, for example, may give us a comforting sense of security (even though the cameras may actually be doing nothing to stop crime). But when we discover that we are being watched in ways we never imagined, for purposes we can hardly fathom, our happiness decreases. Bosses reading our email, technology firms tracking our Internet searches, and government agencies monitoring our communications for secret purposes makes us feel anxious and resentful. Systematic surveillance may squelch our creativity as we are managed to become more conformist. We come to distrust each other and our sense of unfairness rises.

The goal of using surveillance to produce a happy and stable state may well beget, perversely, the opposite: a society of edgy, unhappy beings whose sense of themselves is chronically diminished. Not exactly a recipe for Utopia.

Lynn Parramore is an AlterNet senior editor. She is cofounder of Recessionwire, founding editor of New Deal 2.0, and author of 'Reading the Sphinx: Ancient Egypt in Nineteenth-Century Literary Culture.' She received her Ph.d in English and Cultural Theory from NYU, where she has taught essay writing and semiotics. She is the Director of AlterNet's New Economic Dialogue Project. Follow her on Twitter @LynnParramore.

German magazine claims US bugged EU diplomats

MSN news

German magazine claims US bugged EU diplomats

 Der Spiegel claims the National Security Agency bugged offices and spied on European Union internal computer networks in Washington and at the United Nations.

BERLIN — The United States has bugged European Union offices and gained access to EU internal computer networks, according to secret documents cited in a German magazine on Saturday, the latest in a series of exposures of alleged U.S. spy programmes.

Der Spiegel quoted from a September 2010 "top secret" U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) document that it said fugitive former NSA contractor Edward Snowden had taken with him, and the weekly's journalists had seen in part.

The document outlines how the NSA bugged offices and spied on EU internal computer networks in Washington and at the United Nations, not only listening to conversations and phone calls but also gaining access to documents and emails.

The document explicitly called the EU a "target".

A spokesman for the Office of the U.S. Director of National Intelligence had no comment on the Der Spiegel story.

Martin Schulz, the president of the European Parliament, said that if the report was correct, it would have a "severe impact" on relations between the EU and the United States.

"On behalf of the European Parliament, I demand full clarification and require further information speedily from the U.S. authorities with regard to these allegations," he said in an emailed statement.
Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn told Der Spiegel: "If these reports are true, it's disgusting.

"The United States would be better off monitoring its secret services rather than its allies. We must get a guarantee from the very highest level now that this stops immediately."

Rumor: NSA spied on Obama before he was president

Snowden's disclosures in foreign media about U.S. surveillance programs have ignited a political firestrom in the United States and abroad over the balance between privacy rights and national security.

According to Der Spiegel, the NSA also targeted telecommunications at the Justus Lipsius building in Brussels, home to the European Council, the collective of EU national governments.
Without citing sources, the magazine reported that more than five years ago security officers at the EU had noticed several missed calls and traced them to NSA offices within the NATO compound in Brussels.

Each EU member state has rooms in Justus Lipsius with phone and internet connections, which ministers can use.

Related: US asks Ecuador not to give Snowden asylum

Snowden, a U.S. citizen, fled the United States to Hong Kong in May, a few weeks before the publication in the Guardian and the Washington Post of details he provided about secret U.S. government surveillance of internet and phone traffic.

Snowden, 30, has been holed up in a Moscow airport transit area since last weekend. The leftist government of Ecuador is reviewing his request for asylum.

Additional reporting by Tabassum Zakaria in Washington

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Government Spying: Why You Can't 'Just Trust Us'

Government Spying: Why You Can't 'Just Trust Us'

A bus passes by a poster of Edward Snowden, a former contractor at the National Security Agency (NSA), displayed by his supporters at Hong Kong's financial Central district during the midnight hours of June 18, 2013. Reuters/Bobby Yip

Since we learned that the government has been collecting and storing Americans’ call data for years, Senate Intelligence Committee chair Dianne Feinstein; her counterpart in the House, Mike Rogers; and James Clapper, director of national intelligence, have been trying to claim it is not as bad as it sounds. The collection doesn’t include the content of communications, merely “metadata,” they argue, and anyway, the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court limits the circumstances under which the government can access this information. “The court only allows the data to be queried when there is a reasonable suspicion, based on specific facts, that the particular basis for the query is associated with a foreign terrorist organization,” says Clapper.
In other words, the government’s response amounts to “trust us.”

But Americans have good reason to distrust the program, which, according to The Washington Post, is called MAINWAY. That’s true not just because history reminds us that the government has abused surveillance authorizations in the past, as it did when it used COINTELPRO to spy on dissidents decades ago. It’s also true because one of the direct predecessors of this program proved ripe for abuse.

Beginning in 2002, the government worked with the three major phone companies (at the time AT&T, Verizon and MCI) to set up lines in the FBI’s New York office—and later its Washington counterterrorism office—from which phone company employees would be able to access their company’s databases directly. FBI agents would have those employees query the database right from the FBI office, mostly using National Security Letters (NSLs)—a means of obtaining information directly from service providers without review by a judge. The purpose was similar to the newly revealed collection program: to allow the government quick access to metadata on any calls made in the United States. The metadata was then uploaded and entered into government computers in an easily usable format.

The earlier program started being phased out in 2006, just as the current one was being phased in, suggesting that this program replaced the earlier one. By creating copies of phone company databases, which are updated daily, the government has simply shifted the companies’ role. Today, the phone companies turn everything over in bulk. Rather than having phone company employees access the data, the NSA or FBI does it.

A 2010 report by the Justice Department’s inspector general (IG) shows that the predecessor program was a mess. The FBI failed to keep adequate records of requests made by the government to phone companies, frequently violating the limits of what they were entitled to take. More troubling still is a tool the FBI implemented, ostensibly for emergency situations, called “exigent letters”: basically a request to phone companies to provide data immediately, with a promise to provide the appropriate legal paperwork—either an NSL or a subpoena—after the fact. Using exigent letters, the FBI obtained records for more than 3,000 phone numbers, often failing to submit the paperwork, or doing so without the appropriate approvals. Requests were often approved by junior staffers, who had no authority to do so.

Moreover, some requests were not tied, as required, to a specific authorized investigation. Significant numbers (perhaps 17 percent, judging from figures in the IG report) were tied not to national security investigations, but to domestic ones. At times, the FBI requested information on phone numbers when no investigation was pending. When accepting information from phone companies, the FBI didn’t always compare its contents with the original request and therefore may have entered unrelated information into FBI databases. In an unknown number of other requests, the FBI submitted no paperwork at all.

In addition, in several cases, the FBI obtained reporters’ phone records by using this method, including the Post’s Ellen Nakashima and the Times’s Jane Perlez.

These abuses were uncovered over a number of years. As early as November 2004, the phone companies started complaining that they didn’t have the proper paperwork, which they needed to prove they had not turned over their customers’ phone records illegally. Then, as the FBI tried to provide legal cover for the missing paperwork, more senior FBI figures became aware of the problems. The IG investigation—the early phases of which started not long after being mandated by the Patriot Act renewal in 2006—itself identified some problems. But it appears their full extent was not uncovered until the IG investigation discovered them in 2008—two years after the current practice had been put into place.

Based on the details revealed to date, the government has improved oversight in at least two ways. According to NSA chief Keith Alexander’s testimony at a congressional hearing on June 18, only twenty-two specially trained officials have the authority to make or approve queries. Previously, most analysts making queries had little experience with national security investigations or NSLs.
In addition, the government at least claims all queries are documented and can be audited, though it has provided no details on how it ensures documentation. Alexander testified that the executive branch reviews queries and provides details on those queries in aggregate to the FISA court and Congress. The Court does not—as Congressman Adam Schiff suggested ought to happen—review the queries themselves.

Several other potential oversight mechanisms have gotten weaker since 2006. Whistleblowers might still expose problems, but national security whistleblowers are not provided the same legal protections as whistleblowers in other areas of government. The inspector general is working on a review of the department’s use of NSLs and Section 215 orders (the latter being the Patriot Act provision currently being used). But it has been five years since the last review of the Section 215 programs, which assessed the program implementation only for 2006, and the discussion of this collection program appeared in a still-redacted classified appendix. Further, this new report will cover the program only through 2009. So even the most useful tools for exposing past abuses—a review of the actual queries by the Justice Department’s inspector general—is only now auditing how the program was implemented four years ago.

Perhaps most important, removing the phone companies from the search process eliminates one check on the process, because the companies no longer have the opportunity or incentive to do what they did almost a decade ago: demand paperwork to meet the terms of the law.

At the hearing on Capitol Hill, the NSA and the FBI tried to demonstrate the value of the government’s dragnet by pointing to terrorist plots it helped thwart. Witnesses boasted that ten plots have been foiled with its help over seven years—a rather unimpressive figure when one considers that these “plots” include things like indirect material support of terrorism, and that the government has thwarted five times that many plots just in the last three years. Does this truly require the government to collect all Americans’ phone data?

The hearing suggested that the answer is no. When Congressman Schiff asked witnesses whether the same information could have been obtained with individual requests to the phone companies for the data, they admitted that, with some work, they could (and now, with the exposure of the program, are considering doing just that).

The conclusion: for seven years, the government has been systematically collecting and keeping our phone records, all to thwart a handful of plots that, it turns out, could have been stopped in a much less invasive fashion. Is this really a program the Obama administration wants to defend?

More coverage of the NSA spying scandal from this week's Nation can be viewed here and here.

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Exposing the Dark Forces Behind the Snowden Smears

News & Politics  


Exposing the Dark Forces Behind the Snowden Smears

Who is planting anti-Snowden attacks with Buzzfeed, and why is the website playing along?

Since journalist Glenn Greenwald revealed the existence of the National Security Agency’s PRISM domestic surveillance program, he and his source, the whistleblower Edward Snowden, have come in for a series of ugly attacks. On June 26, the day that the New York Daily News published a straightforward smear piece on Greenwald, the website Buzzfeed rolled out a remarkably similar article, a lengthy profile that focused on Greenwald’s personal life and supposed eccentricities.
Both outlets attempted to make hay out of Greenwald’s involvement over a decade ago on the business end of a porn distribution company, an arcane detail that had little, if any, bearing on the domestic spying scandal he sparked. The coordinated nature of the smears prompted Reuters media columnist Jack Shafer to ask if an opposition research firm was behind them. “I wonder who commissioned the file,” he mused on Twitter.
A day before the Greenwald attacks appeared, Buzzfeed published an anonymously sourced story about the government of Ecuador, which had reportedly offered asylum to Snowden (Ecuador has just revoked a temporary travel document issued to Snowden). Written by Rosie Gray and Adrian Carasquillo, the article relied on documents marked as “secret” that were passed to Buzzfeed by sources described as “activists who wished to call attention to the [Ecuadorian] government’s spying practices in the context of its new international role” as the possible future sanctuary of Snowden.
Gray and Carasquillo reported that Ecuador’s intelligence service had attempted to procure surveillance technology from two Israeli firms. Without firm proof that the system was ever put into use, the authors claimed the documents “suggest a commitment to domestic surveillance that rivals the practices by the United States’ National Security Agency.” (Buzzfeed has never published a critical report on the $3 billion in aid the US provides to Israel each year, which is used to buy equipment explicitly designed for repressing, spying on and killing occupied Palestinians).
Buzzfeed’s Ecuador expose supported a theme increasingly advanced by Snowden’s critics -- that the hero of civil libertarians and government transparency activists was, in fact, a self-interested hypocrite content to seek sanctuary from undemocratic regimes. Curiously, those who seized on the story had no problem with Buzzfeed’s reporters relying on leaked government documents marked as classified. For some Snowden detractors, the issue was apparently not his leaking, but which government his leaks embarrassed.


Questionable journalism ethics, evidence of smears

At first glance, Buzzfeed's Ecuador expose might have seemed like riveting material. Upon closer examination, however, the story turned out to be anything but the exclusive the website promoted it as. In fact, the news of Ecuador’s possible deal with Israeli surveillance firms was reported hours before Buzzfeed’s piece appeared by Aleksander Boyd, a blogger and activist with close ties to right-wing elements in South America. “Rafael Correa's Ecuadorian regime spies on its citizens in a way strikingly similar to what Snowden accuses the U.S. of doing,” claimed Boyd.
Later in the day, Boyd contacted Buzzfeed’s Gray through Twitter, complimenting her piece before commenting, “Evidently Ecuadorian source leaked same info to you guys, seems I jumped the gun before you…”

Since Boyd contacted Gray, who has not publicly responded, Buzzfeed has not credited him or altered its headline to acknowledge that its story was not an exclusive. Buzzfeed’s refusal to acknowledge Boyd was not only a testament to the kind of questionable practices that have plagued the outlet since its inception, it helped obscure the story’s disturbing origins.
Boyd’s disclosure that a single source shopped opposition research to him and Buzzfeed at the same time confirmed the existence of a coordinated campaign orchestrated by elements exploiting the Snowden drama for political gain. Boyd’s remark that he “jumped the gun” suggests that the source intended for Buzzfeed to be the first to publish the story, and that he inadvertently embarrassed the site by running with it before them. There is also the possibility that Boyd was the source all along, and that his tweet to Gray was designed to establish deniability. Either way, the source seemed to be carefully managing the operation, wielding Snowden as a cudgel against the Ecuadorian government and timing the story for maximum impact.


Soliciting smears, dreaming of headless opponents

Who is Boyd, and how did he appear in the middle of the Snowden saga?
A London-based representative of Venezuela’s political opposition, Boyd solicits his services as an opposition researcher, informing potential clients through his official bio, “Alek can be contracted to do due diligence on individuals and companies in Venezuela and LatAm.”
As I reported for The Electronic Intifada, Boyd has repeatedly promoted terrorism and assassination against members of the elected government of Venezuela. Back in 2004, Boyd wrote, “I wish I could decapitate in public plazas [Venezuelan politicians] Lina Ron and Diosdado Cabello. I wish I could torture for the rest of his remaining existence Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel … I wish I could fly over Caracas slums throwing the dead bodies of the criminals that have destroyed my country … Only barbaric practices will neutralize them, much the same way [Genghis] Khan did. I wish I was him.” A year later, he declared, “Re: advocating for violence yes I have mentioned in many occasions that in my view that is the only solution left for dealing with [Hugo] Chavez.”
In 2008, Boyd’s services were contracted by the Human Rights Foundation (HRF), an NGO run by a veteran conservative activist named Thor Halvorssen. The son of a Venezuelan oligarch and former CIA asset who funneled money to the Nicaraguan Contras, Halvorssen founded HRF to publicize the human rights abuses of Hugo Chavez’s government. His first cousin, Leopoldo Lopez, the son of an oil industry executive, is one of the most visible leaders of the Venezuelan opposition, and as such, has received substantial financial support from the US. In 2002, Lopez was among the politicians who momentarily seized power from Chavez during a failed coup attempt. At the 2010 Oslo Freedom Forum, a yearly confab Halvorssen promotes as “the Davos of human rights,” Lopez was presented to an audience of foreign correspondents and diplomats as a “human rights leader.”
Boyd claimed that during his year and a half working for Halvorssen, he successfully campaigned for the release of Guadelupe Llori, an Ecuadorian opposition politician jailed by Correa under charges of sabotage and terrorism for her role in leading a crippling oil workers’ strike. (After her release, Llori was junketed to Halvorssen’s Oslo Freedom Forum). During this time Boyd visited Llori in prison in Ecuador while meeting opposition activists “to coordinate future projects,” as he told an interviewer. Whether this was how he made initial contact with the source that supplied him and Buzzfeed with the documents on Ecuador’s deal with the Israeli surveillance firms is unknown.
Boyd may have never met Buzzfeed’s Gray, however, each are well acquainted with Halvorssen. This May, Gray was among the select cadre of journalists flown to the Oslo Freedom Forum to provide positive PR for Halvorssen and his global operation. Gray returned with a fawning profile of Halvorssen, portraying him as an iconoclastic activist whose “job of opposing strongmen is arguably more media-friendly than that of anyone doing human rights work today.”
In contrast to Buzzfeed’s profile of Greenwald, Gray cast Halvorssen’s eccentricities as charming quirks that bore little relevance to the larger story. And his intimate ties to the right-wing Venezuelan opposition and the oligarchic forces seeking to topple socialist-oriented governments in South America went unmentioned.

Right-wing corporate lobbyists target Correa

Ecuador’s Correa is among the most popular of the Latin American leaders to embrace Hugo Chavez’s socialist economic model. Having defiantly defaulted on $3.2 billion in foreign loans, he has been able to leverage his country’s oil wealth to drastically expand social programs, improving access to education and doubling spending on healthcare while lowering poverty rates by a remarkable five percent since he took office in 2007. Naturally, Correa’s rejection of neoliberal policies has earned him a fair share of enemies, especially among the elites who have traditionally governed Ecuador. In 2010, he resisted a coup attempt led by Lucio Gutierrez, a former president who earned the wrath of Ecuador’s poor by implementing crushing IMF-imposed austerity measures.
Correa’s opponents may have resorted to zero-sum politics, but his response has not always been judicious. He has, for example, advanced criminal libel laws as a means of punishing opposition media and has battled indigenous groups that protested his attempts to open their land up to wide-scale state mining operations. The Committee to Protect Journalists has accused Correa of leading Ecuador “into a new era of widespread repression.”
Of all the enemies Correa has earned, some of his fiercest reside not in Quito, but in the conservative think tanks of Washington. They include George W. Bush’s former Latin America handlers and a coterie of corporate-bankrolled right-wing radicals determined to unravel the South American socialist bloc.
Ezequiel Vazquez Ger, an Argentina-born economist, is among the most aggressive of Correa’s antagonists. Vazquez Ger works for a DC-based lobbying firm run by Otto Reich, a Cuban exile who served as the Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs under the second Bush administration. In 1987, Reich was singled out during the US Comptroller General’s investigation of Iran-Contra for having “engaged in prohibited, covert propaganda activities” on behalf of the Nicaraguan Contras. He is also suspected of helping the anti-Castro terrorist Orlando Bosch escape prosecution in Venezuela.
Reich contracted Vazquez Ger in 2011 to help him oversee a portfolio of corporate clients that included Lockheed Martin, Exxon Mobil, and Bacardi International, the rum company whose lawyers drafted much of the 1996 Helms-Burton Act tightening the US embargo of Cuba. Before he partnered with Reich, Vazquez Ger served as a Latin American fellow at the Atlas Economic Research Foundation, a corporate funded think tank that promotes climate change denialism and sweeping deregulation policies.
To compliment their lobbying operation, Vazquez Ger and Reich have churned out a steady stream of op-eds for publications from Foreign Policy to Fox News to the Miami Herald, demonizing the socialist leaders of South America who have stifled the ambitions of multi-national corporations. During the past year, they homed in on Correa, assailing him for sheltering Assange while he cracked down on opposition media. In a June 2012 op-ed for the right-wing Newsmax website, Reich and Vazquez Ger cited Assange as a key reason why the US should refuse to sign any further trade agreements with Ecuador. “Signing or renewing trade agreements with Ecuador will only allow Rafael Correa to continue undermining US foreign policy,” they wrote, “trading with our enemies, and destroying his country’s democracy.” (Following threats from Congress over its alleged offer to shelter Snowden, Ecuador’s government unilaterally rejected US trade preferences).
When Buzzfeed published its expose on Ecuador, Vazquez Ger was overjoyed. A heavily trafficked US news site had recycled he and Reich’s attacks on Correa’s support for Assange, this time framing Ecuador’s president as a hypocrite for supposedly offering asylum to Snowden. At 7:28 PM on June 25 -- a full 27 minutes after the article appeared -- Vazquez Ger took to Twitter to promote the piece to his Spanish-language followers. Next, he personally thanked Buzzfeed Editor-in-Chief Ben Smith “for unmasking [Correa’s] hypocrisy.”
The following day, at a press conference in Ecuador, Interior Minister Jose Serrano was asked to answer for the Buzzfeed report. Buzzfeed’s Gray quickly picked up Serrano’s defensive comments, quoting them in a follow-up story alongside a strident denunciation of Correa’s sheltering of Assange by Cléver Jiménez, a key opposition leader. Meanwhile, Alek Boyd projected the story of Ecuador’s surveillance deal into South American media, publishing it as an “exclusive” in Semana, a leading Colombian daily.
Whoever planted the story with Buzzfeed appeared to have scored a major success, exploiting the Snowden drama to tarnish the image of Ecuador’s government. Though the identity of the source that triggered the operation may never be known, their agenda does not seem to be much of a mystery anymore.
Max Blumenthal is the author of Republican Gomorrah (Basic/Nation Books, 2009). Twitter at @MaxBlumenthal