Robert Gates Memoir Critical Of Obama Administration On Afghanistan (But Was Their Skepticism Towards War Really A Bad Thing?)

Robert Gates is receiving a lot of attention today for his memoir entitled Duty. I suspect that this will have limited long-term impact, but for now it provides a source for lots of quotes both positive and negative about Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Joe Biden. We must also take into consideration that the initial report comes from Bob Woodward, who has not been all that reliable in recent years and his selected quotes may or may not be representative of what Gates wrote in the entire memoir. Plus it is not necessarily a bad thing for civilian politicians to show skepticism of military action which might be upsetting to someone with a more military background. Gates is not necessarily correct in his assessment of all matters. For example, Max Fisher writes that Gates was wrong on the most important issue he faced in failing to see the opportunity for peace with the former Soviet Union under Mikhail Gorbachev. Gates certainly got in wrong in arguing that Gorbachev was not a reformer.

While the headline of the story reports negative comments from Gates about Barack Obama’s skepticism and lack of interest continuing the war in Afghanistan, Gates also wrote “I believe Obama was right in each of these decisions.”It is hardly a surprise that Obama had mixed feelings about that war which he inherited.

Comments that Hillary Clinton opposed the surge on political grounds might be politically harmful, especially if  used to support the narrative that Clinton lacks principle and is guided by political expediency (not that considering the views of the public is necessarily a bad thing). On the other hand he also wrote this about Clinton: “I found her smart, idealistic but pragmatic, tough-minded, indefatigable, funny, a very valuable colleague, and a superb representative of the United States all over the world.” I can already see this quote in Clinton campaign ads.

Gates was hardest on Joe Biden, complaining about his  “aggressive, suspicious, and sometimes condescending and insulting questioning of our military leaders.” Another account of the book in The New York Times quotes Gates as writing, “I think he has been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades.” I think that that with the current anti-war mood of the country, the portrayal of Biden as a major skeptic of the Afghanistan war might wind up doing him far more good than such a broad-based attack.

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Edward Snowden, Whistle-Blower And American Hero

The New York Times had an editorial today on how the United States should respond to the revelations on NSA surveillance exposed by Edward Snowden:

Seven months ago, the world began to learn the vast scope of the National Security Agency’s reach into the lives of hundreds of millions of people in the United States and around the globe, as it collects information about their phone calls, their email messages, their friends and contacts, how they spend their days and where they spend their nights. The public learned in great detail how the agency has exceeded its mandate and abused its authority, prompting outrage at kitchen tables and at the desks of Congress, which may finally begin to limit these practices.

The revelations have already prompted two federal judges to accuse the N.S.A. of violating the Constitution (although a third, unfortunately, found the dragnet surveillance to be legal). A panel appointed by President Obama issued a powerful indictment of the agency’s invasions of privacy and called for a major overhaul of its operations.

All of this is entirely because of information provided to journalists by Edward Snowden, the former N.S.A. contractor who stole a trove of highly classified documents after he became disillusioned with the agency’s voraciousness. Mr. Snowden is now living in Russia, on the run from American charges of espionage and theft, and he faces the prospect of spending the rest of his life looking over his shoulder.

Considering the enormous value of the information he has revealed, and the abuses he has exposed, Mr. Snowden deserves better than a life of permanent exile, fear and flight. He may have committed a crime to do so, but he has done his country a great service. It is time for the United States to offer Mr. Snowden a plea bargain or some form of clemency that would allow him to return home, face at least substantially reduced punishment in light of his role as a whistle-blower, and have the hope of a life advocating for greater privacy and far stronger oversight of the runaway intelligence community.

While Snowden’s actions were illegal, there are times when illegal action is necessary to preserve our liberties. This is especially true when it has been the government which as been breaking the law. Providing a reduced sentence would not be enough. Rather than punishing Edward Snowden, he deserves a full pardon and the United States should be considering the most appropriate means of thanking him and honoring him for his service to his country. While this will probably never happen officially, Americans should treat Snowden in the same way as important whistle blowers of the past such as Daniel Ellsberg, who exposed how the government was lying to the American people about the war in Viet Nam.

After further discussion, including how there was no other way for the abuses exposed by Edward Snowden to be acted upon, the editorial concluded with a list of some of the illegal activity on the part of the government which Snowden has exposed:

In retrospect, Mr. Snowden was clearly justified in believing that the only way to blow the whistle on this kind of intelligence-gathering was to expose it to the public and let the resulting furor do the work his superiors would not. Beyond the mass collection of phone and Internet data, consider just a few of the violations he revealed or the legal actions he provoked:

■ The N.S.A. broke federal privacy laws, or exceeded its authority, thousands of times per year, according to the agency’s own internal auditor.

■ The agency broke into the communications links of major data centers around the world, allowing it to spy on hundreds of millions of user accounts and infuriating the Internet companies that own the centers. Many of those companies are now scrambling to install systems that the N.S.A. cannot yet penetrate.

■ The N.S.A. systematically undermined the basic encryption systems of the Internet, making it impossible to know if sensitive banking or medical data is truly private, damaging businesses that depended on this trust.

■ His leaks revealed that James Clapper Jr., the director of national intelligence, lied to Congress when testifying in March that the N.S.A. was not collecting data on millions of Americans. (There has been no discussion of punishment for that lie.)

■ The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court rebuked the N.S.A. for repeatedly providing misleading information about its surveillance practices, according to a ruling made public because of the Snowden documents. One of the practices violated the Constitution, according to the chief judge of the court.

■ A federal district judge ruled earlier this month that the phone-records-collection program probably violates the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution. He called the program “almost Orwellian” and said there was no evidence that it stopped any imminent act of terror.

The shrill brigade of his critics say Mr. Snowden has done profound damage to intelligence operations of the United States, but none has presented the slightest proof that his disclosures really hurt the nation’s security. Many of the mass-collection programs Mr. Snowden exposed would work just as well if they were reduced in scope and brought under strict outside oversight, as the presidential panel recommended.

When someone reveals that government officials have routinely and deliberately broken the law, that person should not face life in prison at the hands of the same government. That’s why Rick Ledgett, who leads the N.S.A.’s task force on the Snowden leaks, recently told CBS News that he would consider amnesty if Mr. Snowden would stop any additional leaks. And it’s why President Obama should tell his aides to begin finding a way to end Mr. Snowden’s vilification and give him an incentive to return home.

Without Edward Snowden, we would not know about any of this. It is unlikely that the entire discussion which is now underway to reevaluate the practices of the National Security Agency  would be taking place. The national debate over this topic we are now engaging in would certainly not be anywhere near as informative and fact-based, if such a debate were to have happened at all.

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Quote of the Day

“This is a crazy story. For two decades, the secret launch code for America’s nuclear missiles was 0000000000. Even more amazing, George W. Bush forgot it twice.” –Conan O’Brien

In case anyone missed it the launch codes really were a string of zeros in order to reduce any potential delay in launching. I bet Stanley Kubrick would have used this in Doctor Strangelove if he was aware of this fact.

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Three Senators Call For Reforming NSA Surveillance

Three Senators, Senators Ron Wyden (D-Ore), Mark Udall (D-Colo), and Martin Heinrich (D-N.M), have proposed legislation to help restore  Fourth Amendment privacy protections following recent revelations regarding NSA surveillance. They have an op-ed in The New York Times which explains their position and their opposition to currently proposed legislation form the Senate intelligence committee which would codify current surveillance without providing privacy protections. Their op-ed begins:

End the N.S.A. Dragnet, Now

THE framers of the Constitution declared that government officials had no power to seize the records of individual Americans without evidence of wrongdoing, and they embedded this principle in the Fourth Amendment. The bulk collection of Americans’ telephone records — so-called metadata — by the National Security Agency is, in our view, a clear case of a general warrant that violates the spirit of the framers’ intentions. This intrusive program was authorized under a secret legal process by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, so for years American citizens did not have the knowledge needed to challenge the infringement of their privacy rights.

Our first priority is to keep Americans safe from the threat of terrorism. If government agencies identify a suspected terrorist, they should absolutely go to the relevant phone companies to get that person’s phone records. But this can be done without collecting the records of millions of law-abiding Americans. We recall Benjamin Franklin’s famous admonition that those who would give up essential liberty in the pursuit of temporary safety will lose both and deserve neither.

The usefulness of the bulk collection program has been greatly exaggerated. We have yet to see any proof that it provides real, unique value in protecting national security. In spite of our repeated requests, the N.S.A. has not provided evidence of any instance when the agency used this program to review phone records that could not have been obtained using a regular court order or emergency authorization.

Despite this, the surveillance reform bill recently ratified by the Senate Intelligence Committee would explicitly permit the government to engage in dragnet collection as long as there were rules about when officials could look at these phone records. It would also give intelligence agencies wide latitude to conduct warrantless searches for Americans’ phone calls and emails.

This is not the true reform that poll after poll has shown the American people want. It is preserving business as usual. When the Bill of Rights was adopted, it established that Americans’ papers and effects should be seized only when there was specific evidence of suspicious activity. It did not permit government agencies to issue general warrants as long as records seized were reviewed with the permission of senior officials.

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Afghanistan Planning To Resume Public Stoning As Punishment For Adultery

Attacking Afghanistan made far more sense than to attack Iraq as George Bush did following the 9/11 attack. * I could see an attack to disrupt al Qaeda and was happy to see bin Laden killed, but questioned if we would see any long-term benefits from installing a government there. This somewhat confirms my skepticism–Afghanistan is now planning to restore the Taliban policy of stoning women for adultery:

Afghanistan is planning to reintroduce public stoning as punishment for adultery 12 years after the Taliban was ousted from power, according to a new draft penal code.

The move has shocked human rights campaigners and will dismay donors who have poured billions of pounds into the country for reconstruction.

It will be viewed as another backwards step at the end of a year that has seen women’s rights undermined, with a slew of legislation and murders of prominent women.

Human Rights Watch called for international donors to withhold funding if the government goes ahead with the plan.

“It is absolutely shocking that 12 years after the fall of the Taliban government, the Karzai administration might bring back stoning as a punishment,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at HRW…

As repulsive as both groups are, stoning is far worse than the forced vaginal probes and restrictions on reproductive rights which are supported by the American Taliban.

(* I would hope that by now the whole Truther line that 9/11 was an inside job by the Bush administration instead of a terrorist act by al Qaeda has been forgotten. In case anyone is still interested in that nonsense, Noam Chomsky has recently joined many others in debunking that conspiracy theory. Chomsky mocked “people around who spend an hour on the Internet and think they know a lot physics.” On the other hand, that is how the Internet works. How many other people on the far right with no knowledge of biology or climate science are coming up with arguments against evolution and global warming?)

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Iran Deal

POTUS about to make statement regarding deal with Iran on nuclear program. Next Fox to accuse Obama of making deal to reduce risk of nuclear war in order to take attention away from Obamacare problems.

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NSA Monitored Phone Conversations Of Thirty-Five World Leaders

Following recent complaints by German Chancellor Angela Merkel that her phone was being tapped by the NSA, it now appears that she was just one of thirty-five world leaders according to a report in the Guardian:

The National Security Agency monitored the phone conversations of 35 world leaders after being given the numbers by an official in another US government department, according to a classified document provided by whistleblower Edward Snowden.

The confidential memo reveals that the NSA encourages senior officials in its “customer” departments, such the White House, State and the Pentagon, to share their “Rolodexes” so the agency can add the phone numbers of leading foreign politicians to their surveillance systems.

The document notes that one unnamed US official handed over 200 numbers, including those of the 35 world leaders, none of whom is named. These were immediately “tasked” for monitoring by the NSA.

The revelation is set to add to mounting diplomatic tensions between the US and its allies, after the German chancellor Angela Merkel on Wednesday accused the US of tapping her mobile phone.

After Merkel’s allegations became public, White House press secretary Jay Carney issued a statement that said the US “is not monitoring and will not monitor” the German chancellor’s communications. But that failed to quell the row, as officials in Berlin quickly pointed out that the US did not deny monitoring the phone in the past.

The NSA memo obtained by the Guardian suggests that such surveillance was not isolated, as the agency routinely monitors the phone numbers of world leaders – and even asks for the assistance of other US officials to do so.

The program has provided intelligence to add additional world leaders to those under surveillance but beyond this has provided “little reportable intelligence.” I imagine that to those who have the mentality that records should be kept on every phone call made in the United States, a program which increases the number of world leaders they can spy of is of value.

This report has led to protests from the European Union, including Germany, France, and Italy. I wonder how much useful intelligence might be denied to the United States in the future if other nations should be come wary about sharing intelligence with the United States.

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Obama Setting Important Precedent in Taking Syria Decision To Congress

I am still waiting to see what specifically is planned, but it is hard to imagine military intervention in Syria which will be much more than symbolic in opposition to the use of sarin gas. While I question Obama’s military plans, he deserves tremendous credit for his decision to honor the Constitution and take the matter before Congress. Walter Shapiro discussed the significance of this:

…the president, a former part-time constitutional law professor, may have also belatedly recalled the wording of Article One, Section Eight of the Constitution that grants Congress the sole power “to declare war.”

But whatever Obama’s underlying motivations and however the Syrian vote plays out on Capitol Hill, the president’s decision to go to Congress represents an historic turning point. It may well be the most important presidential act on the Constitution and war-making powers since Harry Truman decided to sidestep Congress and not seek their backing to launch the Korean war.

Just a few days ago, before Obama’s decision was known, legal scholars from both the right and the left were in agreement that waging war over Syria – no matter how briefly – without congressional approval would bend the Constitution beyond recognition.

Jack Goldsmith, a Harvard law professor who served as a Bush administration lawyer during the run-up to the 2003 Iraq war, wrote in the legal blog Lawfare, “The planned use of military force in Syria is a constitutional stretch that will push presidential war unilateralism beyond where it has gone before.” And liberal constitutional scholar Garrett Epps, writing for the Atlantic , concluded, “It’s pretty clear that an American attack would violate the Constitution.”

Shapiro summarized past decisions by presidents to use military power and concluded:

No American lives are in danger and the national security threat is hard to identify. Not only is NATO not participating, but also neither are the Brits, the United State’s closest diplomatic ally. With Russia serving as Assad’s enabler, there will be no Security Council resolution or UN mandate.

Every time a president employs questionable legal arguments to wage war, it becomes a valuable tool for the next Commander in Chief impatient with the constitutional requirement to work through Congress. That’s why it would have been so dangerous for Obama to go forward in Syria without a congressional vote or the support of the UN or NATO. It is as much of a slippery slope argument as the contention that Iran, say, would be emboldened with its nuclear program if America did not punish Assad’s chemical attacks.

Assuming Obama wins congressional approval, America’s coming attack on Syria is designed to set a lasting precedent: No government can ever again use chemical, biological – let alone nuclear – weapons without facing devastating consequences. As Obama asked rhetorically in his Saturday Rose Garden statement, “What message will we send if a dictator can gas hundreds of children to death in plain sight and pay no price?”

But Obama’s decision to seek congressional approval may prove to be an even more important precedent. Future presidents – as they consider unilateral military action without American security hanging in the balance – will have to answer, “Why didn’t you go to Congress like Obama did over Syria?”

Confronted with a series of wrenching choices over Syria, Obama chose the course that best reflects fidelity to the Constitution as written. Hopefully, in the days ahead, taking that less traveled road by presidents will make all the difference.

I am not optimistic that any military action will make a difference as to whether WMD is used by future dictators. I am more hopeful that Obama is setting an important precedent here which may affect future decisions by American presidents to go to war. Next I am hoping that by the time Obama leaves office we have a better system for the institutionalization of conducting war in the modern era on issues ranging from drone strikes to surveillance. It is also amusing to see conservatives who have been making absurd claims of dictatorship under Obama now attack him for his decision to follow the Constitution.

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Contradictions on Syria

Apparently we have to bomb Syria because they used chemical weapons. I believe the mindset is that under international law, two wrongs can make a right.

Plus under Republican logic, Obama both exercises dictatorial powers and he is weak because he can’t decide to take military action without following the Constitution and going before Congress.

The most absurd reaction was Donald Rumsfeld saying Obama hasn’t made the case for striking Syria. He may be right, but Rumsfeld is in no position to question Obama about taking limited action regarding real WMD after he backed a major war over non-existent WMD.

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Tech Companies Fight Back Against Excessive Government Surveillance

Since Edward Snowden leaked information on the degree to which the NSA has been conducting surveillance on Americans it has often appeared that tech companies have given the government whatever access it wants to our personal information. An opinion piece at Wired suggests that tech companies are fighting back:

Everyone assumes that technology companies like Apple, Facebook, and Google don’t care that their customers are being spied on. I don’t believe that’s true.

On the very day the media dropped detailed documents on the NSA’s X-Keyscore collection program, the Facebook engineering team published a blog post stating that all access to Facebook via apps and web browsers was now SSL encrypted. Given X-Keyscore was a program primarily designed to intercept unencrypted internet traffic, you could be forgiven for interpreting Facebook’s post as a middle finger pointed in NSA’s direction. (Sources inside Facebook say it is a coincidence, and indeed the company had been in the process of enabling this across-the-board for years. But still. The timing.)

There are new interception hurdles everywhere you look. Even plain old SSL encryption is becoming more difficult to snoop on. Previously, governments could rely on complicit or compromised certificate authorities to provide them with the means to intercept encrypted traffic. Thanks to the Iranian government’s overly enthusiastic use of this technique, Google made changes to the Chrome browser to neuter the practice. Similar updates are expected soon in Internet Explorer. There goes another interception technique for law enforcement!

And it’s only going to get worse for the poor ole G-Men. Technology companies are enabling security features that make certain types of government surveillance extremely difficult, and it’s a trend that’s set to continue. That’s why the U.S. government has long wanted laws that force tech companies to make their products wiretap friendly…

Currently, there’s no law stopping companies like Apple, Facebook, and Google from introducing such security changes or forcing them to build in backdoors. Why would Apple want its users migrating to cross-platform, anti-snooping messaging apps like Hemlis (by the founders of The Pirate Bay)? Especially when the company could push itself out of the surveillance business with its own technical tweaks before federal regulations force them to become key players in warrant execution.

In fact, advancements in the usability of cryptographic protocols have made anti-surveillance features relatively simple for technology companies to bake into their communications products. And public demand for greater security and privacy in the wake of Edward Snowden’s revelations may make it virtually obligatory for them to do so before new wiretapping laws can be introduced.

It is increasingly looking like Edward Snowden’s release of information is as important in defending civil liberties (and understanding the threats) in the technological age as Daniel Ellsberg’s release of the Pentagon Papers were in spreading knowledge of how the government was lying about Viet Nam. Snowden’s actions have probably prevented the passage of new laws which would further enable organizations such as the NSA to violate our privacy rights:

Today, an attempt to introduce laws that would heavily fine software and internet companies for failing to make their products wiretap-friendly would be met by a full-scale revolt by the commentariat — and by the noisy political fringe on the left and the right.

President Obama was reportedly on the verge of backing the new wiretapping plan as recently as May this year. Only the “Snowden files” hit the press one month later, and surveillance became a hot-button issue. These laws seemingly dropped off the agenda.

For now.

Before Snowden, the proposed law would have been a mildly controversial but grudgingly accepted compliance regime for technology companies. The blowback might have been limited to a few angry Reddit threads and Anonymous denial-of-service attacks against government websites.

Now, it would become a serious political liability for the Obama administration — as well as a public relations and commercial disaster for the technology industry.

We are seeing an example of tech companies pushing back in this statement from Microsoft about a joint effort with Google to increase transparency. The Washington Post offers further background information as to why Microsoft and Google want to be able to discuss information beyond the government plans to  release annual reports on the government’s surveillance activity:

The company wants to be able to discuss just the court orders that it receives, rather than a larger bucket of reports that also includes demands made of other tech companies. Google has made a similar plea in a separate filing to the FISA court. It’s as much a public relations move as a bid for greater openness; by showing company-specific numbers, Microsoft and Google would be able to put distance between themselves and the Justice Department.

Microsoft goes one step further than Google, however. In accordance with the practices contained in its own transparency report, Microsoft said that the government should break down those numbers even more to distinguish requests for user metadata, such as IP addresses and e-mail header information, from demands for user content, which would expose personally identifiable information such as the actual text of e-mails to law enforcement.

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