TBR News January 31, 2015

Jan 31 2015


The Voice of the White House

Washington, D.C. January 28, 2015: “A legion of frantic bloggers aside, the true story behind the 911 attacks lies in four visits paid by former President George H.W. Bush to Saudi Arabia between 1998 and 2001. The result of these visits to the Saudi Minister of the Interior, resulted in the Saudi-staffed attacks on September 11. Now, with as manic ISIS rampant in the Middle East, bloggers are excitedly pointing to all parts of the compass, claiming inside information about the origins of ISIS. This fanatical Muslim group was initially started, and funded, by the same Saudis who supplied the terrorists for 911. ISIS is part of a Muslim holy war between the Shiites and Sunnis. The Saudis sold the idea to the US as assistance to the rebels in Syria and the dumb government here went for it…and is now paying for it. And I have just finished reading a howler of a book I got from Amazon. It is called ‘The Season of Evil’ by one Robert Fadley and is a savage satire on modern society and high level politics. It reads very, very well and I can heartily recommend. This is not a book for idealists:





King Abdullah embodied the wickedness of Saudi Arabia’s regime

Change may be looming for Saudi Arabia, but reforming a country where torture, corruption and judicial murder are commonplace won’t be easy

January 23, 2015

by Andrew Brown

The Guardian

            We can always look on the bright side of the death of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and the accession of Prince Salman. It shows that, if reports of his ill-health are true, dementia can’t stop you reaching the very top – at least if you have the right parents. It is a danger for many political systems that they end up being run by men whose faculties are no longer up to it: think of Pope John Paul II in his long decline, Churchill after his strokes, Ronald Reagan or the Soviet gerontocracy. But Saudi is unique in the modern world in choosing as leader a man believed to be in decline even before he comes to power.

It is a final touch of absurdity in a kingdom that is wicked in itself, and a source of wickedness and corruption elsewhere in the world. Saudi Arabia practices torture and arbitrary judicial murder. Women are beheaded in the street, liberal thought is punishable by flogging, which can be a death sentence even more horrific, because it is more prolonged than having your head hacked off with a sword. It is a raft of fear and hatred lashed together, floating on unimaginable amounts of money, at least for the lucky few. Among the poor, not all of whom are slaves or foreigners, there is tufshan, a special word defined by an anthropologist as “subtle and incapacitating torpor”.

Saudi’s influence on the outside world is almost wholly malign. The young men it sent to fight in Afghanistan turned into al-Qaida. The Sunni jihadis whom Saudis have funded in Iraq and Syria turned into Isis. It has spread a poisonous form of Islam throughout Europe with its subsidies, and corrupted western politicians and businessmen with its culture of bribery. The Saudis have always appealed to the worst forms of western imperialism: their contempt for other Muslims is as great as any American nationalist’s.

But it is very hard to see what reforms might make it better. The example of the Soviet Union shows how chaotic and dreadful the collapse of a totalitarian autocracy can be. Although the Saudis will still have Islam if their state collapses – the Soviets lost their ideology as well their empire – their narrow and puritanical interpretation of Islam can hardly lead to peace. Besides, they face Shia enemies in an arc from Syria in the north, through Iraq and Iran, all the way round to Yemen in the south, where an insurgency is steadily gaining strength; and there is a Shia minority, ruthlessly suppressed, in the kingdom itself.

All these threats must strengthen the apparatus of repression and the belief of the rulers that if they lose their grip they will fall and be trampled in their turn. They may very well be right. It will require a truly wise and skilled leader to navigate what lies ahead. The grovelling tributes paid to the late king by western politicians describe the imaginary Saudi king we need, not those we have had or are likely to get.


Death in the city: what happens when all our cemeteries are full?

January 21, 2015

by Ana Naomi de Sousa

The Guardian

The business of death has become highly lucrative as the cost of dying rises in cities across the world. So what place is there for tomorrow’s dead – and does new technology offer a better solution?

Lack of space and soaring costs are familiar problems for anyone who lives in a city. From London to New York to Hong Kong, many are crammed into micro-apartments that cost hundreds of pounds or dollars a month to rent, unsure when they will be able to afford a more permanent abode.

And it may be a similar story when they die, too.

Some 55 million people are reckoned to pass away each year (about 0.8% of the planet’s total population – equivalent to 100% of England’s). Yet urban planners and developers focus overwhelmingly on accommodating and making money from the living. Cemeteries and columbaria (burial vaults) dating back hundreds of years retain an iconic place in our towns and cities – but, partly as a result of their limited profitability, most have not been allowed to grow. Which means metropolises the world over are running out of room to house their dead.

The problem is most acute in cities that do not practise grave recycling. Countries such as Singapore, Germany and Belgium offer public graves for free – but only for the first 20 or so years. Thereafter, families can either pay to keep them (often on a rental basis) or the graves are recycled, with the most recent residents moved further into the ground or to another site, often a mass grave.

It is a system that has worked efficiently for cities all over the world, particularly in Europe. Yet in countries where grave reuse is not the cultural norm, attempts to begin reusing plots – in cities such as Durban, Sydney and London – have faced resistance and accusations that religious and cultural traditions are being violated.

“In the UK we are in an acute crisis, largely because of our burial law,” says Dr Julie Rugg of the University of York’s Cemetery Research Group, referring to legislation introduced in the 19th century that banned exhumation. “We have cemeteries of over 100 acres in London, but the way we use the space is not sustainable.”

As a result of a change in church legislation, a small number of graveyards, such as the City of London cemetery, have recently – and quietly – begun reusing some graves older than 75 years, but this will not be enough to solve the city’s burial problem. London’s cemeteries will be completely full within the next 20-30 years.

Even cities that do practise grave recycling can run into problems. In Norway, concerns about sanitation and the risk of soil contamination in the 1950s led to a policy stipulating that all bodies be wrapped in plastic before burial. Years later, it was found that the bodies were not decomposing quickly enough in the plastic to allow the graves to be reused. Cemeteries were filling up at an unprecedented rate. A solution – injecting the graves with a lime solution to speed up decomposition – was eventually discovered by a graveyard worker, who charged the Norwegian authorities $670 per plot.

With space running out, the business of death has become highly lucrative as the cost of dying rises all over the world. “Burial is becoming more and more of a niche product or market,” says Dr John Troyer of the University of Bath’s Centre for Death and Society. “The burial issue is not just about economics – but there is a lot about capital, capitalism and commodification involved.”

Ed Koch, the former mayor of New York – a city with almost no burial plots left – pre-purchased his grave in Manhattan five years before his death in 2013 for $20,000. He described it as “a good investment” due to the rising prices.

In Hong Kong, where a series of hastily created hillside cemeteries consumed the city’s last available burial space back in the 1980s, those still able to find and purchase a private grave can pay $30,000 for the privilege. Alternatively, there is an average five-year wait for a small spot in a public columbarium, where thousands of urns of cremated ashes are stored.

In some London boroughs, meanwhile, those unable to pay for a burial (currently costing around £4,500, and rising) are buried in multiple layers beneath the ground, in the style of the Victorians. But without long-term public solutions to the burial land crisis, local authorities may end up outsourcing the problem.

“The private sector is sniffing around, realising there’s a public concern for space running out,” says Rugg. “We are shifting away from notion that cemeteries are a social service, towards saying there’s no reason at all why we shouldn’t institute charges to make cemeteries pay.”

In 1963, Jessica Mitford published The American Way of Death, a scathing criticism of the funeral industry, which she accused of pushing up the cost of dying. In the decades since, both the UK and US have seen a cultural shift from burial towards cremation, which now accounts for about 70% of funerals in Britain.

But cremation creates as many problems as it solves. In both countries, urns still tend to be buried in cemeteries, and although many permit families to bury more than one urn in a single grave site, these still take up significant space – indefinitely. Cremation also poses increased environmental problems: it is an energy-intensive process, and the burning of dental fillings currently contributes to 15% of the UK’s mercury emissions. (One potential alternative, “resomation” – whereby the body is chemically reduced to ashes and non-toxic waste water – is currently only legal in a few US states, despite having been under discussion in the UK and some other European countries for years.)

While an increasing number opt of people for “green burials” – which tend to involve burials in meadow and woodland sites, in biodegradable shrouds or caskets made of anything from cardboard to banana leaf – others ponder the role cemeteries play in our cities, and what it would mean if we lost them altogether.

“I tend to think of cemeteries as being like schools and hospitals,” says Rugg. “They are an emotional locus … Without them, a neighbourhood is bereft of a particular kind of community space. Where else would you get that in an urban landscape? They add an emotional intelligence to a city.”

Rugg talks of a not-too-distant future where vast, private cemeteries on the outskirts of cities accommodate graves rented out for short-term occupancy, and burials look more and more like a sub-sector of today’s property market. Location and long tenure could become the privilege of a wealthy urban elite, while those unable to meet the rates find their mortal remains separated from those of their families, or relocated to less desirable locations – for as long as someone can pay the rent.

In Japan, large companies such as Panasonic already purchase corporate areas within graveyards for some of their employees. In Kuala Lumpur and several Asian cities, where cremation is a strict cultural norm, the lack of space and the need for a site where families can pay respects to their deceased has led to the invention of giant, mechanised columbaria, where thousands of urns are stored in a vault and can be retrieved with an electronic card. One private company, Nirvana, boasts 12 such sites across Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia, and has plans for more – yet still it is oversubscribed. New alternatives are urgently needed.

Amid the scramble to accommodate the urban dead, one Hong Kong-based design studio has developed a prototype for an off-shore columbarium island called “Floating Eternity”, which could hold 370,000 urns at sea. A cemetery design competition in Oslo, meanwhile, gave special mention to one student’s design for a cemetery skyscraper that would reach hundreds of metres into the sky and include spaces for coffins, urns, a crematorium and a computerised memorial wall.

“A lot of people don’t appreciate how deep graves can be,” says Rugg. “If you turn a cemetery upside down it looks like the middle of the city – like a skyscraper. In the UK, the common graves of the 19th century, for example, are very, very deep.” In fact, vertical cemeteries already exist all over the world, with Brazil’s Memorial Necrópole Ecumênica in Santos standing tallest of all, at 14 storeys. It is the inspiration behind similar projects now under consideration in the crowded cities of Bogotá and Mumbai.

With the boundary between our virtual and physical lives becoming ever-more blurred, technology is sure to play a greater role in death, too. In Canada, Calgary’s new “green” cemeteries have proposed using GPS locations, and hand-held satellite units instead of headstones, to help visitors find graves. In Japan, the company I-Can Corp offers descendants online visits to virtual graveyards, where they can pour virtual water or light a virtual incense stick, instead of travelling the long distance to visit a grave in person.

Hong Kong’s government went a step further, creating a social-media network of virtual graves aimed at families who had been forced to cremate their relatives’ ashes – because of lack of space in the city – and so no longer had a physical space at which to pay their respects.

Troyer, however, offers a word of caution about this shift towards virtual graves. “A lot of the companies talking about digital solutions talk about ‘forever’ – and that’s very complicated with the internet, because the virtual material we create can easily disappear. The lowly gravestone has been a very successful human technology, and I suspect it will last … I would go with granite.”


Storm Surge Overview


Along the coast, storm surge is often the greatest threat to life and property from a hurricane. In the past, large death tolls have resulted from the rise of the ocean associated with many of the major hurricanes that have made landfall. Hurricane Katrina (2005) is a prime example of the damage and devastation that can be caused by surge. At least 1500 persons lost their lives during Katrina and many of those deaths occurred directly, or indirectly, as a result of storm surge.

Storm Surge vs. Storm Tide

Storm surge is an abnormal rise of water generated by a storm, over and above the predicted astronomical tides. Storm surge should not be confused with storm tide, which is defined as the water level rise due to the combination of storm surge and the astronomical tide. This rise in water level can cause extreme flooding in coastal areas particularly when storm surge coincides with normal high tide, resulting in storm tides reaching up to 20 feet or more in some cases.

Factors Impacting Surge

Storm surge is produced by water being pushed toward the shore by the force of the winds moving cyclonically around the storm. The impact on surge of the low pressure associated with intense storms is minimal in comparison to the water being forced toward the shore by the wind.

Wind and Pressure Components of Hurricane Storm Surge

The maximum potential storm surge for a particular location depends on a number of different factors. Storm surge is a very complex phenomenon because it is sensitive to the slightest changes in storm intensity, forward speed, size (radius of maximum winds-RMW), angle of approach to the coast, central pressure (minimal contribution in comparison to the wind), and the shape and characteristics of coastal features such as bays and estuaries.

Other factors which can impact storm surge are the width and slope of the continental shelf. A shallow slope will potentially produce a greater storm surge than a steep shelf. For example, a Category 4 storm hitting the Louisiana coastline, which has a very wide and shallow continental shelf, may produce a 20-foot storm surge, while the same hurricane in a place like Miami Beach, Florida, where the continental shelf drops off very quickly, might see an 8 or 9-foot surge. More information regarding storm surge impacts and their associated generalizations can be found in the FAQ section.

Adding to the destructive power of surge, battering waves may increase damage to buildings directly along the coast. Water weighs approximately 1,700 pounds per cubic yard; extended pounding by frequent waves can demolish any structure not specifically designed to withstand such forces. The two elements work together to increase the impact on land because the surge makes it possible for waves to extend inland.

Additionally, currents created by tides combine with the waves to severely erode beaches and coastal highways. Buildings that survive hurricane winds can be damaged if their foundations are undermined and weakened by erosion.

In confined harbors, the combination of storm tides, waves, and currents can also severely damage marinas and boats. In estuaries and bayous, salt water intrusion endangers the public health, kills vegetation, and can send animals, such as snakes and alligators, fleeing from flooded areas.


 Notable Surge Events


            Ike 2008

            Hurricane Ike made landfall near the north end of Galveston Island as a Category 2 hurricane. Storm surges of 15-20 feet above normal tide levels occurred along the Bolivar Peninsula of Texas and in much of the Galveston Bay area. Property damage from Ike is estimated at $24.9 billion.

            Katrina 2005

            Katrina was one of the most devastating hurricanes in the history of the United States. It produced catastrophic damage – estimated at $75 billion in the New Orleans area and along the Mississippi coast – and is the costliest U. S. hurricane on record. Storm surge flooding of 25 to 28 feet above normal tide levels was associated with Katrina.

Dennis 2005

Dennis affected much of Florida, and its effects extended well inland over portions of the southeastern United States with the maximum amount rainfall of 12.80 inches occuring near Camden, Alabama. Storm surge flooding of 7-9 ft produced considerable storm surge-related damage near St. Marks, Florida, well to the east of the landfall location. The damage associated with Dennis in the United States is estimated at $2.23 billion.

Isabel 2003

Isabel was the worst hurricane to affect the Chesapeake Bay region since 1933. Storm surge values of more than 8 feet flooded rivers that flowed into the bay across Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, and Washington, D.C. Isabel was the most intense hurricane of the 2003 season and directly resulted in 17 deaths and more than $3 billion in damages.

Opal 1995

Hurricane Opal made landfall near Pensacola Beach, Florida as a Category 3 hurricane. The storm caused extensive storm surge damage from Pensacola Beach to Mexico Beach (a span of 120 miles) with a maximum storm tide of 24 feet, recorded near Fort Walton Beach. Damage estimates for Opal were near $3 billion.

Hugo 1989

Hugo impacted the southeastern United States, including South Carolina cities Charleston and Myrtle Beach. Hugo was responsible for 60 deaths and $7 billion in damages, with the highest storm surge estimated at 19.8 feet at Romain Retreat, South Carolina.

Camille 1969

Camille was a Category 5 hurricane, the most powerful on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale with maximum winds of more than 155 mph and storm surge flooding of 24 feet that devastated the Mississippi coast. The final death count for the U.S. is listed at 256. This includes 143 on the Gulf coast and another 113 from the Virginia floods.

Audrey 1957

There were 390 deaths associated with Audrey as the result of a storm surge in excess of 12 feet, which inundated the flat coast of southwestern Louisiana as far as 25 miles inland in some places.

New England 1938

The Long Island Express was a fast-moving Category 3 hurricane that struck Long Island and New England with little warning on September 21. A storm surge of 10 to 12 ft inundated the coasts of Rhode Island, Connecticut, southeastern Massachusetts, and Long Island, NY, especially in Narragansett Bay and Buzzards Bay. Six hundred people died due to the storm.

Galveston 1900

At least 8,000 people died when hurricane storm tides (the surge plus the astronomical tide) of 8-15 feet inundated most of the island city of Galveston, TX and adjacent areas on the mainland.

            Surge Vulnerability Facts

From 1990-2008, population density increased by 32% in Gulf coastal counties, 17% in Atlantic coastal counties, and 16% in Hawaii (U.S. Census Bureau 2010)

Much of the United States’ densely populated Atlantic and Gulf Coast coastlines lie less than 10 feet above mean sea level

Over half of the Nation’s economic productivity is located within coastal zones

72% of ports, 27% of major roads, and 9% of rail lines within the Gulf Coast region are at or below 4 ft elevation (CCSP, SAP 4-7)

A storm surge of 23 ft has the ability to inundate 67% of interstates, 57% of arterials, almost half of rail miles, 29 airports, and virtually all ports in the Gulf Coast area (CCSP SAP 4-7)


An Arctic ice cap’s shockingly rapid slide into the sea

January 24, 2015

by Joby Warrick

The Washington Post

For years, scientists have documented the rapid retreat of Arctic ice, from melting glaciers in Greenland to shrinking snow cover in far northern Eurasia. Now researchers have discovered one Arctic ice cap that appears to be literally sliding into the sea.

Ice is disappearing at a truly astonishing rate in Austfonna, an expanse of frozen rock far north of the Arctic Circle in Norway’s Svalbard island chain. Just since 2012, the ice cap covering the island has thinned by a whopping 160 feet, according to an analysis of satellite measurements by a team led by researchers at Britain’s University of Leeds.

Put another way, the ice cap’s vertical expanse dropped in two years by a distance equivalent to the height of a 16-story building. As another comparison, consider that scientists were recently alarmed to discover that one of Western Antarctica’s ice sheets was losing vertical height at a rate of 30 feet a year.

“It is a very large signal,” said Mal McMillan, a geophysicist and one of two researchers at Leeds’  Center for Polar Observation and Modelling who worked on the study. “The ice cap has slumped out into the ocean with a substantial loss of ice.”

McMillan and colleague Andrew Shepherd analyzed changes in Austfonna’s ice using data from satellites that measure, among other things, changes in elevation. They found that the gradual melting of the island’s 1,550-cubic-mile ice cap recently shifted into overdrive, for reasons that aren’t fully understood.  Small ice caps like the one over Austfonna are believed to be more vulnerable to climate change-related thawing because relatively more surface area is exposed to the air and sea

In this case, the ice cap lost one-sixth of its original thickness in two years, and the flow of ice from the summit to the sea accelerated by 25 fold, to a rate of several kilometers a year, a fast clip by glacier standards, the study found.

“What we see here is unusual because it …  appears to have started when ice began to thin and accelerate at the coast,” Shepherd said.

The research, published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, illustrates how quickly ice caps can evolve, highlighting the challenges associated with predicting future impact of climate change, the scientists said. Arctic experts are closely watching changes in polar ice because of the potentially profound implications for sea-level rise. About a third of the increase in sea level in recent decades is attributed to melting glaciers and ice sheets, and researchers worry that more rapid melting could eventually swamp coastal cities around the world.

Still, researchers say, it’s too early to say definitively if the shrinking of the Austfonna ice cap is due to global warming. Ice caps can shift suddenly for reasons that have nothing to do with climate, McMillan said. But in this case the list of possible culprits would certainly include warmer ocean water and air temperatures, both of which have risen more rapidly in the Arctic compared to the rest of the planet, he said.

“We’ve only seen this for a couple of years,” he said he said of the Austfonna meltdown, “so we really need to monitor it further.”



Secret ‘BADASS’ Intelligence Program Spied on Smartphones

December 26, 2014

by Micah Lee

The Intercept

British and Canadian spy agencies accumulated sensitive data on smartphone users, including location, app preferences, and unique device identifiers, by piggybacking on ubiquitous software from advertising and analytics companies, according to a document obtained by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.

The document, included in a trove of Snowden material released by Der Spiegel on January 17, outlines a secret program run by the intelligence agencies called BADASS. The German newsweekly did not write about the BADASS document, attaching it to a broader article on cyberwarfare. According to The Intercept‘s analysis of the document, intelligence agents applied BADASS software filters to streams of intercepted internet traffic, plucking from that traffic unencrypted uploads from smartphones to servers run by advertising and analytics companies.

Programmers frequently embed code from a handful of such companies into their smartphone apps because it helps them answer a variety of questions: How often does a particular user open the app, and at what time of day? Where does the user live? Where does the user work? Where is the user right now? What’s the phone’s unique identifier? What version of Android or iOS is the device running? What’s the user’s IP address? Answers to those questions guide app upgrades and help target advertisements, benefits that help explain why tracking users is not only routine in the tech industry but also considered a best practice.

For users, however, the smartphone data routinely provided to ad and analytics companies represents a major privacy threat. When combined together, the information fragments can be used to identify specific users, and when concentrated in the hands of a small number of companies, they have proven to be irresistibly convenient targets for those engaged in mass surveillance. Although the BADASS presentation appears to be roughly four years old, at least one player in the mobile advertising and analytics space, Google, acknowledges that its servers still routinely receive unencrypted uploads from Google code embedded in apps.

For spy agencies, this smartphone monitoring data represented a new, convenient way of learning more about surveillance targets, including information about their physical movements and digital activities. It also would have made it possible to design more focused cyberattacks against those people, for example by exploiting a weakness in a particular app known to be used by a particular person. Such scenarios are strongly hinted at in a 2010 NSA presentation, provided by agency whistleblower Edward Snowden and published last year in The New York Times, Pro Publica, and The Guardian. That presentation stated that smartphone monitoring would be useful because it could lead to “additional exploitation” and the unearthing of “target knowledge/leads, location, [and] target technology.”

The 2010 presentation, along with additional documents from Britain’s intelligence service Government Communications Headquarters, or GCHQ, showed that the intelligence agencies were aggressively ramping up their efforts to see into the world of mobile apps. But the specifics of how they might distill useful information from the torrent of internet packets to and from smartphones remained unclear.

            Encrypting Data in Transit

The BADASS slides fill in some of these blanks. They appear to have been presented in 2011 at the highly secretive SIGDEV intelligence community conference. The presentation states that “analytics firm Flurry estimates that 250,000 Motorola Droid phones were sold in the United States during the phone’s first week in stores,” and asks, “how do they know that?”

The answer is that during the week in question, Flurry uploaded to its own servers analytics from Droid phones on behalf of app developers, one phone at a time, and stored the analytics in their own databases. Analytics includes any information that is available to the app and that can conceivably help improve it, including, in certain instances with Flurry, the user’s age and gender, physical location, how long they left the app open, and a unique identifier for the phone, according to Flurry materials included in the BADASS document.

By searching these databases, the company was able to get a count of Droid phones running Flurry-enabled apps and, by extrapolating, estimate the total number of Droids in circulation. The company can find similar information about any smartphone that their analytics product supports.

Not only was Flurry vacuuming sensitive data up to its servers, it was doing so insecurely. When a smartphone app collects data about the device it’s running on and sends it back to a tracking company, it generally uses the HTTP protocol, and Flurry-enabled apps were no exception. But HTTP is inherently insecure—eavesdroppers can easily spy on the entire digital conversation.

If the tracking data was always phoned home using the HTTPS protocol—the same as the HTTP protocol, except that the stream of traffic between the phone and the server is encrypted—then the ability for spy agencies to collect tracking data with programs like BADASS would be severely impeded.

Yahoo, which acquired the analytics firm Flurry in late 2014, says that since acquiring the company they have “implemented default encryption between Flurry-enabled applications and Flurry servers. The 2010 report in question does not apply to current versions of Flurry’s analytics product.” Given that Yahoo acquired Flurry so recently, it’s unclear how many apps still use Flurry’s older tracking code that sends unencrypted data back to Yahoo’s servers. (Yahoo declined to elaborate specifically on that topic.)

 The BADASS slides also use Google’s advertisement network AdMob as an example of intercepted, unencrypted data. Free smartphone apps are often supported by ads, and if the app uses AdMob then it sends some identifying information to AdMob’s servers while loading the ad. Google currently supports the ability for app developers to turn on HTTPS for ad requests, however it’s clear that only some AdMob users actually do this.

When asked about HTTPS support for AdMob, a Google spokesperson said, “We continue our ongoing efforts to encrypt all Google products and services.”

In addition to Yahoo’s Flurry and Google’s AdMob, the BADASS presentation also shows that British and Canadian intelligence were targeting Mobclix, Mydas, Medialets, and MSN Mobile Advertising. But it’s clear that any mobile-related plaintext traffic from any company is a potential target. While the BADASS presentation focuses on traffic from analytics and ad companies, it also shows spying on Google Maps heartbeat traffic, and capturing “beacons” sent out when apps are first opened (listing Qriously, Com2Us, Fluentmobile, and Papayamobile as examples). The BADASS presentation also mentions capturing GPS coordinates that get leaked when opening BlackBerry’s app store.

In a boilerplate statement, GCHQ said, “It is longstanding policy that we do not comment on intelligence matters. Furthermore, all of GCHQ’s work is carried out in accordance with a strict legal and policy framework, which ensures that our activities are authorised, necessary and proportionate, and that there is rigorous oversight.” Its Canadian counterpart, Communications Security Establishment Canada, or CSEC, responded with a statement that read, in part, “For reasons of national security, CSE cannot comment on its methods, techniques or capabilities. CSE conducts foreign intelligence and cyber defence activities in compliance with Canadian law.”

Julia Angwin, who has doggedly investigated online privacy issues as a journalist and author, most recently of the book “Dragnet Nation,” explains that “every type of unique identifier that passes [over the internet] unencrypted is giving away information about users to anyone who wants it,” and that “the evidence is clear that it’s very risky to be throwing unique identifiers out there in the clear. Anyone can grab them. This is more evidence that no one should be doing that.”

            Building Haystacks to Search for Needles

The BADASS program was created not merely to track advertising and analytic data but to solve a much bigger problem: There is an overwhelming amount of smartphone tracking data being collected by intelligence agencies, and it’s difficult to make sense of.

First there are the major platforms: iOS, Android, Windows Phone, and BlackBerry. On each platform, a range of hardware and platform versions are in use. Additionally, app stores are overflowing; new apps that track people get released every day. Old apps constantly get updated to track people in different ways, and people use different versions of apps for different platforms all at once. Adding to the diversity, there are several different ad and analytics companies that app developers use, and when those companies send tracking data back to their servers, they use a wide variety of formats.

With such an unwieldy haystack of data, GCHQ and CSEC, started the BADASS program, according to the presentation, to find the needles: information that can uniquely identify people and their devices, such as smartphone identifiers, tracking cookies, and other unique strings, as well as personally identifying information like GPS coordinates and email addresses.

BADASS is an an acryonym that stands for BEGAL Automated Deployment And Survey System. (It is not clear what “BEGAL” stands for, in turn.)

            Exploiting Protocols in a Rapidly Changing World

Analysts are able to write BADASS “rules” that look for specific types of tracking information as it travels across the internet.

For example, when someone opens an app that loads an ad, their phone normally sends an unencrypted web request (called an HTTP request) to the ad network’s servers. If this request gets intercepted by spy agencies and fed into the BADASS program, it then gets filtered through each rule to see if one applies to the request. If it finds a match, BADASS can then automatically pull out the juicy information.

In the following slide, the information that is potentially available in a single HTTP request to load an ad includes which platform the ad is being loaded on (Android, iOS, etc.), the unique identifier of the device, the IMEI number which cell towers use to identify phones that try to connect to them, the name and version of the operating system that’s running, the model of the device, and latitude and longitude location data.

Similar information is sent across the internet in HTTP requests in several different formats depending on what company it’s being sent to, what device it’s running on, and what version of the ad or analytics software is being used. Because this is constantly changing, analysts can write their own BADASS rules to capture all of the permutations they can find.

By looking at intercepted HTTP traffic and writing rules to parse it, analysts can quickly gather as much information as possibly from leaky smartphone apps. One slide states: “Creativity, iterative testing, domain knowledge, and the right tools can help us target multiple platforms in a very short time period.”


Privacy Policies That Don’t Deliver

            Companies that collect usage statistics about software often insist that the data is anonymous because they don’t include identifying information such as names, phone numbers, and email addresses of the users that they’re tracking. But in reality, sending unique device identifiers, IP addresses, IMEI numbers, and GPS coordinates of devices is far from anonymous.

In one slide, the phrase “anonymous usage statistics” appears in conspicuous quotation marks. The spies are well aware that despite not including specific types of information, the data they collect from leaky smartphone apps is enough for them to uniquely identify their targets.

The following slides show a chunk of Flurry’s privacy policy (at this point it has been replaced by Yahoo’s privacy policy), which states what information it collects from devices and how it believes this is anonymous.

The red box, which is present in the original slides, highlights this part: “None of this information can identify the individual. No names, phone numbers, email addresses, or anything else considered personally identifiable information is ever collected.”

Clearly the intelligence services disagree.

“Commercial surveillance often appears very benign,” Angwin says. “The reason Flurry exists is not to ‘spy on people’ but to help people learn who’s using their apps. But what we’ve also seen through Snowden revelations is that spy agencies seek to use that for their own purposes.”

            The Web has the Exact Same Problems

While the BADASS program is specifically designed to target smartphone traffic, websites suffer from these exact same problems, and in many cases they’re even worse.

Websites routinely include bits of tracking code from several different companies for ads, analytics, and other behavioral tracking. This, combined with the lack of HTTPS, turns your web browser into a surveillance device that follows you around, even if you switch networks or use proxy servers.

In other words, while the BADASS presentation may be four years old, and while it’s been a year and a half since Snowden’s leaks began educating technology companies and users about the massive privacy threats they face, the big privacy holes exploited by BADASS remain a huge problem.


Islamic State operative confesses to receiving funding through US – report

December 31, 2015


            A man believed to be a Pakistani commander of Islamic State or Daish, Yousaf al Salafi, has confessed to law enforcement agencies in Pakistan to getting funds via the United States, according to a leading Pakistani newspaper siting its sources.

Al Salafi and two companions were arrested in Lahore, Pakistan on January 22, according to AFP.

“During investigations, Yousaf al Salafi revealed that he was getting funding – routed through America – to run the organization in Pakistan and recruit young people to fight in Syria,” a source close to the investigations revealed toUrdu-language Daily Express on condition of anonymity, according to its sister English newspaper The Express Tribune. The newspaper also claimed that Al Salafi was in fact arrested last year sometime in December.

Al Salafi also allegedly confessed to recruiting jihadists to send them to Syria and was receiving about $600 per person. He also admitted that he had been working with a Pakistani accomplice, who was reportedly the Imam of a mosque.

“The US has been condemning the IS activities but unfortunately has not been able to stop funding of these organizations, which is being routed through the US. The US had to dispel the impression that it is financing the group for its own interests and that is why it launched offensive against the organization in Iraq but not in Syria,” a source said.

However, it was not made clear where exactly the funds came from within the US.

“Yes that is true as this issue was raised several times in the local media and even in the diplomatic corridors between US and Pakistan and there was media reporters here suggesting that hundreds of recruits have been exported to strain from Pakistan,” a security source in Pakistan told Sputnik news agency.

The sources who spoke to the Express Tribune also revealed that the awkward revelations had been revealed to US Secretary of State John Kerry on his recent trip to Islamabad.

“The matter was also taken up with CENTCOM [US Central Command] chief, General Lloyd Austin, during his visit to Islamabad earlier this month,” a source said.

A source told Reuters last week that Al-Salafi is a Pakistani-Syrian who came to Pakistan via Turkey five months ago and that he had established an ISIS group in Pakistan.

In recent months, Pakistani media has been discussing the amount of influence Islamic State has in Pakistan, and have cited several incidents in the cities of Lahore and Multan where Islamic State flags and graffiti have been seen. However Pakistani authorities have indicated that local militants would oppose Islamic State, according to IHS Jane’s defense review.

In response to large-scale advances made by ISIS militants in June 2014 in both Iraq and Syria, the US and other coalition countries began a large-scale air campaign over the region. The US and the UK have sent non-operation soldiers to Iraq, as well as special forces.

According to Pentagon documents seen by the Associated Press on Tuesday, President Obama will ask for a $38 billion increase for the core budget of the Defense Department. Of this $5.3 billion will go towards training and equipping the Iraqi armed forces and the moderate opposition in Syria in the ongoing fight against Islamic State.


White House drone incident prompts call for regulation of unmanned aircraft

The errant quad copter may have been a tipsy accident but Obama has called for interested parties to come up with ideas balancing safety and commerce

January 27, 2015

by Amanda Holpuch in Washington

The Guardian

 The discovery of a 2ft-diameter drone in the grounds of the White House on Monday – its operator a government employee who told investigators he had been drinking – has led to renewed calls for comprehensive laws to cover drone use in the US.

President Barack Obama said creating a framework for drone laws was one of his duties during his final two years in office.

“We don’t yet have the legal structures and the architecture both globally and within individual countries to manage [drones] the way that we need to,” Obama said in a CNN interview

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has banned most commercial drone operations, though that is expected to change in the next few years. Researchers and enthusiasts believe the government is moving too slowly; the FAA has estimated that the introduction of regulations could put 7,500 commercial drones in the sky within five years.

“I’ve assigned some of the relevant agencies to start talking to stakeholders and figure out how we’re going to put an architecture in place that makes sure that these things aren’t dangerous and that they’re not violating people’s privacy,” Obama said.

The White House said the drone that came down in the grounds of the executive mansion posed no threat. The president was in India with the first lady, Michelle Obama, at the time of the incident; their daughters Malia and Sasha were in Washington.

A secret service officer “heard and observed” the drone but agents were unable to stop or deflect it before it crashed.

Economists have predicted that drones will make up a global market worth $1bn by 2018. Brendan Schulman, head of commercial drone law at the law firm Kramer Levin, said regulations on commercial operations would be unlikely to stop someone with malicious intent.

“I hope regulations that come out in the near future will recognize the incredible benefits of the technology and not suddenly overly constrain their use because there may be the occasional incident like this that gets a lot of attention but isn’t really representative of what people are doing,” he said.

Last year, police investigated more than 20 illegal drone flights in the Washington DC area. One person flew his drone near the Lincoln memorial; another was found climbing a tree a few blocks from the White House in order to fetch his drone, which had crashed.

Recreational drone flights are currently limited to an altitude below 400ft and are not permitted in densely populated areas. Drones are also not to be flown within five miles of an airport and must always be within the operator’s sight.

The latest reports say the man who operated the White House drone told investigators he “had been drinking” and had gone to sleep after losing control of the device, not realizing until the morning that it had crashed into such valuable property and caused the area to be swarmed with emergency vehicles in the middle of the night.

Robert Naiman, policy director at the Just Foreign Policy think tank, said the incident was an important reminder that the Obama administration’s use of drones has serious implications in other parts of the world.

“That reminds you that there are places in the world where people live with this kind of fear all the time,” said Naiman. “In Yemen and Waziristan … there are CIA and US military drones flying overhead all day long and the drone could drop a bomb on them anytime.”

An internal Pentagon report obtained by the Guardian this month showed that the Defense Department internal watchdog, the inspector general, suggested that the army’s expanding drone fleet was a waste of money.


DEA admits plan to monitor license plates at gun shows, says it was ‘never authorized’

January 28, 2015


The US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) considered tracking license plates at gun shows to develop a database of attendees, according to a newly released email. The Justice Department has a similar nationwide database compiled from surveillance technology.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) obtained an internal DEA email outlining the proposal to monitor parking lots outside a Phoenix, Arizona area gun show in 2009 by using automated license-plate readers (ALPRs). The intent was to aid gun-trafficking investigations.

The 2009 email is heavily redacted so as not to disclose the sender, recipient or much of the text beyond a single sentence: “DEA Phoenix Division office is working closely with ATF [the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives] on attacking the guns going to [redacted] and the guns shows, to include programs/operation with [license-plate readers] at the gun shows.”

“[W]hen we received this document we concluded that these agencies used license plate readers to collect information about law-abiding citizens attending gun shows,” ACLU wrote in a blog post. “An automatic license plate reader cannot distinguish between people transporting illegal guns and those transporting legal guns, or no guns at all; it only documents the presence of any car driving to the event. Mere attendance at a gun show, it appeared, would have been enough to have one’s presence noted in a DEA database.”

The ACLU received the redacted email as part of a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. The internal message was part of a series of documents from the DEA outlining how the agency is building a national database tracking the movements of vehicles throughout the US.

“The proposal in the email was only a suggestion. It was never authorized by the DEA, and the idea under discussion in the email was never launched,” DEA administrator Michele Leonhart said, according to the Wall Street Journal..

The ACLU said that the agency’s response “alleviates some concerns,” but asked why the organization had not received any documents from the government reflecting its decision not to proceed in the DEA’s reply to the FOIA request.

“We were certainly glad to hear them say this, as we had rationally, based on the scrap of information left unredacted in the document, concluded that gun show monitoring was underway,” Bennett Stein and Jay Stanley wrote in the ACLU blog post. “After all, this would not be the first time that the government has used automatic license plate readers to target the constitutionally protected right to assemble.”

National Rifle Association spokesman Andrew Arulanandam told the Journal that the NRA is “looking into this to see if gun owners were improperly targeted, and has no further comment until we have all the facts.”

The ACLU noted that the civil liberties organization does not oppose the use of automated license plate readers in general “for their stated purpose of checking plates against ‘hot lists’ of known or suspected lawbreakers — provided the data on everyone else is not retained,” but noted that they have “serious concerns about using the technology in a way that is specifically targeted at people exercising their constitutionally protected rights.”

News of the proposal comes on the heels of the revelation that the Justice Department has been covertly gathering and storing hundreds of millions of records about American motorists for a national database. The database can track the movements of vehicles across the country.

The program was initially used by the DEA to seize cars, money, and other assets associated with drug trafficking. Use of the database has grown, however, to include hunting for vehicles linked to other possible crimes, including kidnapping, killings, and rape. State and local law enforcement agencies are increasingly employing the database for a variety of investigations.

Last February, the Department of Homeland Security announced ‒ then quickly canceled ‒ plans to create a similar database tracking license plates nationwide. The plan would have allowed DHS and other law enforcement officials to sift through a nationwide database of license plates once they were photographed, collected and stored on a system owned by a private company. Government officials said the database would be used to help locate illegal immigrants who are on the run from authorities, but civil liberties advocates became worried about the possibility that it would also be used to track the movement of American citizens.

The DEA’s gun-show tracking proposal came in April 2009, just six months before the Phoenix ATF office began its ill-fated gunwalking program, ‘Operation Fast and Furious’.

The ACLU’s FOIA request was part of its 2012 public records requests in 38 states and Washington, DC, which sought information about the use of automatic license plate readers. The organization released the results of their requests in July 2013.


How to Leak to The Intercept

December 28, 2015

by Micah Lee @micahflee Wednesday at 6:28 AM

The Intercept

            People often tell reporters things their employers, or their government, want to keep suppressed. But leaking can serve the public interest, fueling revelatory and important journalism.

This publication was created in part as a platform for journalism arising from unauthorized disclosures by NSA contractor Edward Snowden. Our founders and editors are strongly committed to publishing stories based on leaked material when that material is newsworthy and serves the public interest. So ever since The Intercept launched, our staff has tried to put the best technology in place to protect our sources. Our website has been protected with HTTPS encryption from the beginning. All of our journalists publish their PGP keys on their staff profiles so that readers can send them encrypted email. And we’ve been running a SecureDrop server, an open source whistleblower submission system, to make it simpler and more secure for anonymous sources to get in touch with us.

But caution is still advised to those who want to communicate with us without exposing their real-world identities.


What Not To Do

If you are a whistleblower trying to figure out the best way to contact us, here are some things you should not do:

Don’t contact us from work. Most corporate and government networks log traffic. Even if you’re using Tor, being the only Tor user at work could make you stand out. If you want to leak us documents that exist in your work environment, first remove them from work and submit them using a personal computer on a different network instead.

Don’t email us, call us, or contact us on social media. Most of the ways that people communicate over the Internet or phone networks are incredibly insecure. Even if you take the time to learn how to encrypt your communications with us, your metadata will remain in the clear. From the standpoint of someone investigating a leak, who you communicate with and when is all it takes to make you a prime suspect, even if the investigators don’t know what you said.

Don’t tell anyone that you’re a source. Don’t risk your freedom by talking to anyone about leaking documents. Even if you plan on coming out as the leaker at some point in the future, you have a much better chance of controlling the narrative about you if you are deliberate.

As journalists we will grant anonymity to sources if the circumstances warrant it — for example, when a source risks recrimination by disclosing something newsworthy. If we make such an agreement with you, we will do everything in our power to prevent ourselves from being compelled to hand over your identity.

That said, in extreme cases, the best way to protect your anonymity may be not to disclose your identity even to us.


What To Worry About

And here are some things you should be aware of:

Be aware of your habits. If you have access to secret information that has been leaked, your activities on the internet are likely to come under scrutiny, including what sites (such as The Intercept) you have visited or shared to social media. Make sure you’re aware of this before leaking to us, and adjust your habits well before you decide to become our source if you need to. Tools like Tor (see below) can help protect the anonymity of your surfing.

Compartmentalize and sanitize. Keep your leaking activity separate from the rest of what you do as much as possible. If you need to use email, social media, or any other online accounts, don’t use your normal accounts that are connected to you. Instead, make new accounts for this purpose, and don’t login to them from networks you normally connect to. Make sure you don’t leave traces related to leaking laying around your personal or work computer (in your Documents folder, in your web browser history, etc.).

If possible, use a completely separate operating system (such as Tails, discussed below) for all of your leaking activity so that a forensics search of your normal operating system won’t reveal anything. If you can’t keep things completely separate, then make sure to clean up after yourself as best as you can. For example, if you realized you did a Google search related to leaking while logged into your Google account, delete your search history. Consider keeping all files related to leaking on an encrypted USB stick rather than on your computer, and only plug it in when you need to work with them.

Strip metadata from documents. Many documents, including PDFs, images, and office documents, include metadata that could be used to deanonymize you. Our policy is to remove metadata ourselves before publishing anything, but you might want to remove it yourself. Tails (discussed below) includes a program called Metadata Anonymization Toolkit that can strip metadata from a variety of types of documents. If you’re somewhat techie you can convert your documents to PDFs and then use pdf-redact-tools to completely remove any information hiding in them. You could also choose to go analog: print out a copy of the documents and then re-scan them before submitting them to us (but be careful to securely shred your printout and not leave traces in your printer’s/scanner’s memory).


How To Actually Leak

Now that we have that straight, here’s how to go about contacting us securely:

Go to a public WiFi network. Before following any further directions, grab your personal computer and go to a network that isn’t associated with you or your employer, such as at a coffee shop. Ideally you should go to one that you don’t already frequent. Leave your phone at home, and buy your coffee with cash.

Get the Tor Browser. You can download the Tor Browser here. When you browse the web using the Tor Browser, all of your web traffic gets bounced around the world, hiding your real IP address from websites that you visit. If your network is being monitored, the eavesdroppers will only know that you’re using Tor but not what you’re doing. Websites that you visit will only know that you’re using Tor, but not who you are (unless you tell them). It sounds complicated, but it’s actually quite easy to use. In order to start a conversation with us using our SecureDrop server, you must use Tor.

Consider using Tails instead. If you are worried about your safety because of the information you’re considering leaking, it might be prudent to take higher security precautions than just using Tor Browser. If someone has hacked into your computer, for example, they’ll be able to spy on everything you do even if you’re using Tor. Tails is a separate operating system that you can install on a USB stick and boot your computer to. Tails is engineered to make it hard for you to mess up:

Tails leaves no traces that it was ever run on your computer It’s non-persistent, which means that if you got hacked last time you were using Tails, the malware should be gone the next time you boot up

All Internet traffic automatically goes through Tor, so it’s much harder to accidentally de-anonymize yourself

It has everything that you need to contact us through SecureDrop built-in, as well as other popular encryption tools

It’s the operating system that Edward Snowden, Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras, and I used to keep the NSA journalism safe from spies

It sounds complicated, and it is. But if you’re risking a lot, it’s probably worth the effort. You can find instructions for downloading and installing Tails here.

Use SecureDrop to communicate with us. You can use our SecureDrop server to securely and anonymously send us messages, read replies, and upload documents. If you have access to information that you’re considering leaking, you can use SecureDrop to just start a conversation with us until you’re comfortable sending in any documents. Or you could choose to dump a set of documents and never check back again.

            You can access our SecureDrop server by going to http://y6xjgkgwj47us5ca.onion/ in Tor Browser. This is a special kind of URL that only works in Tor (even though the URL starts with “http://” and not “https://”, the connection between Tor Browser and our SecureDrop server is encrypted). This is what you’ll see:

To learn more about safely using SecureDrop as a source, check the official guide for sources document.

If you’d like to submit tips to us and your anonymity isn’t important, you can email tips@theintercept.com. If you’d like to use PGP encryption, you can find every journalist’s PGP public key on their staff profile.



American corruption is exceptional, too

January 30, 2015

by Terry Golway


            He was hardly a household name, and he owed his authority to the votes of a few thousand people on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. But for more than two decades, Sheldon Silver was one of the most powerful people in New York politics. He held up budgets, cut deals, blocked projects he didn’t like and doled out public dollars with little accountability. Governors came and went, but Silver seemingly was speaker of the New York State Assembly for life — beyond the reach of good-government critics, investigative journalists and ethics watchdogs. Until last week.

On Jan. 22, Silver was arrested, handcuffed, fingerprinted and brought before a judge, accused of an array of corruption charges. (Silver did not have to enter a plea, but he has denied the accusations.)

Photographs of him being led away from a courtroom showed not an imperious power-broker, but a stooped, 70-year-old man with a road map of worry on his face. U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, whose office led the investigation, announced Silver’s indictment with a blistering statement accusing him of amassing “a tremendous personal fortune through the abuse of [his] political power.”

Silver’s alleged crimes are hardly unique to New York City, Albany or, indeed, the United States. Political systems and cultures may vary widely from nation to nation, continent to continent, but corruption is universal. From Bejing to Kabul, Moscow to Mexico City, beleaguered citizens surely would recognize Silver, or former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell, or former New York Representative Michael Grimm as variations on the familiar lament that power corrupts, and that absolute power corrupts absolutely.

            But here’s the difference between the United States and many truly lawless nations that happen to be strategically important to Washington at the moment: Corrupt U.S. politicians invariably get caught, sometimes because they overreach, sometimes because an ambitious prosecutor or an investigative reporter comes along to expose the scam.

Nobody in New York was more powerful that William Tweed, the infamous boss of the Tammany Hall political machine, in the years following the Civil War. He had allies in all the right places, particularly the comptroller’s office, where the city’s books were cooked until they were overdone. But when a political enemy brought evidence of Tweed’s corruption to the New York Times in 1871, the powerful boss found himself alone and exposed. Tweed was arrested, convicted and sent to prison, where he died a broken man in 1878 at age 55.

Many a dubious private fortune was made during the Gilded Age; robber barons like Henry Clay Frick and Andrew Carnegie reaped vast riches. But Tweed, the face of public corruption, was the one notorious figure from the era to serve time in prison.

Like Tweed, Spiro T. Agnew no doubt figured he had friends in all the right places. Heck, he was vice president of the United States! But in 1973, just months after he and President Richard M. Nixon were resoundingly reelected, a federal prosecutor accused Agnew of accepting bribes while he served as county executive of Baltimore, governor of Maryland and even as vice president.

Agnew pleaded no contest and resigned in disgrace. Agnew remains probably the highest U.S. elected official driven out of office because of corruption. Nixon, who resigned in disgrace a year later, was brought down more for abuse of power than graft and bribery.

Thanks to courageous journalists and incorruptible prosecutors, the list of U.S. grafters and bribe-takers who were caught and convicted is long and storied.

But that’s the point. Exposure and punishment are not mere abstractions — as Tweed, Agnew and, potentially, Silver discovered.

In announcing the charges against Silver, Bharara delivered a stinging metaphorical indictment of Albany’s notoriously corrupt culture, condemning what he called a “lack of transparency, lack of accountability and lack of principle.” As he likely knew, his critique of Albany could be easily applied to the other 49 state capitals in the United States.

Jaded political observers regularly attempt to determine which state has the most insidious political culture. Illinois? Always a solid choice after two consecutive governors, Republican George Ryan and Democrat Rod Blagojevich, were sent to prison in the early 21st century. Louisiana? It is known for its singularly relaxed approach to ethics enforcement.

New Jersey? Another favorite. Politicians there can be particularly creative — as three mayors proved several years ago when they became enmeshed in a plot that included, believe it not, the sale of kidneys. Thirty years ago, several New Jersey politicians and a handful from other states were caught accepting cash from an FBI agent posing as an Arab sheik with immigration issues. Abscam was a scandal for the ages.

When the nonpartisan Center for Public Integrity examined ethics enforcement and public accountability in all 50 states, only two rated a grade of B or better. Seven were given an F.

Corruption, from the venal to the vast, is so much a part of the American political landscape that comparisons occasionally are made to less developed nations where payoffs and graft are an accepted way of doing business. The huge enterprise that Silver is accused of running, one that prosecutors say netted him nearly $4 million in bribes disguised as legal fees, sounds like something many Americans would associate with, say, Afghanistan, Iraq or Pakistan — places where, not coincidentally, hundreds of billions of dollars have been funneled to power brokers, high and low, over the past 15 years.

Thanks in large measure to the global war on Islamic extremism, the United States finds itself enmeshed in political cultures where payoffs and tribute are more likely to bring about favorable results than the ballot box or energetic debate.

At first glance, it might seem to be a world in which U.S. figures are quite comfortable. After all, it was in Illinois, not Helmand province, where a local governor (Blagojevich) sought to auction off a vacant Senate seat after its holder won election to the nation’s highest office.

But that cynical conclusion ignores a rather important point: In the end, Blagojevich found himself hauled into court and subjected to the full force of the criminal justice system. McDonnell was found guilty of corruption and was sentenced to two years in prison, though he is planning to appeal the verdict. Grimm pleaded guilty and is awaiting sentencing.

Silver’s legal problems have just begun, but already he has been forced to resign the job that made him so powerful — that of speaker of the New York Assembly.

It doesn’t exactly work that way in many of the countries the United States is seeking to influence. In Afghanistan, for example, half its beleaguered citizens were forced to pay bribes to local political potentates in order to receive basic public services, according to a United Nations study.

In strategically vital Uzbekistan, north of Afghanistan, the family of President Islam Karimov is thought to control not just the nation’s government but its economy as well. The country has received more than a billion dollars in aid from Washington over the past quarter century. Much of the money may have wound up in the ruling family’s pockets.

In those countries and many others that have captured Washington’s attention in the 21st century, there are few Preet Bahararas looking out for the public’s interests and hauling crooked politicians into courtrooms.

China is making a public show of fighting corruption that has risen along with the country’s gross domestic product, but critics charge that the government is using criminal investigations to punish critics and to consolidate President Xi Jinping’s power.

The United States may never achieve Scandinavian-style high marks for the purity of its civic affairs. The temptations are too great because the money is enormous, as the Silver case seems to show.

But he is now deposed as speaker and is contemplating life behind bars. It doesn’t work that way elsewhere.





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