Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Perfect / Good

The phrase that you hear in arguments, "don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good," popped into my head. And I thought of an extension or a corollary to this. Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good, but also don't let worries about letting the perfect be the enemy of the good stop you from pushing for three things instead of two, or four things instead of three, or only killing ten false-positive human beings in your war instead of a hundred.

In the Tim Noah/Mark Schmitt bloggingheads about Ted Kennedy, they were talking about Kennedy's approach. They were saying that he went for incremental progressive policies in bits and pieces, and after a while of doing that, you get a lot done. So I was thinking about how this saying might have been wielded on Kennedy. A big part of this blog is about the question of disingenuousness or bad faith. So I wonder how often the subtle suggestion that it's OK to stop short of pushing harder is wielded in bad faith by someone who actually has vested interests against whatever it is getting done. Like let's say, pushing for single payer. Or even pushing for a public option. I think there is the possibility of good and bad outcomes in either eventuality. Kennedy didn't let the perfect be the enemy of the good and he got a lot accomplished over time. However, if the person telling you not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good has a top hat and a curly moustache and a nametag reading "insurance lobbyist," it might also be good to consider ignoring them.

I think it's important to take a look at how people take language as a bundle, and it obviates the need to finely consider the elements of the bundle. People are often scanning around for stories and contexts to help them make sense out of the world. If there's a new anti-terror bill working through Congress in 2020 AD, and it ratifies preemptive rape and preemptive murder of most anyone, and activists fight and fight for three straight days and finally get the murder provision stripped out, and then someone speaks up and says "I'm horrified that we're still legalizing rape" and is told in response, "yes, but let's not let the perfect be the enemy of the good," it would be awful to accept that contextualization and feel some relief. But probably also human, if you're at a complete loss, horrified, and looking around for some help, and the person saying those words is a progressive elder statesman - or a bigwig of the Dems or the GOP or whoever - who you admire. I have felt this way about commentary on the killing of Awlaki, the killing of Qadaffi, and recently on the new NDAA - it doesn't go as far as my satirical example, but it's bad enough - and even listening to Jon Stewart talk about bin Laden being killed. You do do a double take and say "well, if xy person thinks it's actually okay, maybe I'm wrong."

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Wikileaks' Spy Files

Thanks to Yves Smith for talking about this in her latest Links post.

Guardian story

Wikileaks releases the Spy Files

I wonder if one of the rebuttals against Wikileaks is that the release is mostly just a bunch of public brochures.

I'm glad to see them target complicit corporations in addition to governments.

This is the comment that I wrote on Naked Capitalism:

Thanks for the link to the wikileaks Spy Files and Guardian story! Silicon Valley needs to be muckraked. I sometimes see this contrast being set up where people are disgusted with the ephemeral nature of the FIRE sector, and their example of what to contrast that with is the good old, solid American know-how in northern California. That’s great, but it should be put through an ethical lens as well. We need technologist-muckrakers who do for the west coast what Yves does for the east.

Since something like this is often too big to wrap our heads around, I think a way to get concrete is to concentrate on false positives hurt or killed in the course of accomplishing what they’re trying to accomplish with surveillance. The false positives have to be documented methodically. Maybe this approach is a remedy for human susceptibility to go whole hog towards paranoia and be easily dismissed and ridiculed. No. Specificity and citations are really important. If there’s someone being hurt by this, let’s write it up dispassionately, and you can sway more people that the costs might outweigh the benefits.

Also, I see a lot of counterarguments (say in the blog comments on stories like this, maybe not on NC but in a more centrist environment) where someone will come back and say “so what? Privacy is over – so what is the point of wringing your hands about it today if you weren’t wringing your hands about it yesterday?” This throws the baby out with the bathwater. False positives are being hurt on an ongoing basis, even in the case of JSOC targeted killings (my post on Dana Priest/Thom Hartmann.. (the original youtube would have worked too) ), and the false positive deaths that haven’t happened yet can be prevented.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Scunthorpe / OWS

There's a lot going on in the world, as usual. There are a lot of stories that are within my bailiwick or my preoccupations.

I have recently been listening to various discussions in the press about bad actions that were being carried out by Occupy encampments. It reminds me in a way of the cluster of familiar ideas and social back-and-forth around the Scunthorpe problem. So in the Scunthorpe problem, you have a perfectly legitimate city name that happens to have an offensive word as a substring. So in the clean, discrete digital world, pieces of software might be deployed to censor certain sequences of characters, because of a belief that those sequences of characters correlate with a fight, a troll, something that is gratuitous, mean, inappropriate, drags everybody down.

First phase. Let's say it begins when some neo-Nazis were harrassing city workers in various cities around the UK and writing them hurtful emails.

City workers in Scunthorpe happened to be getting these messages, and their manager wants to placate them. So the manager asks his IT guy what can be done. The IT guy is brilliant but doesn't have a lot of savvy. He has some autistic characteristics and tends to view problems in a linear way. He's not political. He says, let's just make a list of words that are beyond the pale. We'll discard the mail that contains these words. Problem solved.

The manager and the IT guy both accept this solution because it's quick. The city employees don't have a ton of computer savvy, and they're very grateful that someone took care of it.

Weeks go by and there's something wrong. Scunthorpe city council is having trouble getting its work done because their emails keep getting put in the trash for no reason. People start to miss meetings because they never received the reminder email.

So the manager comes back to the IT guy and explains the problem. The IT guy isn't out to get Scunthorpe or screw with anyone's work. Apparently a regular taxpayer had written in about a water bill and the correspondence got eaten. And now the guy thinks that city hall is persecuting them on purpose. He's a little paranoid anyhow, so it's OK.

So now the IT guy says "Look, I just did what I was told. I'll figure something out."

So a new rule is added to the program. Try to match 'Scunthorpe' and if you do, let the message through no matter what. If you don't match 'Scunthorpe,' try some other rules. Try to make an exact match on the letters 'cunt' and if you do, throw the email in the trash.

more later...

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Maher Arar on Real News

Maher Arar was just on The Real News. The beginning and ending of the interview were about his own experience being rendered and tortured as early casualties in the war on terror's incredible arrogance towards the whole world. Maher Arar and Khaled al-Masri are why I'm writing this post right now. I remember watching Dana Rohrbacher's obnoxious excuses when Arar appeared at a session of Rep. Nadler's Judiciary subcommittee. They were the stories through which I discovered how horrified I was with Bush and Cheney.

When Obama was elected, I decided I needed to find a way to genericize what I was concerned about. The global war on terror is an ongoing engine for individual outrages. It isn't tied to a particular president and vice-president. The policies might take a turn for the fair or unfair over the years, but the danger of ancillary damage to innocent bystanders is going to remain so long as a government feels that they must prevent a miss and certain costs are acceptable towards that end.

We have to keep Maher Arar's story and Khaled al-Masri's story at the ready and never forget. I hope we will get better, split hairs finer and have fewer mistaken identity stories, fewer false positives, innocent people rendered, if not by appealing to the leaders' sense of right and wrong, then by court judgments that make it so expensive or politically damaging that they become more careful. According to Dana Priest and according to Stanley McChrystal, we *aren't* getting better yet.

Unfortunately, under Bush and under Obama, Maher Arar has gotten no justice from the U.S. courts system. This is from the transcript of the Real News interview:

"Maher is a human rights advocate now, whose story gained public attention after American authorities falsely accused him of being linked to terrorists. Despite being a naturalized Canadian citizen, Arar was then rendered to his birth country, Syria. There he was subjected to torture, like incessant beatings, and with electrical cables, and confined to a cell the size of a grave. After his release in 2003, Canada and Syria found him to be completely innocent of all allegations ... Maher is joining us from Ottawa. We'd like him to be able to visit the United States, but he can't, 'cause he's still on a no-fly list, he's still not allowed in. And even though everyone else in the world acknowledges the fact that he was not guilty of anything, the United States finds it a national security concern to admit they were wrong."

Note: the middle of the interview was about the current situation in Syria, which is a different kind of thing to remark on. Confusing. My feelings about Syria, Libya and even the Arab Spring is that innocents matter. I don't trust any guerrilla army, no matter how righteous they are. The ends don't justify the means if the means involve wrecking the life of innocents along the way. If you're intervening to stop a massacre? Well maybe- but I don't agree with liberal hawks if liberal hawks think you can kill one group of children to save another.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

more on the Scunthorpe Problem

It's sort of fascinating to read all the examples of the Scunthorpe problem. I suppose globalization and the shrinking of the world would lead to more collisions between something that is a curse word in one language and an innocuous acronym or a word within a word, in another. Like trying to register shitakemushrooms.com.

When the regulator then finds out that a false positive has occurred, and apologetically carves out an exception for Scunthorpe or the residents of Penistone, South Yorkshire, an interesting problem would be if Scunthorpe goes on to use their special status to cuss up a storm! Woo hoo! There is an analogy in there somewhere with free riders who disingenuously take advantage of the privacy afforded by strong encryption and carry on genuinely bad things because they know they can get away with it. Too much caution has problems and not enough caution has different problems.

Friday, September 30, 2011

al-Awlaki and Khan

From AP and Twitter: BREAKING: Yemen Defense Ministry says another American in al-Qaida, Samir Khan, was killed with al-Awlaki.

The standard for assassination gets lower, looser and more diffuse. What is the official line right now on how an American gets themselves into a zone where due process can be ignored? Apparently it can happen if (a) you make yourself a foreign soldier- that's one way. Now apparently it can also happen if you associate or are in proximity to someone they want to kill.

If you assume very high competence and exemplary ethics on the part of the so-called "elite" special forces who do it, and there actually is a coherent story about why they are assassinating the person in (a), it's one thing. I have objections to that in the first place. But two huge problems are accidents and deliberate abuse of authority. If I don't know what the rates/ratios are like and don't have evidence, it's because state secrets and classification are used to keep from the public the information we should be entitled to use to decide whether the tradeoffs are worth it.

So in the voice of a calm centrist practicing Occam's Razor, what is the new colloquial rule of thumb that separates Samir Khan from you and me? Don't go overseas at all? Don't travel to countries where terrorists have come from? If you hear on CNN that the U.S. is trying to kill someone and you see them coming, run away? What if you work for an NGO? What if you're a journalist?

As I have said before, I am worried about the conflation of new slivers of people who are angry over the economy and austerity, into the umbrella of terrorists. If a government feels under stress, if governments are out of money, if we have austerity, no jobs and blackmailing radicals in the House, I think this also puts a stress on the ethical standards and quality standards that a centrist is taking for granted in assuming that it can't happen here.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Twitter and the Arab Spring, Twitter and London

This Idealab story reports on a new study that said that Twitter played a pivotal role in the Arab Spring. Well duh. It isn't the whole story, in my opinion, and I wrote a comment:

It's interesting to know about tweets that went out, but I'm curious about prior restraint and times when tweets do *not* go out. What happened with London? According to the Telegraph via Lauren Dugan's article on Mediabistro, Cameron said, "everyone watching these horrific actions will be [struck] by how they were organised via social media. Free flow of information can be used for good. But it can also be used for ill. And when people are using social media for violence we need to stop them."

Suppose for a minute that I and most everyone I know approves of fighting dictatorships, disapproves of censoring the people who fight dictatorships, disapproves of rioting and looting and would maybe condone prior restraint over tweets that facilitate it. What I'd be interested in reading about is how Twitter behaves with ethically ambiguous middle cases. This is a good article and I like reading about how tech and politics and muck *intersect*. However, it irritates me that there is very little analytical coverage anywhere of Twitter as an editorial entity in its own right. They're in the world. Generally a news story that mentions Twitter takes Twitter as a given and the news is that person X tweeted Y.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

TPM thread on Awlaki

A couple of weeks ago, Donald Smith posted a comment on TPM that alluded to Awlaki. I replied to him, but then left the post, got distracted (easy to do with the constant churn of new TPM stories) and never checked back with that thread. NCSteve 3.0 replied to me. I can't say I'm crazy about how quickly he takes a rude tone, but I'm interested in what he was saying about why killing Awlaki is perfectly fine. These are some excerpts from the thread, and then I remark on it after that.

Donald Smith said: At some point, we liberals have a right to expect that those we elect will not simply worry about the next election. I did not vote for Obama so that he could allow the CIA to put out a wanted dead or alive warrant on the head of an American citizen who has never been arrested, let alone tried or convicted. If Obama can order the assassination of an American abroad without a court order AND legislative backing.... who the hell cares anymore? Extra-judicial assassination = worse than waterboarding.

I said: I am mostly with you except for "who the hell cares anymore?" Awlaki bothers me a lot too. But I think the point of continuing to push is that the degree to which there are many more Awlakis ahead - with ever more arbitrary rationales for killing - depends on the outcry from Bill of Rights people, Glenn Greenwald, Amy Goodman, legal groups like ACLU, EFF, CCR who bring suits. Otherwise the CIA et al., will say "It's the new bipartisan consensus! Nobody objects, so killing Awlaki is the new center!" and keep on doing it.

NCSteve 3.0 said: I'm sorry, but I simply do not get the all the hand-wringing and sobbing and slippery slope-mongering you guys do over a guy who's left the country, joined an enemy terrorist organization with which we are actually at war, who has actively recruited and encouraged people who have actually killed and maimed Americans and others and, at least according to the intelligence, has now moved into operational planning rather than just recruiting, exhorting others to kill us and inciting future mass-murderers.

There's simply nothing "arbitrary" about putting Awalki on the list of enemy leaders on foreign soil, beyond both the legal and practical limits of civilian criminal jurisdiction jurisdiction, that the spooks are allowed to take a shot at if they get a chance. Nor are the reasons for doing so ambiguous or morally or constitutionally suspect.

Awalki joined a foreign enemy of the United States. A real foreign enemy, not some contrived propaganda figment of Dick Cheney and Karl Rove's imaginations. An actual avowed enemy of the United States that has the blood of thousands of Americans and tens of thousands of others on its hands. An enemy that has unrelentingly demonstrated utter moral depravity, one that regularly recruits children to act as suicide bombers and then sends more suicide bombers in to the funerals of the victims.

If Awlaki wants to be treated like a civilian and subjected to civil criminal jurisdiction, he can reach out to the nearest embassy--through al Jazeera or some other media intermediary if he's afraid of being disappeared--and the DoJ would gladly negotiate a surrender deal with him in a heartbeat. But if he wants to play with swords, he doesn't get to use his citizenship as a shield.

So yeah, sorry, but I just don't get how I'm supposed to object to killing an enemy on foreign soil who is actively participating in making war upon us just because he's an American citizen out of fear that . . . what, it'll be construed as a precedent for killing someone in Peoria some time in the future? If this was FDR ordering the OSS to kill a German-American who'd heeded the fuhrer's call to return to the Fatherland, joined the SS and then was posted to the German embassy in Argentina in 1943 where he was recruiting others to commit acts of sabotage inside the U.S., would you be horrified at the violation of the Nazi cocksucker's Constitutional rights? Because, to me at least, that's just what this is.

There is more from Donald after that but I'm not going to quote it here. It's available downthread on the original story.

I definitely am using the slippery-slope argument, but the fact that it *starts* with someone who may inherently be a militant isn't relevant. I'm not worried about where the slippery-slope argument begins, I'm worried about where it *goes*. I am willing to consider Awlaki as someone who is inherently a militant, like the example of the German agent from the Supreme Court case Ex Parte Quirin. I suspect that law enforcement/military/intelligence thinks in terms of trial balloons. Crossing the line of killing a U.S. citizen may not be wrong, but it's still a threshhold. I propose that because Steve approves, that is an incremental piece of a big political back-and-forth that determines what they can do, and what they can do will influence what they will do. It's like elections, only based on outcry rather than voting. If they can get to a certain place without catching a lot of shit for it, or hurting anyone's reelection chances, I suspect they will try the next increment when it falls inside of their goals. That's my "slippery slope-mongering." My impression of law enforcement/military/intelligence is that they view permissions and prohibitions as having more or fewer tools. I believe Holder has talked about "give us tools so we can do our jobs."

(I'm mixing agencies, but really, I don't have a lot of faith in the walls of separation between military/police/domestic intelligence/overseas intelligence/DHS. There is lots of evidence that the police are increasingly militarizing, and we have the Pentagon blurring the lines with its own DIA, etc.)

I suspect that getting away with something works as a trial balloon. The outcry or lack of outcry towards Awlaki will influence that. It's what they can get away with without a political cost. If it works and it makes their life easier, preemptive killing is a tool. I think they would respond to counterproductiveness, like blowback, but sometimes maybe not even that.

The point of this blog is documenting evidence. So in addition to false positive stories I should also make a note of examples of the slippery slope or lack thereof. Just because Steve says it isn't a millieu worth worrying about doesn't mean it isn't. I don't know. Even if I do find examples, someone can always undercut your sources, say they're biased, etc. I do have a problem with the "size of the entire pie." If I find ten anecdotes about false positives, I don't know how I would figure out the denominator of the fraction. If I find ten instances of an actual slippery slope, same problem. Anyway, I want to back up or refute my own preconceptions, so when I find something I will probably still document it on here.

As for Awlaki in particular, he can be inherently a militant and my anxieties about it still hold. Like the German agent. But the authorities should go public with the standard. Go out in the open and state what kinds of ancillary damage is considered worth it. If it includes the guy in Peoria, say so. If it doesn't, say so. Ridicule creates impunity to actually hurt false positives, sort of like the language from the early '00s around "giving aid and comfort to the enemy." The imperative nature of the war is all well and good, but what about the actual innocent people that civil libertarians are protecting by trying to split hairs? If you think the ends justify the means, say so. I don't accept that the answer to "Where is the oversight? How do we know they're wielding power honestly and competently?" rests on superstition and patriotic spectacle like saying "valiant" and "heroic" and then holding up soldiers as special, above reproach or drilling down for specific information about what their accidents and their overreach are like.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Flying While Brown

This blog post by Shoshana Hebshi tells the story of an infuriating, astonishing incident on Sunday. Thank you to Allan for pointing it out to me via the MSNBC coverage.

The crew of a Frontier Airlines flight on Sunday was "seeing ghosts" because of the anniversary of 9/11 and called out what they considered suspicious behavior.

Via the AP: The crew reported that two people were spending 'an extraordinarily long time' in a bathroom," Frontier spokesman Peter Kowalchuck said. ... Due to the anniversary of Sept. 11, all precautions were taken, and any slight inconsistency was taken seriously," [FBI Detroit spokeswoman Sandra] Berchtold said. "The public would rather us err on the side of caution than not." What are the limits to this contention? What are the protections against overreach or disingenuous misuse of power?

NORAD scrambles two F-16 jets to shadow the flight until it lands safely in Detroit. Leaving that weird occurrence aside, once the plane lands, they are stuck waiting on the tarmac. "Before I knew it," Hebshi writes, "about 10 cops, some in what looked like military fatigues, were running toward the plane carrying the biggest machine guns I have ever seen–bigger than what the guards carry at French train stations."

These quasi-militarized cops handcuff and detain Hebshi and two Indian men who were in her row, and they're none too nice about it, grabbing her arm "a little harder than I would have liked."

She's arrested. She's held in a stark and accusatory setting. She is strip searched albeit by a female officer. At this point the chronology of jaw-dropping events levels off a bit. When she gets mad and insists that of course she speaks English, she's a U.S. citizen, the officer does not escalate or blow up. Then she is released. I'm not concentrating on the two men basically because she wrote an articulate first-person account but their experience is important too. Hebshi concludes with remarkable poise and magnanimity.

I believe in national security, but I also believe in peace and justice. I believe in tolerance, acceptance and trying–as hard as it sometimes may be–not to judge a person by the color of their skin or the way they dress. I admit to have fallen to the traps of convention and have made judgments about people that are unfounded. We live in a complicated world that, to me, seems to have reached a breaking point. The real test will be if we decide to break free from our fears and hatred and truly try to be good people who practice compassion–even toward those who hate.

The One Percent Doctrine

I am horrified by this story. And I can see how conservatives and centrists will hop the lilypads to say that the authorities were just doing their jobs, erring on the side of caution to try to prevent even a single black swan event with disproportionate killing power. The U.S. has not stopped persecuting people who look like they might be Middle Eastern or Muslim because apparently in the short term and in the moment, law enforcement considers it plausible that terrorists tend to correlate with a crude racial profile and do not want to risk being wrong.

I have objections to this contention. Start with the well-meaning protector. It is a horrible, horrible job, to be the person whose job it is to try to determine who can be sacrificed for a greater good. And the people who happen to bring up Shirley Jackson's black dot may have something to say about it. Like "Hell no," for instance?

I want to say it's illegal but I don't know the facts. I assume we will be hearing a lot more about the experiences of Hebshi and the two men. It may well be that it is illegal and the FBI did it anyway and are prepared to deal with the after-the-fact consequences of suits and settlements. Democracy Now reported in January 2009: "JetBlue Airways and two Transportation Security Authority officials have paid out $240,000 to the Iraqi-born blogger Raed Jarrar, who sued after he was stopped from boarding a JetBlue flight at JFK Airport because he was wearing a t-shirt that said 'We will not be silent' in both Arabic and English."

I also have an objection on the basis of ineffectiveness. It is so utterly narrow. What happens as the terrorist profile changes? Will we drop racial profiling? Will we continue profiling brown and Middle Eastern people even if evidence comes in that the correlation no longer holds? (I doubt that law enforcement will want to relinquish the "new tool" of being given the nod to profile.) Or will we profile a wider and wider dragnet?

A Swiss Cheese of Exception Zones

I'm concerned about the use of 9/11 to set up a special zone. I've written this in a post about airports. Major airports are a small police state with boundaries in space. Major anniversaries of 9/11 ending in zero are a small police state with boundaries in time. I do not see any limits coming from Holder, Petraeus or whoever else, that the exception-making will not roll on wider and wider. It can happen in the aftermath of an attack but doesn't have to only happen there. If all of the state's opinion-influencing tools are unleashed - like Powell at the U.N. and Cheney on the Sunday shows - on bringing cruise liners or strong-encrypted IRC channels or public libraries under a microscope of attention and on serving notice that it's going to be a new exception zone and the loss of rights is going to be the rule and not the exception in that zone, they would probably get their way. And when you do that enough times, eventually there is more exceptional space than regular space.

Where are the bright red lines between Shoshana Hebshi and Anwar al-Awlaki?

As Shoshana Hebshi is sitting astonished in her cell, she is thinking "about Abu Ghraib and the horror to which those prisoners were exposed." The bizarre horrors of rendition, black sites, Abu Ghraib, targeted killings and Guantanamo are just echoes as she tells her story, but they are not far away. It seems to me there are things we have not done to U.S. citizens within the U.S. yet but we have already declared the entire world to be the battlefield. Bush, Cheney and Yoo set it into motion and Obama continued it and gave it bipartisan consensus.

Kings and dictators assert power over the life and death of every citizen, and we haven't done that yet. But the erosion continues when we (a) deem certain U.S. citizens preemptively killable so long as they fall into certain niches, like being overtly militant and espousing violence against the U.S. and (b) lower the criteria for the mistreatment of U.S. citizens inside of the U.S. as long as they fall into certain niches, like flying while brown while it's 9/11.

I suppose the next notch on the slippery slope will be the targeted killing of an Al-Qaeda militant who was someone they considered killable anyhow, and the U.S. is where he happened to be when they got their chance. Perhaps we are going to hear a lot more about the Supreme Court case Ex parte Quirin, which upheld the idea that German saboteurs "behind enemy lines" in the U.S. were subject to military jurisdiction rather than U.S. constitutional. I'm a little over my head in talking about this interesting case but I can maybe see the argument for killing someone who is incontrovertibly a combatant. Maybe not. I don't know the Constitutional arguments. However, the problem for me is that past assertions of who's a militant have been full of holes. According to Glenn Greenwald, "72% of Guantanamo detainees who finally were able to obtain just minimal due process ... have been found by federal judges to be wrongfully detained. These are people who are part of what the U.S. Government continues to insist are "the worst of the worst." Three quarters of all Guantanamo detainees are false positives!

If the security services who prevent attacks - DHS, FBI and others - were to assert that rather than merely profile certain passengers, arrest, detain, question, let go, and chalk it up to erring on the side of caution, or even profile certain passengers, arrest, detain, question, hold forever and chalk it up to erring on the side of caution, now we're going to profile certain passengers, skip the arrest and preemptively kill them and then chalk it up to erring on the side of caution, who could stop them?

If this is far-fetched, why is it far-fetched, in light of the bizarre, radical and very fast changes in the new center and the new normal over the last ten years?

Friday, September 9, 2011

False positive killings by JSOC

In his interview with Dana Priest on his Russia Today program, Thom Hartmann asks if she thinks JSOC has been a net positive or a net negative.

"You know, it depends on your definition," Priest answers. "They've been an effective killing force. That's what they do. In the process, they have killed civilians. Accidentally, they would say. But, they will continue to do those, because civilians are mixed in with people that are terrorists. So, what does that create? You know, even the leader of JSOC, General McChrystal at one point, he told me in an interview for the book that often their actions were counterproductive. Because if they killed innocent people, if they bombed the wrong house - and the rate of success was only 50% because intelligence is so hard to be accurate with - you would create hostilities on the ground that the conventional army, ill-equipped to deal with that kind of blowback, would have to handle. And they weren't good at handling it."

Edit: Real News link no longer works

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Innocence Matters

From the web page of legal defense nonprofit Innocence Matters:

"John was 18 years old when he was arrested for a murder he did not commit. The truth has been locked away with John [Smith] in his prison cell for 17 years. In July, John effortlessly passed a polygraph performed by a retired career law-enforcement officer. Soon after, the sole eyewitness was interviewed and immediately explained that he was pressured by the police to implicate John." ... "A right-handed black man [Karreem Jones] with a medium complexion was convicted of a robbery committed by a left-handed man with a dark complexion. Another case of close enough in Georgia?" ... "We are proud and honored to have had the opportunity to assist on the Troy Davis case - an innocent man on Georgia's death row."

Jessica Farris says:
"It makes you think about ... how many false witness identifications there are." ...

"Your heart just gets broken over and over again that one wrong turn, one alibi that is just not strong enough or one being where you're not supposed to be or being involved in things you're not supposed to be involved in, and his entire life has shifted in a horrible way."

Breaking eggs round the world / the spooky mode

Something I know nothing about and do not yet have a cache of evidence on, is the activities of other countries' famous intelligence services such as Mossad, MI5, Savak.

I do not intend to approach intelligence from inside the usual fog of spookyness. I have been there. Probably like a lot of people, I fell into the orbit of the Prevailing Winds catalog, or Dave Emory's programs, in the 80s and 90s. I went to see Barbara Honegger, Philip Agee, John Stockwell, Daniel Sheehan on campus. I read Brought to Light and I think it's a terrific, innovative piece of documentary comics, plus I love almost everything that Alan Moore does, but it is drumming on the heartstrings, trying to be scary with swimming pools full of blood. (The La Penca story is stylistically more plain, so kudos to that.) I think what the spooky mode does for kids is makes them feel like diggers digging. Reading about the Kennedy assassination is like reading Narnia or Lord of the Rings. It takes you out of your humdrum existence. Also, when you're reading a book or watching a documentary containing an alphabet soup of programs, dollar amounts, acronyms, people, it presses a button with a nerdy boy aesthetic that likes to fantasize about being drenched in complexity.

But I would like to graduate to a more methodical approach that has some real goals beyond perpetuating the spooky. I haven't read Richard Hofstadter but I guess what I am calling 'the spooky mode' is also something like what Hofstadter called 'the paranoid style in American politics.'

What I would be interested in keeping an eye out for is the way in which intelligence services of various countries, who sometimes draw upon plausible deniability and use it as cover to break their domestic laws and treaties for their 'vital security interests,' approach false positives. Of course with rendition and secret prisons, the story I am already tracking is an international story. But what about intra-Israel, intra-Russia, intra-Iran? What has the outcry been like when a country's version of the CIA kills a citizen of that country? And has there ever been an overt codifying of acceptable downsides? I guess I am interested in this as a pattern to look out for in the future, so that you might be able to say, this is how governments usually approach unintended casualties. This is the furthest that a body of ordinary people has ever gotten in trying to call them on that and get them to admit it. If any conclusions can be drawn about the bottlenecks and why it failed, it puts you in a better position for next time.

At the back of my mind I have the possibility of dismantling or unraveling a "What's the Matter with Kansas?" style discrepancy, where a citizen might actually be shooting themself in the foot by supporting policies that lead to impunity that lead to bystander deaths of people just like THEM. But they don't know they're shooting themselves in the foot. If this model were the case, what could be done? The thing that would be a positive reform, I think, would be regular and public disclosure of collateral damage costs in intelligence/security/war operations. Of course, that's one of the outcomes of intelligence services utilizing secrecy. They don't have to admit when they kill a bystander. They might get an outcry from the bystanders' families, but because of secrecy, they don't.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Demystification of technology

I have been surprised by the degree to which the openness of the Internet has been re-closed somewhat. The toothpaste has partially been put back in the tube. The "walled garden" model of closed apps for closed devices, in my opinion, runs contrary to real freedom and the kind of thing that can be empowering for ends that are positive for lots of people. The ends could assume more of a liberal model- a society with good governance and maybe social services in return for taxes, or it could assume the situation that is a de facto standard, second economy that libertarians may espouse, where internet-based crowdsourcing takes place. (A side note is that both models are okay in the hands of honest, competent actors, and both models suffer in the case of accidental or deliberate false positives in the ways that the economies run.) It seems to me that proprietary Apple apps and proprietary Google/Android apps, and Zuckerberg/Facebook and Twitter-the-company as a few gigantic platforms for "anyone who's anyone," take global communication and the empowerment possibilities for improving the lives of every single person, and dampen that down by more or less draconian central control over developers, users, perhaps censorship and editorial policies - every aspect.

Therefore, I'm interested in the demystification of technology. I'm interested in open-source hardware. I don't know exactly what the barriers are for making your own. The example of open-source software and the Free Software Foundation is inspirational, but software doesn't need physical stuff like plastic, metal and wood.

We rely on a network of cel towers. We rely on massive cables that go across the ocean floor and carry internet traffic. We rely on the formerly-ARPA backbone. But more and more I am starting to believe that any business too big to say 'no' to a government request will be micronationalized, cut loose, micronationalized, cut loose, as the government requires, and under those circumstances you might as well just consider them synonymous with government.

Cameron talked about shutting down Blackberry and Twitter. There was no iota of a possibility that Blackberry or Twitter would refuse. BART shut down cel communications in order to inhibit communication about a protest over BART police killing someone. Apparently the cel companies pay rent to BART, and that's why BART could ask and the companies said yes.

What I envision, and probably don't have the chops to write, would be something that goes open source one better. Vast software repositories are still cryptic, so it's great that it's open, but you still may not be able to work on it at will. (Or possibly the situation is that it calls out the programming chops of everyone who digs in to it, and some can, and some can't, and I can't! Heh. So in trying to democratize and demystify technology for the less brilliant, I'm trying to democratize and demystify it for myself, cause I am less brilliant than a lot of open-source software devotees.)

The thing that would revolutionize open source would be something that makes open source understandable in layman's terms, so that a person could re-build an open source project according to what it is supposed to accomplish, and if there are complicated algorithms involved, they would be broken down into some kind of understandable principle. Similar to the 200-in-one electronics kits, which go through the concepts of how capacitors and resistors work. I picture it as some kind of atomic-scale hypertutorial. I really adore what Khan Academy is doing, so why can't we have a step-by-step, work at your own pace tutorial to how Google works, or some other really "advanced" technology works?

I guess at some point what's unique about the big names is not the "10% inspiration" , but brute force maybe? And money? Like having the resources to host banks upon banks of servers. I seriously doubt whether the global crowd couldn't do this better with something like the SETI@Home project.

Another rebuttal is, "it's already going on, dude." It probably is - just the fact that I came upon the idea is not going to be pivotal in anything. But like Deep Throat said to Woodward, "follow the money." Demystification of technology could help with the very left-wing goal of redistributing income and/or the mainstream liberal/progressive goal of better lives for more people.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Violence and Disruptions

I'm a bit astonished by the presence of worries over violence as a new motif in news stories and commentary. It could be skewed by the outlets I am looking at, but after several days of (a) London (b) the BART thing (which I saw firsthand, although I was merely taking a hike on Hyde down to Civic Center and I was neither a daily commuter nor involved with the protest.) (c) Jack Cafferty talking about it, CNN being a fairly shitty news outlet and Blitzer being a fairly shitty anchor who fetishizes money, influence & power and pushes news for its impact on those people. (d) McWhorter and Loury on Bloggingheads discussing flash mobs (with the terminology reconfigured for its new sinister meaning) as well as London and other things, it seems like a lot to me.

A couple of thoughts. Strong encryption will be coming under scrutiny. I don't quite understand who wins this tug-of-war and why. Apparently the underlying technology of encryption is out of the bag and can't be stopped or blocked. That's what my friends who know more about it than I do say. If so, that's good. Except I've done other posts on my dismay at the disingenuous use of freedom as a cover for genuinely, unquestionably bad actions, like violence. I think the point that is being made by encryptors is that the debate ultimately doesn't matter - it's just going to happen and keep happening. Nobody in Anonymous seems to be interested in popularity contests. Of course, I could be buying in to a mythologizing of Anonymous as more influential and powerful than they are. Interfering with public websites is pretty unimportant. But I think anyone who encrypts is participating in a little bit of empowerment and just getting on with it. Doing something, methodically. Basically like unregulated, anarchist freedom with an impenetrable shell around it. Am I mistaken? I probably am. I'm trying to read more and break down my cartoony impressions into something more nuanced and accurate.

Well, whether or not the fightback by the authorities is irrelevant, they will try. And my worry here is the 'can't make an omelette' mentality. False positives may be hurt in the process of trying to prevent bad things from being allowed to be planned inside of encryption.

As I'm in the process of quitting Facebook, I might be using this blog as more of a home base for publishing drawings or something else. It's hard to just carry on with a middle-class lifestyle when so many fundamental assumptions are on quicksand. Of course, it's also hard to light a fire under apolitical friends who think you're exaggerating. Subway closures are concentrated in the *city*. BART police shooting someone is usually concentrated in the *city*. Out in quieter places it feels like nothing is happening. So is an urban resident going out of their way to overrepresent chaos in their life because it's titillating, or is a suburban resident putting a whitewash over how the world really is?

Friday, August 12, 2011

Austerity, unrest and technology

Here is a far-out premise. I could be wrong about this, but I think the recent push to stigmatize, maybe criminalize, anonymity, is correlated, maybe caused outright, maybe just co-occuring with the rioting and anger around the rethinking of the role of government in society.

As reported in several Real News stories, the push for austerity in many countries around the world is motivated by a desire to dismantle social safety nets and go back to 1890s-style capitalism. I believe it was James Crotty who said on the Real News, "They want the 1890s." After, or in conjunction with the push to cut back on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid in the U.S., I think there may be pushes to cut other programs that improve peoples' lives and protect them against sickness or death. Food safety? Civil rights? Worker safety? The 1890s were very different from the 2010s. Federal minimum wage? Child labor? Work hour limits and overtime rules?

I don't know what the limits will be, but I think some of these things are going to quickly come out of the realm of satire and become something that the right wants to cut or destroy altogether. As seen in the debt ceiling fight, some Republicans in Congress have a perverse, upside down view of destruction and are willing to use it in blackmail. I wrote a comment on Bloggingheads after noticing this clip where Michelle Goldberg mentions that some in the House GOP believe that within the bounds of some sort of christian anointedness, destruction would be a sort of "Jubilee year", where I guess something they like better would rise out of the ashes like a phoenix. So they are willing to screw over the wellbeing of a lot of people through fast, radical change.

I don't know if the lawmakers and bankers around Europe also have this evangelical christian motivation, but austerity is being adopted in many countries. The Real News reported on the agreement adopted at the G20 in Toronto in 2010, where member countries agreed to hit certain budget targets by certain dates.

In various places around the world, people are getting angry about these cuts. Even if the London riots did not have an explicitly political focus, I see it partially as the product of austerity getting down into peoples' bones. If someone else wants to condemn rioters doing violence and property damage, I don't disagree with that. I would listen to both views- the liberal view that it makes sense to look at root causes of crime, and the law-and-order view that you don't do that. You just say no, deploy police, enforce the law, catch criminals and try, convict and punish them.

Now the third motif is technology. I don't have any evidence that governments are *asking* technology companies to do anything. But I have some precedents. The NSA asked AT&T and other telcos for their cooperation in warrantless spying, and AT&T and other telcos said yes. (Maybe Qwest said no, but from what I understand, they were not especially heroic.)

Another precedent comes from this Frontline, Spying on the Home Front. Basically, the power that the U.S. government has, and exercises when it feels the need, is to do something I would call micronationalization. We have negative connotations around the idea of a massive "Big Brother"-style government database, like the War Games computer, WOPR, keeping dossiers on everyone and everything. So what governments can do instead is to cherrypick, micronationalize anyone they want. They can use National Security Letters. And this is what the Frontline described:

HEDRICK SMITH: [on camera] You can't have a big database-

PETER SWIRE: Yeah, you can't have the big Brainiac with the one database on all Americans run by the government. But here's the trick. What you can do, if you're the FBI, is you can ping the private sector database. "Hey, Lexis-Nexis."

HEDRICK SMITH: You can access it?

PETER SWIRE: You can access it. "Hey, give me some information on this person" or on that person. And as long as you just access it one at a time, which is the way it works anyways, Privacy Act doesn't apply because it's not a government database, it's the private sector database. The law doesn't apply to the private sector data.

HEDRICK SMITH: Why should Americans worry about the government having the same kind of information that private companies have, companies like Choicepoint?

MICHAEL WOODS, FBI National Security Atty., 1997-02: Well, the easy answer is that Choicepoint can't come and arrest you. They can't come search your house. They can't use that information to- to sort of put into motion the machinery of the justice system. Once it's in the hands of the government, it has those consequences, and that's why the government is looking for the information.

In place of Choicepoint, I would substitute Facebook, Google, Amazon, Microsoft, Apple, Twitter and RiM. I do not have any way of knowing which came first, the chicken or the egg. In recent weeks the following things have happened:

* Randi Zuckerberg (Mark's sister, and apparently just as much of an asshole) said, "I think anonymity on the Internet has to go away ... People behave a lot better when they have their real names down ... I think people hide behind anonymity and they feel like they can say whatever they want behind closed doors." (Quotes from the Huffington Post via The Atlantic Wire.)

* Google Plus launched and they enforce a radical, pushy real name policy. If you try to circumvent the policy, you can lose your accounts on *OTHER* Google services. (This feels like a 'trust' to me. When this type of thing starts to be possible, I think Google is too big and should be broken up.) Google has changed a lot in a short time. I don't think anything that critics like Eli Pariser or Rebecca MacKinnon are saying in their TED talks is hyperbole. (I might be moving this blog off Blogspot if I decide to get on Google Plus for some reason. This radical new exercise of monopoly power is fucking unacceptable.)

* After several days of rioting in London, Prime Minister Cameron is considering shutting down social networking. The social networking companies are quick to confirm that they will work with law enforcement and government. This is fine so long as law enforcement and government is fair and accurate. But what if law enforcement and government is the Tea Party, willing to tear down society for a Jubilee year? Apparently Blackberry messaging is encrypted. I don't know the details of how good or secure it is. I'm sure Slashdot readers and people who are more hardcore or more informed than I am have three more things, new open-source products, to substitute for "Blackberry Messaging" which I won't even have heard about for another six months. That's all fine. I think there is always going to be a sliver of very savvy programmers who can still communicate securely, but these examples worry me because the bulk of all people are willing and/or able to be swayed. If the general flavor of anonymous communication and of strong encryption starts to be more negative, the Karen Silkwoods, Erin Brockovitches (I haven't seen either of these movies) may be stopped in their tracks. If surveillance is met with a shrug, it means that certain types of communication are not going to get through. And I think the push for austerity may lead to new categories of people who may have bread-and-butter economic reasons to oppose governments. It appears that an ideology that disregards the opinion of most regular people is gaining strength. I have a "What's the Matter With Kansas?" observation when I look at regular peoples' relationships with the technology oligopolies that would sell them out whenever a government asks.

Edits coming. To add. al-Awlaki. What if RiM cooperation with government leads to pre-emptive execution? Greenwald's point about the poor track record and the wild inaccuracies in Guantanamo detainees, people picked up for a bounty and so on. Also, a third example of micronationalization: Rotenberg on DN saying that these days, the private sector can do much of government's spying for it.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Rebecca McKinnon

This is the shit! This talk just about sums up in one place the things about Big Tech that are missing from every piece of softball coverage of Big Tech. I add Rebecca McKinnon to the short list of Big Tech critics: Cory Doctorow, Eben Moglen, Eli Pariser, Rebecca McKinnon, Marc Rotenberg and EPIC, the EFF...

I happen to think that a lot of the time, the toughness of the coverage is tempered by starry-eyed fondness for the coolness of the technology, or even by an awareness that the newspaper/journalism group has interconnections with Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Google, Microsoft, Twitter, and relies on them for their bread and butter in the form of the underlying delivery platform for their content. It's hard to fight the powers when they're big, have their tentacles most everywhere, and everyone has been told that this is the new way to do *promotion* of anything. I presume if I went to the Speakers Bureau web pages for the organizations that represent Pariser or McKinnon or Doctorow, they'll all have the F and the T in their sidebar. There is nothing any of us can do about it in 2011. You still use Facebook in the short term because that is where loads of people will be to read what you say. But that sense of economic need, expressed as a massive vote of approval made of millions (?) of little one-off decisions that I need to be there because my people are there, tends to keep inertia inertia. And also provides fuel for the rebuttal that hey, we must be doing something right because we are massively *popular*. I would tend to want to be there too. I admit it. The fear of "missing out" stops me jumping ship. Also I think it's terrible that third-party services require you to throw in with one of a very small number of Big Tech entities. Khan Academy, the popular and hypergenerous open learning website and organization, as of right now, only supports accounts from Facebook or Google. So you have two choices: use Big Tech and in a tiny, incremental way, be complicit in all of their creepy initiatives, or be shut out from participating.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Negative space and surveillance

This idea has been rattling around my head for a while. Let's say you have five people in a room. Four have either a favorable or shrugging approach to surveillance either in the form of cameras at intersections, GPS tracking in iPhones, or other manifestations. The fifth person is opposed to it. The way that surveillance works in this situation is that people volunteer to report the GPS coordinates of their silhouettes. Let's say this takes place in 2050. We have finer-grained GPS now, and if you favor radical "sharing", you can elect to broadcast a three-dimensional map of your silhouette 24 hours a day. A certain part of the population thinks this is cool. So the point of this picture is that the silhouette of the fifth person may be able to be derived from the silhouettes of the other four and the rectangular box they are sitting in. So we have this 5th person who is a privacy advocate, or worries about false positives, and so has taken advantage of government and/or corporate Opt Out mechanisms.

I think this can be extrapolated to some other kinds of things. I don't have the data but intuitively I feel that process of elimination is something to bear in mind. Suppose that at some point in the near future, we have additional intrusive surveillance systems in U.S. society but our way of trying to be fair about it is to institute "Do-Not-Track" lists. Depending upon other factors, the person who has opted out may still be trackable by something like the "negative space" story.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

More "Scunthorpe" syndrome, in China

More false positives come under the dragnet of internet censorship in China. This time, rather than "Scunthorpe," it's searches for Jiang, or River, according to this piece on TPM.

"If you want to discuss rivers of any kind online right now in China, you're going to be out of luck," writes Sarah Lai Stirland.

As often is the case, not only is something legitimate swept up in the dragnet, but the dragnet is also really arbitrary. "For example," Stirland writes, "Weibo has also blocked the phrase 'myocardial infarction,' but not the phrase 'heart attack.'"

Friday, July 1, 2011

Scunthorpe / Doctorow

This Cory Doctorow talk is interesting in a few ways. To start with one that is a a simple false-positive problem that I had never heard of before, you have something called "the Scunthorpe problem." He mentioned it in passing. It's hard to search for from within corporate firewalls that are crudely, dumbly censoring certain strings and substrings. One of the impacts of false positives is just extra nuisance. People were also remarking on this a year or so ago when Google started their "instant" search and for certain naughty words and subjects, they won't search instantly, and you have to do the awesome work of pressing return yourself. And there are also lots of false positives and weird inconsistencies in Google's inappropriateness dragnet. ("'Cocaine' is blocked, but 'marijuana' and 'heroin' are not," said Bianca Bosker in this Huffington Post story.)

I am thrilled that Doctorow gave this talk and I want to stick my middle finger in the air. When something is *diffuse*, the diffuseness can be used as a benefit by someone. If the action and the consequence are far apart, it's much harder to make a case that one is causing the other. Doctorow talks about eating junk and then gaining weight. The consequence comes on a whole other day and by that time, the fifteen different instances when you ate well or ate poorly are often far apart and hard to tie together in cause and effect. And Doctorow is suggesting, among other points, that Facebook takes advantage of a similarly diffuse timeline.

The way that some privacy conversations are contextualized as toy privacy, inherently comedic, nothing really at stake, irritates me. For example, observations of a supposed social phenomenon where kids/teenagers are undergoing a paradigm shift in their approach to privacy is usually expressed in amused or detached terms, and although it is a related topic, there is a latent grin or a latent sense that nothing serious goes on there. The only things at stake, the examples used in the discussions, are party photos of someone wearing a punchbowl on their heads, or this very irritating contextualization where a parent scratches their head that a kid is writing candidly about sex, or about gossip. It's like the parent feels an obligation to be permissive and merely report rather than acting.

Also, the latent grin comes from the parent's sense that it's only the new generation's equivalent of whatever they themselves did. Looked at Playboy when they weren't supposed to. Of course this is an extremely broad statement and every family is different. But there is a giant shrug going on with regards to Facebook and things like it.

And there's also something there which is a little hard to articulate, but it feels to me like a divide-and-conquer. Old people sheepishly and apologetically devalue themselves, and play up their differences from younger people rather than play up their common interests in fighting back. Old people are embarassed about young peoples' deeper grasp of new technology, and feel, in some cases, like it's futile to try to intervene. They would just be lost. Cue the cliche about parents deploying censor software, and the general sensation that the kid will always find a way around it, because the kid knows 100 times more about computers than the parent does. And what this does is cloud the possibility that a big sell-out, either to commerce or to DHS or both, *hurts everyone*. The stakes are high, not silly, not solely the stuff of comedy-of-errors or a socially-based Trauma Lite, in which the kid is sullen for two days and then gets over it.

I'm being vague about what the hell the harm would be, specifically. I'm hurting for specific examples and if I can't think of any, maybe it isn't really a problem or isn't as serious as I'm making it out to be. Panopticon - SO WHAT? Intuitively I think there is harm, but I'm trying to always substantiate.

Sellouts to commerce are bad because databasing is a precursor to identity theft. I'm looking for something more tangible than "it's creepy." Sellouts to commerce are bad because commerce doesn't give a shit if you take up smoking and die of lung cancer.

Sellouts to DHS are bad because there is a danger that DHS will do harm to false positives, either accidentally or deliberately, for their "One-Percent Doctrine," bordering on a "The Lottery" doctrine. And even if a particular government has an excellent record of ethics at a given time, the infrastructure remains, the privacy norms are eroded and may still be eroded when new people come into power who are less ethical.

There are genuine social interconnections of compassion and concern when someone you know is a false positive who gets hurt, and these social networks are not gated off by age lines. This is our common interest from 9 to 99. If a 14-year-old girl seems inherently trite, with trite interests, trite language - the children of the false positives sent to Guantanamo for a bounty are also young people, and I think it's entirely possible that ubiquitous and accepted surveillance will play a role in the next round of such an atrocity. Would it be better, finer, more tailored because of the general climate of disclosure? I don't know. It depends on where you want to set your bar. This dovetails with some other posts in which it becomes socially acceptable to let "just one" false positive incident happen now and again, especially if the false positive's skin color, economics, culture are different from the observer's own.

Thank you Andy, for sending me the link! Also, discussions with Christopher are extremely influential in writing this blog.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Libya / Centrism

I was thinking about a discussion I was having with someone over the Libyan war. I think he was considering whether or not to buy into the 'humanitarian intervention', 'responsibility to protect' rationale for it, or they had heard those types of ideas on the news and was curious what I thought about it. I said I was on the fence, but what about the civilians killed? No matter if it's neocons or r2p liberal hawks at the helm- if we kill someone's parents, the kid will be traumatized, and there's just as much danger of that person hating the U.S. later on, and a tiny subset of those angry, traumatized Libyans might act on their feelings in a couple of decades.

Yes, it is a terrible mismatch or irony, "a problem from hell", that you are doing it, supposedly, to save a large number of lives, while the supposedly good deed involves killing innocent human beings, but this doesn't erase either (a) the horrible nature of some rich Americans deciding that those humans are an acceptable loss for the outcomes they want, or (b) the more pragmatic argument that the Libyan War, the Iraq War, the Afghanistan War, the Pakistan War, the Yemen War, are all incubators for the terrorists of 2030, so your action may eventually bite someone on the ass, and it may be you.

There's a related point that I'm trying to get a handle on. It has to do with the ways in which reciprocity and the Golden Rule can be disregarded. Obama and NATO are willing to kill innocent Libyans and have the aftermath be manageable, but they wouldn't take a reciprocal approach to a Libyan plane gunning down an innocent American, and the aftermath. Why not? I'm not pretending that the power mismatch doesn't exist in 2011, but what I'm looking for is how it's represented by the average person. Reciprocity would be ludicrous, and we know that, but why, not from Brzezinski but as expressed by the person on the street who benefits every day from the mismatch?

Another situation where this comes into it is in police brutality against the other guy. I'm not that worried about it, because it won't happen to me. I wrote a post about Oscar Grant a while ago. So if it won't happen to you, why not? The answer I came up with was racism and money. So I stipulate those reasons. It isn't absolutely parallel to the Libya story because we consent to giving the police a bunch of power and I guess reciprocity in this case would be if a bunch of people from poor neighborhoods shot a police officer. The second half of the analogy comes from looking at the rich and safe person (and I am one of them) and saying, there's a situation involving the use of force and even the death of another human being, which you're aware of and are willing to take a fairly dispassionate view of. Like a good moderate. It doesn't really affect me - it's nothing to get hot under the collar about. Or let's say they go further and are hawks on war / hawks on police power. In both cases, the idea of *setting a bad precedent* doesn't come into it for them. "Killing innocent civilians in Libya sets a bad precedent because Libya could do the same to us" is a ludicrous proposition, but why? "If you shrug your shoulders at BART police killing Oscar Grant, it sets a bad precedent because it could be you next week" will be good advice to some Americans and a ludicrous proposition to others- why?

There is something to be said for the benefits of safety. If you happen to find yourself in a group that walks around more safe, with a much lower likelihood of getting killed out of the blue ... embrace it. Maybe this is what it means to be a centrist - acknowledge the "false negative" quadrant of things. I shouldn't have gotten shot out of the blue, and I didn't, and that's good. The proposition worries me. It's something you have to do, and probably do do regardless. But there should be a graceful way to be happy about safety while acknowledging that the foundations may be rotten, in a way that makes the center/right not roll its eyes.

Sorry the writing style is convoluted. Thanks for looking. :)

Monday, May 9, 2011

the execution of the Duc d'Enghien

"It was worse than a crime; it was a mistake."
I grabbed this from a comment by David Michael Malinski on this Ray McGovern editorial. He attributes it to the French diplomat, Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord. However, Wikipedia says this: "He is often said to have been the author of the quote referring to the killing of the Duc d'Enghien: C'est pire qu'un crime; c'est une faute. (It's worse than a crime; it's a mistake.). In reality, this quote was by Joseph Fouché; Talleyrand was popularly believed to have been involved in the assassination."

About the Duc d'Enghien, Wikipedia says, "More famous for his death than for his life, he was executed on trumped-up charges during the French Consulate."

I know almost nothing about French history but if I understand the story correctly, Napoleon arrested this duke on suspicion of one thing, then found out it wasn't true, and "the accusations were hastily changed. The duke was now charged chiefly with bearing arms against France..." and was executed anyhow. I don't entirely get the quote per se - it was a crime, it wasn't an accident. I'm sure there is more to it. And there could be duelling accounts, who knows. I'm sure historians know. Anyway, it's on my themes to look at examples of how a leader with impunity, faced with a challenge to their pretext for killing someone, finds themself a new pretext.

Monday, April 25, 2011

False-positive arrests (true or exaggerated), Chicago, 1905

"Thousands of innocent men are imprisoned every month by the Chicago police without evidence or excuse except 'suspicion.'"

I am woefully ignorant of the history, true, exaggerated, sensationalized, of false-positive arrests, basically of any time period prior to 9/11's raising my heartbeat a little. (And largely ignorant of the past ten years too.) I'm ignorant of the Cold War, I'm ignorant of McCarthy, I'm ignorant of the Palmer Raids .. I would like to be able to use the past as a key to what might happen over the next few decades. But there is way too much, and for any particular incident I find or read about (like this newspaper page from 1905) I don't have a control group, or any sense of proportion, or any other way of knowing if it's an aberration or a trend. Anyway, this page is published on the Barnacle Press website.

It's because of the recent death of the great comics historian Bill Blackbeard that I was on their site looking at scanned newspaper strips and found the 1905 article.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Peter King's hearings on U.S. muslims

Signpost for something to look into more, and write a post or at least keep an eye on it. Was there any lasting impact? Has he got a bill? What does he purport to try to do? Has there been an outcry or backlash other than Rep. Ellison speaking at the hearing?

Drones and Collateral Damage

In the context of making a point, here, that drones are "a recurring element of our seemingly endless, unwinnable military conflicts," Adam Serwer also says that "In terms of killing fewer civilians, it’s probably better for the U.S. to be using drones at this point, because they are better at distinguishing a military target from a civilian one than an F-15."

"Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. James Cartwright told reporters during the briefing yesterday that the drones were being deployed in part to avoid 'collateral damage,' the dry military euphemism for dead civilians."

If you're concerned about the mindset that you can't make an omelette without breaking a few eggs, the drones might (happen to) be a good thing. No particular kudos to the military, who are probably happy to have more inhumane or less inhumane technology according to their own ends. But if there happens to be a weapon available now with a little more precision, fine. If fewer civilians are killed rather than more, all other things being equal, it's a good thing. An even better thing would be not to have an 'endless war' footing in the first place, providing the pretext for lots of little civilian-killing chapters overseas and whatever the hell you want to do at home, outlasting many swings to the left, swings to the right, and sparkly new politicians.

Thursday, April 21, 2011


I have some speculative ideas about a time in a few years or a few decades when Wisconsin-style outrage could start to be recontextualized as domestic terror. As austerity measures are passed and a certain type of capitalist starts to do things they would have liked to do for a long time, but have now got their 'main chance', the people on the receiving end are going to get angry. I don't see how it can not lead to additional unrest and protests, if you roll back collective bargaining, if you erode U.S. worker protections, there will be an expression of the fury. And in response to the fury, what will happen? A convenient way to demonize people who are fighting just to *keep* the 40-hour week or the U.S. minimum wage would be to take advantage of 00's terror powers that, in the words of Bruce Fein, lie around like a loaded gun. Just recast protestors and union advocats as enemy combatants and the gloves can come off. May not happen, but it seems to me that the ingredients are there. I don't know, how is it usually done in the case of 'economic hitman' work and a typical IMF restructuring story? How do the people respond when the safety net is eroded in return for bailouts, and how does the state treat it? I'd like to make additional posts with some real precedents so that the focus of the blog stays 'reality based,' with an emphasis on documenting.

Public Business

I'm excited about the new nonprofit, Public Business. Some of what they may do intersects with the false-positive focus of this blog. My own preoccupations are around technology companies, EFF/ACLU issues, overreach in anti-terrorism, and the intersection thereof. Sometimes this interrelates with the business world - in the case of defense contractors, for instance. But there is money and economics in everything, and the unemployment rate and the financial crisis also affects everything, and sets a tone or a context of emergency (or shock doctrine, if I'm using that accurately), during which extraordinary measures could have an easier time getting passed. So I am fascinated to see what Public Business will work on, and I suspect the notion of accidental and deliberate false positives will come up over and over.

Eric Schmidt

This is from the bottom of a new Guardian article about the iphone location tracking, written by Charles Arthur.

"In a speech, Google's then-chief executive Eric Schmidt suggested that: 'If you have something that you don't want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place. If you really need that kind of privacy, the reality is that search engines – including Google – do retain this information for some time and it's important, for example, that we are all subject in the United States to the Patriot Act and it is possible that all that information could be made available to the authorities.'

His words provoked an outcry from privacy rights campaigners, who pointed out that privacy is a right, and that it protects every citizen from abuses by those in power."

Thursday, April 7, 2011

No charges were filed and they were all released

A phenomenon I'm interested in documenting is in situations where (a) a broad law-enforcement sweep is permitted, presumably because of some "emergency" or "atypical" pretext, real or not (b) A lot of people are swept up and detained (c) During the interim that it takes for law enforcement to get its act together, the people can be denigrated, humiliated, because the only people on the scene other than themselves are the cops/soldiers/officials. (d) Some are found to have been detained wrongly. No charges are filed, and these suspects are released. The point of this scenario is that there is a sleight of hand involved in putting the focus on no charges filed. By that time, the psychological damage is done. Those few days of denigration and humiliation are the main event, not a side event. Who am I talking about in particular? Bystanders in the "special area" at the G20 meeting in Toronto, to take one example squarely post 1/09. To take another example, the subset of people who were rounded up for a bounty and sent to Guantanamo despite being innocent. To take a third example, it happens in _Madam Secretary_ by George Martin, when Hoover's DOL surrounds apartments in a poor neighborhood and arrests people en masse for the purpose of immigration enforcement, only to let all but a couple of them go later. I will elaborate on the _Madam Secretary_ piece in a later post.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Tie future spying power to past precedent of false positives and harm to real people's lives

An idea, related to "civil efficacian." If you continually have a record of accidental or deliberate false positives in the implementation of powers which are purportedly for anti-terror, you should be limited in continuing to do it over and over. The bottleneck in having evidence one way or the other could come from excessive classification used as a way to cover up a record of poor quality. I suppose this could be one way in which the Wikileaks release of the cables is important. Is the el-Masri case an instance of this problem? My understanding is that one of the cables said, hey Germans, you had better think twice about pursuing U.S. accountability over the el-Masri case, or it will affect the diplomatic relationship between the two countries. So now we *have* the datapoint on how accurately the rendition program was being carried out, and this should have an influence on comparable programs. And if black sites and rendition per se have been stopped, you have Obama's assertions about assassination. el-Masri is a great way to be somewhat empirical about these new claims, and say "look what happened last time - past precedent suggests there will be unacceptable accidents and the program should not be done based on past precedent *as well as* the fact that it is illegal." This is stronger than simply saying "the program should not be done because it is illegal" or that it is morally wrong, because the argument in favor has to do with the "one percent doctrine" and erring on the side of false hits to prevent even a single miss, which makes the illegal seem illegal, yet necessary.