TBR News June 11, 2014

Jun 11 2014

The Voice of the White House


            Washington, D.C., June 11, 2014: “Someone recently was discussing dramatic scenarios with me and I thought I would pass at least one of these on to you.
            We know, of course, about the CIA sending its domestic surveillance unit from Langley to Denver and two other branches to Charlottesville, VA and the FBI moving 11,000 souls to Bethesda, MD.
            And the DIA also moved to Charlottesville as well as two other more private agencies. Why did they do this?
            Well, just suppose that an embassy in Washington, on a weekend or national holiday when the embassy was officially closed, decided to have a jolly picnic for the entire staff. Wonderful thought for the hard workers.
            And there they were, a hundred miles away or so, and upwind from the Beltway.
            And while they were enroute in their chartered busses, a very common Maryland crab boat went up the Potomac and tied up at a fish dock near the Seat of Power.
            And the crew members would get off the boat before it was unloaded and vanish, quickly into the landscape and distant points.
            Then, without warning, there would be a blinding flash of purple-white light and a huge column of water thrown up into the air, just like the Bikini test pictures show.
            And the city and its surroundings would be drenched with a highly radioactive drizzle.
            And soon enough, people would start losing their hair and teeth, just like those who drank a Putin Special Cocktail, and the fortunate embassy picnickers would bless whatever their God was for their fortunate absence.
            Could this speculative postulation happen?
            Perhaps it could and that might explain the discreet exodus from the Washington area of our blessed intelligence agencies.
            At the least, one could conclude, the survivors in Washington would reduce their lighting bills.
            All one would have to do would be to put Grandma up on a table in the living room and bask in her glow.
            At least until she started to smell badly.”


Letter from a reader: 


Always something to entertain you, aside from the gross lies in the print and TV media.
            A few days ago, I was downtown at a small mall, enjoying a cup of coffee outside a very upscale book store.
            I noticed a woman, much overweight, waddling around across from me, dressed in a black pants suit and carrying a small purse.
            A few minutes later, I noticed a strange man walk up and speak with her.
            He was tall, thin and balding and sported a pot belly.
            His white chicken legs ended in new and enormous tennis shoes and he was wearing a lightweight jacket and Bermuda shorts.
            They both seemed to be fascinated by the other book store across from me and occasionally, Chicken Legs spoke to his wrist watch.
            They were joined by an odd-looking Asian type who kept twitching.
            I think his name was Sum Ting Wong.
            Then, an average-looking younger man came out of the book store, a book in his hand, looked towards the store I was sitting in front of and walked briskly across the mall and went into the store behind me.
            Immediately, Chicken Legs spoke to his watch and he and Chubs moved across towards me.
            Being a True Christian and wanting only to express my Jesus-perfect thoughts, I, too, went into the book store.
            The obvious target of the Geek Squad was in the back, out of sight behind a tall book case.
            He was obviously looking for something on the shelf when I approached him and advised him that several abnormal freaks were apparently interested in him.
            I described them and instead of advising me to either mind my own business or shut up, he smiled, nodded and said “Thank you.”
            I then pulled a manuscript out of my pocket, a manuscript that was pathetically uninteresting and suggested that he step out from behind the bookcase and hand me my own papers.
            He proved to be most obliging and I  pointed out that right behind him, out of sight from the Freak Show, was a door to the back of the shop and the alley behind.
            He did hand me the papers and then vanished through the door.
            I walked out into the shop, just as Chicken Legs was bustling in.
            He obviously had seen me talking to his target and as I brushed past him, reading the manuscript seriously, I remarked out loud, “My God, this means war!”
            And I went outside the bookstore, crossed the mall, went into the other one and then out the back.
            I can only imagine the scenario I left behind.
            Where did their target vanish to?
            Who was I?
            What was so important in the papers the target apparently gave me?
            Where did I go? 
            From their attire and behavior, I decided they were members of the FBI ‘s elite Special Surveillance Group or the ‘Super Gs.”

In point of fact, they looked like refugees from a Scientology convention and had all the subtlety of a fart in a space suit.
            Aren’t we blessed with having such protectors?
            I think it would be a good idea to keep small children and pets away from all of them. 





Special agent in training on the Farm (Camp Peary, VA)



The Wet Debts


June 10, 2014

by Harry Brunser


            The entire East coast of the United States is being subjected to an increasing rise in the sea levels, due to the accelerated melting of both the Greenland and Antarctic glaciers.

The sharp rising is caused, mostly, by the influx of cold, fresh water from the Arctic area, which is pushing the warm Gulf Stream further and further south.

The western side of the stream lies against the American East coast while the eastern side has so much ocean to cover that its impact on the coasts of Europe is not as severe.

What this means is that as the water rises, it presents a major threat to housing, businesses and other infrastructure from Maine to Brownville, Texas. 

Let me take the area of Virginia Beach/Norfolk in Virginian as an example.

The land in that area is essentially as flat as a board and many miles inland, the ground level is only a few feet above sea level.

It is also an area that is densely populated with homes and businesses.

Norfolk is a major seaport and U.S. naval base and it, too, is at sea level.

There is no question that the sea is rising and we have begun to see articles in the press making comment on this.

Before, because of governmental and economic pressure, comment was very muted but now the regular flooding of lower lying areas has become more common., the media is cautiously commenting on what is obvious.

Aside from the dislocation of infrastructure, another problem is coming to the fore and that is the ownership of property.

For instance, a family owns a home in Virginia Beach, five miles away from the coast. When a storm floods the beachside homes and causes extensive damage, the homeowners begin to think about the advisability of moving to higher ground.

They can’t.


Because no one will, obviously, buy their threatened home and they still owe a considerable balance on the mortgage.

The banks are not charitable agencies and they do not forgive the mortgage so that if the homeowners move, they still are responsible for mortgage payments, even if their home is flooded, unlivable and unsaleable.

Multiply this by millions of other homes and it is easy to see what will happen.

As the rising sea levels threaten more homes and businesses and as moving to higher ground to the West is mandated, millions of homes and businesses become worthless but at the same time, demands by the public for relief from the mortgage payments are coupled with louder demands for government assistance.

The government does not have the funds to help and the banks will not give up their income from the mortgages so, as usual, the public is trapped in a tightening economic noose

The government-influenced press does not usually talk about this simply because the government can do nothing to relieve the problem and the banking industry will not. No banker ever gave up a dollar unless he had to.

And then we have the aspect of the banks repossessing hundreds of thousands, or more, of homes and businesses and, even though they are unsaleable, having to pay state and local taxes and insurance on them.

The banks, true to form, will demand that the government bail them out and, also true to form (especially if right wing Republicans are in power at the time) the government will assist them where they would never assist the public.



Post-9/11 US Foreign Policy: A Record of Unparalleled Failure

No matter how you define American-style war or its goals, it doesn’t work. Ever.


June 10, 2014

by Tom Engelhardt



The United States has been at war — major boots-on-the-ground conflicts and minor interventions, firefights, air strikes, drone assassination campaigns, occupations, special ops raids, proxy conflicts, and covert actions — nearly nonstop since the Vietnam War began.  That’s more than half a century of experience with war, American-style, and yet few in our world bother to draw the obvious conclusions.

Given the historical record, those conclusions should be staring us in the face.  They are, however, the words that can’t be said in a country committed to a military-first approach to the world, a continual build-up of its forces, an emphasis on pioneering work in the development and deployment of the latest destructive technology, and a repetitious cycling through styles of war from full-scale invasions and occupations to counterinsurgency, proxy wars, and back again.

So here are five straightforward lessons — none acceptable in what passes for discussion and debate in this country — that could be drawn from that last half century of every kind of American warfare:


1.No matter how you define American-style war or its goals, it doesn’t work. Ever.

 2.No matter how you pose the problems of our world, it doesn’t solve them. Never.

 3.No matter how often you cite the use of military force to “stabilize” or “protect” or “liberate” countries or regions, it is a destabilizing force.

 4.No matter how regularly you praise the American way of war and its “warriors,” the U.S. military is incapable of winning its wars.

 5.No matter how often American presidents claim that the U.S. military is “the finest fighting force in history,” the evidence is in: it isn’t.

And here’s a bonus lesson: if as a polity we were to take these five no-brainers to heart and stop fighting endless wars, which drain us of national treasure, we would also have a long-term solution to the Veterans Administration health-care crisis.  It’s not the sort of thing said in our world, but the VA is in a crisis of financing and caregiving that, in the present context, cannot be solved, no matter whom you hire or fire.  The only long-term solution would be to stop fighting losing wars that the American people will pay for decades into the future, as the cost in broken bodies and broken lives is translated into medical care and dumped on the VA


Heroes and Turncoats


One caveat.  Think whatever you want about war and American war-making, but keep in mind that we are inside an enormous propaganda machine of militarism, even if we barely acknowledge the space in our lives that it fills. Inside it, only certain opinions, certain thoughts, are acceptable, or even in some sense possible.

            Take for an example the recent freeing of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl from five years as a captive of the Haqqani network.  Much controversy has surrounded it, in part because he was traded for five former Taliban officials long kept uncharged and untried on the American Devil’s Island at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.  It has been suggested that Sgt. Bergdahl deserted his post and his unit in rural Afghanistan, simply walked away — which for opponents of the deal and of President Obama makes the “trade for terrorists” all the more shameful.  Our options when it comes to what we know of Bergdahl’s actions are essentially to decry him as a “turncoat” or near-voluntary “terrorist prisoner” or ignore them, go into a “support the troops” mode, and hail him as a “hero” of the war.  And yet there is a third option.

            According to his father, in the period before he was captured, his emails home reflected growing disillusionment with the military.  (“The U.S. army is the biggest joke the world has to laugh at.  It is the army of liars, backstabbers, fools, and bullies. The few good SGTs [sergeants] are getting out as soon as they can, and they are telling us privates to do the same.”)  He had also evidently grown increasingly uncomfortable as well with the American war in that country. (“I am sorry for everything here. These people need help, yet what they get is the most conceited country in the world telling them that they are nothing and that they are stupid, that they have no idea how to live.”)  When he departed his base, he may even have left a note behind expressing such sentiments.  He had reportedly told someone in his unit earlier, “If this deployment is lame… I’m just going to walk off into the mountains of Pakistan.”

That’s what we know.  There is much that we don’t know.  However, what if, having concluded that the war was no favor to Afghans or Americans and he shouldn’t participate in it, he had, however naively, walked away from it without his weapon and, as it turned out, not into freedom but directly into captivity?  That Sgt. Bergdahl might have been neither a military-style hero, nor a turncoat, but someone who voted with his feet on the merits of war, American-style, in Afghanistan is not an option that can be discussed calmly here.  Similarly, anyone who took such a position here, not just in terms of our disastrous almost 13-year Afghan War, but of American war-making generally, would be seen as another kind of turncoat.  However Americans may feel about specific wars, walking away from war, American-style, and the U.S. military as it is presently configured is not a fit subject for conversation, nor an option to be considered.

It’s been a commonplace of official opinion and polling data for some time that the American public is “exhausted” with our recent wars, but far too much can be read into that.  Responding to such a mood, the president, his administration, and the Pentagon have been in a years-long process of “pivoting” from major wars and counterinsurgency campaigns to drone wars, special operations raids, and proxy wars across huge swaths of the planet (even while planning for future wars of a very different kind continues).  But war itself and the U.S. military remain high on the American agenda.  Military or militarized solutions continue to be the go-to response to global problems, the only question being: How much or how little? (In what passes for debate in this country, the president’s opponents regularly label him and his administration “weak” for not doubling down on war, from the Ukraine and Syria to Afghanistan).

Meanwhile, investment in the military’s future and its capacity to make war on a global scale remains staggeringly beyond that of any other power or combination of powers. No other country comes faintly close, not the Russians, nor the Chinese, nor the Europeans just now being encouraged to up their military game by President Obama who recently pledged a billion dollars to strengthen the U.S. military presence in Eastern Europe.

In such a context, to suggest the sweeping failure of the American military over these last decades without sapping support for the Pentagon and the military-industrial complex would involve making the most breathtaking stab-in-the-back argument in the historical record.  This was tried after the Vietnam War, which engendered a vast antiwar movement at home.  It was at least conceivable at the time to blame defeat on that movement, a “liberal” media, and lily-livered, micromanaging politicians.  Even then, however, the stab-in-the-back version of the war never quite stuck and in all subsequent wars, support for the military among the political class and everywhere else has been so high, the obligatory need to “support the troops” — left, right, and center — so great that such an explanation would have been ludicrous.


A Record of Failure to Stagger the Imagination


The only option left was to ignore what should have been obvious to all. The result has been a record of failure that should stagger the imagination and remarkable silence on the subject.  So let’s run through these points one at a time.

1. American-style war doesn’t work.  Just ask yourself: Are there fewer terrorists or more in our world almost 13 years after the 9/11 attacks?  Are al-Qaeda-like groups more or less common?  Are they more or less well organized?  Do they have more or less members?  The answers to those questions are obvious: more, more, more, and more.  In fact, according to a new RAND report, between 2010 and 2013 alone, jihadist groups grew by 58%, their fighters doubled, and their attacks nearly tripled.

On September 12, 2001, al-Qaeda was a relatively small organization with a few camps in arguably the most feudal and backward country on the planet, and tiny numbers of adherents scattered elsewhere around the world.  Today, al-Qaeda-style outfits and jihadist groups control significant parts of Syria, Iraq, Pakistan, and even Yemen, and are thriving and spreading in parts of Africa as well.

Or try questions like these: Is Iraq a peaceful, liberated state allied with and under Washington’s aegis, with “enduring camps” filled with U.S. troops on its territory?  Or is it a riven, embattled, dilapidated country whose government is close to Iran and some of whose Sunni-dominated areas are under the control of a group that is more extreme than al-Qaeda?  Is Afghanistan a peaceful, thriving, liberated land under the American aegis, or are Americans still fighting there almost 13 years later against the Taliban, an impossible-to-defeat minority movement it once destroyed and then, because it couldn’t stop fighting the “war on terror,” helped revive?  Is Washington now supporting a weak, corrupt central government in a country that once again is planting record opium crops?

But let’s not belabor the point.  Who, except a few neocons still plunking for the glories of “the surge” in Iraq, would claim military victory for this country, even of a limited sort, anywhere at any time in this century?

2. American-style wars don’t solve problems.  In these years, you could argue that not a single U.S. military campaign or militarized act ordered by Washington solved a single problem anywhere.  In fact, it’s possible that just about every military move Washington has made only increased the burden of problems on this planet. To make the case, you don’t even have to focus on the obvious like, for example, the way a special operations and drone campaign in Yemen has actually al-Qaeda-ized some of that country’s rural areas.  Take instead a rare Washington “success”: the killing of Osama bin Laden in a special ops raid in Abbottabad, Pakistan.  (And leave aside the way even that act was over-militarized: an unarmed Bin Laden was shot down in his Pakistani lair largely, it’s plausible to assume, because officials in Washington feared what once would have been the American way — putting him on trial in a U.S. civilian court for his crimes.)  We now know that, in the hunt for bin Laden, the CIA launched a fake hepatitis B vaccination project.  Though it proved of no use, once revealed it made local jihadists so nervous about medical health teams that they began killing groups of polio vaccination workers, an urge that has since spread to Boko Haram-controlled areas of Nigeria.  In this way, according to Columbia University public health expert Leslie Roberts, “the distrust sowed by the sham campaign in Pakistan could conceivably postpone polio eradication for 20 years, leading to 100,000 more cases that might otherwise not have occurred.” The CIA has since promised not to do it again, but too late — and who at this point would believe the Agency anyway?  This was, to say the least, an unanticipated consequence of the search for bin Laden, but blowback everywhere, invariably unexpected, has been a hallmark of American campaigns of all sorts.

Similarly, the NSA’s surveillance regime, another form of global intervention by Washington, has — experts are convinced — done little or nothing to protect Americans from terror attacks.  It has, however, done a great deal to damage the interests of America’s tech corporations and to increase suspicion and anger over Washington’s policies even among allies.  And by the way, congratulations are due on one of the latest military moves of the Obama administration, the sending of U.S. military teams and drones into Nigeria and neighboring countries to help rescue those girls kidnapped by the extremist group Boko Haram.  The rescue was a remarkable success… oops, didn’t happen (and we don’t even know yet what the blowback will be).

3. American-style war is a destabilizing force.  Just look at the effects of American war in the twenty-first century.  It’s clear, for instance, that the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 unleashed a brutal, bloody, Sunni-Shiite civil war across the region (as well as the Arab Spring, one might argue).  One result of that invasion and the subsequent occupation, as well as of the wars and civil wars that followed: the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, Syrians, and Lebanese, while major areas of Syria and some parts of Iraq have fallen into the hands of armed supporters of al-Qaeda or, in one major case, a group that didn’t find that organization extreme enough.  A significant part of the oil heartlands of the planet is, that is, being destabilized.

Meanwhile, the U.S. war in Afghanistan and the CIA’s drone assassination campaign in the tribal borderlands of neighboring Pakistan have destabilized that country, which now has its own fierce Taliban movement.  The 2011 U.S. intervention in Libya initially seemed like a triumph, as had the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan before it.  Libyan autocrat Muammar Gaddafi was overthrown and the rebels swept into power.  Like Afghanistan and Iraq, however, Libya is now a basket case, riven by competing militias and ambitious generals, largely ungovernable, and an open wound for the region.  Arms from Gaddafi’s looted arsenals have made their way into the hands of Islamist rebels and jihadist extremists from the Sinai Peninsula to Mali, from Northern Africa to northern Nigeria, where Boko Haram is entrenched.  It is even possible, as Nick Turse has done, to trace the growing U.S. military presence in Africa to the destabilization of parts of that continent.

4. The U.S. military can’t win its wars.  This is so obvious (though seldom said) that it hardly has to be explained.  The U.S. military has not won a serious engagement since World War II:  the results of wars in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq ranged from stalemate to defeat and disaster.  With the exception of a couple of campaigns against essentially no one (in Grenada and Panama), nothing, including the “Global War on Terror,” would qualify as a success on its own terms, no less anyone else’s.  This was true, strategically speaking, despite the fact that, in all these wars, the U.S. controlled the air space, the seas (where relevant), and just about any field of battle where the enemy might be met.  Its firepower was overwhelming and its ability to lose in small-scale combat just about nil.

It would be folly to imagine that this record represents the historical norm.  It doesn’t.  It might be more relevant to suggest that the sorts of imperial wars and wars of pacification the U.S. has fought in recent times, often against poorly armed, minimally trained, minority insurgencies (or terror outfits), are simply unwinnable.  They seem to generate their own resistance.  Their brutalities and even their “victories” simply act as recruitment posters for the enemy.

5. The U.S. military is not “the finest fighting force the world has ever known” or “the greatest force for human liberation the world has ever known,” or any of the similar over-the-top descriptions that U.S. presidents are now regularly obligated to use.  If you want the explanation for why this is so, see points one through four above.  A military whose way of war doesn’t work, doesn’t solve problems, destabilizes whatever it touches, and never wins simply can’t be the greatest in history, no matter the firepower it musters.  If you really need further proof of this, think about the crisis and scandals linked to the Veterans Administration.  They are visibly the fruit of a military mired in frustration, despair, and defeat, not a triumphant one holding high history’s banner of victory.


As for Peace, Not a Penny


Is there a record like it?  More than half a century of American-style war by the most powerful and potentially destructive military on the planet adds up to worse than nothing.  If any other institution in American life had a comparable scorecard, it would be shunned like the plague.  In reality, the VA has a far better record of success when it comes to the treatment of those broken by our wars than the military does of winning them, and yet its head administrator was forced to resign recently amid scandal and a media firestorm.

As in Iraq, Washington has a way of sending in the Marines, setting the demons loose, leaving town, and then wondering how in the world things got so bad — as if it had no responsibility for what happened.  Don’t think, by the way, that no one ever warned us either.  Who, for instance, remembers Arab League head Amr Moussa saying in 2004 that the U.S. had opened the “gates of hell” in its invasion and occupation of Iraq?  Who remembers the vast antiwar movement in the U.S. and around the world that tried to stop the launching of that invasion, the hundreds of thousands of people who took to the streets to warn of the dangers before it was too late?  In fact, being in that antiwar movement more or less guaranteed that ever after you couldn’t appear on the op-ed pages of America’s major papers to discuss the disaster you had predicted.  The only people asked to comment were those who had carried it out, beaten the drums for it, or offered the mildest tsk-tsk about it.

By the way, don’t think for a moment that war never solved a problem, or achieved a goal for an imperial or other regime, or that countries didn’t regularly find victory in arms.  History is filled with such examples.  So what if, in some still-to-be-understood way, something has changed on planet Earth?  What if something in the nature of imperial war now precludes victory, the achieving of goals, the “solving” of problems in our present world?  Given the American record, it’s at least a thought worth considering.

As for peace?  Not even a penny for your thoughts on that one.  If you suggested pouring, say, $50 billion into planning for peace, no less the $500 billion that goes to the Pentagon annually for its base budget, just about anyone would laugh in your face.  (And keep in mind that that figure doesn’t include most of the budget for the increasingly militarized U.S. Intelligence Community, or extra war costs for Afghanistan, or the budget of the increasingly militarized Department of Homeland Security, or other costs hidden elsewhere, including, for example, for the U.S. nuclear arsenal, which is buried in the Energy Department’s budget.)

That possible solutions to global problems, possible winning strategies, might come from elsewhere than the U.S. military or other parts of the national security state, based on 50 years of imperial failure, 50 years of problems unsolved and wars not won and goals not reached, of increasing instability and destruction, of lives (American and otherwise) snuffed out or broken?  Not on your life.

Don’t walk away from war.  It’s not the American way.


Big Brother: Meet the Parents


June 6,2014

by Stephanie Simon



            You’ve heard of Big Oil and Big Tobacco. Now get ready for Big Parent.

Moms and dads from across the political spectrum have mobilized into an unexpected political force in recent months to fight the data mining of their children. In a frenzy of activity, they’ve catapulted student privacy — an issue that was barely on anyone’s radar last spring — to prominence in statehouses from New York to Florida to Wyoming.

A months-long review by POLITICO of student privacy issues, including dozens of interviews, found the parent privacy lobby gaining momentum — and catching big-data advocates off guard. Initially dismissed as a fringe campaign, the privacy movement has attracted powerful allies on both the left and right. The American Civil Liberties Union is pushing for more student privacy protection. So is the American Legislative Exchange Council, the organization of conservative legislators.

The amateur activists have already claimed one trophy, torpedoing a privately run, $100 million database set up to make it easier for schools to share confidential student records with private companies. The project, known as inBloom, folded this spring under tremendous parent pressure, just 15 months after its triumphal public launch.

Now, parents are rallying against another perceived threat: huge state databases being built to track children for more than two decades, from as early as infancy through the start of their careers.

Promoted by the Obama administration, the databases are being built in nearly every state at a total cost of well over $1 billion. They are intended to store intimate details on tens of millions of children and young adults — identified by name, birth date, address and even, in some cases, Social Security number — to help officials pinpoint the education system’s strengths and weaknesses and craft public policy accordingly.

The Education Department lists hundreds of questions that it urges states to answer about each child in the public school system: Did she make friends easily as a toddler? Was he disciplined for fighting as a teen? Did he take geometry? Does she suffer from mental illness? Did he go to college? Did he graduate? How much does he earn?

“Every parent I’ve talked to has been horrified,” said Leonie Haimson, a New York mother who is organizing a national Parent Coalition for Student Privacy. “We just don’t want our kids tracked from cradle to grave.”

Eager to support technological innovation and wary of new regulations, Congress has taken little notice of parent concerns. But state legislators have raced to respond.

In the past five months, 14 states have enacted stricter student privacy protections, often with overwhelming bipartisan support, and more are likely on the way. None of the bills address all the concerns parents have raised, but the latest iterations — in Louisiana and New Hampshire — take strong steps to limit the scope of state databases and restrict the use of information collected on students.

All told, at least 105 student privacy bills were introduced this year in 35 states, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

“Our voices are getting stronger,” said Rachael Stickland, an energy-efficiency analyst who had never worked on anything more political than a community garden until she began organizing a student privacy campaign in Colorado. “We are being heard.”

The POLITICO review found ed tech entrepreneurs and school reformers both bewildered by and anxious about the backlash — and struggling to craft a response.

Many said they had always assumed parents would support their vision: to mine vast quantities of data for insights into what’s working, and what’s not, for individual students and for the education system as a whole.

“People took for granted that parents would understand [the benefits], that it was self-evident,” said Michael Horn, a co-founder of the Clayton Christensen Institute, an education think tank.

Instead, legitimate questions about data security have mixed with alarmist rhetoric in a combustible brew that’s “spreading like wildfire” on social media, said Aimee Rogstad Guidera, executive director of the Data Quality Campaign, a nonprofit advocacy group for data-driven education.

That fear, Guidera said, “leads to people saying, ‘Shut it down. No more.’”

Guidera hopes to counter the protests by circulating videos and graphics emphasizing the value of data. But she acknowledges the outrage will be hard to rein in.

Could the parent lobby scuttle a data revolution that’s been championed by the White House, pushed by billionaire philanthropists and embraced by reformers of both parties as the best hope to improve public education? “I do have that concern,” Guidera said. “Absolutely.”




When he heard about the state databases, retired math teacher John Eppolito got curious. He wanted to know what information his home state of Nevada had collected on his four children. So he requested their records.

The state’s response: No such records exist. At least, no records as the law defines the term, said Judy Osgood, a spokeswoman for the Nevada Department of Education.

While the database stores “literally millions of pieces of data” about Nevada students, it’s not kept in a format that allows officials to easily extract the complete file on any one child, Osgood said. The department estimated it would cost $10,000 in staff time to respond to Eppolito’s request. The state attorney general issued a formal opinion that it did not have to go to those lengths.

Nevada is not alone. Just 14 states make student-level data easily accessible to parents, according to the Data Quality Campaign.

That opacity infuriates parents and spurs dark whispers about Big Brother.

“We don’t know what they’re tracking and we don’t know what the implications are going to be for these children in the future,” Eppolito told TheBlaze TV. “Going for jobs in the future, trying to get into college — we’re in uncharted territory and we just don’t know the implication it’s going to have for the children. We need to slow down.”

Database advocates say there’s nothing sinister about the projects. On the contrary, they see them as a prosaic — if powerful — tool for improving public policy.

Do kids who struggle with mastering emotions as toddlers get suspended more often than their peers as teens? Are they more likely to drop out of high school? End up in low-wage jobs? And which interventions, at age 3 or 4, might improve their trajectory? The hope is that databases will answer those questions.

Advocates also talk with excitement about using the data to identify an individual student’s precise needs — and the best way to meet them.

“The vision is, this changes outcomes,” Guidera said.

Kathleen Styles, chief privacy officer for the Education Department, said she has reviewed many states’ security and privacy plans and is confident they’re strong.

Outside experts, however, see a great deal of worrisome ambiguity in states’ plans.

“It’s like when Homeland Security gave out grants for video surveillance cameras after 9/11 — you said, ‘Great, we’ll take it,’ even if you had no idea what you were going to do with it,” said Fred Cate, director of the Center for Applied Cybersecurity Research at Indiana University. “When the Department of Education says, ‘We’re going to give you money to build a longitudinal database,’ you say, ‘Terrific!’ without having thought through all the security and privacy implications.”

The POLITICO review found some states still working through basic questions about their databases.

In Delaware, for instance, project manager Reese Robinson said his team hasn’t yet determined how long the database should hold student records — a crucial point for parents who don’t want every bad test score and disciplinary infraction to become part of their child’s permanent digital record.

The Delaware team is also still working through key privacy issues, such as whether researchers should be given access to individual files or only to aggregated data.




The Education Department’s list of recommended data points, developed with state officials, is exhaustive. It includes what type of dental insurance a student carries, whether she’s allergic to dog dander and whether she belongs to a sorority in college. Each disciplinary incident is broken down into more than a dozen data points, including the type of firearm involved, if applicable.

Other suggested data points relate to early childhood and K-12 teachers, who are included — and linked to their students — in many state databases. The department recommends, for instance, tracking their salaries, retirement benefits and union membership.

The department promotes the list as a “shared vocabulary” that will “streamline the exchange, comparison and understanding of data” if adopted widely. It makes clear states don’t need to embrace every element.

But to be eligible for more than $500 million in federal grants doled out in recent years, states had to commit to comprehensive “P-20” data systems, meaning they start tracking children in preschool and continue for more than two decades.

At least 19 states now link school records to workforce data, tracking which students end up collecting disability or unemployment benefits or enrolling in adult literacy classes. Some states plan to build an even richer data set by linking school records to public health, social service or criminal justice databases. Others aim to start even before pre-K, inputting data on infants enrolled in state-funded programs.

Parents have also raised concerns that more intrusive data collection could be on the way.

The Education Department circulated a draft report last year that explored using biosensors, eye tracking and facial recognition software to log data about students’ noncognitive skills, such as persistence and self-control. Some school districts have experimented with using iris scans or palm prints as a form of identification.

Dorie Nolt, a spokeswoman, said the department has “no plans to encourage” that type of data collection.

But parent activist Evan Queitsch, a computer systems administrator who lives in Delaware, was spooked enough to pull his three school-age children out of public schools this academic year. He doesn’t want the state to track them for the next two decades, he said.

“We’re wondering what is going on,” Queitsch said. “What are they using this for? How safe are we?”

Advocates of the longitudinal databases emphasize that most analysis is conducted on files that have been stripped of student names, birth dates and addresses.

In Georgia, for instance, researchers have no direct access to the longitudinal database. They put in a request for data; the legal department reviews it; and if it’s approved, officials hand over files that identify students by demographics such as race and gender, but not by name. Personal identity “is obfuscated,” said Bob Swiggum, who runs technology services for the state education department.

In New York, student names will be replaced with a numerical ID before K-12 files are matched up with other state records to track individuals into adulthood, said Kathleen Moorhead, executive director of data systems and educational technology.

“When we’re talking about the P-20 database and researcher access, Johnny Smith isn’t really Johnny Smith,” Moorhead said. “Johnny Smith is #27850, which is meaningless.”

Privacy advocates are not reassured.

For one thing, even if researchers don’t see student names, that information is still generally held by the state — either in the P-20 database itself or in a “crosswalk file” that links record #27850 back to Johnny Smith. A careless mistake, or a determined hacker, could spill such information over the Internet.

And even when a file is scrubbed of personal identifications, it isn’t necessarily anonymous. A recent White House report on big data described a flurry of investment in software designed to reattach identities to such records.

“Once data is collected, it can be very difficult to keep anonymous,” the report cautioned.




Another warning from the White House report: “Once information about citizens is compiled for a defined purpose, the temptation to use it for other purposes can be considerable … If unchecked, big data could be a tool that substantially expands government power over citizens.”

That’s what worries Barmak Nassirian, an education policy analyst and father of two who works on privacy issues in his free time.

“Once that rich of a longitudinal database is populated, the urge to tap into it for other reasons will be almost irresistible,” Nassirian said. “Corrections types might want to get into it to understand crime better. I can see Homeland Security looking for terrorists, or the military looking for recruits.”

Even if the database is tapped only by education officials, privacy advocates fear students will be profiled and steered into academic or career paths accordingly.

“The horror story would be what they have in communist China, where they identify kids at age 4 and say, ‘Now you’re going to be a gymnast’,” said Michael Zimmer, director of the Center for Information Policy Research at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

“We don’t want to have it happen that because as an 8-year-old you test a certain way, we’re going to tailor the next eight years of your education a certain way,” Zimmer said.

Already, Indiana officials are talking about using their database, plus information from employers, to begin counseling children in elementary and secondary school about career options. They also plan to adjust the academic curriculum every few years to focus on building the skills employers say they will need from up-and-coming workers.

“We want to begin counseling kids in K-12 so they can set their aspirational career goals at a fairly early stage, as it relates to what jobs will be available,” said state Rep. Steve Braun, who supports the state database, known as INK for Indiana Network of Knowledge.

Braun, a Republican, said the data in INK will be aggregated, so individual kids are not identified or pushed into specific careers. But the database will be used to hold schools accountable for producing graduates with useful, in-demand skills, he said.

Other states and districts are mining data to identify children who could be at risk for failure.

In Montgomery County, Maryland, for instance, a data analytics program flags children as young as 6 as having an elevated risk of dropping out of high school.

Geoff Sanderson, an associate superintendent in the district, is acutely sensitive to parent fears about this type of data mining. The risk profiles are not included in a student’s official record, he said. They’re simply shared with teachers, who can then work with parents to get the child on track.

“The design of the model is not meant to put kids on a pre-determined path,” Sanderson said. “The intent is to figure out who needs more support.”




The mom and pop privacy lobby built its muscle over the past year with the prolonged fight to dismantle inBloom, a privately run student database funded primarily by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

InBloom staff stressed that states and districts would have complete control over student records stored in the database — but they also emphasized the value of opening up those records to private entrepreneurs developing educational software.

Outraged parents circulated petitions, swarmed school board meetings, demanded statehouse hearings and filed lawsuits and freedom-of-information requests. They launched blogs and websites, created Facebook groups and endlessly tweeted their alarm.

Many said they were at first treated like kooks by fellow parents, not to mention school and state officials.

“They looked at us like we had two heads. Like we were conspiracy theorists or crazy mommas,” said Karen Sprowal, a former social worker and mother of three in New York. “We were parents with no resources, other than ‘We the people’ power.”

But they kept pounding away and winning converts. In many places, the fight against inBloom became entwined with the growing opposition to the Common Core academic standards. That only amped up the volume.

“It was a surreal experience,” said Greg Mortimer, the information technology manager of a Colorado district that worked with inBloom. Speaking at the SXSWedu conference this spring, Mortimer said he and his colleagues were taken aback by the intensity of the opposition and soon “lost control of the message.”

One by one, all nine states and districts that had agreed to partner with inBloom dropped out.

The last to quit was New York. Assemblyman Daniel O’Donnell said he had barely even heard of inBloom when parent activists first began pressing him on the issue. “They were a little, ‘The sky is falling,’” he said. “I thought it was kind of odd.”

The parents kept pushing. O’Donnell listened. He wrote a bill to block the state’s participation in inBloom, only to find his colleagues indifferent. “It wasn’t like I got a whole lot of people slapping me on the back,” said O’Donnell, a Democrat.

But as parents continued to bombard the statehouse with calls and emails, legislator after legislator took notice. Nearly four dozen, from both parties, asked O’Donnell if they could co-sponsor his bill. (It passed the Assembly unanimously but was set aside in the Senate in favor of an alternative that accomplished much the same.)

Parents “did a very good job of educating legislators,” O’Donnell said.

InBloom representatives declined to comment.

In addition to withdrawing the state from inBloom, New York’s law created the position of chief state privacy officer and mandated a “parents’ bill of rights for data privacy.”

POLITICO examined a dozen other state bills and found that while none is comprehensive, each tackles different elements of the parent agenda.

Kentucky’s new law bars ed-tech companies that work with schools from mining student data for commercial purposes. West Virginia prohibits the state from gathering medical, biometric or criminal records. Florida forbids collection of student fingerprints, iris scans, facial structure or voice prints.

New Hampshire has passed some of the most stringent restrictions: The state cannot collect or maintain even basic information like the student’s address, email address or phone number, parents’ names — or any workforce information.

A Louisiana bill, which has passed both Houses unanimously but has not yet been signed into law, goes even further. It bars schools from sharing any personally identifiable student information with the state, unless parents consent in writing. The bill also prohibits mining personal information “to make generalizations about a student or to predict outcomes and behaviors of a student.”

Uneasy, data advocates are warning lawmakers to slow down. “There’s always risk when you’re holding data of any sort, and we need to recognize that,” said Richard Culatta, director of the federal Office of Education Technology. “But we also need to realize that there are huge, huge, huge benefits when data is used appropriately. We have to keep that balance.”


Internet Giants Erect Barriers to Spy Agencies


June 6, 2014

by David E. Sanger and Nicole Perlroth 

New York Times


MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. — Just down the road from Google’s main campus here, engineers for the company are accelerating what has become the newest arms race in modern technology: They are making it far more difficult — and far more expensive — for the National Security Agency and the intelligence arms of other governments around the world to pierce their systems.

As fast as it can, Google is sealing up cracks in its systems that Edward J. Snowden revealed the N.S.A. had brilliantly exploited. It is encrypting more data as it moves among its servers and helping customers encode their own emails. Facebook, Microsoft and Yahoo are taking similar steps.

After years of cooperating with the government, the immediate goal now is to thwart Washington — as well as Beijing and Moscow. The strategy is also intended to preserve business overseas in places like Brazil and Germany that have threatened to entrust data only to local providers.

Google, for example, is laying its own fiber optic cable under the world’s oceans, a project that began as an effort to cut costs and extend its influence, but now has an added purpose: to assure that the company will have more control over the movement of its customer data.

A year after Mr. Snowden’s revelations, the era of quiet cooperation is over. Telecommunications companies say they are denying requests to volunteer data not covered by existing law. A.T.&T., Verizon and others say that compared with a year ago, they are far more reluctant to cooperate with the United States government in “gray areas” where there is no explicit requirement for a legal warrant.

But governments are fighting back, harder than ever. The cellphone giant Vodafone reported on Friday that a “small number” of governments around the world have demanded the ability to tap directly into its communication networks, a level of surveillance that elicited outrage from privacy advocates.

Vodafone refused to name the nations on Friday for fear of putting its business and employees at risk there. But in an accounting of the number of legal demands for information that it receives from 14 companies, it noted that some countries did not issue warrants to obtain phone, email or web-searching traffic, because “the relevant agencies and authorities already have permanent access to customer communications via their own direct link.”

The company also said it had to acquiesce to some governments’ requests for data to comply with national laws. Otherwise, it said, it faced losing its license to operate in certain countries.

Eric Grosse, Google’s security chief, suggested in an interview that the N.S.A.’s own behavior invited the new arms race.

“I am willing to help on the purely defensive side of things,” he said, referring to Washington’s efforts to enlist Silicon Valley in cybersecurity efforts. “But signals intercept is totally off the table,” he said, referring to national intelligence gathering.

“No hard feelings, but my job is to make their job hard,” he added.

In Washington, officials acknowledge that covert programs are now far harder to execute because American technology companies, fearful of losing international business, are hardening their networks and saying no to requests for the kind of help they once quietly provided.

Robert S. Litt, the general counsel of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which oversees all 17 American spy agencies, said on Wednesday that it was “an unquestionable loss for our nation that companies are losing the willingness to cooperate legally and voluntarily” with American spy agencies.

“Just as there are technological gaps, there are legal gaps,” he said, speaking at the Wilson Center in Washington, “that leave a lot of gray area” governing what companies could turn over.

In the past, he said, “we have been very successful” in getting that data. But he acknowledged that for now, those days are over, and he predicted that “sooner or later there will be some intelligence failure and people will wonder why the intelligence agencies were not able to protect the nation.”

Companies respond that if that happens, it is the government’s own fault and that intelligence agencies, in their quest for broad data collection, have undermined web security for all.

Many point to an episode in 2012, when Russian security researchers uncovered a state espionage tool, Flame, on Iranian computers. Flame, like the Stuxnet worm, is believed to have been produced at least in part by American intelligence agencies. It was created by exploiting a previously unknown flaw in Microsoft’s operating systems. Companies argue that others could have later taken advantage of this defect.

Worried that such an episode undercuts confidence in its wares, Microsoft is now fully encrypting all its products, including Hotmail and Outlook.com, by the end of this year with 2,048-bit encryption, a stronger protection that would take a government far longer to crack. The software is protected by encryption both when it is in data centers and when data is being sent over the Internet, said Bradford L. Smith, the company’s general counsel.

Mr. Smith also said the company was setting up “transparency centers” abroad so that technical experts of foreign governments could come in and inspect Microsoft’s proprietary source code. That will allow foreign governments to check to make sure there are no “back doors” that would permit snooping by United States intelligence agencies. The first such center is being set up in Brussels.

Microsoft has also pushed back harder in court. In a Seattle case, the government issued a “national security letter” to compel Microsoft to turn over data about a customer, along with a gag order to prevent Microsoft from telling the customer it had been compelled to provide its communications to government officials. Microsoft challenged the gag order as violating the First Amendment. The government backed down.

Hardware firms like Cisco, which makes routers and switches, have found their products a frequent subject of Mr. Snowden’s disclosures, and their business has declined steadily in places like Asia, Brazil and Europe over the last year. The company is still struggling to convince foreign customers that their networks are safe from hackers — and free of “back doors” installed by the N.S.A. The frustration, companies here say, is that it is nearly impossible to prove that their systems are N.S.A.-proof.

Most American companies said they never knowingly let the N.S.A. weaken their systems, or install back doors. But Mr. Snowden’s documents showed how the agency found a way.

In one slide from the disclosures, N.S.A. analysts pointed to a sweet spot inside Google’s data centers, where they could catch traffic in unencrypted form. Next to a quickly drawn smiley face, an N.S.A. analyst, referring to an acronym for a common layer of protection, had noted, “SSL added and removed here!”

            Google was already suspicious that its internal traffic could be read, and had started a program to encrypt the links among its internal data centers, “the last chink in our armor,” Mr. Grosse said. But the slide gave the company proof that it was a regular target of the N.S.A. “It was useful to have proof, in terms of accelerating a project already underway,” he said.

Facebook and Yahoo have also been encrypting traffic among their internal servers. And Facebook, Google and Microsoft have been moving to more strongly encrypt consumer traffic with so-called Perfect Forward Secrecy, specifically devised to make it more labor intensive for the N.S.A. or anyone to read stored encrypted communications.

One of the biggest indirect consequences from the Snowden revelations, technology executives say, has been the surge in demands from foreign governments that saw what kind of access to user information the N.S.A. received — voluntarily or surreptitiously. Now they want the same.

At Facebook, Joe Sullivan, the company’s chief security officer, said it had been fending off those demands and heightened expectations.

Until last year, technology companies were forbidden from acknowledging demands from the United States government under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. But in January, Google, Facebook, Yahoo and Microsoft brokered a deal with the Obama administration to disclose the number of such orders they receive in increments of 1,000.

As part of the agreement, the companies agreed to dismiss their lawsuits before the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

            “We’re not running and hiding,” Mr. Sullivan said. “We think it should be a transparent process so that people can judge the appropriate ways to handle these kinds of things.”

The latest move in the war between intelligence agencies and technology companies arrived this week, in the form of a new Google encryption tool. The company released a user-friendly, email encryption method to replace the clunky and often mistake-prone encryption schemes the N.S.A. has readily exploited.

But the best part of the tool was buried in Google’s code, which included a jab at the N.S.A.’s smiley-face slide. The code included the phrase: “ssl-added-and-removed-here-; – )”


Steve Lohr contributed reporting from New York and Mark Scott from London.



Conspiracy theory? Half of Americans believe them, research shows


June 55, 2014



If you’ve ever doubted any sort of official narrative, then you’re far from alone: experts say that more than half of the people in the United States believe in at least one so-called conspiracy theory.

Recent studies suggest that around 50 percent of the American populations subscribes to at least one conspiracy theory, National Public Radio social science correspondent Shankar Vedantam told NPR’s Morning Edition this week.

Whether it’s concerns about the true nature of the moon landing, the Kennedy assassination or just about anything imaginable — experts say at least half of the US isn’t so sure what to think about some of the most controversial topics of the last few generations.

Vedantam told NPR that researchers Eric Oliver and Thomas Wood at the University of Chicago have come up with the latest staggering statistic, which relies on data recorded by four nationally representative surveys conducted between 2006 and 2011.

Using those polls, Oliver and Wood wrote, “[w]e find that half of the American public consistently endorses at least one conspiracy theory and that many popular conspiracy theories are differentiated along ideological and anomic dimensions.”

“In contrast with many theoretical speculations, we do not find conspiracism to be a product of greater authoritarianism, ignorance, or political conservatism. Rather, the likelihood of supporting conspiracy theories is strongly predicted by a willingness to believe in other unseen, intentional forces and an attraction to Manichean narratives,” they wrote. “These findings both demonstrate the widespread allure of conspiracy theories as political explanations and offer new perspectives on the forces that shape mass opinion and American political culture.”

According to Vedantam, the research suggests that not everyone harbors the same doubts, either.

“So 19 percent of Americans believe the U.S. government was behind the 9/11 attacks; 25 percent believe the recent financial crisis was caused by the small cabal of Wall Street bankers; 11 percent of people believe the government is mandating a switch to compact florescent light bulbs because the light bulbs make people obedient and easy to control,” he told NPR.

“I think what this research is suggesting is that the willingness to believe in one of these theories is really widespread across the spectrum. And different groups of people might believe different theories, but the propensity to believe seems really widespread,” he added.



New York Review of Books slams CIA with Twitter attack

August and technophobic literary journal released a barrage of reminders of agency’s controversial interrogation techniques


June 7, 2014

by Lauren Gambino in New York



On Friday, the CIA officially joined Twitter. Somewhat against the generally accepted nature of the agency, its first tweet was coyly playful, saying: “We can neither confirm nor deny that this is our first tweet.”

Not everyone, however, was laughing.

Later the same day, through its own Twitter account, the New York Review of Books released a barrage of 140-character reminders of the surveillance agency’s controversial interrogation techniques.

An hour after releasing a tweet about the obscure delights of Italian Futurist art, the august and famously technophobic literary journal – which has on prominent display in its West Village offices a book entitled “Social Media is Bullshit” – tweeted a link to a blogpost written by David Cole in March, amid Senate intelligence committee chair Diane Feinstein’s public falling out with the CIA over the “internal Panetta review”.

In the blogpost, Cole, a professor at Georgetown University Law Center, concludes: “The CIA’s desperate efforts to hide the details of what the world already knows in general outline – that it subjected human beings to brutal treatment to which no human being should ever be subjected – are only the latest evidence of the poisonous consequences of a program euphemistically called ‘enhanced interrogation’.”


Then @nybooks got serious.


In rapid succession, the account tweeted out the contents page of a confidential 2007 report by the International Committee of the Red Cross, entitled “Report on the Treatment of Fourteen ‘High Value Detainees’ in CIA Custody”.

The contents page, which documented interrogation tactics used at the CIA’s secret offshore prisons known as “black sites”, was published in a 2009 NYRB article by Mark Danner, US Torture: Voices from the Black Sites.

The 10-tweet blast was an apparent attempt to remind the Twitterverse that behind the agency’s new social-media facade – and indeed the “kids page” of its website – lies a somewhat controversial history.

As of Saturday afternoon, @CIA had not responded to @nybooks. It had, however, released a second tweet, which said:


CIA        ✔ @CIA

Follow Thank you for the @Twitter welcome! We look forward to sharing great #unclassified content with you.8:27 PM – 6 Jun 2014



US Capitol evacuated after plane intrusion

Two F-16 fighter jets escorted a small airplane out of restricted airspace over Washington, D.C.


June 8, 2014 



The US Capitol, the Library of Congress and the Supreme Court were evacuated on Saturday afternoon after a small airplane entered restricted airspace over Washington, D.C., authorities say.

According to police, two F-16 fighter jets intercepted the plane about 1:30 p.m. and escorted it to an airport in Mount Airy, North Carolina, where the pilot was interrogated by Secret Service agents.

The aircraft was out of communication with air traffic control and the intrusion prompted evacuations, police officials said.

The police said that air traffic controllers were soon able to resume communication with the plane, and those cleared from the buildings were allowed back inside the area after about half an hour.

“In an era of increased national security threats, unidentified aircraft operating in restricted airspace are taken very seriously, especially in and around the nation’s capital,” said Officer Araz Alali, a D.C. police spokesman.

The US Capitol is the seat of the House of Representatives and the Senate.




Audit: 57,000 vets waiting more than 3 months to see doctor


June 9, 2014

by James Rosen




WASHINGTON — The first comprehensive review of the medical care system for veterans found widespread scheduling abuses, data falsification and long waiting times at dozens of hospitals and clinics across the country.

In its audit of 731 medical facilities, the Department of Veterans Affairs reported Monday that 57,436 veterans have been waiting more than 90 days for an initial medical appointment.

Thirteen percent of schedulers told VA auditors that supervisors or other co-workers had instructed them to enter a different date in the appointment system than the one requested by a veteran.“This audit is absolutely infuriating and underscores the depth of the scandal,”

Paul Rieckhoff, founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, a New York-based advocacy group, said in a statement. “Our vets demand action and answers.”The medical facility with the longest average wait time for a new patient to see a primary care physician was the VA medical center in Honolulu, at 145 days, while the VA hospital in Harlingen, Texas, topped the list for waits to see specialists, also at 145 days on average.

The VA hospital in Durham, N.C., had the longest average wait for veterans seeking mental health care, at 104 days.Among other VA hospitals with long wait times for various types of care were the William Jennings Bryan Dorn VA Medical Center in Columbia, S.C., and VA centers in Dallas and Fayetteville, N.C.

Eight percent of schedulers said pressure had been placed on them to bypass the VA’s official Electronic Wait List system and maintain unofficial lists in order to make waiting times appear shorter than they actually were, according to VA interviews with 3,772 clinical and administrative staff.

Retired Army Gen. Eric Shinseki resigned May 31 as head of the Department of Veterans Affairs after acknowledging that inordinate wait times and scheduling data falsification were more widespread than he’d believed.Before his exit, Shinseki in mid-April directed the Veterans Health Administration to conduct the agency-wide audit.A key finding of the audit was that the 14-day target for waiting times Shinseki established in 2011 was unrealistic and “not obtainable.”

That problem was exacerbated by tying hospital managers’ bonuses to meeting the 14-day target.Setting such an unrealistic waiting-time target and linking it to performance bonuses created “an organizational leadership failure,” the audit found.Sloan Gibson, named by President Barack Obama as acting VA secretary, said Monday that the agency is eliminating the 14-day scheduling goal and suspending all performance awards for senior executives of the Veterans Health Administration.Gibson said the VA also will deploy mobile medical units to provide care to some of the vets who’ve been waiting a long time for care.

Gibson ordered a hiring freeze at the Washington headquarters of the Veterans Health Administration and at 12 of its regional offices, except for critical positions to be approved by him on a case-by-case basis.“This data shows the extent of the systemic problems we face, problems that demand immediate action,”

Gibson said in a statement. “Veterans deserve to have full faith in their VA, and they will keep hearing from us until all our veterans receive the care they’ve earned.”Gibson said the VA has contacted 50,000 vets nationwide to get them off waiting lists.The scandal erupted at the VA hospital in Phoenix, where Gibson acknowledged during a visit last week that 18 veterans had died while waiting for medical appointments.

A probe by the agency’s inspector general found that vets waited an average of 115 days for their first medical appointment at the Phoenix hospital, 91 days longer than the center reported in its logs.

The new audit flagged 112 VA medical centers and clinics for further review.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Obama had tasked his deputy chief of staff, Rob Nabors, to work at the Veterans Affairs Department in order to assess the scope of the problem and propose more reforms.Earnest said Obama is focused on appointing a replacement for Shinseki soon.“Clearly, having some new leadership in the VA is a top priority,” Earnest told reporters.House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, branded the audit results “a national disgrace.”

Boehner said the House of Representatives is considering legislation that would allow any vet who waits longer than 30 days for medical care to see private doctors with subsequent treatment covered by the government.

Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, whose members include 177,000 vets who fought in one or both of the two post-9/11 wars, wants a criminal investigation of VA employees who allegedly falsified data on how long veterans waited to see doctors.

The group is also pushing the Democratic-controlled Senate to pass the Veterans Affairs Management Accountability Act, which the Republican-ruled House approved May 21 by a wide bipartisan margin.

The bill would give the new VA chief more power to swiftly remove hospital managers who falsify data and take other steps to sidestep civil service rules.Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Monday that Sens.

Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent, and John McCain, R-Ariz., had reached agreement on bipartisan legislation to reduce waiting times at VA hospitals and increase management accountability.The measure also would allow veterans facing long health care delays to seek care outside the VA, at private doctor’s offices, community health centers or military bases, Reid said.“Although the details of the agreement are still being crafted, the legislation’s comprehensive approach will ensure that veterans are getting the care they deserve,” Reid said in a statement.

Anita Kumar of the Washington Bureau contributed.


Encouraging Words of Regret From Dean Baquet and Weasel Words From James Clapper

June 6 2014

by Glenn Greenwald 



NPR’s David Folkenflik has a revealing new look at what I have long believed is one of the most important journalistic stories of the last decade: The New York Times‘ 2004 decision, at the behest of George W. Bush himself, to suppress for 15 months (through Bush’s re-election) its reporters’ discovery that the NSA was illegally eavesdropping on Americans without warrants. Folkenflik’s NPR story confirms what has long been clear: The only reason the Times eventually published that article was because one of its reporters, James Risen, had become so frustrated that he wrote a book that was about to break the story, leaving the paper with no choice (Risen’s co-reporter, Eric Lichtblau, is quoted this way: “‘He had a gun to their head,’ Lichtblau told Frontline. ‘They are really being forced to reconsider: The paper is going to look pretty bad’ if Risen’s book disclosed the wiretapping program before the Times“).

As Folkenflik notes, this episode was one significant reason Edward Snowden purposely excluded the Times from his massive trove of documents. In an interview with Folkenflik, the paper’s new executive editor, Dean Baquet, describes the paper’s exclusion from the Snowden story as “really painful.” But, as I documented in my book and in recent interviews, Baquet has his own checkered history in suppressing plainly newsworthy stories at the government’s request, including a particularly inexcusable 2007 decision, when he was the managing editor of The Los Angeles Times, to kill a story based on AT&T whistleblower Mark Klein’s revelations that the NSA had built secret rooms at AT&T to siphon massive amounts of domestic telephone traffic.

In his NPR interview, Baquet insists that he has had a serious change of heart on such questions as a result of the last year of NSA revelations:

[Baquet] says the experience has proved that news executives are often unduly deferential to seemingly authoritative warnings unaccompanied by hard evidence.

“I am much, much, much more skeptical of the government’s entreaties not to publish today than I was ever before,” Baquet said in a wide-ranging interview. . . .

Last week, Baquet told me the Snowden revelations yielded two key insights for American journalists. “First off,” Baquet said, “the public wants this information. Secondly, it does not destroy everything if the information comes out” . . . .

Baquet did say there were a few instances while he was managing editor in which he regretted holding back details from the public due to ominous warnings from intelligence officials over potential consequences. “The government makes it sound like something really large, and in retrospect, it wasn’t quite as large,” he said.

The Snowden revelations published in The Guardian and The Washington Post, he said, only underscored his conviction.

“I would love to be able to tell you it wasn’t good,” Baquet said. “But it was great. It was important, groundbreaking work. I wish we had it.”

Only time will tell whether Baquet’s proclamations on this issue result in any actual change for the paper, but it does shed light on an important question I heard many times over the last month as we approached the one-year anniversary of the first NSA story: what has changed as a result of the last year of disclosures?

One should not expect any change to come from the U.S. government itself (which includes Congress), whose strategy in such cases is to enact the pretext of “reform” so as to placate public anger, protect the system from any serious weakening, and allow President Obama to go before the country and the world and give a pretty speech about how the U.S. heard their anger and re-calibrated the balance between privacy and security. Any new law that comes from the radically corrupted political class in DC will either be largely empty, or worse. The purpose will be to shield the NSA from real reform.

There are, though, numerous other avenues with the real potential to engender serious limits on the NSA’s surveillance powers, including the self-interested though genuine panic of the U.S. tech industry over how surveillance will impede their future business prospects, the efforts of other countries to undermine U.S. hegemony over the internet, the newfound emphasis on privacy protections from internet companies worldwide, and, most of all, the increasing use of encryption technology by users around the world that poses genuine obstacles to state surveillance. Those are all far, far more promising avenues than any bill Barack Obama, Dianne Feinstein and Saxby Chambliss will let Congress cough up.

But beyond surveillance and privacy, one of the goals of this NSA reporting (at least from my perspective) was to trigger a desperately needed debate about journalism itself, and the proper relationship of journalists to those who wield political and economic power. The question of why The New York Times was excluded from this story led to a serious public examination for the first time of its decision to suppress that NSA story, which in turn led to public recriminations over the generally excessive deference U.S. media outlets have shown the U.S. government.

Obviously, that debate is far from resolved; witness the endless parade of American journalists who, without any apparent embarrassment, cheered Michael Kinsley’s decree that for publication questions, “that decision must ultimately be made by the government.” But Baquet’s very public expression of regret over past suppression decisions, and his observation that “news executives are often unduly deferential to seemingly authoritative warnings unaccompanied by hard evidence” is evidence of the fruits of that debate.

That national security state officials routinely mislead and deceive the public should never have even been in serious doubt in the first place – certainly not for journalists, and especially now after the experience of the Iraq War. That fact — that official pronouncements merit great skepticism rather than reverence — should be (but plainly is not) fundamental to how journalists view the world.

More evidence for that is provided by a Washington Post column today by one of the national security state’s favorite outlets, David Ignatius. Ignatius interviewed the chronic deceiver, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, who now “says it appears the impact [of Snowden’s leaking] may be less than once feared because ‘it doesn’t look like he [Snowden] took as much’ as first thought.” Clapper specifically casts serious doubt on the U.S. government’s prior claim that Snowden ”had compromised the communications networks that make up the military’s command and control system”; instead, “officials now think that dire forecast may have been too extreme.” Ignatius — citing an anonymous “senior intelligence official” (who may or may not be Clapper) — also announces that the government has yet again revised its rank speculation about how many documents Snowden took: “This batch of probably downloaded material is about 1.5 million documents, the senior official said. That’s below an earlier estimate of 1.77 million documents.”

Most notable is Ignatius’ summary of the government’s attempt to claim Snowden seriously compromised the security of the U.S.:

Pressed to explain what damage Snowden’s revelations had done, the official was guarded, saying that there was “damage in foreign relations” and that the leaks had “poisoned [NSA’s] relations with commercial providers.” He also said that terrorist groups had carefully studied the disclosures, turning more to anonymizers, encryption and use of couriers to shield communications.

The senior official wouldn’t respond to repeated questions about whether the intelligence community has noted any changes in behavior by either the Russian or Chinese governments, in possible response to information they may have gleaned from Snowden’s revelations.

In other words, the only specific damage they can point to is from the anger that other people around the world have about what the U.S. government has done and the fact that people will not want to buy U.S. tech products if they fear (for good reason) that those companies collaborate with the NSA. But, as usual, there is zero evidence provided (as opposed to bald, self-serving assertions) of any harm to genuine national security concerns (i.e., the ability to monitor anyone planning actual violent attacks).

As is always the case, the stream of fear-mongering and alarmist warnings issued by the government to demonize a whistleblower proves to be false and without any basis, and the same is true for accusations made about the revelations themselves (“In January, [Mike] Rogers said that the report concluded that most of the documents Snowden had access to concerned ‘vital operations of the U.S. Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force’” – AP: Lawmakers: Snowden’s Leaks May Endanger US Troops“). But none of that has stopped countless U.S. journalists from mindlessly citing each one of the latest evidence-free official claims as sacred fact.

Dean Baquet’s epiphany about the U.S. government and the American media — “news executives are often unduly deferential to seemingly authoritative warnings unaccompanied by hard evidence” — is long overdue, but better late than never. Let us hope that it signals an actual change in behavior.


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