Thursday, September 26, 2013

Weekly reminder

As of September 26, at least 8,725 people had been killed by gunfire in the US since Newtown, at least 88 of them in Massachusetts.

127.4 - Revelations of NSA spying: September

Revelations of NSA spying: September

Now we get to September, which brought news that the Qatar-based news agency al-Jazeera was targeted by the NSA, which hacked into al-Jazeera’s internal communications system. Apparently being an Arab news agency, even though it has become respected worldwide, was enough to make it suspicious to the NSA.

Remember what I said about how in August it came out that NSA has a secret backdoor into its vast databases, a loophole enabling it to search those databases for US citizens' email and phone calls without a warrant, that is, to target US citizens?

In September, it came out that in 2008, the FISC, the FISA Court, had specifically banned those sorts of searches - until the Obama administration convinced the court in 2011 to reverse those restrictions specifically to allow for those searches to be done, as they have been.

In addition, the court lengthened the time that the NSA is allowed to retain those communications from five years to six years - and even longer under some circumstances. And remember, this is being done under the color of a law specifically intended to target foreigners outside the US but may even refer to purely domestic communications supposedly gathered up "inadvertently" and which by rights shouldn't have been in those databases in the first place.

Government officials actually defend this, defend essentially throwing away the Fourth Amendment on the grounds that, to come to the nub of the argument, "Hey, if we got it, we can use it."

And don't think encrypting your communications is going to protect you. Early this month, the NY Times reported that
[t]he National Security Agency is winning its long-running secret war on encryption, using supercomputers, technical trickery, court orders and behind-the-scenes persuasion to undermine the major tools protecting the privacy of everyday communications in the Internet age.
Global commerce and banking systems, trade secrets, medical records, e-mails, web searches, Internet chats, phone calls - none of it is safe or secure.

Indeed, the German newspaper Der Spiegel reported in mid-September that the NSA has set up its own financial database to track money flows through a "tailored access operations" division which widely monitors international payments, banking and credit card transactions.

The spying is conducted by a branch called "Follow the Money." The collected information flows into the NSA's financial databank, called "Tracfin," which in 2011 contained 180 million records, some 84 percent of which is from credit card transactions focused on customers in Europe, the Middle East and Africa. This is another case where it's not supposed to affect US citizens but may well anyway, especially because another specified target of the agency is SWIFT, a worldwide network used by thousands of banks to make transactions securely. Apparently, wanting your financial transactions to be secure and remain personal is, like everything else, suspicious in the eyes of the spies.

And even if it doesn't affect Americans, it still makes mincemeat out of the claim that the whole spying apparatus is designed to "target" "foreign" "terrorists." On the other hand, "target" already has its new definition, and it has long been clear that "terrorist" is, to put it mildly, a rather flexible term. Maybe "foreign" also has its own strange usage we hadn't previously been aware of.

Many internet users assume that their data is safe, and the NSA wants to keep it that way. The agency treats its success in deciphering protected information, which is done under a classified program code-named Bullrun, as one of its most closely guarded secrets.

It especially doesn't want you to know about its covert measures to ensure its control over international encryption standards, up to and including collaboration with technology companies and internet service providers themselves, through which the agency has them insert backdoors into commercial encryption software, by which the agency can simply evade any protections that the software supposedly offers. Ordinary users, tellingly referred to in the documents as "adversaries," are not even supposed to know such backdoors exist.

To show you how important this is to the spies, funding for this program is more than 12 times that of the PRISM program that monitors our internet usage. By the way, none of the companies involved in privacy-busting partnerships are named; those details are even more highly classified than the program itself.

One last thing for now, one other thing the government really, really, doesn't want you to know but which we learned about in September is that the US routinely turns over raw intelligence data to Israel without first sifting it to remove information about US citizens. This despite all the indignant assurances of rigorous safeguards to protect the privacy of US citizens whose data is swept up in the NSA nets, which apparently are simply bold-faced lies, at least when it comes to dealings with Israel.

And Israel can do whatever it damn well pleases with this information; the agreement specifically says that it
is not intended to create any legally enforceable rights and shall not be construed to be either an international agreement or a legally binding instrument according to international law.
So Israel can use this data as it pleases - with one exception, a quite revealing one: The agreement requires the Israelis to "destroy upon recognition" any communication "that is either to or from an official of the US government," including "officials of the executive branch (including the White House, cabinet departments, and independent agencies), the US House of Representatives and Senate (member and staff) and the US federal court system (including, but not limited to, the supreme court)."

The Guardian pointedly notes that it's not clear "how or why the NSA would be in possession of such communications," but what is clear is that the government is saying its communications must remain private and protected while yours must be open to prying eyes.

I've said before that the goal here, a goal eagerly embraced and vigorously pursued by the Obama gang, is for them to know more and more about us while we know less and less about them.

Next week I intend to talk about some of the lame defenses of all this and the vacuous "reforms" suggested by the Amazing Mr. O.


127.3 - Revelations of NSA spying: August

Revelations of NSA spying: August

Come August, we were told about a secretive unit of the Drug Enforcement Administration called the Special Operations Division, which apparently has access to the NSA's massive database of telephone records and is using it to launch criminal investigations of Americans - not "national security" cases, ordinary crimes - after which law enforcement agents who use the information "recreate" the investigative trail - that is, they lie about how such investigations actually got started in order to keep the involvement of the Special Operations Division secret.

Early in the month, journalists noted something that had been overlooked in a document uncovered back in June. Recall that under the 2008 amendments to FISA, the NSA could do "cross-border surveillance," that is, it could spy on US soil without warrants so long as the “target” was a noncitizen who was outside the US at the time of the spying.

In a set of rules for how the NSA will carry out the law, one rule, the only one marked "Top Secret," says that the agency “seeks to acquire communications about the target that are not to or from the target.” [My emphasis.] In other words, the NSA is not just intercepting the communications of Americans who are in direct contact with foreigners targeted overseas, it's also intercepting almost all the communications of Americans which either start or end outside the US and searching them - without warrants - for any that make reference to information that is about or linked to those foreigners. That's a far wider net than what had previously been admitted.

And, supposedly, it's all okay because those foreigners are still the ones being "targeted." Timothy Edgar, a former intelligence official in the Bush and Obama administrations, said “There is an ambiguity in the law about what it means to ‘target’ someone.”

In the scifi fantasy classic Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Arthur Dent, upon being told he is "safe" in a cabin of one of the spaceships of the Vogon Constructor Fleet which has just destroyed the planet Earth, says "This is obviously some strange usage of the word 'safe' that I hadn't previously been aware of." We can all understand how he felt, as it appears that in the minds of the spooks, "target" joins "transparent," "collect," and "relevant" with its own strange usage we hadn't previously been aware of.

We also found out early in August that the NSA has a secret backdoor into its vast databases under a legal authority from the Obama administration enabling it to search for US citizens' email and phone calls without a warrant.

Under FISA, again, the NSA can target people for surveillance without a warrant if they are non-US citizens and outside the US at the time the data is collected. That applies even if the other end of that communication is a US citizen inside the US. The point here is that the NSA admits that information about purely domestic communications can be "inadvertently" gathered up at the same time and put in the databases - and this new rule, which dates from 2011, allows operatives to hunt for individual Americans' communications using their name or some other identifying information, even if they are inside the US and even if they are not actually targets for surveillance. As long as it's in the database, they can search for it, without a warrant, even if it shouldn't have been there in the first place.

So much for the claims from both Obama and senior spooks that the privacy of US citizens is protected.

Oh, but it is! It is! Because there are rules! And we know NSA agents would never break the rules!

Except that, um, they do. Rather frequently. In fact, it turned out in mid-August that since Congress granted the NSA its new powers in 2008, the agency has broken privacy rules or overstepped its legal authority thousands of times each year - and the NSA knew it.

And that figure is based on an internal agency audit which only includ incidents at NSA facilities in the Washington, DC area. According to three separate government officials, the number would be multiplied if it included other NSA operating units and regional collection centers.

Some of these violations were truly accidental, including improper surveillance as the result of a typographical error in an order - but many others were not, including violation of court orders and conducting programs without even informing the FISC, on top of which top officials decided they didn't even have to report some violations and took steps to hide others from the FISC and the Justice Department by removing details and substituting generic language - in other words, a coverup.

Other abuses and violations weren't social or political, they were personal. The NSA admitted in August that some of its analysts deliberately abused its surveillance systems to to spy on people in which they had romantic interests or a former spouse. The agency insists this is rare but it's common enough to have gained its own label. Just like spooks use the term "sigint" as shorthand for "signals intelligence," this is "LOVEint," for "love intelligence."

And, as NSA and its champions in and out of the Executive Branch hope you have forgotten, there was the news back in 2008 that NSA personnel routinely listened in on the intimate and innocent phone calls of Americans in Iraq, including government personnel, journalists, aid workers, and soldiers as they called back into the United States and then tell other analysts to pull up and listen to certain calls because they were "funny" or had "good phone sex."

At the same time, in August, the NSA, which would never break the rules, admitted that in each of the years 2008 to 2011, one of its surveillance programs had unlawfully gathered as many as 56,000 emails and other communications by Americans who were not suspected of any connection to terrorism. That revelation came as the result of a federal suit by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which fought the government in court for over a year to get the related documents declassified.

August was also when we learned that the US's surveillance programs violate an international agreement between the US and the European Union meant to ensure cross-border data protection. We learned that when Germany demanded a new agreement with the US not to spy on one another after Germany's independent privacy watchdogs raised the alarm.

And it's not just European allies that are targeted: The NSA is also spying on the United Nations, having cracked the encryption code needed for the organization’s internal videoconferencing calls. Such surveillance of the UN is illegal under international law. The US, it turns out, isn't the only nation doing this - but that doesn't make it any less illegal.


127.2 - Revelations of NSA spying: July

Revelations of NSA spying: July

Come July, we started to learn more about how the FISA court, the secret court whose very secrecy somehow creates transparency in government, has turned itself into what the New York Times called
almost a parallel Supreme Court, serving as the ultimate arbiter on surveillance issues and delivering opinions that will most likely shape intelligence practices for years to come.

In more than a dozen classified rulings, the court has created a secret body of law giving the National Security Agency the power to amass vast collections of data on Americans while pursuing not only terrorism suspects, but also people possibly involved in nuclear proliferation, espionage, and cyberattacks.
The court has embraced multiple ways of expanding the powers of the spooks to poke, prod, and pry into our lives, multiple ways to justify giving such all but unlimited spying authority to the NSA and other spy agencies in spite of both domestic and international law as well as the Constitution. It turns out one "reason," one justification, is that just like Barack Obama apparently has his own definition of "transparent" and Clapper claimed he didn't lie to Congress because he has his own definition of "collection," so too does the FISA court have its own definition of "relevant" - as in when evidence is "relevant" to an on-going investigation. The Supreme Court ruled in 1991 that "relevant" means there is a "reasonable possibility" it could produce important information. The FISC, however, apparently charmed by the government's argument that, as one official put it, "you can't find a needle in a haystack unless you have a haystack," decided that essentially all information that can be gathered, everything, is by definition "relevant."

For another example, it has expanded the use of the so-called “special needs” doctrine to effectively exempt the collection and examination of our communications data from the requirements of the Fourth Amendment. The "special needs" doctrine was invented in 1989 by the Supreme Court in a ruling allowing the drug testing of railway workers, finding that this supposedly minimal intrusion on privacy was justified by the government’s need to combat an overriding public danger, in that case railroad crashes. The FISA court decided that this doesn't just apply to specific individual cases - it applies everywhere to everyone.

The court got nearly 1800 requests from the spies for surveillance orders last year. It approved every single one of them. Which could be yet another definition of "transparency."

We learned, too, that there are multiple, independent surveillance programs with names like EvilOlive, ShellTrumpet, MoonLightPath, and Spinneret. And one called X-Keyscore that, with just an email address and a few keystrokes, can give a data analyst access to nearly everything a user does on the Internet – from chat sessions to email to browsing.

Edward Snowden, whose release of documents made much of this knowledge possible, said “I, sitting at my desk could wiretap anyone, from you or your accountant, to a federal judge or even the president, if I had a personal email.”

The program allows analysts, with no prior authorization, to search through vast databases containing emails, online chats and the browsing histories of millions of individuals.


127.1 - Revelations of NSA spying: June

Revelations of NSA spying: June

This entire show will be devoted to one topic: Spying by the National Security Agency, the NSA. I said recently that I hadn’t talked much about it because it was so much in the news I figured you were familiar with it - but it occurred to me that with so much having some out, it might be useful to go back over that ground to give a true sense of just how massive this really is.

So what I’m going to do is go through a roughly chronological account of what we have learned since these revelations began.

It started in June, when we learned that the National Security Agency, the NSA, is collecting information about the telephone calls made by tens of millions of Americans on an "ongoing, daily basis" and that the information is being gathered indiscriminately and in bulk - regardless of whether the people affected are suspected of any wrongdoing. This had been reported before but what got the attention now was we had a copy of the actual court order allowing it.

This was after in March, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper lied through his teeth to a Congressional committee about this. He was asked directly if the NSA collected any sort of data on Americans and he said “No, sir.” He later claimed first that he gave the "least untruthful" answer and even later that he misunderstood the question. Unfortunately, no one thought to ask him just what part of the question he didn't understand.

He wasn't alone: In June, the Washington Post reported that, quoting,
details that have emerged from the exposure of hundreds of pages of previously classified NSA documents indicate that public assertions about these programs by senior US officials have also often been misleading, erroneous or simply false.
Among those doing the what is politely called "misleading" was the Misleader-in-Chief, Barack Obama, who said in a television interview in June that oversight of the surveillance programs was “transparent” because of the involvement of the FISC, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, a special court set up under FISA, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. He claimed the existence of this court makes the whole process "transparent" even though that court only hears from government officials, virtually ever denies a government request for spying approval, and its sessions and decisions are both secret.

Around that same time, we learned that it wasn't just our phone records, it was our internet use that was being spied on. The NSA and the FBI, it developed, are tapping into the central servers of nine leading U.S. Internet companies, extracting audio and video chats, photographs, e-mails, documents, and connection logs. This is the program named PRISM.

We learned that the FISA court, the secret court that Barack Obama bizarrely insisted made everything so "transparent," had signed off on broad government requests to allow the NSA to make use of information collected without a warrant from domestic US communications so long as that info was collected "inadvertently."

Such data could be kept and used if they contain usable intelligence, information on criminal activity, threat of harm to people or property, are encrypted, or are believed to contain any information relevant to cybersecurity. Note first that the very act of encrypting your personal information because a basis for suspicion - and after that ask yourself how, if, as the NSA claims, it "cannot" access the content of your messages without a warrant, it knows if such messages contain "usable intelligence."

We also learned at the same time that, as the The Guardian, a UK newspaper, put it,
discretion as to who is actually targeted under the NSA's foreign surveillance powers lies directly with its own analysts, without recourse to courts or superiors.
They are supposed to decide if you are outside the US and so subject to NSA surveillance based on "the totality of the circumstances based on the information available with respect to that person." What this means, though, is that if they don't specifically know where you are, analysts are free to presume you're overseas.

Put another way, the standard for deciding that you are a foreign suspect outside the United States and so can be legally spied on, rather than inside the US where such warrantless spying is flatly illegal, is "51% confidence." Fifty-one percent - that’s your level of protection against being improperly spied on.
And to add a real element of Dada to this, if it later appears that you are in fact located inside the US, analysts are permitted to read your emails or listen to your phone calls to see if that's true. That is, "We're going to read your emails and listen to your calls in order to see if we should be reading your emails and listening to your calls." Look at all we do for you!

Next, we learned that for the first two years of his administration, the Obama White House continued an NSA program collecting vast amounts of records detailing the email and internet usage of Americans. This included the authority to "analyze communications metadata associated with United States persons and persons believed to be in the United States." This bulk collection of emails was entirely separate from the PRISM program.

It was supposedly shut down in 2011 because, according to Sen. Ron Wyden, intelligence officials couldn't showit did any good.

But instead of being shut down, it may simply have been renamed or somewhat redesigned, because documents showed that the NSA still collects and analyzes large quantities of Americans' online data. In fact, in December 2012, the Special Source Operations directorate within the NSA announced what it described as a new capability to allow it to collect far more internet traffic and data than ever before. More than 75% of all internet traffic in the US passes through an NSA filter and more than half of that can be stored in NSA's own repositories.


Left Side of the Aisle #127

Left Side of the Aisle
for the week of September 26 - October 2, 2013

This week:

Revelations of NSA spying: June

Revelations of NSA spying: July

Revelations of NSA spying: August

Revelations of NSA spying: September

Friday, September 20, 2013

Weekly reminder

As of September 20, at least 8,345 people had been killed by gunfire in the US since Newtown, at least 82 of them in Massachusetts.

And, as I like to remind you from time to time, this figure is only of media-reported deaths as thus is a minimum figure. Not all deaths get reported and deaths as suicide rarely are. Include those and, based on the most recent estimates by the Centers for Disease Control for yearly deaths by guns in the US, as of September 20 roughly 24,880 people have died from guns in the United States since Newtown.

126.6 - And Another Thing: picture of baby star

And Another Thing: picture of baby star

One last cool thing. In this case, a hot cool thing.

The picture is a baby picture. It's a baby star. A baby star.

The picture was taken by the ALMA telescope in Chile. This is a great place to do this because this telescope is set in the Atacama Desert, which is one of the driest places on Earth. This desert makes the Sahara look like a rain forest. Which also means the air is incredibly clear and crisp because of the lack of humidity. This is wonderful for telescopes.

What the image shows is material streaming from the baby star, which is the bluish area in the center of the cloud, you see all that material being ejected out from the star at incredible speed and as it plows into the surrounding gas and dust, it heats it up and causes it to glow.

These illuminated jets you see are actually spewing out faster than any have ever been measured before. That's one very active baby.


126.5 - And Another Thing: life forms found under Antarctic lake

And Another Thing: life forms found under Antarctic lake

Here's a third cool thing, literally this time. Scientists have discovered signs of life in mud samples that were extracted from the bottom of a subglacial lake in Antarctica.

They uncovered microbes that date back nearly 100,000 years - and about 23% of the organisms they found were "unidentified," organisms previously unknown to science.

The scientists drilled through an ice sheet covering Lake Hodgson on the Antarctic peninsula. The lake's ice is currently about 10-13 feet thick, but 100,000 years ago, during the last Ice Age, it was more than 1300 feet thick. The researchers drilled through the ice and another 305 down to actually drill into the bottom of the lake and take up these sediments.

They said the upper few centimeters, which would be the most recent sediment, contained recent organisms. But as they continued to drill, they found fossilized fragments of DNA belonging to numerous microbes which seem to have adapted to the extreme conditions of living in an Antarctic lake. These included several types of bacterial species known to science, but, again, they said 23% of them are unknown.

(I kept flashing on the X-Files stories about microbes in Antarctica, but that's a whole different story.)

The studies are going to continue and the other important thing about this is that studying how things have survived in extreme environments here on Earth can also tell us more about how life might exist or develop on other planets.


126.4 - And Another Thing: new language being born

And Another Thing: new language being born

More cool stuff: There's a lot of concern among linguists over the fact that a lot of languages around the world are dying. However, they've now discovered one that's just been born.

It was created by children living in a remote village called Lajamanu in northern Australia. The language is called Walpipi rampaku, which means "light Walpiri."

The local language is Walpiri, now also called "strong" Walpiri. It's an aboriginal language which is spoken among about 4,000 Australian Aborigines.

But Walpiri rampaku contains elements of English, Walpiri, and Kriol, which is an English-based creole that developed in the late 1800s. Walpiri rampaku has recently emerged as a mother tongue among children, and a lot of the people under 35 years old in this village speak light Walpiri as their native language.

And the cool thing is, light Walpiri can't be a pidgin, because a pidgin requires non-native speakers, and it can't be a creole because a creole is a combination to two languages and this language actually has its own grammatical rules. This is a genuine language.

It is now so well-established among the young people in this village that the elders are wondering if Walpiri itself, the so-called strong Walpiri now, will survive. Because while the younger generation speaks both light Walpiri and strong Walpiri, they have the former as their own, preferred, native language and the concern is that in another generation the original Walpiri will disappear in the face of a new language.


126.3 - And Another Thing: world's largest volcano found

And Another Thing: world's largest volcano found

As I said at the top of the show, this week we're going to take something of a break from politics, so the rest of the show is going to be devoted to one of our occasional features; it's called And Another Thing and it's about some cool science stuff.

The first thing to tell you about is that the world's largest volcano has been found under the Pacific Ocean. It's called Tamu Massif and the size of this volcano dwarfs Mauna Loa in Hawai'i, which was previously thought to be the largest. In fact, this volcano is only 25% smaller than Olympus Mons on Mars, which is the largest volcano in the entire Solar System.

One of the reason researchers had trouble finding it is that it's only about two and a-half miles high. Apparently the way these things erupt is that they erupt very slowly and the lava spreads out very gradually, resulting in a low, broad, field. So it's only two and a-half miles tall but it's 400 miles wide. This is actually bigger in area than the state of New Mexico.

Apparently the last time it erupted was about 144 million years ago; it's been extinct since then. But it's a class of volcano that apparently was not recognized before. There are these areas called oceanic plateaus - they are just sort of rises in the ocean - and geologists are starting to realize that yeah, these are actually old volcanos. It's just that the flow is spread out over a large area. So finding out about Tamu Massif may help then understand better how these kinds of things form.

These oceanic plateaus are the largest outflows of lava on Earth and they actually have been linked to mass extinctions and climate change, so they are a significant thing.

By the way, in case you're wondering (as I would be), this volcano was never above the surface. It's been hidden because it sits on a thin portion of the Earth's crust called the lithosphere, which can't support the weight of the volcano, so it the volcano was all packed up and tall, it would just sink back down again.

It's peak is now about 6500 feet, nearly 2000 meters, below the ocean surface.


126.2 - The scary notion that the president can bomb anyone, anytime, without Congressional approval

The scary notion that the president can bomb anyone, anytime, without Congressional approval

I said last week I was going to spend some time talking about the frightening notion of how many people have embraced the idea that the president would have the power to bomb Syria even if Congress disapproved and that I'd talk about it because this will remain an important issue no matter what happens in the immediate case of Syria. Even if there is a peaceful settlement, even if there is an agreement that does not involve US bombs, this issue of the president's unilateral power remains. So let's have that talk now.

Because the White House has certainly made the argument. It has insisted, repeatedly, loudly, persistently, arrogantly, that Barack Obama, our Nobel Peace Prize president, the Very Amazing Mr. O himself, would have the authority to make war on Syria not only without Congressional authorization but even if Congress were to specifically deny him that authority.

The New York Times reported it: "Obama might still authorize force even if Congress rejected it.”

CBS News reported it: "Senior officials said that President Obama may still decide to strike Syria even if Congress disapproves of military action."

Time magazine reported it: Obama "might still attack Syria even if Congress issues a rejection."

And they said it themselves:

Caitlin Hayden, a spokeswoman for the White House and the National Security Council, said Obama's "decision-making will be guided by what is in the best interests of the United States" - which apparently only he gets to define.

White House counsel Kathryn Ruemmler said a strike without Congressional approval would be lawful under both domestic and international law because of the “important national interests” involved even if it “may not fit under a traditionally recognized legal basis under international law.” That is, it's not legal under international law, but it is anyway.

Deputy National Security Adviser Tony Blinken argued that “the president has authority to act” if Congress voted down the Syria resolution, as it surely would have.

Secretary of State John Kerry said Obama "has the right to do this no matter what Congress does."

Offical presidential Liar to the Press Jay Carney said Obama "has authority as commander-in-chief to take action" and Congressional approval "enhances the argument" but isn't required.

Obama himself said he wouldn’t speculate on how he might act.

What they are actually saying, as I said last week, is that the president, any president, has the power to ignore the Constitution and the Congress and attack any country, anywhere, anytime, whenever that president on their own authority, answerable to no one, decides it’s a good idea.

And it's not only the administration and its flunkies saying this:

John McCain, who has never met a Middle East war he didn't want to make bigger, said it would be "harder" for Obama to intervene in Syria if Congress votes it, but not impossible because he has "ample precedent" for "acting without the approval of Congress" - and, it appears, even in the face of Congress's direct disapproval.

And it's not just on the right, there are voices on the left - or at least among the supposed liberals - saying the same thing.

Josh Marshall, this great, liberal journalist who runs one of big more-or-less liberal news sites on the web called Talking Points Memo (or just TPM) had this to say:
I would put the War Powers Act to one side because no sitting President of either party has ever accepted that the War Powers Act is actually binding on the President.

On the constitutional front, you frequently hear that only the Congress has the power to declare wars. But the President’s role as commander-in-chief of the armed forces gives him effective power to use the armed forces in various ways without a declaration. The really big grant of power in the Commander-in-Chief role isn’t something you can simply write off.
And that's the thing that keeps coming up. He's the Commander-in-Chief! The Commander-in-Chief! That's what he is, he's the Commander-in-Chief!

You know, I remember that back during the Watergate days, there was a moment when the Nixon gang tried to shut down the investigation by having Nixon send his chief of staff, Alexander Haig, to tell Attorney-General Elliot Richardson to fire special prosecutor Archibald Cox. When Richardson refused, Haig told him "Your commander in chief has given you an order."

The quote became infamous. Even though Haig was still active military at the time, he was still in a civilian office: chief of staff. And people were genuinely shocked to hear someone filling a civilian office, addressing a civilian, refer to Nixon as "your commander in chief" rather than as "president."

But that was then and times have, it seems changed and now it's considered proper, indeed reasonable, indeed it would be unreasonable for it to be otherwise, to think of Obama as "your commander in chief" even when dealing with civilian authority and to think of that role as commander in chief as overriding that authority.

I ask you, what could ultimately be more dangerous to the Constitution, what could be more dangerous to any constitutional form of government, to have military authority outrank civilian authority, for military authority to be able to do as it thinks best not only in the absence of approval but in the presence of active disapproval?

Glenn Greenwald noted that "it's a potent sign of how low the American political bar is set" that we're supposed to be, and a lot of us are, grateful that Obama even deigned to ask Congress to vote before he starts bombing another country even though he says the vote is meaningless because he can do what he pleases anyway.

And please don't give me that bull about "implied powers" or "implied authority under the Constitution." Bluntly, it's all crap.

Article 2, Section 2 of the Constitution says, quoting,
The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual Service of the United States.
The president thus is the highest-ranking officer in the military chain of command. Putting this power in the hands of a civilian office was a deliberate, conscious choice.

On the other hand, under Article 1, Section 8, Congress, yes, is given the power to declare war - but its role is much wider than that. Congress also has the power, among other things,
to provide for the common Defense and general Welfare of the United States;
To define and punish Piracies and Felonies committed on the high Seas, and Offenses against the Law of Nations;
To declare War, grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal, and make Rules concerning Captures on Land and Water;
To raise and support Armies, but no Appropriation of Money to that Use shall be for a longer Term than two Years;
To provide and maintain a Navy;
To make Rules for the Government and Regulation of the land and naval Forces;
To provide for calling forth the Militia to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions;
To provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining, the Militia, and for governing such Part of them as may be employed in the Service of the United States.
Under the Constitution, Congress is heavily involved in the structure and process of military activities, in raising, organizing, regulating, and - importantly - authorizing the military forces.

For all of the blather and the "well, this case" and "well, that case" and "well, this interpretation," and all of the attempts to justify the unjustifiable by verbal hocus-pocus and hokum, the basic premise seems quite clear to me: The president decides how the armed forces will be used; the Congress decides when and if they are used and under what guidelines. That basic principle, one Barack Obama grossly violated in Libya and proposed to grossly violate in Syria, spitting on the Constitution and disgracing himself and his office in the process, that basic principle just doesn't seem that complicated to me.

But the real world is rarely as clean as basic principles and so, after "a long train of abuses and usurpations," Congress asserted its will in the War Powers Act in 1973, which was passed over a presidential veto.

Yeah, the War Powers Act, the one our liberal journalist Josh Marshall wants to "put aside" because presidents have just declared it as non-binding, as if a press release from the White House controlled the validity and force of a law. The War Powers Act was an attempt to re-establish the role of Congress while recognizing the reality that emergencies may arise.

The heart of it is Section 2(c), which reads, in full:
The constitutional powers of the President as Commander-in-Chief to introduce United States Armed Forces into hostilities, or into situations where imminent involvement in hostilities is clearly indicated by the circumstances, are exercised only pursuant to (1) a declaration of war, (2) specific statutory authorization, or (3) a national emergency created by attack upon the United States, its territories or possessions, or its armed forces.
That is, the president may commit forces only in the cases of specific grants of authority or to react to an emergency. Neither of those cases existed in Libya, neither exists in Syria. In fact, Obama himself said he was willing to go to Congress to seek his - as far as he's concerned, purely symbolic - war resolution precisely because Syria presented no immediate threat to the US.

Instead, we were faced - and may in a short time be faced again - with the prospect of a president ordering the bombing of a sovereign nation not because of an attack, not because of a threat, not even because of a claimed threat, but because of a desire to look "resolute," to maintain "credibility," to not look "weak" or "indecisive," while government officials say - such as John Kerry, still doing his best to run away from his Vietnam War days, said - that the president can do this because he is not bound by law. And we are all supposed passively to accept this as the normal, natural, proper way things are.

In April 1977, during his interviews with Richard Nixon, David Frost asked him about the limits of presidential authority.

Nixon's answer was "When the president does it, that means that it's not illegal."

"By definition?" Frost asked.

"Exactly," Nixon answered.

That exchange produced a collective gasp in the country. The idea that a president could declare himself above the law stunned people and sank any hope Nixon had of using these interviews to rebuild his shattered reputation. Again, times have apparently changed and now a president declaring in effect that neither the law nor the Constitutional powers of Congress can constrain his use of the military in any way or at any time he sees fit is a mainstream idea.

Not only is no "imminent" threat required, there need be no threat at all - and Congress not only need not give approval either before or after the fact but can and should be ignored completely.

I said this in the case of Libya, I say it again now: If that notion, if the continuing move in that direction that this represents and establishes, does not disturb you, then not only is your understanding of freedom quite different from mine, your understanding of democracy and the nature of a free republic is as well.

Because I see this idea, the growing acceptance of this idea, as truly, truly, dangerous. McCain said a couple of weeks ago that this is "a critical moment" for the U.S. It is, but not in the way he meant.

I will leave this with two last thoughts: One, a bit of hope in that NBC News poll that had a whopping 79 percent saying the president should be required to receive congressional approval before taking any military action on Syria.

The other is this quote:
The President does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation.
Those were the words of then-candidate for president, Senator Barack Obama to the Boston Globe On December 20, 2007.

Footnote: The US has been taking steps to destroy its own stocks of chemical weapons since the 1990s. It promised to complete that process by 2012.

It failed. The US still has over 2600 tons of mustard gas and 524 tons of other lethal gases and nerve agents, many of which are contained within weaponry, including rockets, artillery shells, landmines, spray tanks and aerial bombs. The most recent forecast is that the process of "neutralizing" won't be completed until 2023.

Now yes, the US has been destroying its own stocks and has helped other nations to destroy theirs. The point here is that the difficulty of actually fulfilling that mission has proved to be much greater than was anticipated. Just be sure to keep that in mind when the talk comes up of "deadlines" for Syria to completely destroy its own stocks. They are likely to be much smaller, but the point of the difficulty involved - a level of difficulty multiplied by trying to do this in the middle of a civil war - remains.


126.1 - Good News: Westboro Baptist Church gets pwned again

Good News: Westboro Baptist Church gets pwned again

Starting, as I always like to, with good news, I actually have two bits of cool news demonstrating how the Westboro Baptist Church - which, by the way, is not affiliated with any Baptist Convention - now may be doing more for the cause of justice and equality than against it.

First, you may have heard about how country music star Vince Gill got in the faces of some of the church's flakes when they showed up to protest at a concert of his because he is divorced and remarried. I guess just calling gays "fags" doesn't have the pizzazz it used to.

Even better is the news from Planting Peace, the group that runs Equality House, the rainbow-colored house that sits across the street from the walled compound of the bigot-boasting so-called church.

The house is to be the site of Planting Peace's "first annual Equality House drag themed walk-a-thon!"
We are inviting you, your family, and your friends to all come out and parade around the Westboro Baptist Church with us whether in costume or not but either way raising money for the Equality House and looking fabulous during the whole event!!
The event will be called the "Drag Down Bigotry Walk-a-thon." And yes, I'm sure it will be fabulous.


Left Side of the Aisle #126

Left Side of the Aisle
for the week of September 19-25, 2013

This week:

Good News: Westboro Baptist Church gets pwned again

The scary notion that the president can bomb anyone, anytime, without Congressional approval

And Another Thing: world's largest volcano found

And Another Thing: new language being born

And Another Thing: life forms found under Antarctic lake

And Another Thing: picture of baby star

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Weekly reminder

As of September 10, at least 7,915 people had been killed by gunfire in the US since Newtown, at least 79 of them in Massachusetts.

125.5 - Clown Award: Missouri state senator Brian Nieves

Clown Award: Missouri state senator Brian Nieves

Now it's time for the Clown Award, given as always for meritorious stupidity.

By the way, before we get to this week's clown, a quick note to show why I've retired Pat Robertson from competition for the Clown Award.

On his show the “700 Club” two weeks ago, Robertson said in response to a question about HIV/AIDS that there are people in the gay community in San Francisco who wear a special ring so that when you shake hands it will cut your finger and infect you with HIV.

This was so bad that the Christian Broadcasting Network cut it out of the show before it aired, but you can find the full clip on YouTube.

Having Pat around just wasn't fair to the other aspirants. So he's out of the game.

Anyway, this week, the big red nose goes to Missouri state senator Brian Nieves. I've mentioned him once before, in July when he said that abortions done to save the life of the mother are "just a matter of convenience."

And the truth is, there are multiple reasons he could have been dishonored with the Clown Award. One is that back in April, he got into a bizarre email flame war with a constituent named Bart Cohn who originally just wanted to be taken off Nieves' mailing list, which Nieves wouldn't do unless Cohn explained how he got on the list, which itself is doubly weird because the response of a normal person would be to say "okay, you're off the list" and because Nieves later said that anyone who emailed him had their email address captured and put on the list - which is strange itself because it means that you can't email to get off the list because any time you do you get put back on it.

Nieves got creepier and creepier as the exchange progressed, ultimately ending by saying Cohn must be "in love with" him or "obsessed" with him and as a parting shot saying "BTW... You really don't look good with a beard," which while clearly intended as a vague "I know who you are" threat, also raises the question of just who is obsessed with who.

Another reason would be that he is a believer in the Agenda 21 conspiracy theories. Agenda 21 - the 21 refers to the 21st century - is a 20-year old UN document describing a non-binding, voluntarily action plan for the nations of the world to advance sustainable development. For some time now it's been a favorite of right-wing nutcases who argue it's actually a secret plan - a secret plan which is freely and widely available, but don't bother pointing that out, you'll only confuse the poor dears - a secret plan for one-world communist government! I've had this thrown at me in arguments about global warming, invariably from people who are convinced I've never heard of it and will be shocked - shocked - when The Truth is revealed to me.

You want a third reason? I've got one. Nieves is leading the fight in the Missouri legislature to overturn a veto by Gov. Jay Nixon of legislation that declared federal gun laws null and void in the state.

But here's why it comes today. His campaign has announced plans to give away an assault weapon during a clay pigeon shooting fundraiser next month.

That's right, chip in a hundred bucks for a raffle ticket and you could walk away with a brand new Sig Sauer 516 Patrol AR-15, an alternate version of the same sort of weapon that was used in the slaughters at both Aurora, Colorado and Newtown, Connecticut.

To attend the fundraiser will cost you $25. If you want to shoot, it'll cost you $100. But for the big spenders, there are more expensive sponsorships, with levels going right up to one going for $1,500.

Yep, for 1500 bucks, you get "Four Shooter Packages, Six Station Sponsorships and SIX of only Fifty Chances" at the gun with the blood-soaked pedigree.

The name for this level? "Sniper level."

In a remarkable understatement, Sean Soendker Nicholson, executive director of Progress Missouri, called that label "troubling."

It's not troubling. It's sick. And those who celebrate it, including Senator Nieves, are sick as well.

Now, I have to add before I leave this that I can understand the attraction of clay pigeon shooting or skeet shooting: It takes skill and you get to in effect blow stuff apart without actually hurting anyone or anything. But it's done with shotguns, not with semi-automatic firearms that can take down 82 people, 12 of them dead, in a theater in Colorado or kill 26 children and teachers at a school in Connecticut, in each case in less than 15 minutes.

Nieves is not celebrating sport, he's celebrating death. He is a clown of death.


125.4 - Syria


So I'm going to talk a bit about the situation about Syria. I deliberately say "about" rather than "in" because the situation in Syria remains the same: People are dying every day.

But the situation about Syria is, as they say, in flux.

It came because of a supposedly off-hand comment by Secretary of State John Kerry, who when asked if there was anything Syrian President Bashar al-Assad could do to head off a US attack, said
"Sure. He could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week."
This was downplayed by White House reps and labeled an off-the-cuff statement by the State Department, one intended to show the impossibility of Assad doing so or wanting to do so. But it turned out that the idea had been broached by Russian President Vladimir Putin during his meeting with Barack Obama during the G20 summit last week.

So maybe it wasn't so unplanned, maybe it was a way to signal to Putin that the idea could be in play, particularly since Obama's chances of getting his war resolution passed by the Congress seemed to be getting dimmer by the day. It would hardly be the first time that supposedly casual, off-hand remarks have been used by governments to send signals to other governments.

If so, Putin seemed more than willing to take the opening: Within hours, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov promised to push Syria to adopt the idea. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem then embraced the proposal, as did Assad himself on Tuesday.

I have long said that if you want to avoid a war, if you want to avoid the death and bloodshed that even a so-called "limited" attack would involve, then you have to give the other side a way to back out without appearing to back down. I unfortunately can't remember that actual source, but it was a man who for some years was editor of Foreign Policy magazine and he once noted quite cogently that historically, when given a choice between humiliation and war, nations have shown a depressingly consistent preference for the latter.

This deal may be a way to allow both sides - Obama and Assad - to back out without appearing to back down.

But right now I'm not so sure this will work out and we may be right back at the same place in a couple of weeks. Maybe I'm wrong, hopefully I'm wrong, particularly since Assad has now said Syria will abide by the Chemical Weapons Convention, implicitly promising to destroy stocks of weapons that just days earlier he had denied he even had. But - well, we'll see.

The problem, as always, is the devil in the details and already red flags are going up. The US said it would take "a hard look" at the proposal, which involves working through the UN Security Council, and Obama even asked Congress to delay the Senate vote on his resolution - but also said he is "skeptical" of Assad's - and, by extension, Putin's - motives, a stance echoed by others in his administration.

Kerry, for example, says Syria must "go further" than declaring its chemical weapons stockpiles and signing the international treaty that bans them. He said the Syrian government must "live up to what they said just said they would do" and then cooperate with Russia "to work out a formula by which those weapons could be transferred to international control and destroyed." Which could be taken as wanting proof of sincerity on Syria's part or as goal-post shifting, depending on your point of view.

Even so, the White House says Obama has agreed to discussions at the United Nations Security Council on the Russian proposal to secure Syria's chemical weapons stockpiles. Obama discussed the idea with French President Francois Hollande and British Prime Minister David Cameron. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius says France will float a resolution in the U.N. Security Council aimed at forcing Syria to make public its chemical weapons program, place it under international control and dismantle it.

What's more, the UK, US and France want any Security Council resolution to include a timetable for Syria to act and want it to be passed under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter, which allows for military action if other measures have not succeeded. The White House says that any resolution lacking a timetable would amount to a "stalling tactic" and that the US will "not fall for" that.

Russia, on the other hand, rejected the French draft and said that any text putting the blame on Syria for the August 21 chemical weapons attack was unacceptable. It urged a Security Council declaration backing its initiative to be passed under Chapter 6 - which does not allow for military action. Lavrov told Fabius that Russia would not countenance a resolution threatening Syria with force, and it seems unimaginable that Obama would, or politically could, accept a resolution lacking any specific means of enforcement.

And even after you get past all that there is simply the practical matter of doing it in the middle of a civil war when accounting for and dismantling weapons of any sort is hard enough in peacetime.

So that's where we stand right now, as I do this, realizing it could change quickly. What I'm going to do now is take a couple of minutes with some general observations.

One is that a number of people, mostly but not exclusively on the left, have raised questions about whether or not Assad was actually responsible for the gas attack on August 21. The basis for this is that one of the strongest pieces of evidence the US has offered to connect Assad to the attack is a "panicky phone call" from a Syrian defense official to the leader of a chemical weapons unit which the US intercepted. The thing is, to the very extent that call ties the regime to the attack, to that same extent it raises the question of if the attack was ordered from above or was it some lower-level commander doing it on his own.

For me, whatever the questions regarding the legalities, I say it still leaves Assad responsible: He ordered the creation of these weapons, he ordered the distribution of these weapons, and he created the mechanisms for their use. We on the left have never been willing to let the higher-ups walk free while the grunts got the blame. When, for example, Abu Ghraib came to light, we were not willing to exculpate the generals who had created the circumstances on grounds that they had not specifically ordered the abuse. So it should be here.

Another point is that the American public is clearly, even overwhelmingly, opposed to a military strike.

A HuffingtonPost/YouGov poll found that just 18 percent thought U.S. airstrikes against the Syrian government would stop the use of chemical weapons there, while 48 percent thought they wouldn't. 57 percent said airstrikes would not help to end the fighting in Syria. Pluralities said the attacks would increase the rate of civilian casualties and the mission would be a first step toward sending U.S. troops into Syria.

An NBC News poll had 50 percent of respondents opposing the US taking military action against Syria; just 42 percent who support it. Importantly, a massive number, 79 percent, said the president should be required to receive congressional approval before taking any action.

The ABC News / Washington Post poll showed 59 percent of Americans opposed to US missile strikes in Syria and a majority remain opposed even if its presented as an allied attack.

And then we have the administration's pathetic claims that "this is not a war."

Really? Seriously? You're going to drop "a few hundred" cruise missiles on at least 50 sites around Syria and claim that "we're not going to war?" What, then, do you say to Rep. Zoe Lofgren, who said "anyone who argues that shooting missiles and dropping bombs on another country is not an act of war" needs to go back to school. After all, she said, "If somebody shot cruise missiles at Washington for only one day, we would still consider it an act of war, wouldn’t we?”

And what do you say to Gen. Martin Dempsey, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who said about Syria in a letter to Sen. Carl Levin on July 19, that a “decision to use force is not one that any of us takes lightly. It is no less than an act of war.”

And for all their talk about "limited" this and "restricted" that and "not doing" the other, Kerry still left open the possibility of "boots on the ground" in his testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in the event Syria "imploded, for instance." He tried to walk that back, but it still hangs out there, like a bad smell in the air.

A particularly bad smell because despite its claims that it's not actually trying to overthrow Assad, the Obama administration is considering a plan to use US military trainers to help train the Syrian rebels.

Right now, such training is done by the CIA, with the trainees counted in the dozens. If the military takes over, that number could be expanded to the thousands.

Finally, too big for today, I will do this next week because it will remain an issue no matter what happens with the UN: the number of people, the number of leaders, including people on the supposed left or at least liberal part of the spectrum, who openly avow that the president, any president, has the power to ignore the Constitution and the Congress and attack any country anywhere, anytime, whenever that president on their own authority, answerable to no one, decides its a good idea. That is a frightening notion.

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