Monday, January 27, 2014

Paranoia of the Plutocrats

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From: barry levine 
Date: Mon, Jan 27, 2014 at 1:24 PM
Subject: re: Paranoia of the Plutocrats
To: ""

To the Editor:
   When FDR faced "organized money" and proclaimed in Madison Square Garden that "I welcome their hatred", he took ownership of the fourth American revolution. After we had ousted the British at gunpoint, Andrew Jackson had to retake power for the people from a banker class that proposed to own the new nation before we had finished settling it. Teddy Roosevelt in his turn repulsed the power-grabs of "malefactors of great wealth" in his "square deal". FDR then redressed a republic tipping both--on the one hand--into poverty and--on the other hand--into the control of the few.
     Washington, Jackson, Roosevelt, Roosevelt...who will lead us back towards balance this time? It's not president Obama. By nature and training, he's an educator and a conciliator, not a class warrior. 2016 is still a long way off. But it looks increasing like the best man for the job is Elizabeth Warren.
Barry Haskell Levine

Friday, January 24, 2014

Perverse Primaries

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From: barry levine 
Date: Fri, Jan 24, 2014 at 10:13 AM
Subject: re: Perverse Primaries
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To the Editor:
   There may be excellent reasons to repeal "sore loser" laws. But the example of Joe Lieberman does nothing to advance that argument. Joe Lieberman was re-elected by the handful of very wealthy corporate donors whom he represented, not by the people of Connecticut.
Barry Haskell Levine

Saturday, January 18, 2014

The President on Mass Surveillance

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From: barry levine 
Date: Sat, Jan 18, 2014 at 7:11 PM
Subject: re: The President on Mass Surveillance
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To the Editor:
   President Obama made some important points in his speech Friday. "Our system of government is built on the premise that our liberty cannot depend on the good intentions of those in power; it depends on the law to constrain those in power" is a very mellifluous line. But if we are to believe at this late date that it's more than words, we need both an earnest gesture and concrete action. Firing Keith Alexander for lying to Congress would be a good first gesture. He can do that today. As to delivering tangible CHANGE from the abuses of the Bush/Cheney administration, it is long overdue that he directed his Attorney General to prosecute the thousands of criminal violations of the FISA statute  committed between 2001 and 2008. With the passing years, to cover up the crimes of a former administration is to make them his own.
Barry Haskell Levine

The President on Mass Surveillance


    In the days after Edward Snowden revealed that the United States government was collecting vast amounts of Americans’ data — phone records and other personal information — in the name of national security, President Obama defended the data sweep and said the American people should feel comfortable with its collection. On Friday, after seven months of increasingly uncomfortable revelations and growing public outcry, Mr. Obama gave a speech that was in large part an admission that he had been wrong.
    The president announced important new restrictions on the collection of information about ordinary Americans, including the requirement of court approval before telephone records can be searched. He called for greater oversight of the intelligence community and acknowledged that intrusive forms of technology posed a growing threat to civil liberties.
    “Our system of government is built on the premise that our liberty cannot depend on the good intentions of those in power,” Mr. Obama said in a speech at the Justice Department. “It depends on the law to constrain those in power.”
    But even as Mr. Obama spoke eloquently of the need to balance the nation’s security with personal privacy and civil liberties, many of his reforms were frustratingly short on specifics and vague on implementation.
    The president’s most significant announcement was also the hardest to parse. He ordered “a transition that will end” the bulk collection of phone metadata as it currently exists, but what exactly will end? The database will still exist, even if he said he wants it held outside the government. Mr. Obama should have called for sharp reductions in the amount of data the government collects, or at least adopted his own review panel’s recommendation that telecommunications companies keep the data they create and let the National Security Agency request only what it needs. Instead, he gave the Justice Department and intelligence officials until late March to come up with alternate storage options, seeking a new answer when the best ones are already obvious.
    But he added two restrictions that could significantly reduce the possibility of abuse of this information: Wherever the database resides, he said, it may be queried only “after a judicial finding or in the case of a true emergency.” (That calls for a clear definition of “emergency.”) Agency analysts will be permitted to pursue phone calls that are two “hops” removed from a number associated with a terrorist organization, instead of three. That extra hop allowed for the examination of an exponentially larger number of phone calls.
    Mr. Obama did not address the bigger problem that the collection of all this data, no matter who ends up holding onto it, may not be making us any safer. That was the conclusion of the president’s review panel as well as afederal judge in Washington who ruled that the bulk-collection program was probably unconstitutional and an extensive report by the New America Foundation finding that the program “has had no discernible impact on preventing acts of terrorism and only the most marginal of impacts on preventing terrorist-related activity.”
    Mr. Obama called on Congress to create a panel of independent advocates to argue in significant cases before the intelligence court, which currently hears arguments only from the government and must rely on government officials to identify and disclose their own mistakes. That would be a huge improvement to the one-sided process that often turns the court into a rubber stamp, but Congress is likely to dither over it. It would be better for the president to create the panel himself and work with the courts to find independent members. At the same time, any public advocate must be free to decide what cases to argue and not be limited to the administration’s or the court’s view of what is “significant.”

    Mr. Obama wisely sought to tamp down the international furor over surveillance of foreign leaders and ordinary citizens by announcing restrictions on the collection, use and retention of that data. He said he would extend certain protections normally afforded only to Americans. “People around the world, regardless of their nationality, should know that the United States is not spying on ordinary people who don’t threaten our national security,” Mr. Obama said.
    Several of the presidential review panel’s key recommendations were not addressed on Friday. The panel said a court order should be required to search through Americans’ emails or calls that are incidentally intercepted; the president called only for unspecified reforms. He rejected the recommendation that judges sign off on the subpoenas used by the F.B.I. to demand business records, known as national security letters, saying only that they should be less secret. That doesn’t go nearly far enough to curb these orders, which have been abused. Mr. Obama said nothing about the process of selecting intelligence-court judges, which now resides solely in the hands of one man, Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. He also failed to address the panel’s call for the N.S.A. to stop undermining commercial efforts to create better encryption technology.
    One of his biggest lapses was his refusal to acknowledge that his entire speech, and all of the important changes he now advocates, would never have happened without the disclosures by Mr. Snowden, who continues to live in exile and under the threat of decades in prison if he returns to this country.
    The president was right to acknowledge that leaders can no longer say, “Trust us, we won’t abuse the data we collect.” But to earn back that trust, he should be forthright about what led Americans to be nervous about their own intelligence agencies, and he should build stronger protections to end those fears.

    Friday, January 17, 2014

    The Inequality Problem

    ---------- Forwarded message ----------
    From: barry levine <>
    Date: Fri, Jan 17, 2014 at 9:27 AM
    Subject: re: The Inequality Problem
    To: "" <>

    To the Editor:
        It is easy--albeit trivial--to agree with David Brooks that unemployment and bad schools afflict the poor. But when he asserts that income disparity isn't the problem, he's attacking a strawman.  Gross income disparities are only a symptom, but they are a symptom of a society in which the wealthy few disproportionately write the rules we all live by. That correlation has been illustrated by Acemoglu and Robinson for many societies of the past, and should guide us in making policies for our future. Their book is called "Why Nations Fail".
    Barry Haskell Levine

    The Inequality Problem

    JAN. 16, 2014

      Suddenly the whole world is talking about income inequality. But, as this debate goes on, it is beginning to look as though the thing is being misconceived. The income inequality debate is confusing matters more than clarifying them, and it is leading us off in unhelpful directions.
      In the first place, to frame the issue as income inequality is to lump together different issues that are not especially related. What we call “inequality” is caused by two different constellations of problems.
      At the top end, there is the growing wealth of the top 5 percent of workers. This is linked to things like perverse compensation schemes on Wall Street, assortative mating (highly educated people are more likely to marry each other and pass down their advantages to their children) and the superstar effect (in an Internet economy, a few superstars in each industry can reap global gains while the average performers cannot).
      At the bottom end, there is a growing class of people stuck on the margins, generation after generation. This is caused by high dropout rates, the disappearance of low-skill jobs, breakdown in family structures and so on.
      If you have a primitive zero-sum mentality then you assume growing affluence for the rich must somehow be causing the immobility of the poor, but, in reality, the two sets of problems are different, and it does no good to lump them together and call them “inequality.”
      Second, it leads to ineffective policy responses. If you think the problem is “income inequality,” then the natural response is to increase incomes at the bottom, by raising the minimum wage.
      But raising the minimum wage may not be an effective way to help those least well-off. Joseph J. Sabia of San Diego State University and Richard V. Burkhauser of Cornell looked at the effects of increases in the minimum wage between 2003 and 2007. Consistent with some other studies, they find no evidence that such raises had any effect on the poverty rates.
      That’s because raises in the minimum wage are not targeted at the right people. Only 11 percent of the workers affected by such an increase come from poor households. Nearly two-thirds of such workers are the second or third earners living in households at twice the poverty line or above.
      The primary problem for the poor is not that they are getting paid too little for the hours they work. It is that they are not working full time or at all. Raising the minimum wage is popular politics; it is not effective policy.
      Third, the income inequality frame contributes to our tendency to simplify complex cultural, social, behavioral and economic problems into strictly economic problems.

      Thursday, January 16, 2014

      Obama’s Path From Critic to Overseer of Spying

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      From: barry levine 
      Date: Thu, Jan 16, 2014 at 6:00 PM
      Subject: re: Obama’s Path From Critic to Overseer of Spying
      To: ""

      To the Editor:
          Since our nation's inception, Americans has aspired to what John Adams called a "government of laws, and not of men". Those we have trusted with power have  mostly warranted that faith.  But it is deeply alarming to read a former Obama aide say of our president that "he trusts himself to use these powers more than he did the Bush administration". There in a single sentence is the end of our faith.  
             It is not enough that we believe our current president to be a good man, a legal scholar,  servant of the people.  The powers that I wouldn't entrust to a bad president I mustn't entrust to any president. Just as president Nixon corrupted the FBI's mission to discredit civil rights advocates whom he saw as  political threats, a future president can be expected to use the NSA's surveillance powers to outmaneuver and quash real, legitimate political opposition.
         It is not relevant that president Obama is "surprised...that so many Americans did not trust him".  If the balance is to be struck between defending Americans' rights and protecting the president's ego, he'll have to get over it.
      Barry Haskell Levine
      WASHINGTON — As a young lawmaker defining himself as a presidential candidate,Barack Obama visited a center for scholars in August 2007 to give a speech on terrorism. He described a surveillance state run amok and vowed to rein it in. “That means no more illegal wiretapping of American citizens,” he declared. “No more national security letters to spy on citizens who are not suspected of a crime.”
      More than six years later, the onetime constitutional lawyer is now the commander in chief presiding over a surveillance state that some of his own advisers think has once again gotten out of control. On Friday, he will give another speech, this time at the Justice Department defending government spying even as he adjusts it to address a wave of public concern over civil liberties.
      The journey between those two speeches reflects the transition from the backbench of the United States Senate to the chair behind the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office. Like other presidents before him, the idealistic candidate skeptical of government power found that the tricky trade-offs of national security issues look different to the person charged with using that power to ensure public safety.
      In ’07, then-Senator Obama spoke disapprovingly at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars about spying.Stephen Crowley/The New York Times
      Aides said that even as a senator, Mr. Obama supported robust surveillance as long as it was legal and appropriate, and that as president he still shares the concerns about overreach he expressed years ago. But they said his views have been shaped to a striking degree by the reality of waking up every day in the White House responsible for heading off the myriad threats he finds in his daily intelligence briefings.
      “When you get the package every morning, it puts steel in your spine,” said David Plouffe, the president’s longtime adviser. “There are people out there every day who are plotting. The notion that we would put down a tool that would protect people here in America is hard to fathom.”
      At the same time, aides said Mr. Obama was surprised to learn after leaks by Edward J. Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor, just how far the surveillance had gone. “Things seem to have grown at the N.S.A.,” Mr. Plouffe said, citing specifically the tapping of foreign leaders’ telephones. “I think it was disturbing to most people, and I think he found it disturbing.”
      Yet it is hard to express indignation at actions of the government after five years of running it, and some involved in surveillance note that it was Mr. Obama who pushed national security agencies to be aggressive in hunting terrorists. “For some, his outrage does ring a little bit hollow,” said a former counterterrorism official.
      All of which leads to worries by critics of government surveillance that he will not go far enough on Friday. “If the speech is anything like what is being reported, the president will go down in history for having retained and defended George W. Bush’s surveillance programs rather than reformed them,” said Anthony D. Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union.
      Mr. Obama first confronted the questions of national security and privacy during his 2004 campaign for Senate, taking aim at the Patriot Act for “violating our fundamental notions of privacy” and declaring that “we don’t like federal agents poking around our libraries.”
      Once elected, Mr. Obama took an interest in curbing surveillance. “He would ask me about various issues that relate to the topic of the day — how do you come up with policies that make sure that security and liberty are not mutually exclusive?” recalled Senator Ron Wyden, Democrat of Oregon and a leading critic of surveillance policies then and now.

      Mr. Obama’s 2007 speech at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars came after the revelation that President George W. Bush had authorized warrantless surveillance in terrorism cases without permission from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. A presidential candidate, Mr. Obama criticized Mr. Bush’s “false choice between the liberties we cherish and the security we provide.”
      Mr. Obama was a sponsor of a bill in 2005 to raise the standard required for federal agents using administrative subpoenas known as national security letters to obtain business records without court order. He joined other Democrats fighting the renewal of the Patriot Act until it was amended to address civil liberties concerns, then voted for its extension in 2006 after a compromise, breaking with Mr. Wyden who voted no.
      But as a former Obama aide put it recently, “The rhetoric was probably sharper than his votes.” By summer 2008, with the Democratic nomination secured and the White House now a real possibility, Mr. Obama voted for legislation essentially ratifying Mr. Bush’s surveillance programs. Mr. Obama realized he would “take my lumps” from the left and said it “was not an easy call for me,” but he argued that putting the programs under the jurisdiction of the intelligence court restored accountability.
      As a result, after he won the election, surveillance issues were off his agenda; instead, he focused on banning interrogation techniques he deemed torture and trying, futilely, to close the prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. “There wasn’t really any serious discussion of what N.S.A. was up to,” said a former intelligence official, who like others did not want to be named describing internal conversations.
      President Obama, in Raleigh, N.C., on Wednesday, will speak on Friday at the Justice Department on government spying. Stephen Crowley/The New York Times
      Mr. Obama was told before his inauguration of a supposed plot by Somali extremists to attack the ceremony, what David Axelrod, his adviser, called a “welcome-to-the-N.B.A. moment before the first game.” Although the report proved unfounded, it reinforced to Mr. Obama the need to detect threats before they materialized. “The whole Somali threat injected their team into the realities of national security in a tangible and complicated way,” recalled Juan C. Zarate, the departing counterterrorism adviser to Mr. Bush who worked with the Obama team on the threat.
      So while instituting additional procedural changes, Mr. Obama undertook no major overhaul of the surveillance programs he inherited. “He’s sitting on the other end of the pen now,” said the former Obama aide. “He has more information than he did then. And he trusts himself to use these powers more than he did the Bush administration.”
      Just weeks after the inauguration, Judge Reggie B. Walton issued a secret ruling reprimanding the N.S.A. for violating its own procedures. But when Mr. Obama was briefed, the case did not stir consternation. The president’s team instructed the Justice Department to fix the problem, but “this was not a central concern and he was very quick in knowing how to deal with it,” said a former administration official.
      The calculus had shifted enough that Mr. Obama began presiding over a record number of leak prosecutions. When civil liberties advocates visited to press him to do more to reverse Mr. Bush’s policies, Mr. Obama pushed back. “He reminded me that he had a different role to play, that he was commander in chief and that he needed to protect the American people,” recalled Mr. Romero of the A.C.L.U.
      That was brought home even more starkly at Christmas in 2009 when a Nigerian man tried to detonate explosives in his underwear aboard an airliner. At a meeting at the White House afterward, an agitated Mr. Obama “was extremely firm” with intelligence officials, saying that he “expected us to do better,” recalled one who was in the room.
      “We hadn’t had a major attack in a number of years and the fact that this guy came as close as he did — basically the detonator didn’t work — and the fact that we hadn’t detected it in advance really came as a shock to them,” said John E. McLaughlin, a former deputy C.I.A. director who participated in a review of the incident for the administration.
      Feeling little pressure to curb the security agencies, Mr. Obama largely left them alone until Mr. Snowden began disclosing secret programs last year. Mr. Obama was angry at the revelations, privately excoriating Mr. Snowden as a self-important narcissist who had not thought through the consequences of his actions.
      He was surprised at the uproar that ensued, advisers said, particularly that so many Americans did not trust him, much less trust the oversight provided by the intelligence court and Congress. As more secrets spilled out, though, aides said even Mr. Obama was chagrined. They said he was exercised to learn that the mobile phone of Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany was being tapped.
      Mr. Obama appointed a panel to review the programs. “The point we made to him was, ‘We’re not really concerned about you, Barack, but God forbid some other guy’s in the office five years from now and there’s another 9/11,’ ” said Richard A. Clarke, a former White House counterterrorism adviser who served on the panel. He had to “lay down some roadblocks in addition to what we have now so that once you’re gone it’ll be harder” to abuse spying abilities.
      On the other hand, Mr. Obama was acutely aware of the risks of being seen as handcuffing the security agencies. “Whatever reforms he makes, you can be sure if there’s another incident — and the odds are there will be in our history — there’ll be someone on CNN within seconds saying if the president hadn’t hamstrung the intelligence community, this wouldn’t have happened,” Mr. Axelrod said.
      Benjamin J. Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser working on Friday’s speech, said Mr. Obama saw the issue as two separate questions — abuse of government power and extent of government power. With the 2008 legislation setting a new structure, the president had focused on avoiding abuse until the latest revelations. “At this point, we’re looking more systematically at these programs to ensure that we’re taking into account both technological advances and also the need to inspire greater public confidence,” Mr. Rhodes said. “We have an ability to do essentially anything technologically. So do we have the appropriate legal and policy overlay to ensure that’s focused?”
      That will be the question Mr. Obama tries to answer in the speech.
      Correction: January 15, 2014 
      An earlier version of this article misstated the month in 2007 that Mr. Obama made the speech at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. It was in August, not October. 

      Thursday, January 9, 2014

      Syrian Rebels Deal Qaeda-Linked Group a Reversal

      ---------- Forwarded message ----------
      From: barry levine 
      Date: Thu, Jan 9, 2014 at 10:07 AM
      Subject: re: Syrian Rebels Deal Qaeda-Linked Group a Reversal
      To: ""

      To the Editor:  
                Those who wrung their hands because the Syrian people deserve a free representative government but we dare no help a movement that's in bed with al-Qaeda get a second chance. The forces Free Syrian Army and al Nusra front have tidily segregated themselves. The opportunity again presents itself to help in the overthrow of al-Assad's illegitimate government without arming al-Qaeda's affiliates. 
      Barry Haskell Levine

      Syrian Rebels Deal Qaeda-Linked Group a Reversal


        The group, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, which is linked to Al Qaeda and known as ISIS, seemed less interested in fighting President Bashar al-Assad than in imposing its ultraconservative version of Islam, antigovernment activists said. It banned smoking, ousted other rebels from their bases, and detained and executed those it decided were opposed to its international jihadist project.
        BEIRUT, Lebanon — For months, the patchwork of rebel brigades spread across northern Syria watched with foreboding as a new group gradually expanded its control, filling a vacuum left by nearly three years of war.
        Last week, mounting tensions between the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and other rebel groups exploded into clashes that have raged across northern Syria, left hundreds dead and further shattered the battle lines in a conflict that is increasingly destabilizing neighboring countries. Rebel fighters have driven the group from a number of areas in recent days, and on Wednesday they ejected it from its headquarters in the major city of Aleppo, dealing the group a sharp reversal


        Wednesday, January 8, 2014

        What Happened to Transparency?

        ---------- Forwarded message ----------
        From: barry levine 
        Date: Wed, Jan 8, 2014 at 12:40 PM
        Subject: re: What Happened to Transparency?
        To: ""

        To the Editor:
           For too long, our chief Executives have behaved as if "they will not face prosecution" if they follow the opinions of the Office of Legal Counsel. That assumption has no constitutional basis. The power to enact law belongs to Congress and the power to interpret law belongs to the Supreme Court. The opinions of the OLC may be privileged as attorney-client communication, but they cannot be authoritative; they are merely opinions. It is the job of our Executive to take care that these laws--not the internal, secret memoranda of the Department of Justice--be faithfully executed.
        Barry Haskell Levine

        What Happened to Transparency?


          In the latest reminder that the Obama administration has failed to live up to that promise, the Justice Department last week
           won its fight to keep secret a memo that outlines the supposed legal authority for the Federal Bureau of Investigation to collect Americans’ telephone and financial records without a subpoena or court order.When President Obama took office in 2009, he promised an “unprecedented level of openness in government.” In amemo issued the day after his inauguration, he wrote, “The government should not keep information confidential merely because public officials might be embarrassed by disclosure, because errors and failures might be revealed, or because of speculative or abstract fears.”
          Last Friday, a unanimous panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled that the memo could be kept secret from the public because it was the product of internal agency deliberations and had not been formally adopted as department policy. (The F.B.I. has said it no longer uses exigent letters.)The memo, issued in 2010 by the department’s Office of Legal Counsel, approved of the bureau’s use of what are known as exigent letters to obtain phone records without any legal process, and in the absence of any emergency. From 2003 to 2006, the bureau used these letters to obtain phone records for more than 3,500 accounts.
          Withholding the opinions of the Office of Legal Counsel, which provides legal advice to the president and executive agencies, is deeply troubling. The office’s advice often serves as the final word on what the executive branch may legally do, and those who follow that advice are virtually assured that they will not face prosecution.
          During the administration of George W. Bush, the opinions of the office gave legal cover to officials who wanted to torture prisoners for terror-related intelligence and approved the warrantless wiretapping program that operated for years before being exposed by The New York Times. Many other opinions remain hidden under the specious claim that they are only working drafts, not adopted policies, and that if officials must worry about operating “in a fishbowl,” they will avoid seeking legal advice altogether. This rationale is largely a pretext for putting an ever-expanding shroud over almost any controversial, and potentially illegal, government action.
          In 2009, Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. said, “an agency should not withhold information simply because it may do so legally.” Those were encouraging words, but Mr. Holder’s Justice Department fought the release of the memo. If the Obama administration continues to resist more transparency, Congress can amend the open-records law to require greater disclosure of the office’s opinions.
          Edward Snowden’s unauthorized disclosures of secret mass surveillance programs have forever changed the public discussion about the relationship between national security and the protection of privacy and civil liberties. That debate is meaningful only if it is open. The public should not be left in the dark about the legal justifications for the most significant actions of its government.

          Tuesday, January 7, 2014

          U.S. and Iran Face Common Enemies in Mideast Strife

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          From: barry levine 
          Date: Tue, Jan 7, 2014 at 2:41 PM
          Subject: re: U.S. and Iran Face Common Enemies in Mideast Strife
          To: ""

          To the Editor:
               In September 2001, a million men marched in Teheran in solidarity with the U.S.  after the bombings of 9/11.  Long before Rouhani, Iran recognized that the U.S. was just one--and not the first--of al Qaeda's targets. The Saudi royal dynasty and the Iranian republic were plainly marked for destruction on bin Laden's agenda.  But president George W. Bush preferred to seize extraordinary powers as a war-time president rather than head a broad international law-enforcement effort to bring the bombers' backers to justice. Calling for "crusade", he alienated the Saudis and Iranians who would have marched with us.
             Now a new president in Iran and a new president in Washington have the opportunity to try again. Maybe a more mature, sophisticated analysis will show that we can work together on many issues even while we find ourselves at odds on others.
          Barry Haskell Levine

          U.S. and Iran Face Common Enemies in Mideast Strife

          Ali al-Mashhadani/Reuters
          Fighters in Ramadi, Iraq, on Monday. Iran offered to join the United States in sending military aid to Iraq’s Shiite government.
          Published: January 6, 2014 367 Comments

          TEHRAN — Even as the United States and Iran pursue negotiations on Tehran’s nuclear program, they find themselves on the same side of a range of regional issues surrounding an insurgency raging across the Middle East.

          While the two governments quietly continue to pursue their often conflicting interests, they are being drawn together by their mutual opposition to an international movement of young Sunni fighters, who with their pickup trucks and Kalashnikovs are raising the black flag of Al Qaeda along sectarian fault lines in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan and Yemen.
          The United States, reluctant to intervene in bloody, inconclusive conflicts, is seeing its regional influence decline, while Iraq, which cost the Americans $1 trillion and more than 4,000 lives, is growing increasingly unstable.
          At the same time, Shiite-dominated Iran, the magnetic pole for the Shiite minority in the region, has its own reasons to be nervous, with the ragtag army of Sunni militants threatening Syria and Iraq, both important allies, and the United States drawing down its troops in Afghanistan.
          On Monday, Iran offered to join the United States in sending military aid to the Shiite government in Baghdad, which is embroiled in street-to-street fighting with radical Sunni militants in Anbar Province, a Sunni stronghold. On Sunday, Secretary of State John Kerry said he could envision an Iranian role in the coming peace conference on Syria, even though the meeting is supposed to plan for a Syria after the resignation of President Bashar al-Assad, an important Iranian ally.
          To some, the Iranian moves reflect the clever pragmatism of Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, and his foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, aimed at building their country into a regional power. To others critical of the potential reconciliation, the moves are window dressing aimed at lulling the West into complacency while Tehran pursues nuclear weapons and supports its own jihadists throughout the region.
          Yet even Iranians outside the reformist camp see the shared interests as undeniable. “It is clear we are increasingly reaching common ground with the Americans,” said one of them, Aziz Shahmohammadi, a former adviser to Iran’s Supreme National Security Council. “No country should have an eternal enemy, neither we nor the United States.”
          With Iran as an island of stability in a region plagued by violent protests, sectarian clashes and suicide bombers, there are not that many options left for Washington, experts here say.
          “We face the same enemy, and the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” said Mashallah Shamsolvaezin, a prominent Iranian reformist journalist who closely follows the Arab world. He recalled how Iranian intelligence operatives gave reliable information to American Special Forces troops battling Iran’s enemy, the Afghan Taliban, in 2001.
          While the Obama administration acknowledges that Iran has the potential to be an influential player on regional issues from Afghanistan to Syria, senior officials have said they are keeping their focus tightly on the nuclear negotiations. Cooperation on any other issues, they said, hinges largely on coming to terms on Iran’s nuclear program.
          The administration has concluded that Mr. Rouhani and Mr. Zarif have been empowered to negotiate on the nuclear program, but officials said it remained unclear whether their policy-making authority extended to regional issues like Syria. There, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps holds vast influence through its Quds Force, and it is supplying weapons to Hezbollah in an effort to prop up President Assad’s government.
          The thaw in relations extends back almost a year, with the two countries making overtures long thought impossible, deeply angering Washington’s closest regional allies, Saudi Arabia and Israel.
          As early as last spring, a series of secret talks in Oman and Geneva laid the groundwork for re-establishing relations, cut over three decades ago after Iranian students took American diplomats hostage in revolutionary Tehran.
          In September came the agreement — credited to President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia but fully backed and partly engineered by Iran — to remove Syria’s chemical weapons. Not long afterward, President Obama and Mr. Rouhani held a historic phone conversation, and in late November the United States and other world powers struck a temporary nuclear agreement with Iran, the first in 10 years.
          Iran has been presenting itself as the voice of reason, pointing at the extremely graphic videos of beheadings and other executions produced by some of the insurgent groups in Syria, while Mr. Rouhani wished a happy new year to all Christians on his Twitter account.
          “Now extremists are once again threatening our security, and as in 2001, both countries will cooperate with each other in Iraq, and potentially elsewhere, too,” Mr. Shamsolvaezin said. “This is the beginning of regional cooperation.”

          The thaw presents dangers to Mr. Obama and Mr. Rouhani, who will remain vulnerable to criticism from conservatives in both countries. Mr. Kerry’s invitation on Sunday for Iran to join “on the sidelines” of the Geneva conference was angrily rejected by Iranian hard-liners.
          “The Americans are confessing Iran stands for peace and stability in this region,” said Hamid Reza Tarraghi, a hard-line political analyst, with views close to those of Iran’s leaders. “But when they invite us for a conference on Syria we are ‘allowed’ to be present on the ‘sidelines.’ This is insulting.”
          Even Mr. Zarif rebuffed Mr. Kerry, saying that “everybody must be unified in order to fight the terrorists,” the official Islamic Republic News Agency reported.
          But Tehran’s full participation in the conference would seem to present even deeper problems, in that the talks are aimed at planning for a Syria after Iran’s longtime ally, Mr. Assad, has stepped down.
          Critics of United States policy say that the Obama administration is strengthening Iran at the expense of traditional allies, particularly Saudi Arabia and Israel. They say that Iran has not cut back on its support of its regional allies, like Hezbollah, the militant Shiite group in Lebanon, and Mr. Assad, and is deeply involved with Iraq’s Shiite government.
          Moreover, they say, a final nuclear agreement with Iran, should it be reached, would relieve Iran of crippling economic sanctions, reviving its economy and giving it more resources to spread its influence in the region, while depriving the West of diplomatic leverage to restrain Iran.
          Analysts in Iran say that Tehran is pursuing a clever strategy, using the United States to undermine its greatest regional rival, Saudi Arabia.
          “Cooperating skillfully with Russia, Iran has managed to change the game both in Iraq and in Syria,” said Hooshang Tale, a Tehran-based nationalist activist and a member of Parliament before the 1979 Islamic Revolution. “If we play our cards well, we will end up outsmarting both the U.S. and Saudi Arabia.”
          He and others note that Iran has managed to keep Mr. Assad in power and wields considerable influence over its neighbors, Iraq and Afghanistan. Rightly or wrongly, they view their regional enemy Saudi Arabia as being on the verge of collapse, saying in Friday Prayer speeches and in televised debates that the kingdom is ruled by old men who have lost their way.
          “We are worried for Saudi Arabia, which seems weak and potentially unstable,” said Mr. Shahmohammadi, the former adviser, who heads an institute that promotes dialogue between Sunnis and Shiites. “Even we, as their competitor, see all the horrible consequences if things go wrong there.”
          On Tehran’s streets, where people tend to see much of the region as distant lands filled with mayhem and unrest, many Iranians welcome every step that brings Iran and the United States closer together.
          “The U.S. stands for progress, for work, a future, new cars and a better life,” said Mohammad Reza Barfi, an auto mechanic. “I’d rather have peace with the U.S. than with any regional country. What do they have to offer?”

          Saturday, January 4, 2014

          Court Grants Secrecy for Memo on Phone Data

          ---------- Forwarded message ----------
          From: barry levine 
          Date: Sat, Jan 4, 2014 at 8:05 AM
          Subject: re: Court Grants Secrecy for Memo on Phone Data
          To: ""

          The U.S. Constitution leaves room for debate about the extent of the President's powers, but it does sketch the job description. The President shall "take care that these laws be faithfully executed". And "these laws" are explicitly enumerated: "This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof; and all Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land". No provision is made for a "working law" enacted in secret in the bowels of the Executive's own Department of Justice. But if such a "working law" exists, it must be subordinate to the "supreme law" enumerated in the constitution. That supremacy in turn requires--at least--that this working law cannot be secret from the Congress--who has power to enact and rework laws--from the Supreme Court--which has power to interpret laws--or from the People, who are sovereign here. For the Office of Legal Counsel to set itself up as a rival source of legal authority to the President is an insufferable assault on the legitimacy of our republic.
          Barry Haskell Levine

          Court Grants Secrecy for Memo on Phone Data


          Published: January 3, 2014

          RelatedWASHINGTON — A federal appeals court on Friday ruled that the Obama administration may continue to withhold a Justice Department memo that apparently opened a loophole in laws protecting the privacy of consumer data.
          The memo establishes the legal basis for telephone companies to hand over customers’ calling records to the government without a subpoena or court order, even when there is no emergency, according to a 2010report by the Justice Department’s inspector general. The details of the legal theory, and the circumstances in which it could be invoked, remain unclear.
          The ruling, by the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, came down on the side of a broad conception of the executive branch’s power to keep secret its interpretation of what the law permits it to do. The ruling may make it easier for the government to shield other memos by the Justice Department’s powerful Office of Legal Counsel from disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act.
          The document at issue is a classified memo issued by the Office of Legal Counsel on Jan. 8, 2010. A report later that year by the Justice Department’s inspector general at the time, Glenn A. Fine, disclosed the memo’s existence and its broad conclusion that telephone companies may voluntarily provide records to the government “without legal process or a qualifying emergency,” notwithstanding the Electronic Communications Privacy Act.
          The F.B.I. had asked for the memo as part of an investigation by Mr. Fine into problems with the bureau’s use of so-called exigent letters to obtain telephone and financial records without following any legal procedures.
          The bureau, which has abandoned exigent letters, said that it did not employ the legal theory outlined in the memo when using the letters, and that it had no plans to use it in the future. But Mr. Fine warned that the existence of the Office of Legal Counsel’s theory created a “significant gap” in “accountability and oversight,” and urged Congress to modify the statute. Lawmakers have not acted on that recommendation.
          The Electronic Frontier Foundation filed a lawsuit in 2011 seeking to obtain the memo under the Freedom of Information Act. But a District Court judge ruled that the memo fell into an exception to that law covering materials developed when the executive branch is deliberating internally about what policy to select, and a three-judge panel on the appeals court agreed on Friday.
          The Office of Legal Counsel issues binding legal advice to the executive branch. If it says something is permitted, officials who act on that advice are essentially immune from prosecution. Its power to adopt secret legal theories has come under greater scrutiny since a string of controversial opinions it produced during the Bush administration, including signing off on warrantless wiretapping and on the brutal questioning of detainees.
          “Even if the O.L.C. opinion describes the legal parameters of what the F.B.I. is permitted to do, it does not state or determine the F.B.I.’s policy,” Judge Harry T. Edwards wrote in the decision on Friday. “The F.B.I. was free to decline to adopt the investigative tactics deemed legally permissible in the O.L.C. opinion.”
          As a result, he added, the memo was covered in its entirety by the exception. By the same legal reasoning, nearly any Office of Legal Counsel memo would be exempt from disclosure.
          “We are pleased with the decision,” said Andrew Ames, a Justice Department spokesman.
          The Electronic Frontier Foundation had argued that because of the special role played by Office of Legal Counsel memos, they amounted to the government’s official “working law” and should not fall into the category of deliberative materials that are exempt from disclosure.
          David Sobel, a lawyer for the foundation, called the ruling “troubling,” describing the office’s memos as a body of “secret law” that the public has a right to know about. He said he hoped the ruling would reinvigorate efforts among some lawmakers to enact a law opening such memos to greater scrutiny outside the executive branch.
          “It’s kind of hard to imagine how a different case in the D.C. Circuit is likely to have a different outcome in light of this opinion,” he said.
          Legal specialists said the ruling was in line with how other federal courts, notably theUnited States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, in New York, have dealt with requests under the Freedom of Information Act for Office of Legal Counsel memos in recent years.
          During the litigation, the Justice Department also told the court that parts of the memo contained classified information, “highly specific in nature and known to very few individuals,” about a secret intelligence-gathering technique that the F.B.I. is using against “hostile entities.”
          The memo was also requested by McClatchy Newspapers, and a Justice Department letter rejecting that request may offer a clue about its contents. It suggested that the memo involves a statute that makes an exception to data privacy laws for “the acquisition by the United States government of foreign intelligence information from international or foreign communications.”
          That same statutory exception is said to be the legal basis for a recently disclosed C.I.A. program in which AT&T, under a voluntarily contract rather than a subpoena, searches its vast database of international phone records and provides data about calls that may help the agency identify associates of overseas terrorism suspects.
          Most of those communications are purely foreign, officials have said. But when AT&T analysts identify a potentially relevant call that has one end inside the United States, it partly masks the number on that end. The C.I.A. refers the matter to the F.B.I. for domestic investigation.
          The bureau still uses so-called national security letters to compel telephone companies to turn over records without a court order. A recent report by a review group appointed by President Obama to review surveillance policy recommended that national security letters be overhauled to require judicial approval.
          The government’s use of bulk calling records has come under greater scrutiny after leaks disclosed that the National Security Agency has been collecting records of every domestic phone call. On Friday, the government announced that the nation’s surveillance court had reauthorized that program for an additional 90 days.
          In recent weeks, two Federal District Court judges have come to opposite conclusionsabout whether the bulk collection program is lawful. On Thursday and Friday, theAmerican Civil Liberties Union and the Justice Department appealed the rulings.
          The surveillance review group has also recommended overhauling the program so that the data would remain in the hands of the phone companies and judicial approval would be required for each government search through the records.