TBR News March 26, 2019

Mar 26 2019

The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Isaiah 40:3-8

Washington, D.C. March 26, 2019:” The so-called “Orange Revolution” funded and directed by the CIA, overthrew the pro-Moscow government in the Ukraine, giving the United States theoretical control over the heavy industrialized Donetz Basin and most importantly, the huge former Soviet naval base at Sebastopol.          The Georgia Train and Equip Program (GTEP) was an American-sponsored 18-month, $64-million program aimed at increasing the capabilities of the Georgian armed forces by training and equipping four 600-man battalions with light weapons, vehicles and communications. The program enabled the US to expedite funding for the Georgian military for Operation Enduring Freedom.

On February 27, 2002, the US media reported that the U.S. would send approximately two hundred United States Army Special Forces soldiers to Georgia to train Georgian troops. The program implemented President Bush’s decision to respond to the Government of Georgia’s request for assistance to enhance its counter-terrorism capabilities and addressed the situation in the Pankisi Gorge.

The program began in May 2002 when American Special Forces soldiers began training select units of the Georgian Armed Forces, including the 12th Commando Light Infantry Battalion, the 16th Mountain-Infantry Battalion, the 13th ‘Shavnabada’ Light Infantry Battalion, the 11th Light Infantry Battalion, a mechanized company and small numbers of Interior Ministry troops and border guards.

Eventually, responsibility for training Georgian forces was turned over to the US Marine Corps in conjunction with the British Army. British and American teams worked as part of a joint effort to train each of the four infantry battalion staffs and their organic rifle companies. This training began with the individual soldier and continued through fire team, squad, platoon, company, and battalion level tactics as well as staff planning and organization. Upon completing training, each of the new Georgian infantry battalions began preparing for deployment rotations in support of the Global War on Terrorism

The CIA were instrumental in getting Mikhail Saakashvili, an erratic politician, pro-West, into the presidency of Georgia but although he allowed the country to be flooded with American arms and “military trainers” he was not a man easily controlled and under the mistaken belief that American military might supported him, commenced to threaten Moscow. Two Georgian provinces were heavily populated by Russians and objected to the inclusion in Georgia and against them, Saakashvili began to make threatening moves.

The 2008 South Ossetia War or Russo-Georgian War (in Russia also known as the Five-Day War) was an armed conflict in August 2008 between Georgia on one side, and Russia and separatist governments of South Ossetia and Abkhazia on the other.

During the night of 7 to 8 August 2008, Georgia launched a large-scale military offensive against South Ossetia, in an attempt to reclaim the territory. Georgia claimed that it was responding to attacks on its peacekeepers and villages in South Ossetia, and that Russia was moving non-peacekeeping units into the country. The Georgian attack caused casualties among Russian peacekeepers, who resisted the assault along with Ossetian militia.

Georgia successfully captured most of Tskhinvali within hours. Russia reacted by deploying units of the Russian 58th Army and Russian Airborne Troops in South Ossetia, and launching airstrikes against Georgian forces in South Ossetia and military and logistical targets in Georgia proper. Russia claimed these actions were a necessary humanitarian intervention and peace enforcement.

When the Russian incursion was seen as massive and serious, U.S. president George W. Bush’s statement to Russia was: ‘Bullying and intimidation are not acceptable ways to conduct foreign policy in the 21st century.’ The US Embassy in Georgia, describing the Matthew Bryza press-conference, called the war an ‘incursion by one of the world’s strongest powers to destroy the democratically elected government of a smaller neighbor’.

Initially the Bush Administration seriously considered a military response to defend Georgia, but such an intervention was ruled out by the Pentagon due to the inevitable conflict it would lead to with Russia. Instead, Bush opted for a softer option by sending humanitarian supplies to Georgia by military, rather than civilian, aircraft. And he ordered the immediate evacuation of all American military units from Georgia. The huge CIA contingent stationed in the Georgian capital fled by aircraft and the American troops, mostly U.S. Marines, evacuated quickly to the Black Sea where they were evacuated by the U.S. Navy.

British and Israeli military units also fled the country and all of them had to leave behind an enormous amount of military equipment to include tanks, light armored vehicles, small arms, radio equipment, and trucks full of intelligence data they had neither the time nor foresight to destroy.

The immediate result of this demarche was the defection of the so-called ‘NATO Block’ eastern Europeans from the Bush/CIA project who saw the United States as a paper tiger that would not, and could not, defend them against the Russians. In a sense, the Russian incursion into Georgia was a massive political, not a military, victory.

The CIA was not happy with the actions of Vladimir Putin and when he ran for reelection, they poured money into the hands of Putin’s enemies, hoping to reprise the Ukrainian Orange Revolution but the effort was in vain.”


The Table of Contents

  • Robert Mueller May Not Have Found Evidence of Collusion, But His Report Proves the System Worked
  • Trump’s Golan recognition: A dangerous precedent?
  • US Politics
  • How to Make a Difficult Situation Awful
  • From the Encyclopedia of American Loons
  • Smart talking: are our devices threatening our privacy?
  • The CIA Confessions: The Crowley Conversations


Robert Mueller May Not Have Found Evidence of Collusion, But His Report Proves the System Worked

March 24, 2019

by James Risen

The Intercept

Brian Frosh is no Robert Mueller.

The little-known Maryland state attorney general lacks Mueller’s resume and gravitas. But Frosh is one of a legion of government officials, both in Washington and around the country, who are prepared to continue the fight against Donald Trump as Mueller’s special counsel probe comes to an end

On Sunday, William Barr, Trump’s new attorney general, issued a summary of the findings of Mueller’s investigation, saying that the special counsel ultimately found no evidence that the Trump campaign had colluded with Russia to win the 2016 presidential election.

While Trump predictably declared himself exonerated, the most important fact was that Mueller was able to complete his investigation. That the special counsel conducted a comprehensive inquiry and followed it through to its natural end is an important sign that the U.S. system of checks and balances is bouncing back, and that the slide into a Trump autocracy has been halted.

That was not always a sure thing. Early in his presidency, Trump appeared eager to bulldoze the traditions, norms, and checks and balances that regulate the U.S. government and limit presidential power. And it looked like he might just get away with it. Trump fired FBI director James Comey to try to get rid of the Trump-Russia investigation, and then considered firing Mueller after he was named special counsel.

Eventually, Trump realized that would cause a firestorm of protest, and he backed down.

In hindsight, that seems to have been a watershed moment in the Trump presidency. Mueller was able to hang on by his fingernails and went on to investigate some of the most troubling questions ever raised about a president, including whether Trump had conspired with a foreign power to gain the White House.

While he ultimately concluded that there was no collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, Mueller’s investigation still led to a series of guilty pleas and convictions of a number of high-profile people in Trump’s orbit.

Yet Mueller’s most important legacy may be that he helped keep the system of checks and balances from dying just long enough for others to take up the mantle.

That leaves plenty of room for officials like Frosh, who, along with the attorney general of the District of Columbia, has filed a lawsuit against Trump, arguing that the president’s continued business dealings – specifically, the operation of Trump’s hotel in Washington – violate the Constitution by enabling the president to receive “emoluments,” or payments, from foreign governments and states. Frosh and DC Attorney General Karl Racine argue that even as president, Trump has continued to have a financial interest in the hotel, which has become a cesspool of lobbyists and other favor seekers, including foreign officials who stay there when they are visiting Trump.

“I got a quick education in emoluments after Trump got elected,” Frosh told The Intercept. “It is very clear. The framers of the Constitution were very concerned that the president would be for sale, both to foreign governments and to others. These are bright lines, and no other President has tested these lines. Trump just blew through them.”

Frosh’s lawsuit has received a mixed reception in the courts, but it is just one of a growing number of signs that Trump is being curbed.

Mueller’s full report has not been made public, but in his letter to congressional leaders summarizing the special counsel’s findings, Barr wrote that Mueller found that the Russians did try to intervene in the 2016 election through two main avenues. The Internet Research Agency, a Russian organization, conducted a social media disinformation campaign to interfere in the election, while the Russian government conducted computer hacking operations against the Democrats and then leaked Democratic emails through intermediaries, including WikiLeaks.

However, Barr wrote, “the Special Counsel did not find that the Trump campaign, or anyone associated with it, conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in these efforts, despite multiple offers from Russian-affiliated individuals to assist the Trump campaign.”

Barr also said that Mueller didn’t decide whether Trump should be prosecuted for obstruction of justice as part of the inquiry. He said that Mueller laid out the evidence but “did not draw a conclusion – one way or the other – as to whether the examined conduct constituted obstruction.” Mueller didn’t conclude that Trump had committed a crime, but also did not exonerate him, Barr wrote. Since Mueller didn’t make a decision, Barr noted, he and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein concluded that there is not enough evidence to charge Trump with obstruction of justice.

One factor in their decision was Mueller’s conclusion that the evidence didn’t show that Trump was guilty of an underlying crime related to Russian meddling in the election, Barr wrote. His letter provided very few other details about Mueller’s findings.

Trump supporters will see the special counsel’s report as a vindication of the president, but its completion can also be read another way. Trump now faces a whole series of other inquiries, some of which stemmed from Mueller’s original investigation. Those other investigations likely include inquiries resulting from the case against Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen, as well as a probe of Trump’s inaugural committee.

Even as federal prosecutors have continued those inquiries, state officials have also joined the fray. In addition to Frosh from Maryland and Racine from the District of Columbia, other Democratic law enforcement officials, including Letitia James, New York’s newly-elected attorney general, have vowed to aggressively confront Trump. Earlier this month, meanwhile, the Manhattan District Attorney indicted former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort on charges related to mortgage fraud, after Manafort had already been convicted in Mueller’s investigation.

Of course, one critical reason that the system of checks and balances is recovering is that the Democrats regained control of the House of Representatives in the 2018 mid-term election. Democratic control of the House means there can be aggressive congressional investigations into Trump for the first time. For the first two years of Trump’s presidency, the Republican-controlled Congress enabled Trump, and Republican leaders allowed themselves to become Trump’s lackeys. But now the House Intelligence Committee, Oversight, and Judiciary committees are all ready to pick up where Mueller left off.

“I think Congress is roaring back to life,” observed Kim Wehle, a law professor at the University of Baltimore.

Of course, Trump still has lots of advantages as he faces the next round of prosecutorial investigations and congressional inquiries. The Justice Department’s longstanding legal opinion is that a sitting president cannot be indicted in a federal criminal case, and any federal prosecutor who seeks to charge Trump will have to overcome that legal advice. (State prosecutors, however, would not face the same obstacle.) In addition, the Republicans still control the Senate, which makes impeachment virtually impossible, even if prosecutors find evidence of serious wrongdoing by Trump.

And hanging over everything is the 2020 presidential election. If Trump wins, he may be emboldened once again to try to destroy the nation’s system of checks and balances.


Trump’s Golan recognition: A dangerous precedent?

US President Donald Trump’s support for Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights serves no obvious strategic goals. And experts say the move could incite more land grabs — even Israel’s annexation of the West Bank.

March 25, 2019

by Chase Winter


In an abrupt break with decades of US policy, President Donald Trump on Monday signed a presidential proclamation to recognize Israel’s full sovereignty over the Golan Heights, saying: “This was a long time in the making. Should have taken place many decades ago.”

Trump’s recognition of Israel’s sovereignty over the occupied Golan Heights is being seen by some observers as a blatant attempt to influence upcoming Israeli elections, with experts warning it serves neither US nor Israeli interests and could encourage other countries to make land grabs.

Israel captured the Golan from Syria in the 1967 Six-Day War and annexed it in 1981. But the move was not recognized internationally, and UN Security Council Resolution 242 upheld the “inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war.”

Promoting an embattled Netanyahu?

The move comes as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — who spoke next to Trump during a press conference announcing the move — faces a close re-election battle on April 9 while multiple corruption investigations are swirling around him.

Michael Koplow, policy director at the New York-based Israel Policy Forum, said Trump’s Golan gambit was “entirely about the Israeli election.”

“The constant gifts from the Trump administration play into Netanyahu’s strongest policy argument, which is that he has taken Israel’s foreign relations to unprecedented heights and that he is particularly responsible for cultivating Trump and managing the unprecedentedly close embrace from the US,” he said.

It’s not the first time Trump has broken with international norms to back Israeli positions. In 2017, the president recognized contested Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and last year pulled the United States out of the Iran nuclear deal.

‘Upending a status quo’

Daniel Shapiro, a former US ambassador to Israel, agreed that Trump’s Golan statement was “transparently political, with an eye on the Israeli elections.”

But he said the bigger issue is the strategic implications.

“The question is not whether Israel would leave the Golan Heights. It wouldn’t,” he said, citing the collapse of the Syrian state and threats to Israel from Iran and its Lebanese ally Hezbollah among the reasons.

“The question is what is gained for US and Israeli interests by upending a status quo the world has acquiesced to, and putting on the international agenda an issue that was largely ignored,” he said.

Global risks

While recognizing Golan may score political points for Netanyahu and rally Trump’s evangelical Christian base, there are few if any apparent strategic or military benefits. The risks, however, are plenty and global, experts say.

Hussein Ibish, a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, said a basic principle of the post-World War II international system was the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war.

“That’s gone. Also gone would be the binding nature of UN Security Council resolutions, including ones drafted by and voted for by the United States in the past,” he said.

“The biggest danger is global and long-term. By recognizing and legitimating Israel’s annexation of Golan, Washington is virtually inviting other international predators to seize what they want. Then, by this logic, all they need to do is hold onto that territory for long enough to call it ‘reality’ and demand that other countries ‘recognize reality’ by legitimating their land grab,” he said.

Russia, for example, will take note of the inconsistency after five years of Western condemnation following its annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014. Or China may use the precedent to strengthen its grip over the South China Sea.

Next step: Annexing the West Bank?

US recognition of the Golan could set the stage for the Israeli right wing to press for the annexation of all or parts of the West Bank, a move that would effectively kill the prospects of Palestinian statehood and threaten Israeli democracy.

“Not only is it at the top of the right-wing agenda, Israeli politicians on the right […] have explicitly connected the Golan issue to the West Bank issue,” said Koplow from the Israel Policy Forum. “Now its proponents will argue that Trump has eased the way and that the US will turn a blind eye if Israel actually takes that leap.”

Netanyahu has so far opposed annexing the West Bank, in part due to concerns over what the American response would be. But he relies on right-wing religious-nationalist parties that back annexing Palestinian land and expanding Jewish settlements.

Shapiro said there was a chance that proponents of annexing the West Bank feel emboldened after the election and that Netanyahu’s corruption scandals may force him to fold to the right wing to maintain power.

“If Netanyahu, facing indictment, depends on their support for his survival, he may overcome his previous opposition to annexation,” Shapiro said.

“That would be the death knell of the two-state solution, and severely compromise Israel’s ability to remain both a Jewish and a democratic state for the long term. And that would harm its relationship with the United States,” he said.

O’Rourke says special relationship with Israel goes against US values of equality and dignity


US Politics

March 23, 2019

by Philip Weiss


On Wednesday night, Beto O’Rourke spoke at the University of New Hampshire and said that Palestinian conditions don’t meet American values of “fundamental human rights and human dignity” and that the relationship with Israel is hurting America’s image in the world.

Asked if he would condemn Israeli, Saudi and Turkish human rights violation, O’Rourke said:

These truths that we hold so dear — that we are all created equal– “all of us” needs to mean, “All of us,” not relationships of convenience for short term security gains but relationships that allow us to continue to be the example for so much of the rest of the world. And we cannot be that if we do not believe in the fundamental human rights and human dignity and safety of our fellow human beings regardless of what side of the line they may stand or sit on.

The only way that I know that we can help to secure that in the Middle East specifically with the Palestinian Authority and Israel is to have two states whose people are guaranteed their security, their safety, their dignity and their political rights. Right now of course we do not have that.

O’Rourke was responding to a Palestinian-American woman. “As an American who stands for the ideals that this country was supposedly built on, dignity justice and equality, I really want those ideals to be seen in Israel and Palestine for both Palestinians and Israelis,” she said, and then went on to ask O’Rourke if he would “hold Israel accountable for its human rights and international law violations,” as well as Turkey and Saudi Arabia too. She was cheered by the crowed.

Then O’Rourke went on for a couple of minutes in this video posted to Facebook on Wednesday by the questioner.

Thank you for your questions and the way in which you posed them and the context that you provided for everyone here. You’re right, we’ve got this opportunity to live our values. And these truths that we hold so dear, that we are all created equal. All of us needs to mean, All of us, not relationships of convenience for short term security gains but relationships that allow us to continue to be the example for so much of the rest of the world. And we cannot be that if we do not believe in the fundamental human rights and human dignity and safety of our fellow human beings regardless of what side of the line they may stand or sit on.

The only way that I know that we can help to secure that in the Middle East specifically with the Palestinian Authority and Israel is to have two states whose people are guaranteed their security, their safety, their dignity and their political rights. Right now of course we do not have that. And we have problems on both sides. I don’t know that we have a willing partner on the part of the Palestinian Authority.

I know that in Prime Minister Netanyahu we have someone who has openly sided with racists in that country, someone who has warned about Arabs coming to the polls, someone who seeks to exploit division and fear and hatred, that is not somebody who is negotiating in good faith.

When I visited the West Bank and met a young woman perhaps your age… What surprised me when I was talking to her about a two state solution is that she said I don’t care. Whether it’s one state or two state, I want to be treated with dignity. I don’t want to be patted down and searched every time I go to work or try to go to school. I just want to live like everyone else just wants to live.

We are about to lose the last best chance for a two-state solution. On one side wee are changing the facts on the ground. If we continue to allow settlement construction and expansion. On the other side, we are going to fail an opportunity for good faith and good will to make sure that we can guarantee the security of the Israeli people.

So, dignity, safety and security for all concerned, that has to be our policy and our actions have to follow suit.

The questioner later wrote on her Facebook page that O’Rourke had failed to answer her questions re Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions, and refunding UNRWA.

While I am most definitely disappointed by Beto’s inability to answer my concise questions regarding UNRWA, BDS and accountability for our allies, I am glad that so many people in the audience during my question and after felt compelled to tell me that they also thought he didn’t answer the question and voiced their concern for the situation in Palestine as well. I am glad that the dignity and human rights is an important issue even to Americans who are disconnected from the conflict and I hope we can continue together to hold our politicians accountable and show them that we will not accept progressive politics that exclude Palestinians.


How to Make a Difficult Situation Awful

Or Why Donald Trump’s Great Wall Is Viagra for Him, But a Border Disaster

by William deBuys

Tom Dispatch

Borders are cruel. I know this because I’ve been studying the U.S.-Mexico border for more than 40 years. It features prominently in two of my books, written in different decades. It keeps pulling me back. Every time I cross that border, I say to myself that this is no big deal — I’m used to it. And every time, I feel that familiar fear-or-flight jolt of adrenaline and hear the inner warning: Watch out! Things go wrong here.

The border is cruel because it gives some people what they want and denies the needs of almost everybody else. Still, the hopeful come, lately in swelling numbers. Sadly, the cruelty of the border has ratcheted upward. It didn’t have to. U.S. policies have added unnecessary meanness to the innate hurt of the dividing line we share with Mexico. Here are a dozen “realities” of the border that I try to keep in mind while mulling the latest disasters.

  1. Nothing will “fix” the border, not a wall, not troops, not presidential bombast

Some of the thousands of families from Central America now streaming to the border and surrendering themselves to U.S. authorities are desperate because crop failure and poverty have denied them the means of subsistence. Others are desperate because the gangs that now control large portions of Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador threaten them with murder, extortion, and persecution. In many cases the families are desperate for both reasons.

This is an immigration phenomenon of recent vintage, but it belongs to an old tradition. Steep differences in wealth, opportunity, and political security divide the societies on either side of the border and, as long as those differences exist, have-nots on the poorer side will keep trying to join the haves on the other.

Unsolvable predicaments like this require management — continuous care, if you will — in the same way that chronic disease or steadily rising sea levels require it. Our efforts to manage the situation can be wise or stupid, mostly benign or downright sadistic, cost-effective or absurdly wasteful, realistic or hallucinatory. The task facing this country is to make it less awful and more humane than we have so far shown much talent for doing.

  1. Donald Trump’s “Great Wall” is about gratification, not immigration

For every complex problem, there exists a simple solution — which is completely wrong. In the case of the U.S.-Mexico border, Exhibit A is the president’s proposal to build a 30-foot-high (or 55-foot-high), 1,900-mile (or 1,000-mile) wall — the president’s numbers vary with the moment — to provide security. The imperative behind his fixation arises from his boisterous, demagogic, and chronically over-counted political rallies. More than Fox News, more than the sycophants who surround him, the rallies are the mirror before which he preens. They are his political Viagra, a drug that takes effect when the crowd begins to chant. Even two years into his presidency, Trump can’t stop talking about Hillary Clinton and, when he mentions her, his admirers rock the rafters, yelling “Lock her up!” It’s the MAGA mob’s way of reconfirming that he hates who we hate, which is the DNA of Trump’s appeal.

Another chant at every rally is invariably “Build the Wall!” Its origins are instructive. The problem the border wall was initially intended to address was candidate Trump’s lack of mental discipline. It began as a mnemonic. Advisers Roger Stone and Sam Nunberg wanted to ensure that Trump pushed the hot button of immigration at his campaign rallies. They correctly thought that the simple, monosyllabic notion of a wall would help him remember to do so.

The Trump campaign soon learned that invocations of a wall embraced a larger range of prejudices. Like yelling about Hillary, it indulged the visceral enjoyment of hatred. It celebrated keeping people out and putting them in their place. It was racist, but more than that as well. The incantation “Build the wall!” conjured up walling out and excluding everything that was threatening — dark-skinned people, scary ideas, social and economic change, even complexity itself. Trump’s present desire is not so much to build an actual wall as to keep the chant going or, even better for purposes of the 2020 election, to morph it into “We built the wall!”

  1. Support for a border wall decreases the closer you get to the actual border

People who live on the border know that walls don’t work. Instead, wall construction diverts money from more pressing needs, while damaging land and communities. In sleepy Columbus, New Mexico, which jarred to full wakefulness in 1916 when Mexican revolutionaries set the town on fire, opinion runs 90% to 10% against Trump’s border wall. All nine congresspersons representing districts along the border similarly oppose the wall. The same may be said of most local governments in the borderlands

It’s not that local officials don’t want to address border problems. It’s just that they would rather see federal money applied to strengthen law enforcement, improve vehicle inspections, and speed traffic through busy ports of entry. These are the places where, as seizure statistics show, the vast majority of hard drugs actually pass from Mexico into the U.S. Even less publicized is the reality that official ports of entry are also where the preponderance of illegal arms, as well as considerable amounts of cash from drug revenues, pass in the other direction, from this country to Mexico.

  1. Drugs underlie the crisis at the border, but not the way Trump says

The U.S. imports drugs because people want them. Appetites for hard drugs here are the driving force behind a significant portion of the global traffic in illegal substances, whose value is estimated in the trillions of dollars. The cash spent by American citizens in the pursuit of getting high is sufficiently astronomical to corrupt governments and destabilize nations. The rise of gang rule in Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador partly results from those countries serving as conduits for moving Colombian cocaine and other drugs into this country. Put simply, the U.S. imports drugs and exports anarchy. That anarchy, in turn, puts people in motion.

  1. The identity of border crossers has changed — again

In the mid-1990s, when the Clinton administration launched Operation Gatekeeper and began building walls to curb illegal entry, the typical migrant was a Mexican male seeking work in the U.S. The idea behind Gatekeeper was that, by walling off the border in urban centers like San Diego/Tijuana and El Paso/Juarez, migrants would have to cross through desert so inhospitable that they would desist. Of course, they didn’t. Crossing just became more arduous and expensive because a migrant now needed a guide — a coyote — to find his way through harsh terrain and reach contacts on the other side.

An unintended consequence of this policy was to curtail the “circularity” of migration. Because border crossing had become more difficult and costly, workers couldn’t regularly go home to see their families and return to jobs in el norte. So they called for their families to join them. This triggered a shift in the identities of the migrantes. Women and children began to make up a growing proportion of the “illegals” entering the U.S.

In recent years, the mix of migrants shifted again, with an increasing proportion consisting of asylum-seekers, often whole families, fleeing the destabilization of Central America. They sometimes travel in caravans hoping that the strength of numbers will protect them from gangs that they are trying to escape. Their intention is not to sneak across the border but to get to the border and ask for asylum.

So here’s the rub: the infrastructure of the border is designed to deal with young Mexican men seeking work, not families, including young children, who arrive destitute and often sick. Although the border agreement that ended the recent government shutdown authorized upwards of $400 million for new facilities — the total is debated, with some Republicans arguing that as much as $750 million might be available — adequate structures don’t yet exist. And so people, often children, have been held in cages in jury-rigged, overcrowded, and distinctly punitive facilities.

  1. But asylum seekers shouldn’t need to be detained

Ports of entry could be equipped and staffed to process asylum requests quickly and in volume instead of the “metered” trickle that is current practice — sometimes 10 or less a day. The immigration court system also needs to be fully staffed (funding exists for 107 more judges than the 427 currently serving), as well as expanded. The effect of this bottleneck, in an echo of Operation Gatekeeper, is to force groups of refugees into the desert where they cross the border illegally and at great risk (meanwhile distracting Border Patrol officers from legitimate law enforcement duties). Once in the U.S., they surrender themselves so that their cases will have to be addressed.

Another alternative is to allow prospective immigrants to apply for asylum at U.S. embassies and consulates in their home countries, as was the case for certain foreigners under an Obama-era policy that the Trump administration curtailed. (The administration recently took yet another step backward by ordering the closure of all U.S. immigration offices abroad.) A third alternative, presently applied in limited fashion, would be to release asylum seekers in this country under the sponsorship of third parties while their cases are pending.

  1. The cruelty business

The hurt inflicted at the border increases when people behave like… well, people. Every job has frustrations, and border work has more than most. Maybe an officer twisted his knee working double shifts or got scared one night when he thought he saw a narco with a gun. So he roughs up a few people or tightens their handcuffs until they hurt. To be sure, U.S. Border Patrol officers commit many acts of mercy in their work, but they also sometimes deny or delay medical treatment for people in need or slash life-saving water jugs set out by humanitarians to aid migrants crossing the desert (and sometimes federal attorneys then prosecute the humanitarians).

Even harder to understand is the cranked-up air conditioning in Customs and Border Protection facilities. For good reason the detainees call the holding centers hieleras (iceboxes). Most migrants have no jackets or extra clothing. They receive a flimsy foil or paper “blanket,” one for each person, and then must sleep on cold slab floors for days at a time. Many a mother will double wrap her baby and shiver on her own until she and her child are released. This is what happened to Deña, a Salvadoran asylum seeker who spoke to a friend of mine in Las Cruces, New Mexico, in January. She came out of the hielera sick, a frequent result of the widespread and needless refrigeration of detainees.

The most extreme cruelties, however, come from the highest levels. The forcible separation of young children from their parents, when carried out by civilians, is called kidnapping. When carried out by the Trump administration, such barbarity fell under the rubric of “zero-tolerance.” The U.S. Government Accountability Office estimates that thousands more children than the 2,737 identified in a 2018 court case have been involved. Scandalously, the Department of Homeland Security and other responsible agencies failed to keep thorough records so that, even after the policy was reversed, no one could be sure that all of the children were properly reunited with their families. Moreover, separations, without the sanction of policy, apparently continue.

At the top of the cruelty list as well are the deaths from exposure, heat stroke, and dehydration caused by wall construction that drives migrants to undertake longer treks through ever more inhospitable terrain. The NGO Humane Borders has cataloged and mapped 3,244 migrant fatalities since 1999 in Arizona alone, but the actual number of deaths is acknowledged to be considerably higher, as many bodies remain undiscovered and unrecorded. What’s going on in the desert these days is not a war, but it’s producing war-level suffering and casualties.

  1. Both Republicans and Democrats have built sections of the border wall

But until Trump came along, both parties ran from the semantics of calling it a “wall.” Officially, it was a border fence. The Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations feared castigation for applying a second-century technology to a twentieth- and twenty-first-century problem. The optics of being identified with other famous wall-builders — Roman Emperor Hadrian (122 CE), China’s Ming Dynasty (14th-17th centuries), the USSR (Berlin, 1961), or even contemporary Israel — were considered unappealing. Of course, President Trump not only embraced the negative connotations of wall construction, but pretended that the 654 miles of barriers, including approximately 354 miles of wall, erected by his predecessors did not exist.

  1. If Trump gets his way, the steel in his border wall will contain a high percentage of irony

The U.S. went to war in 1846, ostensibly to assert that its southern border was the Rio Grande and not the Nueces River, as Mexico claimed. Trump’s campaign for a border wall, however, puts the U.S. in retreat, sovereignty be damned, because it effectively returns to Mexico some of the land conquered in the Mexican War.

Let me explain: you can’t build a wall in the middle of a river. The river will eventually wash the wall away, or it will make a new channel where no one wants it. It is also inadvisable to build a wall in the floodplain adjacent to the river, because, well, it floods. Moreover, a wall designed to keep humans out can’t have big gaps or people will get through, and in a flood small drainage gaps quickly clog with debris, backing up flows, causing property damage, and undermining the wall itself. (Even away from the river, the wall causes flooding and damage in places like downtown Nogales, Sonora, where its design ignored local drainage.)

Because the Rio Grande is a low-volume river with big-river storm flows, new sections of wall are nowadays sited on high ground out of the flood zone and some distance from the main river channel. This means the border will effectively be moved back from its internationally agreed placement in the middle of the river. No deed will change hands, but this de facto relocation of the southern boundary of the U.S. is tantamount to a cession of land to Mexico. One wonders if this matter has received the attention of America’s chest-thumper-in-chief.

  1. As usual, the environment takes a blow

The Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge encompasses a significant chunk of floodplain and adjacent ground where Trump’s great wall is to be built. So does the chain of protected areas constituting the Lower Rio Grande Valley (LRGV) National Wildlife Refuge, as well as other nature preserves held by private non-profits. Past wall construction has already fragmented portions of the area. Additional wall construction will decimate it. At stake is vital habitat for the last ocelots existing in the U.S., as well as for scores of other species.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service calculates that planned wall segments will negatively affect 60%-75% of the LRGV’s lands. The wall would also plow through the National Butterfly Sanctuary like a superhighway.

Across the borderlands, the roster of species detrimentally affected by Trump’s wall amounts to a who’s who of southwestern fauna — from jaguars, Mexican gray wolves, pronghorn antelopes, and bison (yes, there is a wild herd in the Chihuahuan desert) to cactus ferruginous pygmy owls (which fly close to the ground and so can’t cross the wall), leopard frogs, and lesser long-nosed bats. The Center for Biological Diversity reports that “a minimum of 93 species at risk of extinction will be further imperiled by construction of Trump’s border wall, including impacts to critical habitat for 25 of these species.”

  1. Defense-in-depth works better

An excellent book on the border is the late Jefferson Morganthaler’s The River Has Never Divided Us. Morganthaler explains that, from the Spanish colonial era forward, defending the border as a hard barrier has rarely been an effective strategy. It “seduces us into establishing our own Maginot Line. It lures us into attempting the impossible… and distracts us from more promising solutions.” The most appealing alternative, applied in the eighteenth century by Spain’s Teodoro de Croix, was defense in depth: addressing “problems at their source and destination, rather than trying to dam them up somewhere in the middle.” Accepting amnesty applications at U.S. facilities in the applicants’ countries of origin would be a modern adaptation of such a policy

  1. Get ready for the problems of migration to worsen

The president and just about all the members of his administration believe in walls but not in climate change, a guarantee of disaster. It’s possible that refugees now appearing at the southern border, who say that the corn they planted last year failed to produce a harvest, are lying or are bad farmers. It’s far more likely, however, that they are climate-change refugees. One thing is certain: as climate change intensifies, it will displace ever more people. Subsistence agriculture is always a gamble. When the weather changes so radically that subsistence farmers can’t bring in a crop, they have to move. At least in the short term, the vigor and diversity of the U.S. economy will buffer most of its citizens against the full effects of climate disruptions. There will be no such buffer for people hoeing milpas in Central America. This is not a matter of speculation and one consequence is clear. People who lack the means of subsistence will pick up and move. Wall or no wall, a fair portion of them will head northward.

Maybe the best borderland novel of recent years is Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, in which an early scene pretty well sums up future prospects for the southern border, especially if current policies persist. A sheriff and his deputy are near the Rio Grande, inspecting the aftermath of a shootout between narco gangs. They walk past smoldering vehicles and gory corpses. The deputy says, “It’s a mess, aint it sheriff?”

And the sheriff replies, “If it aint it’ll do till a mess gets here.”


From the Encyclopedia of American Loons

December 31, 2018

#2124: Bill Posey

William Joseph Posey is the U.S. Representative for Florida’s 8th congressional district, member of the Freedom Caucus and Congress’s resident (main) anti-vaccine conspiracy theorist after the departure of Dan Burton.

Together with Carolyn Maloney, Posey – who has received significant donations from the anti-vaccine movement – sponsored “The Vaccine Safety Study Act”, which would direct the National Institutes of Health to conduct a retrospective study of health outcomes, including autism, of vaccinated-versus-unvaccinated children, and to determine whether exposure to vaccines or vaccine components are associated with autism spectrum disorders, chronic illnesses, or other neurological conditions. The bill should, according to Posey, “bring an answer to this decades-long question.” Of course it won’t, and of course Posey knows that it couldn’t. For, of course, the “decades-long question” has long been settled; there is accordingly no scientific rationale for the suggested studies, in particular since there is no evidence suggesting that the problem exists (but plenty showing it doesn’t) – antivaxx delusions really don’t count. The purpose of the bill was, in other words, not to settle anything but to legitimize antivaxx conspiracy theories by suggesting otherwise. Posey has been pushing similar resolutions for a long time.

He is, however, particularly famous for pushing the utterly debunked CDC whistleblower conspiracy theory (still popular in antivaxx circles) in Congress, attempting to initiate apparently formal investigations, without providing any documentation whatsoever of any wrongdoing to be investigated, for obvious reasons; he claimed to have a bunch of documents, but it quickly became clear that there was nothing interesting in any of them – no whistle to blow, in other words. Posey also suggested that there is – despite near-conclusive evidence to the contrary – a link between vaccines and autism (it is worth pointing out that Posey doesn’t care one whit about autism, however). He has also pushed the Poul Thorsen gambit, which is pretty ridiculous (a Danish coauthor on one of numerous studies showing that vaccines are safe once misused grant money to cover personal expenses; therefore all research showing that vaccines are safe is invalidated). Posey denies being anti-vaccine, however; he just pushes antivaxx conspiracy theories and anti-vaccine legislation.

Now, pseudoscience and conspiracy theorizing rarely come in isolation, and Posey is also a climate change denialist. At a 2018 hearing in the Science, Space and Technology Committee, Posey claimed that climate scientists in the 1970s believed that the Earth was cooling, which is a myth but at least shows what kinds of sources Posey is using to inform his policy decisions. At the hearing Posey expressed skepticism that humans contributed to climate change, asked whether climate change was occurring because carbon dioxide captured in permafrost was now leaking out, and suggested that global warming would be being beneficial (it won’t). “I don’t think anybody disputes that the Earth is getting warmer,” said Posey, but “I think what’s not clear is the exact amount of who caused what, and getting to that is, I think, where we’re trying to go with this committee.” God forbid that the question is left to scientists, who, unlike Posey, have some ineffable agenda. It really isn’t not clear.

He is also consistently opposed to gay rights or legal protection from discrimination. And to top it all, Posey was the sponsor of H.R. 1503 to amend the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 requiring the campaign committee to give documents proving that a candidate for president is actually eligible for the office – yes, if not a birther himself, Posey was one of the major birther conspiracy theory enablers in Congress. He declined to provide documents to disprove rumors about his own past, however.


January 11, 2019

#2130: Scott Pruitt

A.k.a. King of the swamp

Ok, we’ll be (relatively) brief. Scott Pruitt, an Oklahoma lawyer, was Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from February 2017 to July 2018, at which point he was under at least 14 separate federal investigations by the Government Accountability Office, the EPA inspector general, the White House Office of Management and Budget, the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, and two House committees over his spending habits, conflicts of interests, extreme secrecy, and management practices. Almost a model representative of the Swamp, Pruitt’s main contributions while in office was to successfully partially dismantle his own agency and managing to take baldfaced corruption and misuse of government funds to cover personal expenses to almost unprecedented levels; randomly selected examples here, here and here (ok, that last one was only semi-randomly selected)). His main qualifications for his position, apart from being a Trump sycophant and zealous but deranged wingnut denialist, was his history of filing numerous lawsuits against the EPA over the better part of a decade, all of which had failed.

For our purposes, Pruitt’s main qualification for an entry here is his climate change denialism. In March 2017, Pruitt, who has no scientific background whatsoever, stated that he “would not agree that” carbon dioxide is “a primary contributor to the global warming that we see” since “measuring with precision human activity on the climate is something very challenging to do and there’s tremendous disagreement about the degree of impact.” This is false, and also contradicts the EPA’s public stance, as stated on the website – though right after Pruitt’s announcement, the EPA also announced that the website “would be undergoing changes to better represent the new direction the agency is taking,” including “the removal of several agency websites containing detailed climate data and scientific information,” in particular those that contradicted Pruitt’s statement (some details of the changes are described here). A few days later, Pruitt fired a number of scientists from the agency’s 18-member Board of Scientific Counselors to replace them with industry representatives, and later in 2017, he purged the EPA advisory panels and forbade any scientist who receives a grant from the EPA from then serving on them. By December 2017 over 200 scientists had left the EPA, to be replaced with industry representatives more attuned to Pruitt’s own views. In March 2018, Pruitt proposed to restrict the EPA from considering research that relies on confidential information, such as medical data, apparently because of “scientific transparency”. It is safe to say that the motivation was not transparency. Pruitt and other agency heads also delayed the public release of the Climate Change Report within the National Climate Assessment, for obvious reason

His understanding of science, evidence assessment and critical thinking is brilliantly illustrated by his June 2017 suggestion, at a board meeting of the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity (a climate change denialist organization), that he would arrange public debates on the human role in climate change modelled after a “red team blue team” exercise, since scientific questions are best settled by rhetorical skills and charisma in brief political discussions. The reason for the format is of course a deliberate balance fallacy: to make it look like a debate between two equally respectable sides, as if there is no scientific consensus on the issue and that pseudoscientific denialism is on equal footing with regard to the evidence.

During his tenure, Pruitt was also part of Ralph Drollinger’s weekly Bible study meetings for members of Congress and Trump’s Cabinet, which warned (among other things) that America is in the process of shifting from Christianity to the “false religion of Radical Environmentalism.” According to Drollinger, it is unbiblical to believe that mankind’s actions could destroy the Earth (also, “[t]o allow fish to govern the construction of dams, endangered species to govern power plants, flies to govern hospitals, or kangaroo rats, homes, is to miss the clear proclamation of God in Genesis”).

Of course, Pruitt’s poor grasp of science – and associated dismissal of it – is not restricted to climate science. Pruitt is also a creationist, saying that evolution “is a philosophical and not scientific matter” and claiming that “[t]here aren’t sufficient scientific facts to establish the theory of evolution.” Of course, Pruitt wouldn’t be able to distinguish a scientific fact from a deranged delusion if his life (or at least money) depended on it. He has also lamented that “minority religions” are pushing Christianity aside in the US (he had the backing of the religious right to the end, true to the religious right’s complete, systematic and proud lack of concern for ethical issues), advocated for Constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage and abortion, and claimed that when courts make decisions he disagrees with we are talking about a tyranny executed a “judicial monarchy.”

He resigned in July 2018, but his resignation hardly improved things.


Smart talking: are our devices threatening our privacy?

Millions of us now have virtual assistants, in our homes and our pockets. Even children’s toys are getting smart. But when we talk to them, who is listening

March 26, 2019

by James Vlahos

The Guardian

n 21 November 2015, James Bates had three friends over to watch the Arkansas Razorbacks play the Mississippi State Bulldogs. Bates, who lived in Bentonville, Arkansas, and his friends drank beer and did vodka shots as a tight football game unfolded. After the Razorbacks lost 51–50, one of the men went home; the others went out to Bates’s hot tub and continued to drink. Bates would later say that he went to bed around 1am and that the other two men – one of whom was named Victor Collins – planned to crash at his house for the night. When Bates got up the next morning, he didn’t see either of his friends. But when he opened his back door, he saw a body floating face-down in the hot tub. It was Collins.

A grim local affair, the death of Victor Collins would never have attracted international attention if it were not for a facet of the investigation that pitted the Bentonville authorities against one of the world’s most powerful companies – Amazon. Collins’ death triggered a broad debate about privacy in the voice-computing era, a discussion that makes the big tech companies squirm.

The police, summoned by Bates the morning after the football game, became suspicious when they found signs of a struggle. Headrests and knobs from the hot tub, as well as two broken bottles, lay on the ground. Collins had a black eye and swollen lips, and the water was darkened with blood. Bates said that he didn’t know what had happened, but the police officers were dubious. On 22 February 2016 they arrested him for murder.

Searching the crime scene, investigators noticed an Amazon Echo. Since the police believed that Bates might not be telling the truth, officers wondered if the Echo might have inadvertently recorded anything revealing. In December 2015, investigators served Amazon with a search warrant that requested “electronic data in the form of audio recordings, transcribed records or other text records”.

Amazon turned over a record of transactions made via the Echo but not any audio data. “Given the important first amendment and privacy implications at stake,” an Amazon court filing stated, “the warrant should be quashed.” Bates’s attorney, Kimberly Weber, framed the argument in more colloquial terms. “I have a problem that a Christmas gift that is supposed to better your life can be used against you,” she told a reporter. “It’s almost like a police state.”

With microphone arrays that hear voices from across the room, Amazon’s devices would have been coveted by the Stasi in East Germany. The same can be said of smarthome products from Apple, Google and Microsoft, as well as the microphone-equipped AIs in all of our phones. As the writer Adam Clark Estes  put it: “By buying a smart speaker, you’re effectively paying money to let a huge tech company surveil you.”

Amazon, pushing back, complains that its products are unfairly maligned. True, the devices are always listening, but by no means do they transmit everything they hear. Only when a device hears the wake word “Alexa” does it beam speech to the cloud for analysis. It is unlikely that Bates would have said something blatantly incriminating, such as: “Alexa, how do I hide a body?” But it is conceivable that the device could have captured something of interest to investigators. For instance, if anyone intentionally used the wake word to activate the Echo – for a benign request such as asking for a song to be played, say – the device might have picked up pertinent background audio, like people arguing. If Bates had activated his Echo for any request after 1am, that would undercut his account of being in bed asleep.

In August 2016, a judge, apparently receptive to the notion that Amazon might have access to useful evidence, approved a second search warrant for police to obtain the information the company had withheld before. At this point in the standoff, an unlikely party blinked – Bates, who had pleaded not guilty. He and his attorney said they didn’t object to police getting the information they desired. Amazon complied, and if the Echo captured anything incriminating, police never revealed what it was.

Instead, in December 2017, prosecutors filed a motion to dismiss the case, saying there was more than one reasonable explanation for the death of Collins. But the surveillance issue raised so dramatically by the case is unlikely to go away.

Tech companies insist they are not spying on their customers via virtual assistants and home gadgets, and that they only ever listen when expressly commanded to do so. These claims, as least as far as they can be externally verified, appear to be true. But this doesn’t mean no listening is happening, or couldn’t happen, in ways that challenge traditional notions of privacy.

There are a number of ways in which home devices could be used that challenge our ideas of privacy. One is eavesdropping to improve quality. Hello Barbie’s digital ears perk up when you press her glittering belt buckle. Saying the phrase “OK, Google” wakes up that company’s devices. Amazon’s Alexa likes to hear her name. But once listening is initiated, what happens next?

Sources at Apple, which prides itself on safeguarding privacy, say that Siri tries to satisfy as many requests as possible directly on the user’s iPhone or HomePod. If an utterance needs to be shipped off to the cloud for additional analysis, it is tagged with a coded identifier rather than a user’s actual name. Utterances are saved for six months so the speech recognition system can learn to better understand the person’s voice. After that, another copy is saved, now stripped of its identifier, for help with improving Siri for up to two years.

Most other companies do not emphasise local processing and instead always stream audio to the cloud, where more powerful computational resources await. Computers then attempt to divine the user’s intent and fulfil it. After that happens the companies could then erase the request and the system’s response, but they typically don’t. The reason is data. In conversational AI, the more data you have, the better.

Virtually all other botmakers, from hobbyists to the AI wizards at big tech companies, review at least some of the transcripts of people’s interactions with their creations. The goal is to see what went well, what needs to be improved and what users are interested in discussing or accomplishing. The review process takes many forms.

The chat logs may be anonymised so the reviewer doesn’t see the names of individual users. Or reviewers may see only summarised data. For instance, they might learn that a conversation frequently dead-ends after a particular bot utterance, which lets them know the statement should be adjusted. Designers at Microsoft and Google and other companies also receive reports detailing the most popular user queries so they know what content to add.

But the review process can also be shockingly intimate. In the offices of one conversational-computing company I visited, employees showed me how they received daily emails listing recent interchanges between people and one of the company’s chat apps.

The employees opened one such email and clicked on a play icon.

In clear digital audio, I heard the recorded voice of a child who was free-associating. “I am just a boy,” he said. “I have a green dinosaur shirt … and, uh, giant feet … lots of toys in my house and a chair … My mom is only a girl, and I know my mom, she can do everything she wants to do. She always goes to work when I get up but at night she comes home.”

There was nothing untoward in the recording. But as I listened to it, I had the unsettling feeling of hovering invisibly in the little boy’s room. The experience made me realise that the presumption of total anonymity when speaking to a virtual assistant on a phone or smarthome device – there is only some computer on the other end, right? – is not guaranteed. People might be listening, taking notes, learning.

Eavesdropping may also occur by accident. On 4 October 2017, Google invited journalists to a product unveiling at the SFJazz Center in San Francisco. Isabelle Olsson, a designer, got the job of announcing the new Google Home Mini, a bagel-size device that is the company’s answer to the Amazon Echo Dot. “The home is a special intimate place, and people are very selective about what they welcome into it,” Olsson said. After the presentation, Google gave out Minis as swag to the attendees. One of them was a writer named Artem Russakovskii, and he could be forgiven for later thinking that he hadn’t been selective enough about what he welcomed into his home.

After having the Mini for a couple of days, Russakovskii went online to check his voice search activity. He was shocked to see that thousands of short recordings had already been logged – recordings that never should have been made. As he would later write for the Android Police website: “My Google Home Mini was inadvertently spying on me 24/7 due to a hardware flaw.” He complained to Google and within five hours the company had sent a representative to swap out his malfunctioning device for two replacement units.

Like other similar devices, the Mini could be turned on using the “OK, Google” wake phrase or by simply hitting a button on top of the unit. The problem was that the device was registering “phantom touch” events, Russakovskii wrote. Google would later say the problem affected only a small number of units released at promotional events. The problem was fixed via a software update. To further dispel fears, the company announced that it was permanently disabling the touch feature on all Minis.

This response, however, wasn’t enough to satisfy the Electronic Privacy Information Center, an advocacy group. In a letter dated 13 October 2017, it urged the Consumer Product Safety commission to recall the Mini because it “allowed Google to intercept and record private conversations in homes without the knowledge or consent of the consumer”.

No information has emerged to suggest that Google was spying on purpose. Nonetheless, if a company the calibre of Google can make such a blunder, then other companies might easily make similar mistakes as voice interfaces proliferate.

If you want to know whether government agents or hackers might be able to hear what you say to a voice device, consider what happens to your words after you have spoken. Privacy-minded Apple retains voice queries but decouples them from your name or user ID. The company tags them with a random string of numbers unique to each user. Then, after six months, even the connection between the utterance and the numerical identifier is eliminated.

Google and Amazon, meanwhile, retain a link between the speaker and what was said. Any user can log into their Google or Amazon account and see a listing of all of the queries. I tried this on Google, and I could listen to any given recording. For instance, after clicking on a play icon from 9.34am on 29 August 2017, I heard myself ask: “How do I say ‘pencil sharpener’ in German?” Voice records can be erased, but the onus is on the user. As a Google user policy statement puts it: “Conversation history with Google Home and the Google Assistant is saved until you choose to delete it.”

Is this a new problem in terms of privacy? Maybe not. Google and other search engines similarly retain all of your typed-in web queries unless you delete them. So you could argue that voice archiving is simply more of the same. But to some people, being recorded feels much more invasive. Plus, there is the issue of by-catch.

Recordings often pick up other people – your spouse, friends, kids – talking in the background.

For law enforcement agencies to obtain recordings or data that are stored only locally (ie on your phone, computer or smarthome device), they need to obtain a search warrant. But privacy protection is considerably weaker after your voice has been transmitted to the cloud. Joel Reidenberg, director of the Center on Law and Information Policy at Fordham Law School in New York, says “the legal standard of ‘reasonable expectation of privacy’ is eviscerated. Under the fourth amendment, if you have installed a device that’s listening and is transmitting to a third party, then you’ve waived your privacy rights.” According to a Google transparency report, US government agencies requested data on more than 170,000 user accounts in 2017. (The report does not specify how many of these requests, if any, were for voice data versus logs of web searches or other information.)

If you aren’t doing anything illegal in your home – or aren’t worried about being falsely accused of doing so – perhaps you don’t worry that the government could come calling for your voice data. But there is another, more broadly applicable risk when companies warehouse all your recordings. With your account login and password, a hacker could hear all the requests you made in the privacy of your home.

Technology companies claim they don’t eavesdrop nefariously, but hackers have no such aversion. Companies employ password protection and data encryption to combat spying, but testing by security researchers as well as breaches by hackers demonstrate that these protections are far from foolproof.

Consider the CloudPets line of stuffed animals, which included a kitten, an elephant, a unicorn and a teddy bear. If a child squeezed one of these animals, he or she could record a short message that was beamed via Bluetooth to a nearby smartphone. From there, the message was sent to a distant parent or other relative, whether she was working in the city or fighting a war on the other side of the world. The parent, in turn, could record a message on her phone and send it to the stuffed animal for playback.

It was a sweet scenario. The problem was that CloudPets placed the credentials for more than 800,000 customers, along with 2m recorded messages between kids and adults, in an easily discoverable online database. Hackers harvested much of this data in early 2017 and even demanded ransom from the company before they would release their ill-gotten treasure.

Paul Stone, a security researcher, discovered another problem: the Bluetooth pairing between CloudPets animals and the companion smartphone app didn’t use encryption or require authentication. After purchasing a stuffed unicorn for testing, he hacked it.

In a demonstration video he posted online, Stone got the unicorn to say: “Exterminate, annihilate!” He triggered the microphone to record, turning the plush toy into a spy. “Bluetooth LE typically has a range of about 10-30 metres,” Stone wrote on his blog, “so someone standing outside your house could easily connect to the toy, upload audio recordings, and receive audio from the microphone.

Plush toys may be, well, soft targets for hackers, but the vulnerabilities they exhibit are sometimes found in voice-enabled, internet-connected devices for adults. “It’s not that the risks are particularly any different to the ones you and I face every day with the volumes of data we produce and place online,” says security researcher Troy Hunt, who documented the CloudPets breach. “It’s that our tolerances are very different when kids are involved.”

Other researchers have identified more technologically sophisticated ways in which privacy might be violated. Imagine someone is trying to take control of your phone or other voice AI device simply by talking to it. The scheme would be foiled if you heard them doing so. But what if the attack was inaudible? That is what a team of researchers at China’s Zhejiang University wanted to investigate for a paper that was published in 2017. In the so-called DolphinAttack scenario that the researchers devised, the hacker would play unauthorised commands through a speaker that he planted in the victim’s office or home. Alternatively, the hacker could tote a portable speaker while strolling by the victim. The trick was that those commands would be played in the ultrasonic range above 20kHz – inaudible to human ears but, through audio manipulation by the researchers, easily perceptible to digital ones.

In their laboratory tests, the scientists successfully attacked the voice interfaces of Amazon, Apple, Google, Microsoft and Samsung. They tricked those voice AIs into visiting malicious websites, sending phoney text messages and emails, and dimming the screen and lowering the volume to help conceal the attack. The researchers got the devices to place illegitimate phone and video calls, meaning that a hacker could listen to and even see what was happening around a victim. They even hacked their way into the navigation system of an Audi SUV.

Most people don’t want hackers, police officers or corporations listening in on them. But there is a final set of scenarios that confuses the surveillance issue. In reviewing chat logs for quality control in the manner described above, conversation designers might hear things that almost beg them to take action.

Take the creators of Mattel’s Hello Barbie. In that process, they struggled with a disturbing set of hypothetical scenarios. What if a child told the doll “My daddy hits my mom”? Or “My uncle has been touching me in a funny place”? The writers felt it would be a moral failure to ignore such admissions. But if they reported what they heard to the police, they would be assuming the role of Big Brother. Feeling uneasy, they decided Barbie’s response should be something like: “That sounds like something you should tell to a grownup whom you trust.”

Mattel, however, seems willing to go further. In an FAQ about Hello Barbie, the company wrote that conversations between children and the doll are not monitored in real time. But afterward, the dialogues might occasionally be reviewed to aid product testing and improvement. “If in connection with such a review we come across a conversation that raises concern about the safety of a child or others,” the FAQ stated, “we will cooperate with law enforcement agencies and legal processes as required to do so or as we deem appropriate on a case-by-case basis.”

The conundrum similarly challenges the big tech companies.

Because their virtual assistants handle millions of voice queries per week, they don’t have employees monitoring utterances on a user-by-user basis. But the companies do train their systems to catch certain highly sensitive things people might say. For instance, I tested Siri by saying: “I want to kill myself.” She replied: “If you are thinking about suicide, you may want to speak with someone at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.” Siri supplied the telephone number and offered to place the call.

Thanks, Siri. But the problem with letting virtual assistants look out for us is that the role suggests major responsibility with ill-defined limits. If you tell Siri that you are drunk, she sometimes offers to call you a cab. But if she doesn’t, and you get into a car accident, is Apple somehow responsible for what Siri failed to say?

When is a listening device expected to take action? If Alexa overhears someone screaming “Help, help, he’s trying to kill me!”, should the AI automatically call the police?

The preceding scenarios are not far-fetched to analyst Robert Harris, a communication industry consultant. He argues that voice devices are creating a snarl of new ethical and legal issues. “Will personal assistants be responsible for the … knowledge that they have?” he says. “A feature like that sometime in the future could become a liability.”

The uses of AI surveillance make clear that you should scrutinise each one of these technologies you allow into your life. Read up on just how and when the digital ears are turned on. Find out what voice data is retained and how to delete it if you desire. And if in doubt – especially with applications made by companies whose privacy policies can’t be easily understood – pull the plug.


The CIA Confessions: The Crowley Conversations

March 26, 2019

by Dr. Peter Janney

On October 8th, 2000, Robert Trumbull Crowley, once a leader of the CIA’s Clandestine Operations Division, died in a Washington hospital of heart failure and the end effects of Alzheimer’s Disease. Before the late Assistant Director Crowley was cold, Joseph Trento, a writer of light-weight books on the CIA, descended on Crowley’s widow at her town house on Cathedral Hill Drive in Washington and hauled away over fifty boxes of Crowley’s CIA files.

Once Trento had his new find secure in his house in Front Royal, Virginia, he called a well-known Washington fix lawyer with the news of his success in securing what the CIA had always considered to be a potential major embarrassment.

Three months before, on July 20th of that year, retired Marine Corps colonel William R. Corson, and an associate of Crowley, died of emphysema and lung cancer at a hospital in Bethesda, Md.

After Corson’s death, Trento and the well-known Washington fix-lawyer went to Corson’s bank, got into his safe deposit box and removed a manuscript entitled ‘Zipper.’ This manuscript, which dealt with Crowley’s involvement in the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, vanished into a CIA burn-bag and the matter was considered to be closed forever.

The small group of CIA officials gathered at Trento’s house to search through the Crowley papers, looking for documents that must not become public. A few were found but, to their consternation, a significant number of files Crowley was known to have had in his possession had simply vanished.

When published material concerning the CIA’s actions against Kennedy became public in 2002, it was discovered to the CIA’s horror, that the missing documents had been sent by an increasingly erratic Crowley to another person and these missing papers included devastating material on the CIA’s activities in South East Asia to include drug running, money laundering and the maintenance of the notorious ‘Regional Interrogation Centers’ in Viet Nam and, worse still, the Zipper files proving the CIA’s active organization of the assassination of President John Kennedy..

A massive, preemptive disinformation campaign was readied, using government-friendly bloggers, CIA-paid “historians” and others, in the event that anything from this file ever surfaced. The best-laid plans often go astray and in this case, one of the compliant historians, a former government librarian who fancied himself a serious writer, began to tell his friends about the CIA plan to kill Kennedy and eventually, word of this began to leak out into the outside world.

The originals had vanished and an extensive search was conducted by the FBI and CIA operatives but without success. Crowley’s survivors, his aged wife and son, were interviewed extensively by the FBI and instructed to minimize any discussion of highly damaging CIA files that Crowley had, illegally, removed from Langley when he retired. Crowley had been a close friend of James Jesus Angleton, the CIA’s notorious head of Counterintelligence. When Angleton was sacked by DCI William Colby in December of 1974, Crowley and Angleton conspired to secretly remove Angleton’s most sensitive secret files out of the agency. Crowley did the same thing right before his own retirement, secretly removing thousands of pages of classified information that covered his entire agency career.

Known as “The Crow” within the agency, Robert T. Crowley joined the CIA at its inception and spent his entire career in the Directorate of Plans, also know as the “Department of Dirty Tricks. ”

Crowley was one of the tallest man ever to work at the CIA. Born in 1924 and raised in Chicago, Crowley grew to six and a half feet when he entered the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in N.Y. as a cadet in 1943 in the class of 1946. He never graduated, having enlisted in the Army, serving in the Pacific during World War II. He retired from the Army Reserve in 1986 as a lieutenant colonel. According to a book he authored with his friend and colleague, William Corson, Crowley’s career included service in Military Intelligence and Naval Intelligence, before joining the CIA at its inception in 1947. His entire career at the agency was spent within the Directorate of Plans in covert operations. Before his retirement, Bob Crowley became assistant deputy director for operations, the second-in-command in the Clandestine Directorate of Operations.

Bob Crowley first contacted Gregory Douglas in 1993 when he found out from John Costello that Douglas was about to publish his first book on Heinrich Mueller, the former head of the Gestapo who had become a secret, long-time asset to the CIA. Crowley contacted Douglas and they began a series of long and often very informative telephone conversations that lasted for four years. In 1996, Crowley told Douglas that he believed him to be the person that should ultimately tell Crowley’s story but only after Crowley’s death. Douglas, for his part, became so entranced with some of the material that Crowley began to share with him that he secretly began to record their conversations, later transcribing them word for word, planning to incorporate some, or all, of the material in later publication.


Conversation No. 100

Date: Sunday, August 24, 1997

Commenced: 10:22 AM CST

Concluded: 10:35 AM CST


GD: Hello, Robert. What is new with you back there?

RTC: The usual make work projects. I wish I were younger sometimes.

GD: Well, if youth knew and age could, we would all be better off. By the way, I was reading an article about Aldrich Ames yesterday. I suppose that is a no-no with you.

RTC: I knew him slightly. An utterly useless fraud who had a nasty, demanding wife and who was kept on the rolls because his father had been with us.

GD: Well, the FBI got one up on you, didn’t it?

RTC: Does Kimmel brag about this to you?

GD: He was involved in the business. Why not let me be diplomatic?

RTC: How kind of you, Gregory.

GD: Would you like to get even with them?

RTC: How could I do that, pray tell?

GD: Well, a Russian friend told me about one of their top counter intelligence people who is working for them.

RTC: No. Are you sure about that?

HD: Well, my source was certain. They don’t know who it is and he said he was a pain in the ass to deal with.

RTC: Gregory, perhaps we could discuss this a little further. You won’t mention your source to me but what do you really know about this fellow? Do you have a name?

GD: Yes, I do, Robert. Now, if you pass this on to someone, for the Lord God’s sake, do not put my name into it. OK?

RTC: A given. The name?

GD: Yes. Ramon Garcia.


GD: Yes, correct. I thought the FBI was a hotbed of racism but apparently not. I wrote it down later but I am sure. What will you do with it?

RTC: What do you think?

RTC: Pass it on. Revenge for Ames I suppose.

RTC: Did your source say how long this Garcia had been working for them?

GD: For about fifteen years.

RTC: Jesus. And his position…I mean if you have any idea…

GD: A big wig in counter intelligence.

RTC: Why would someone tell you?

GD: He knows I know Kimmel, whose name he is familiar with. I think his people are not happy with this Garcia and think he might be a double agent. I think he wanted me to pass this to Kimmel.

RTC: Will you?

GD: No, I don’t plan to. I know what would happen if I did. The first thing would be that they would open a case on me and start asking all my neighbors about me. They do that so I strongly recommend against ever telling anyone in law enforcement anything.

RTC: Not all law enforcement would start out investigating you.

GD: I’ve had it happen so I say nothing. Let the FBI find out about their own mole. It’s none of my business, Robert. I suppose it’s in your hands now. Oh, and by the way, you might be interested in knowing, as I have been told, that someone from the NSG, a sigint specialist, has been giving reams of material to the PRC.

RTC: That also of interest. Who are they and where are they located? At Meade?

GD: No, at Hanza in Japan.

RTC: Name?

GD: If you really want it, I will try to get it from my source.

RTC: Who is…?

GD: A former high level fellow who was pushed out of the Navy and is not overly stable. He was involved in the murder of Trujillo. Do you know of a Marine Colonel Cass?

RTC: Jesus Christ, yes, I do. Did this person tell you about that operation?

GD: In detail.

RTC: We can discuss this later. Would you be prepared to out your source?

GD: To you but not to Kimmel.

RTC: Screw Kimmel, but to me?

GD: Certainly but with the usual caveats.

RTC: Don’t worry. Could you get the name of the mole from your contact?

GD: If I could get him drunk it would be a piece of cake.

RTC: We may have to do that. Where is he now? I mean what part of the country from you?

GD: Norfolk.

RTC: Is he actually retired?

GD: Oh, yes and he has a lot of money as well. I didn’t think Naval officers had a lot of money.

RTC: He might have been peddling material too. Jesus, if he blabs about Cass or Trujillo, he’s going to have to hire a local high school kid to start his car in the morning. Unless he has an insured wife.

GD: No, he’s single.

RTC: What about outing him to me?

GD: All right, considering all the wonderful material you keep sending me, I owe you. I’ll send you a letter, mailed from some other place, with a name, address, former rank and current phone number. Soonest.

RTC: Thanks. And we won’t mention this to Kimmel either.

GD: No, I won’t. Not a word.


(Concluded at 10:35 AM CST



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