Saturday, December 28, 2013

This Week, Mass Surveillance Wins

---------- Forwarded message ----------
From: barry levine 
Date: Sat, Dec 28, 2013 at 8:02 AM
Subject: re: This Week, Mass Surveillance Wins
To: ""

To the Editor:
  It is widely conceded that our federal laws on surveillance need reform. In places, they are self-contradictory, in places they violate our constitution and they are vague throughout. But clearer legislation cannot be the whole fix. Enacting better laws where there is no enforcement is like tuning the engine of a car that has no wheels; the rubber doesn't meet the road.
   This paper documented a pattern of criminal violations of the FISA statute of 1979, wiretapping Americans without search warrants. Yet neither the DoJ of President Bush nor that of president Obama have "take[n] care that these Laws be faithfully executed".  
   No one or two branches of government will get us through this crisis. The balance of liberty and security must engage all three branches and the electorate. Or our republic is lost.
Barry Haskell Levine


This Week, Mass Surveillance Wins

Published: December 27, 2013 178 Comments

Has the National Security Agency’s mass collection of Americans’ phone records actually helped to prevent terrorist attacks?

For Op-Ed, follow@nytopinion and to hear from the editorial page editor, Andrew Rosenthal, follow@andyrNYT.

No, according to the 300-page report issued this month by a panel of legal and intelligence experts appointed by President Obama.
Yet in a rulingissued on Friday, Judge William Pauley III of the Federal District Court in Manhattan came to the opposite conclusion. “The effectiveness of bulk telephony metadata collection cannot be seriously disputed,” Judge Pauleywrote in a deeply troubling decisiondismissing a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union that challenged the constitutionality of the N.S.A.’s bulk data collection program.
The ruling, which repeatedly defers to the government’s benign characterization of its own surveillance programs, demonstrates once more the importance of fixing the law at its source, rather than waiting for further interpretations by higher courts.
Judge Pauley’s opinion largely disregards the concerns central to the presidential panel’s report and the ruling on Dec. 16 by a federal district judge in Washington, Richard Leon, who found that the agency’s program was “significantly likely” to be unconstitutional.
The government’s claim that the program is constitutional rests on a 1979 Supreme Court case, Smith v. Maryland, which held that a robbery suspect had no expectation of privacy — and no Fourth Amendment protection — in the telephone numbers he dialed. Judge Leon found the Smith decision to be inapplicable to a daily, indiscriminate sweep of hundreds of millions of phone records. Judge Pauley, however, said its logic still applied.
Judge Pauley’s opinion is perplexing in its near-total acceptance of the claim by the government that it almost always acts in accordance with the law and quickly self-corrects when it does not. For example, Judge Pauley said the N.S.A.’s director, Gen. Keith Alexander, was being “crystal clear” when he responded to charges that the agency was mining data from phone calls by saying: “We’re not authorized to do it. We aren’t doing it.”
That shows an alarming lack of skepticism, particularly in light of the testimony of James Clapper Jr., the director of national intelligence, who falsely told the Senate Intelligence Committee in March that the N.S.A. was not collecting any type of data at all on hundreds of millions of Americans.
It is also incorrect to say, as Judge Pauley does, that there is “no evidence” that the government has used the phone data for anything other than terrorism investigations. An inspector general’s report in September revealed at least a dozen instances in which government employees used the databases for personal purposes.
The presidential panel made many good recommendations to reform both the surveillance law and the intelligence court that rules on government surveillance requests. Congress and Mr. Obama should adopt as many of these as possible. Court rulings will not suffice to rein in an agency that continues to take advantage of the law’s vague and malleable standards

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

a phone system with safeguards

---------- Forwarded message ----------
From: barry levine 
Date: Tue, Dec 24, 2013 at 8:34 AM
Subject: re: a phone system with safeguards
To: ""

To the Editor:
     Technologies change with time, and the law must change with them. Rights, however, are supposed to endure. So while we modernize our phone system, we must take care that we preserve its virtues.  The U.S. supreme court found in Katz v. United States in 1967 that we enjoy a presumption of privacy in the content of our phone calls, and that to intrude on that ("tap a wire") requires a court warrant.  That same presumption of privacy has never been found for our cell-phone conversations. So to give up Plain Old Telephone Service ("POTS") would be to infringe on an established right.
   We should not be forever married to Alexander Graham Bell's copper wire technology; we have learned a lot about signal transmission in the intervening century. But neither should we retreat from what are established rights. If we are to give up POTS, it must be in the context of establishing in law that we enjoy a presumption of privacy for the content of all phone conversations, be they by wire, by cell tower, by satellite or by a technology yet to be developed.
Barry Haskell Levine


A Phone System With Safeguards

Published: December 23, 2013 102 Comments
Is it time to phase out the telephone system that has been with us since the days of Alexander Graham Bell?


The Federal Communications Commission is grappling with this question as more Americans switch from wired phones to cellphones and Internet-based services like Skype. The number of conventional phone lines has fallen by about half since 2001, to 96 million at the end oflast year, while the number of wireless subscribers have more than doubled, to nearly 305 million.
Some telecommunications companies like AT&T argue that the country needs to begin moving away from the traditional system, in which copper wires connect phones to big machines known as switches, to a more efficient Internet-based system that work over wireless or fiber-optic technologies.
The F.C.C. is expected to authorize AT&T and other phone companies to replace conventional telephone wires with wireless or fiber-optic connections in certain neighborhoods or a large rural area to see how such a change would work in practice.
Some might wonder what all the fuss is about. After all, many Americans already communicate primarily on cellphones and the Internet, using traditional land lines only occasionally. But it would be a mistake to put all of our faith in cellphones and the Internet. Conventional phones remain an important mainstay for many households and provide a lifeline in emergencies because they get their power from the copper wires that connect them to the telephone network. Phone companies maintain backup batteries and electricity generators at their central offices to make sure service is uninterrupted during blackouts. But consumers have to plug in devices to use cellphones and Internet-based services, which means there’s a risk of losing service if the electricity goes out.
As the F.C.C. deals with new technology, it needs to keep in place safeguards that have long ensured that the phone system serves everyone. Today, Americans who cannot afford regular phone service can get a subsidized wired or wireless connection. That should continue even if the underlying technology changes.
While some Internet-based phone services like Skype do not currently allow calls to 911, regulators should make sure new technology used by phone companies will allow consumers to dial emergency services. And as telecommunications companies upgrade their networks, they should continue to connect to each other’s systems and to devices like home alarm systems and heart rate monitors seamlessly.
America has a long history of telecommunications innovation since Bell made the first call to Watson nearly 140 years ago. The issue is not whether the phone system needs to be upgraded. It’s how.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Free to Speak About Russia, but Now From a Safe Distance

---------- Forwarded message ----------
From: barry levine 
Date: Mon, Dec 23, 2013 at 9:08 AM
Subject: re: Free to Speak About Russia, but Now From a Safe Distance
To: ""

To the editor:
   And so the Russian revolutionary experiment--that started with Vladimir Lenin sneaking in from Finland--ends with Mikhael Khororkovsky flying out to Finland. Between these brackets, a feudal agrarian society entered the 20th century, developed socialized medicine, put a man into space. But once again, Russians who want to speak about legitimate government and human rights must do it from exile.
Barry Haskell Levine

Free to Speak About Russia, but Now From a Safe Distance

John Macdougall/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
The former oil tycoon and Kremlin critic Mikhail B. Khodorkovsky appearing at a news conference in Berlin on Sunday.
Published: December 22, 2013
BERLIN — After a decade of incarceration that transformed him from Russia’s wealthiest man into its most famous political prisoner, Mikhail B. Khodorkovsky faced journalists in Berlin on Sunday following a head-spinning 36-hour journey to freedom.

Mr. Khodorkovsky recounted with a detached humor how, in the hours after a surprising clemency from his nemesis, President Vladimir V. Putin, he was awakened at 2 a.m. on Friday by prison guards at a penitentiary near the Finnish border and whisked away, first to St. Petersburg, then onto a special flight to Germany. “I was put on a plane, so to say, in the best traditions of the 1970s,” he said.
He said that he had written Mr. Putin to assure that he would not involve himself in everyday Russian politics, and insisted that he could not, for the moment, risk returning to Russian soil or even be sure about how much of his once-vast wealth he retained.
But there was nothing of the penitent about him.
During an hour spent with Russian-speaking journalists, Mr. Khodorkovsky, 50, exhibited the same calm assurance with which he once confronted Mr. Putin, vowing that he would work to help other political prisoners in Russia. Showing no trace of rancor or bombast, he also related some of the lessons he took from his years in prison, saying Russians themselves had to change.
“I think the Russian problem is not just the president as a person,” Mr. Khodorkovsky said. “The problem is that our citizens, by a large majority, don’t understand that their fate, they have to be responsible for it themselves. They are happy to delegate it, say, to Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, and then they will entrust it to somebody else.”
He added: “For such a big country as Russia, this is a dead end.”
This was not quite Dostoyevsky emerging from the penal colony, but Mr. Khodorkovsky was recounting something like a spiritual conversion.
After 10 years of being watched by cameras installed over his bed, his workplace, his table in the canteen, and at his every meeting with lawyers, he was free, and caught in a whirlwind of travel and revelation.
Arriving in Berlin — wearing a parka that officials hastily bought for him in the St. Petersburg airport to replace his prison-issued coat, he explained in an interview with the Moscow magazine The New Times — he was met by a former German foreign minister, ensconced in a luxury hotel, reunited with his parents and grown son, and met his 4-year-old granddaughter for the first time.
And he ended his public appearances on Sunday with a chaotic news conference at the museum to Checkpoint Charlie — the American outpost that symbolized the Cold War, America’s toehold in the wall that divided Berlin.
One of the architects of his freedom was Hans-Dietrich Genscher, 86, the wily former German foreign minister known here as the “old fox,” who used his own and special Moscow-Berlin channels to broker a clemency over the past two and a half years.
Negotiations started after Dmitri A. Medvedev, a close Putin ally who was head of state from 2008 to 2012 and is now prime minister, first talked of clemency when he was president, Mr. Khodorkovsky said. But there was always one hitch. “They told me, and repeated again and again, every time: I have to admit my guilt.”
Such an admission was unacceptable, Mr. Khodorkovsky said on Sunday, because it could have implicated every former employee of his oil company, Yukos, as part of a crime or a conspiracy. Colleagues who were still in Russia risked prosecution, he said, and those who had fled abroad could have faced extradition.
But after he learned that Mr. Genscher was offering clemency with no admission of guilt required, Mr. Khodorkovsky said, he wrote to Mr. Putin on Nov. 12, requesting clemency and attaching a letter that made clear he would not engage in politics, or try to recover shares of Yukos — most of whose holdings now form the Rosneft company, controlled by another Putin ally, Igor I. Sechin.
The formal reason Mr. Khodorkovsky cited for his request was his mother’s health and treatment in Germany, he said. That was why he came straight here.
For now, he made clear, Russia is off limits for him. After being convicted there twice — first for failing to pay taxes on his oil and then, curiously, for stealing the oil in the first place — he still faces a $500 million prosecution stemming from his first tax case. Only if the Supreme Court of Russia were to dismiss that investigation might he visit his native land.


“To take a risk to go to Russia and then, on formal grounds, not be able to leave — I just cannot do it,” he said.
Asked about his relations with Mr. Putin, his incarceration and his attitude now, Mr. Khodorkovsky painted himself the way phalanxes of lawyers and public relations teams engaged over the years have to keep his cause and name alive: as someone very far from the brash, young oligarch, one of a band of mostly young male Russians who amassed huge wealth in the Soviet collapse of the 1990s.
He suggested Mr. Putin had released him partly because of the coming Winter Olympics in Sochi and partly out of a broader concern for Russia’s image. Tracing the arc of his relations with the Russian president, Mr. Khodorkovsky began in February 2003, when he famously confronted Mr. Putin during a televised meeting in the Kremlin.
Mr. Khodorkovsky said he would never have given such a speech, criticizing corruption and other abuses, if presidential aides had not first assured him that it was fine, even desirable. Two weeks later, he noted, the first case against Yukos was launched. He was arrested in October 2003, on his private jet, at a Siberian airport.
“Of course the reaction for me was unexpected,” he said, though friends and others had warned him that he was crossing a line with the speech, and also by funding opposition parties, civic groups and society.
“But what I couldn’t let myself do, what some other person could, was reverse my words. I would not lie,” he said, adding that such stubbornness shows how ill-suited he would be to politics, at least in Russia.
On Sunday, he did, however, pledge to stay active for his Yukos colleague, Platon A. Lebedev, and political prisoners in Russia. And he signaled that, while he has no time for the day-to-day dogfight that is politics in his country today, he wants to see it become more democratic.
The biggest change in 10 years in Russia, he said, is that the number of people prepared to control their fate has grown “beyond a margin of error,” though it is still too small.
Asked about the biggest change in himself, he gave an impish shrug: “I grew 10 years older.”
More seriously, he said at another point, he realized that people, and not industrial possessions that made him a fortune, are the most important element in life.
He said his biggest loss in jail was a decade of “lost communication” with his family. And one of his biggest sadnesses was that 90 percent of his fellow inmates had no such fortune, and “nowhere to go” even if let out of jail.
Physically, Mr. Khodorkovsky, dressed in a dark blue suit and tie, looked healthy. Mentally, he said, he had always been an optimist. Besides, he added, Russian prisons today — while occasionally freezing, or having rotten food — are not in that physical respect the gulag of Soviet-era literature.
“I was trying to look at my situation as a challenge,” he said. “I was not torturing myself — yes, there were some days that were depressing, but basically I was not carrying them around inside me.”
“When I crossed the threshold of prison,” he added, “I understood this is for a long time. And then immediately quit smoking. If they are going to bury me, let them do it themselves, without my participation.”

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Bad Times for Big Brother

---------- Forwarded message ----------
From: barry levine 
Date: Sun, Dec 22, 2013 at 6:17 PM
Subject: re: Bad Times for Big Brother
To: ""

To the Editor:
    As you observe "the nation cannot bank on presidential self-restraint or timely and favorable court rulings to stop the invasion of privacy on a mass scale.". But neither can the nation bank on Congressional action. The FISA statute of 1978 (as amended in '79) was already the law of the land. Wireless wiretapping was instituted in criminal violation of this law between 2001 and 2008 against an untold legion of Americans. Yet no effort has been made to prosecute these crimes even to this day.  No action of our Legislature can safeguard our rights if a feckless Executive can't be bothered to enforce the law.
Barry Haskell Levine

Bad Times for Big Brother

Published: December 21, 2013 155 Comments
It has been a long week for the National Security Agency. Last Monday, a federal judge ruled for the first time that the agency’s continuing sweep of Americans’ phone data — a once-secret program legally sanctioned for seven years and illegally conducted for five years before that — was very likely unconstitutional. Judge Richard Leon denounced the agency’s activities in collecting data on all Americans’ phone calls as “almost Orwellian.”


Two days later, the Obama administrationreleased a comprehensive report that found “the current storage by the government of bulk metadata creates potential risks to public trust, personal privacy and civil liberty.” And last Friday, the latest release of classified documents from Edward Snowden revealed surveillance efforts that included the office of the Israeli prime minister and the heads of international companies and aid organizations.
If the N.S.A. had not already gotten the message, the 300-plus-page advisory report, by a panel of intelligence and legal experts selected by President Obama, surely drove it home. All three branches of the federal government are now on record as recognizing that the agency has repeatedly misused, if not plainly abused, its powers, and that it must be reined in. The report’s 46 wide-ranging recommendations include stopping the bulk collection and storage of phone data, reforming the structure and processes of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, installing a civil liberties advocate to argue against the government’s position in that court, and introducing stricter oversight of the agency’s actions across the board.
Most of these would be welcome reforms, and some of them Mr. Obama can put in place on his own. In fact, when he was a member of the Senate Mr. Obama supported many reforms that were similar or identical to the ones now on his desk. Yet as president, he has allowed the surveillance programs to continue and even grow.
That isn’t entirely shocking; the executive branch’s responsibility to protect national security is unique. But no matter who occupies the Oval Office, it has always tested and often transgressed the limits of its power. Over the long run, the nation cannot bank on presidential self-restraint or timely and favorable court rulings to stop the invasion of privacy on a mass scale.
Meanwhile, Congress has the power to change the surveillance laws, and now it has the support of a presidential commission, whose recommendations line up nicely with the provisions of the U.S.A. Freedom Act, a bill co-sponsored by Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy and Republican Representative James Sensenbrenner.
As that bill recognizes, one of the most urgent tasks for lawmakers will be to amend the law to stop the government’s collection and analysis of bulk data. Under the Patriot Act as it stands, the government needs only to show that the data it seeks are “relevant” to an authorized investigation concerning international terrorism — a vague standard that the intelligence court has interpreted so broadly as to make it meaningless. Any amendment should at the very least raise the standard to require a more direct connection between the data the government seeks and the wrongdoing it is trying to prevent.
Preventing terrorist attacks is a critical and complex job. But as the advisory report rightly emphasizes, a free society must have another kind of security as well: the security of its citizens from the “fear that their conversations and activities are being watched, monitored, questioned, interrogated, or scrutinized.” Without this security, “individual liberty, self-government, economic growth, and basic ideals of citizenship” all are jeopardized.
It has been more than six months since Mr. Snowden’s leaks began to expose breathtakingly broad surveillance activities that even monitored the communications of world leaders. The damage done to privacy rights, to the public’s trust in government and to diplomatic relationships is unlikely to be repaired for a long time.
In his news conference last Friday, Mr. Obama acknowledged that some reforms could be done, but he insisted that there was no evidence that the phone surveillance program was being abused — a truly disturbing assessment given all the revelations since June. He said there’s a need to restore Americans’ trust in their government. The way to restore that trust is not through cosmetic touch-ups, but by Congress and the courts setting firm limits on all surveillance programs and ensuring that the administration complies.

Friday, December 20, 2013

A Legacy in the Balance on Surveillance Policies

---------- Forwarded message ----------
From: barry levine 
Date: Fri, Dec 20, 2013 at 1:32 PM
Subject: re: A Legacy in the Balance on Surveillance Policies
To: ""

To the Editor:
   Some tensions are innate to our three-branch government.  This is why--although our Intelligence Community reports to the Executive--we have instituted Congressional over-sight.  The last time this got gravely out of balance was Richard Nixon's Imperial Presidency. At that time, adventures both domestic (e.g. FBI intimidation of political dissidents) and international (e.g. C.I.A. coup toppling Salvador Allende) served the Executive but not the American people. This led to the Church Committee hearings and, in time, to the FISA statute of 1978, circumscribing intelligence gathering.
   Let the new report to the president on our NSA's activities serve as the Church Committee did in its time. We can no longer meekly accept the Executive's assertion that all this is done for our benefit. The FISA statute must be reset to its form as amended in 1979. The PATRIOT act must be repealed outright. Senator Feinstein's sham reforms must be rejected. And the uncounted criminal violations of the FISA statute perpetrated by our own president on us between 2001 and 2008 must be prosecuted.
   That would be the CHANGE on which president Obama campaigned, and that we voted for. But because that would require the cooperation of Congress, it will take time and effort. For now, we require a gesture. Fire James Clapper and Keith Alexander for lying to Congress. Or concede that the campaign rhetoric about CHANGE was itself a lie.
Barry Haskell Levine


A Legacy in the Balance on Surveillance Policies

Gabriella Demczuk/The New York Times
A White House advisory group’s report on surveillance poses a challenge to Barack Obama’s conception of his presidency.
Published: December 19, 2013
  • FACE
WASHINGTON — For President Obama, the proposed overhaul of the American surveillance state confronts him with a fundamental choice: Will he become the commander in chief many expected in 2008 or remain the one he became in 2009? Or is there a balance in between?


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At the heart of the report by a White House advisory group is a challenge to Mr. Obama’s conception of his presidency. A candidate who promised to reverse what he saw as excesses in the war against terrorists wound up preserving and even amplifying many of the policies he inherited. With his last election behind him, he is being challenged to decide if that is still the right approach.
“Whether he implements these recommendations will go a long way toward determining the legacy of his presidency,” said Anthony D. Romero, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union. “My own sense is the president is deeply conflicted about where’s the right place to end up. He’s still at his core a constitutional lawyer who understands the importance of these issues, but the realpolitik of the office set in rather quickly.”
Developed in response to the revelations by a former National Security Agency contractor, Edward J. Snowden, the report urged the president to ratchet back the expansive intelligence apparatus that evolved under President George W. Bush and continued to grow under Mr. Obama. In effect, the 46 recommendations would constrain some of the autonomy the N.S.A. has come to enjoy and force greater attention to privacy and civil liberties concerns.
But Mr. Obama must decide whether such a recalibration would unreasonably increase the risk of terrorists slipping through the surveillance net. For all of his campaign speeches, that was a risk he was not willing to take once in office. Yet in recent months, he has discussed eventually ending the war on terrorism.
The report in some ways captures Mr. Obama’s internal conflicts. After Mr. Snowden began leaking information about secret programs, Mr. Obama initially seemed surprised that the public did not trust him to use them appropriately.
Over the weeks and months that followed, according to both public statements and advisers who have spoken with him privately, he seemed to pivot more toward the notion that greater trust had to be built into the system. The report, which he plans to take with him when he leaves Friday for vacation in Hawaii, represents “kind of who he would be if he were not in the position he was in,” one adviser said.
“My sense is that on the one hand, the president’s own personal instincts are reasonably civil libertarian in general and that in his heart of hearts he resonates with the call for more aggressive protection of privacy and individual liberty,” said the adviser, who requested anonymity to discuss Mr. Obama’s thinking. “On the other hand, my sense is that like every president, when he finds himself ultimately responsible for the safety of the nation, the stakes get raised in ways one can barely imagine.”
How much Mr. Obama embraces the report seems uncertain. He has already rejected a recommendation to separate the leadership of the N.S.A. and the United States Cyber Command. But after appointing the group and making its report public, Mr. Obama will be hard pressed not to adopt some of it.
“How does a president say, ‘I disagree with my review group’?” asked Michael Allen, a former Bush aide and author of “Blinking Red,” a new book on the creation of the intelligence architecture after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. “It needs to be seen at the very least as, ‘I’m largely or in some nonsymbolic way taking most of what they’re offering.’ ”
Mr. Allen, now managing director of Beacon Global Strategies, said such pressure may cause Mr. Obama to go too far and open the country up to more danger. “I fear they will say something like, ‘We need to make a major course correction,’ ” he said.
Mr. Obama came into office having run against Mr. Bush’s first term but inheriting his second. Before leaving office, Mr. Bush had already moderated his counterterrorism program in hopes that it would survive his presidency. He stopped waterboarding, emptied secret C.I.A. prisons, transferred many prisoners at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and secured bipartisan legislation on detention, interrogation and surveillance.

When he took over, Mr. Obama made further adjustments but kept much of the program intact and, when it came to drone strikes, even expanded it. His thinking was further shaped during his first presidential Christmas in Hawaii, when an extremist tried to take down an airliner with explosives in his underwear.
“I think Obama in some ways is more authoritarian than Bush on these privacy issues,” said Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, a Republican critic who said disclosures about N.S.A. programs were far more alarming than he had ever anticipated.
White House officials reject such characterizations, but the momentum to revamp N.S.A. rules comes at a time when Mr. Obama also faces other decisions on how much to shift course. Allies are pressing him to support the release of a comprehensive Senate report on the history of interrogations and torture. The president is also left to decide how much to scale back drone strikes as he signaled he planned to do in a speech this year.
Adm. Dennis C. Blair, Mr. Obama’s first director of national intelligence, said the president should take a deeper look at national security policies beyond simply surveillance. “Appointing this commission on one small aspect of an important issue for American democracy is a typical small-ball play by this administration,” he said. “When the administration asks for a debate, it doesn’t really want it. What we need is a debate about what level of security we want traded off against what level of privacy we want to maintain.”
Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, said Mr. Obama has been too passive in explaining his rationale to the public. “Most presidents would have now given a speech and said, ‘O.K., here’s what the recommendations are; here’s what I think we ought to do,’ ” Mr. McCain said. “Instead, it just came out. There’s not a translation of facts and events to remedies that the president supports.”
Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, said that Mr. Obama will do that in January after digesting the report. The review, Mr. Carney said, “reflects a view here that we can and should make changes that are consistent with our need to maintain security for the United States and the American people and our allies, to combat the threats that exist, but that allow for us to provide more assurance to the American people that there are safeguards against abuse and that there is oversight in place.”
Where he will fall along that spectrum will be decided on the beaches of Oahu.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Local Turf-Sharing Accord With the Taliban Raises Alarm in Afghanistan

---------- Forwarded message ----------
From: barry levine 
Date: Thu, Dec 19, 2013 at 10:44 AM
Subject: re: Local Turf-Sharing Accord With the Taliban Raises Alarm in Afghanistan
To: ""

To the Editor:
  Some of us were alarmed when general Petraeus empowered local sectarian militias to take on security tasks in Iraq five years ago.  The same groups he embraced  then are predictably waging civil war there now. But the crisis of the day was American casualties and the victims this year are only Iraqis.  So perhaps through a narrow American exceptionalist lens we can call that progress.
     Now that Afghans are making accommodations with the Taliban, we don't have to like it. But we should be honest enough to acknowledge that they're just doing what we showed them.
Barry Haskell Levine

Local Turf-Sharing Accord With the Taliban Raises Alarm in Afghanistan

Published: December 18, 2013
Enlarge This ImageKABUL, Afghanistan — An Afghan Army commander stationed in the deadliest corner of Helmand Province brokered a cease-fire and turf-sharing deal with local Taliban insurgents there, according to government and police officials, in an example of the sort of ground-level bargaining that some see as increasingly likely once international troops withdraw next year.
Tyler Hicks/The New York Times
An Afghan Army soldier patrolling in the highly contested area of Sangin in August.
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Details of the accord, which took place in the district of Sangin, remain murky. But the issue was fraught enough that the army scrambled to send a delegation there to investigate on Tuesday, officials said. And local residents say that commanders were promising that the deal would halt immediately and never happen again.
The alarm was in part because of what Sangin has come to symbolize. It is one of just a few areas of Afghanistan where the Taliban have never been dislodged, and it was one of the deadliest battlegrounds in the country for American Marines and British troops who waged several offensives there over the years. It was handed over to Afghan security control early this year, and any appearance that the Afghans would be willing to essentially give back hard-won gains to the Taliban would be politically problematic, at best.
According to several people familiar with the details, including the deputy district governor and the local police commander for Sangin, the deal involved a company commander’s ceding at least two checkpoints to the Taliban. It was unclear whether more senior officers in the area condoned the move.
As part of the arrangement, which local officials said excluded the police force and other militias, the commander even drove the insurgents into the district bazaar to introduce them to the people, according to officials and witnesses.
The Afghan Army has vehemently denied the existence of any deal with the insurgents, as have the Taliban themselves. Coalition officials referred all questions about the alleged incident to the Afghans.
At least one official said that the top army commanders in the region reported knowing nothing about the plan and vowed to keep fighting.
“I talked to the brigade commander, and he has promised to recapture the abandoned checkpoints from the Taliban,” said Mohammed Rasol Khan, the deputy governor of Sangin. “There has not been a truce at the battalion or brigade level between the A.N.A. and the Taliban.”
What is said to have happened in Sangin is not a widespread phenomenon, as Afghan forces basically held their own in securing the country this year. But the Afghan forces struggled from the start in Sangin, and a visit by journalists this past summer found them facing an extremely high death toll and very low morale. Soldiers were basically confined to bases as the Taliban enjoyed nearly total freedom of movement.
Still, whispers of such accords have floated in other parts of the country this year. In areas like the Pech Valley, long a trouble spot for American forces, an informal agreement is said to have emerged. The military will not attack the Korengal Valley if the insurgents will leave the main road in and out of the region alone, officials said.
Despite the political sensitivity over such deals, some Afghan commanders and leaders say they may actually be a desirable step toward peace after Western forces withdraw, particularly in highly contested areas like Sangin. Those officials describe the bargaining, in essence, as local successes amid a national effort to disarm and reach political reconciliation with the Taliban that has stalled completely this year after potential peace talks broke down in Qatar.
Local leaders, in particular, say it is time to start talking, as they are fed up with a war that has caught civilians in the middle.
“This sort of cease-fire is essential for both sides, as they are tired of fighting and bombing each other and look to relieve the civilians who are the victims,” said Hajji Shamsullah Sahrai, a tribal elder in Sangin.
The reaction from the international community has been mixed.
While many international officials here say some local dealing in the most hostile areas of Afghanistan might be an improvement, the calculus quickly changes if it threatens security in provincial capitals or other population centers.
It is not the first time that a pact has emerged in Sangin, though. In 2011, members of the Alokozai tribe, long allied with the Taliban, agreed to halt attacks against the Afghan government in exchange for a prisoner, as well as aid and the potential to establish their own enduring security forces. At the time, commanders believed the deal held great potential to change the blistering dynamic in Sangin.
But hope gave way to more fighting, and the district remained among the five deadliest in the country this year, officials said.
“The truce has been made in part because Taliban are extremely powerful in Sangin,” said a member of the district council in Sangin, who declined to comment publicly because of the negotiations. “These Taliban commanders had not been able to visit the bazaar in the last seven years. Afterward, the Afghan Army traveled to places where they had never been over the last six years.”
Local residents and officials described a bizarre scene in the Sangin bazaar, a robust market of groceries, fabrics, electronics and other sundries, a day after the deal was struck. Around midday, the Afghan Army arrived in an armored convoy, bearing Taliban commanders known to the locals. The men walked through the stalls, introducing the men and sharing laughs, witnesses said.
“The A.N.A. commanders told people: ‘Look these are Taliban and they have come over by their own free will. We did not force them to come,’ ” said Mohammed Khan, a shopkeeper in Sangin who saw the scene.
Suliman Khan, the commander for the Afghan Local Police militia in Sangin, expressed worry about exclusive deals. “We were not informed,” he said, “and we have not been asked about this secret deal.”
But even as army officials sought this week to assure locals and the police that such deals would not happen again, many elders said they wished they would.
“We are not against a peace deal or an agreement with Taliban,” said Hajji Mira Jan Aka, a member of the district council and the head of the high committee. “We are against an agreement which is only with army.”
Azam Ahmed reported from Kabul, and Taimoor Shah from Kandahar, Afghanistan. Habib Zahori contributed reporting from Kabul.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Saudi Prince Criticizes Obama Administration, Citing Indecision in Mideast

---------- Forwarded message ----------
From: barry levine 
Date: Mon, Dec 16, 2013 at 6:52 AM
Subject: re: Saudi Prince Criticizes Obama Administration, Citing Indecision in Mideast
To: ""

To the Editor:
   If the Saudis had delivered the Arab League's blessing as they promised (in secret, of course) the U.S. would no doubt have launched missiles into Syria. That would have made about 801 groups arrayed against the al-Assad/Hezbollah/Tehran axis. But the Saudis couldn't deliver, and we didn't launch a new war, to set up a model democracy in Damascus as we had failed to set up a model democracy in Baghdad.
  So let the Saudis criticize. Talk is cheap.
Barry Haskell Levine

Saudi Prince Criticizes Obama Administration, Citing Indecision in Mideast

Published: December 15, 2013
Enlarge This ImageMONACO — An influential Saudi prince blasted the Obama administration on Sunday for what he called indecision and a loss of credibility with allies in the Middle East, saying that American efforts to secure a peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians would founder without a clear commitment from President Obama.
Mohammed Al-Shaikh/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Prince Turki al-Faisal said that the United States had lost credibility among its Middle Eastern allies.
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“We’ve seen several red lines put forward by the president, which went along and became pinkish as time grew, and eventually ended up completely white,” said Prince Turki al-Faisal, the former intelligence chief of Saudi Arabia. “When that kind of assurance comes from a leader of a country like the United States, we expect him to stand by it.” He added, “There is an issue of confidence.”
Mr. Obama has his problems, the prince said, but when a country has strong allies, “you should be able to give them the assurance that what you say is going to be what you do.” The prince no longer has any official position but has lately been providing the public expression of internal Saudi views with clear approval from the Saudi government.
The Saudis have been particularly shaken by Mr. Obama’s refusal to intervene forcefully in the Syrian civil war, especially his recent decision not to punish President Bashar al-Assad of Syria with military strikes even after evidence emerged that Mr. Assad’s government used chemical weapons on its own citizens.
Instead, Mr. Obama chose to seek congressional authorization for a strike, and when that proved difficult to obtain, he cooperated with Russia to get Syria to agree to give up its chemical weapons. Prince Turki and Israeli officials have argued that the agreement merely legitimized Mr. Assad, and on Sunday, the prince called the world’s failure to stop the conflict in Syria “almost a criminal negligence.”
Syria, Iran, nuclear issues and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict were the main focus for Prince Turki, who spoke at the World Policy Conference, a gathering of officials and intellectuals largely drawn from Europe, the Middle East and North Africa.
Saudi unhappiness with Iran’s growing power in the region is no secret, and the Saudis, who themselves engage with Iran, have no problem with the United States trying to do the same, the prince said. But he complained that bilateral talks between Iranian and American officials had been kept secret from American allies, sowing further mistrust.
The prince said Iran must give up its ambitions for a nuclear weapons program — Iran says its nuclear program is only for civilian purposes — and stop using its own troops and those of Shiite allies like the Lebanese organization Hezbollah to fight in neighboring countries, like Syria and Iraq. “The game of hegemony toward the Arab countries is not acceptable,” the prince said. Just as Arabs will not dress as Westerners do, he said, “we won’t accept to wear Iranian clothes, either.”
A prevalent theme at the conference was the waning of American influence in the Middle East. Laurent Fabius, the French foreign minister, said: “Today we live in a zero-polar, or a-polar, world. No one power or group of powers can solve all the problems.”
The United States, Mr. Fabius said, was often criticized for being “overpresent, but now it is being criticized for not being present enough.” While “it is perfectly understandable” that Mr. Obama would refrain from new military engagements in the Middle East, he said, “it creates a certain vacuum” that has allowed Russia “to make a comeback on the world scene” and has encouraged France to intervene in the Central African Republic, Libya and Mali.
A former Israeli ambassador to the United States, Itamar Rabinovich, said that after Mr. Obama declined to strike Syria, neither Israel nor Iran believed any longer that he might use military force against Iran.
Prince Turki said the Israeli-Palestinian issue remained central to relations between the Muslim world and the West. He praised the negotiating efforts of Secretary of State John Kerry, but warned that Mr. Obama must be willing to force the parties to accept a lasting resolution. “Mr. Kerry is devoting a lot of time and energy,” he said, “but we’ll see how far he gets if the president doesn’t put his full support behind it.”
He compared the United States to a big bear that must push and frighten both Israeli and Palestinian leaders into an agreement, and give them each an excuse for making the necessary, difficult compromises on issues like Jerusalem, refugees, land swaps and security arrangements.
“Unfortunately, the big bear has not proven to be very bearish-like recently,” Prince Turki said. To get the job done, he said, the bear “has to not only bare his teeth, but also extend his claws” when talks reach the crucial point.
Conversely, Prince Turki warned, “if the president retreats from his position on compromise along the 1967 borders, as he did on his red line on use of chemical weapons by Assad, then the whole enterprise of peace between the Arabs and Israel will evaporate.”
In separate remarks here to the Reuters news agency, Prince Turki said that the United States and Britain had done too little to help the more moderate, more secular Syrian rebels, leaving them to fend for themselves against both “Al Assad’s killing machine” and the better-armed radical Islamist rebel groups.
“Why should he stop the killing?” he said of Mr. Assad.
“That to me is why the F.S.A. is not in as prominent position as it should be today,” he said, referring to the Free Syrian Army, “because of the lack of international support for it. The fighting is going to continue, and the killing is going to continue.”