Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Putin's Stage

Russian President Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin loves being the center of attention. And his decision not to extradite fugitive Edward Snowden to the United States has now found him at the center of an East-West standoff.

Putin is an expert in espionage. In 1975, Putin began his 16-year career with the KGB. Among his duties were spying on foreigners and counselor officials in Leningrad, now St. Petersburg. His experiences were beneficial to his meteoric rise through Russia's hierarchy to become Russia's most powerful figure. For more than a decade he has ruthlessly ruled his country, and leveraged his power to maintain Russia's standing as one of the world's leading powers.

President Putin enjoys his place on the world stage. But his country is plagued by corruption and human rights abuses. Information is power, and the Russian government is a master at monitoring dissenting voices. Yet Putin's approval rating among Russians is high, in part because Russia has reasserted itself in global affairs, according to some observers.

On Tuesday, Putin gave the first direct confirmation that Edward Snowden was in an international transit area at the Moscow airport. “Mr. Snowden is a free man," Putin said, according to Russian news services, "The faster he chooses his ultimate destination, the better for us and for him.” Snowden is thought to be carrying a mother lode of U.S. intelligence information. But Putin said Russia's security services, “are not engaged with him and will not be engaged.” Really?

The Russian president said he would not extradite Snowden to the U.S. “As for the issue of the possibility of extradition,” Mr. Putin said, “we can only send back some foreign nationals to the countries with which we have the relevant international agreements on extradition. With the United States we have no such agreement.”

Putin seemed to be supportive of Snowden, and of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. "Assange and Snowden consider themselves human rights activists and say they are fighting for the spread of information." He continued, "Ask yourself this: should you hand these people over so they will be put in prison?" He concluded, "In any case, I'd rather not deal with such questions, because anyway it's like shearing a pig – lots of screams but little wool."

Putin's position is outrageous when weighed against the fact that so many Russian dissidents are in prison. For instance, some members of the punk-rock band Pussy Riot were imprisoned for staging a guerrilla performance in a Moscow cathedral. It led to a music video entitled, "Punk Prayer - Mother of God, Chase Putin Away!"

Putin has snubbed the West on a number of international issues. He has continued to support beleaguered Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in that country's civil war, in the face of calls for his removal by the West. That civil war has resulted in 90,000 deaths. Russia maintains a naval base in Syria, and has long had a close alliance with the Assad regime. Putin recently said that there is no proof Syria used chemical weapons on its own people, despite the preponderance of evidence they did. And he opposes U.S. efforts to arm the Syrian rebels. Last week, he said, "If the United States ... recognizes one of the key Syrian opposition organizations, al-Nusra, as terrorist ... how can one deliver arms to those opposition members?"

The story is the same in Iran, long a close Russian ally. Putin congratulated the newly elected President of Iran, Hassan Rowhani, and promised to expand bilateral relations with that government. Iran is currently arming Assad's regime in Syria, as well as Lebanon's Hezbollah fighters, who have joined the government in that civil war. Meanwhile, Putin has said he has no doubt that Iran is adhering to international agreements on nuclear non-proliferation. He has also accused America of exaggerating Iran's intentions, "the United States uses Iran to unite Western allies against some real or non-existent threat."

New England Patriot's owner Robert Kraft learned first hand how President Putin operates. After offering the Russian president a chance to hold his Super Bowl ring, Putin pocketed it. When word of the incident made headlines, Putin had a suggestion. "I will ask a jewelry firm to make a really good and big thing, so everyone will see it is a luxury piece, made of quality metal and with a stone, so this piece will be passed from generation to generation in the team whose interests are represented by Mr. Kraft," he said. "This would be the smartest solution partners can ever achieve while tackling such a complicated international problem.”

For Putin, all of the world's a stage. But one prominent Russian businessmen said of Putin, "We have two Putins. There are lots of words, but the system doesn't work." Let's hope that Russians look beyond Putin's gamesmanship and grandstanding to see that Putin is just a bad actor.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Issa Metrics

Rep. Darrell Issa, the Republican chairman of the House Oversight Committee, is determined to link the White House, and President Barack Obama, to the so-called IRS scandal, even though there is no proof one exists.  The pugnacious, and severely ambitious partisan is more interested in scoring political points than in getting to the truth.

Earlier this month he made his intentions clear during an appearance on CNN's State of the Union.  In speaking about the source of the IRS's inappropriate use of search terms, such as "Tea Party", in its scrutiny of applications for tax-exempt status by conservative groups, Issa pointed to the nation's capital.  Issa called White House spokesman Jay Carney a "paid liar" for his claims that the problem was based in the IRS's local Cincinnati office.  "This is a problem that was coordinated, in all likelihood, right out of Washington headquarters and we're getting to proving it," Issa said.

Of course, "in all likelihood" and "we're getting to proving it" show he does not have the facts to back up his claims.  But that will not stop Issa from doing everything to keep his investigation in the headlines, including dribbling out juicy bits of witness interviews from closed-door sessions to selected media outlets.  For instance, one of the IRS employees interviewed by the committee said their supervisor told them the direction to single out conservative groups came from the Washington headquarters in March 2010.

But Representative Elijah Cummings, Democrat from Maryland, and fellow committee member, called for the entire interview transcripts to be released.  He also released testimony from another IRS official, a manager in the Cincinnati office, who describes himself as a conservative, which appears to explain how the IRS came to target conservative groups.  "There was a lot of concerns about making sure that any cases that had, you know, similar type activities or items included, that they would be worked on by the same agent and the same group," the manager said.  He also said politics was not a factor, and he had no reason to believe the White House was involved.

In response, Issa said, "The testimony excerpts Ranking Member Cummings revealed...did not provide anything enlightening or contradict other witness accounts."  He then added, "The only thing Ranking Member Cummings left clear in his comments today is that if it were up to him the investigation would be closed. Fortunately, the decision to close the investigation is not his to make."

The IRS scandal first made headlines on May 10 when an IRS official apologized for the IRS conduct at a legal conference, which triggered a FBI criminal probe.  President Obama fired the acting IRS chief, who is a Republican, because of the scandal.  An inspector general's report criticized the way the IRS screened conservative groups, saying it placed the agency's impartiality in question.

In an appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday, FBI Director Robert Mueller said that more than a dozen FBI agents were assigned to investigate the matter.  "It's a high-priority investigation and it needs to be handled with care, but it also needs to be pushed aggressively because it's a very important case," Mueller told the committee.

There are good reasons for Congress to be investigating the IRS actions.  First of all, it is unacceptable for the IRS to be singling out any group for political reasons.  While all of the Tea Party applications were approved, many organizations had to deal with unfair demands.  Was this political, or confusion, or just insensitivity on the part of agents?

There was a flood in tax-exempt applications following the Supreme Court's Citizen's United ruling in 2010, which made it legal for corporations and unions to spend money on campaigns through political action committees (Super PACs).  Section 501(c)(4) of the IRS tax code specifies that Super PACs seeking tax-exempt status must operate exclusively for the promotion of social welfare.  But a 1959 IRS interpretation of the code changed the word "exclusively" to "primarily".   Exactly what is primarily?  Why was the interpretation changed?  Should it be exclusively?

Representative Issa has served in Congress for more than a decade.  Before being elected, he was a very successful businessman who amassed a fortune estimated at $450 million.  But his brash and shoot from the hip style have rubbed even members of his own party the wrong way.   His selective release of transcripts in the IRS investigation has opened him up to criticism that he is trying to get the Obama administration rather than pursuing a sound investigation.  
Earlier this month, Issa said, "My gut tells me that too many people knew this wrongdoing was going on before the election, and at least by some sort of convenient, benign neglect, allowed to go on through the election."  His bottom line, "I'm not making any allegations as to motive, that they set out to do it, but certainly people knew it was happening."   Issa's unsubstantiated allegations may get him headlines, but they also raise Serious questions about his motives and judgment. 

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

NSA Surveillance

The revelations that the U.S. Government has been collecting phone and Internet data has reopened a debate about the balance between privacy and security, at a time when America is becoming an increasing target of terrorists. 

Last week, President Barack Obama defended the government's surveillance program, “You can’t have 100 percent security and also have 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience."  He continued, “We’re going to have to make some choices as a society. On balance we have established a process and a procedure that the American people should be comfortable about.”

The Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution guards American citizens against unreasonable searches and seizures, unless authorities get a judge to approve a warrant based on probable cause.  But does this extend to the mass collection of phone numbers and the duration of telephone calls? 

Senators Mark Udall and Ron Wyden, members of the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, have called for more public disclosure about how the telephone surveillance program is run.  "Now that the fact of bulk collection has been declassified, we believe that more information about the scale of the collection, and specifically whether it involves the records of 'millions of Americans' should be declassified as well," Wyden and Udall said in a statement issued Friday. "The American people must be given the opportunity to evaluate the facts about this program and its broad scope for themselves, so that this debate can begin in earnest."

Does the Fourth Amendment extend to Internet metadata, which is data about data?  Metadata can be structural, data about the design of a webpage, or descriptive, data about the content and links.  IBM estimates that 90% of the data in the world today was created in the past two years.  Each day, according to IBM, 2.5 quintillion bytes of data are created, including from social media, email, digital pictures and video uploads, cell phone GPS signals, and blogs.  We live in the Big Data era.  

Gen. Michael Hayden, a former director of the National Security Agency (NSA), told NPR's Weekend Edition Sunday that the programs are lawful and justified in the war on terrorism.  He stressed that the Internet surveillance program, known as PRISM, is "about Internet data, not telephony, and it's all about foreigners."   He further explained, "So, if I've got a bad person in Waziristan, talking to a bad person in Yemen, via a chat room that is hosted by an American Internet service provider, the only thing American about that conversation is the fact that it's happening on a server on the West Coast of the United States."

Revelations that the NSA collects data on phone conversations are not new.  USA Today reported its existence in 2006, saying, "This program does not involve the NSA listening to or recording conversations. But the spy agency is using the data to analyze calling patterns in an effort to detect terrorist activity, sources said in separate interviews." 

A recent Washington Post-Pew Research poll found that 62% of Americans sampled favored investigating threats even if it intrudes on privacy, while 34% responded that the government should not intrude even if it limits the ability to investigate threats.  But this presumes that the government has all the right procedures in place to limit the scope of its investigations to threats of terrorism.  In other words, Americans must trust the government to do the right thing.

In his remarks last week, President Obama said he welcomed the debate, noting, “If people don’t trust the executive branch, and also congress and the judicial branch, then we’re going to have some problems here."  But this is a complicated issue, and there are plenty of examples in history when the government has exceeded its authority.  The government should disclose to the American people the procedures and safeguards built into these programs against unreasonable intrusions into their constitutional rights of privacy.