Normative Narratives


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Transparency Report: When it Comes to Privacy, People More Concerned With Big Business Than “Big Brother”

https://normativenarratives.files.wordpress.com/2014/06/5ab92-aa111bb.jpg

Original article:

People around the world are thrilled by the ease and convenience of their smartphones and Internet services, but they aren’t willing to trade their privacy to get more of it.

That is the top-line finding of a new study of 15,000 consumers in 15 countries…The study, conducted by Edelman Berland, a market research firm, and sponsored by EMC, the data storage giant, has some other intriguing results with implications for business. Consumers worldwide seem to strongly agree with the notion that there should be laws “to prohibit businesses from buying an selling data without my opt-in consent” — 87 percent.

When asked to name the leading threats to online privacy in the future, 51 percent of the global panel of consumers picked “businesses using, trading or selling my personal data for financial gain without my knowledge or benefit.” That was well ahead of the 35 percent who selected “lone/crazy hackers, hacker groups or anarchist types.” The prying eyes of government — “my government spying on me” — was cited as a serious privacy threat by only 21 percent, even in the wake of the Edward Snowden leaks that showed the sweeping surveillance programs of American and British intelligence agencies.

It is worth noting that among countries surveyed, those with a higher standard of living where generally less willing to trade privacy for “convenience”. In countries where people are less well off, they are more willing to trade some of their privacy for conveniences (saving time / money)–lending credence to the idea that privacy is, to a certain extent, a luxury.

In the aftermath of the Snowden leaks, it is a bit surprising to see people around the globe so much more concerned with businesses selling their data (51%) than government “spying” (21%). I have maintained that I do not believe government “spying” is a serious threat to personal privacy, (so long as the government in question is an accountable, transparent, and democratic government) and it seems that most people around the world generally agree that private businesses trading our information is a greater threat to privacy than government surveillance.

There is also a qualitative difference between private data collection and government surveillance. Private companies trade data for money, while the government collects information for security reasons. The government is directly accountable to people and is supposed to have societies best interests at heart, as opposed private businesses, which are accountable to markets and are motivated by profit maximization.

Despite outrage drummed up by civil rights and privacy activists, people seem to understand the different functions of these two forms of data collection. According to respondents, people were most willing to trade privacy for “being protected from terrorist and/or criminal activity” (54%) than any other reason offered (the next highest answer, for comparison, was a tie between better access to information / knowledge and easier access to healthcare information, at 45%).

There are notable limitations to determining global preferences from a 15,000 person sample that covers only 15 countries. However, the surveys results do suggest that globally people are not as concerned with government spying as one may expect.

Perhaps as governments such as the U.S. have become more willing to engage in public discourse about surveillance and offer reforms, people have had their fears assuaged. Or perhaps people, not seeing government surveillance negatively affecting their lives, are willing to trust their government in the name of security and crime prevention (especially governments that have earned that trust through a history of good governance).

I get annoying telemarketers, spam emails, and advertisement text messages from companies that have bought my personal information on a daily basis. Private companies are much more willing to use (and therefore likely to abuse) personal data. Furthermore, the conveniences this information supplies are extremely trivial when compared with security / crime protection.

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Transparency Report: Republicans Oppose U.S. Law Targeting Offshore Tax Dodgers

Original Article:

At its winter meeting in Washington, the RNC approved by voice vote a resolution in favor of abolishing the 2010 Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA), set to take effect in July, marking the party’s first explicit attack on the law.

FATCA will require most foreign banks and investment funds to report to the U.S. Internal Revenue Service information about U.S. customers’ accounts worth $50,000 or more. The law was enacted after a scandal involving Americans hiding assets in Swiss bank accounts to dodge U.S. taxes.

Critics have blasted the law as an unfair government overreach and invasion of financial privacy.

“The Republican National Committee … urges the U.S. Congress to repeal FATCA,” said the measure, staking out a campaign position ahead of 2014’s mid-term elections.

Tax watchdog groups that support FATCA slammed the Republican vote. “It is mind-boggling that a major political party would even consider endorsing a resolution to facilitate tax evasion,” said Heather Lowe, director of government affairs at anti-graft watchdog group Global Financial Integrity.

“Repealing the law would cripple the U.S. and global efforts to fight offshore tax evasion,” she said in a statement.

The Center for Freedom and Prosperity, a group that advocates for lower taxes and financial privacy, praised the RNC vote. “The GOP’s adoption of FATCA repeal to its platform is a major victory for taxpayer privacy rights,” said the center’s Director of Government Affairs Brian Garst.

Repeal is unlikely and the issue was not expected to resonate with average U.S. voters, said lobbyists on both ends of the political spectrum. But they said Republican opposition to the law could help the party raise campaign funds.

It is certainly mind-boggling that a major political party would endorse such a view. And even if a repeal is unlikely, this issue should “resonate with the average U.S. voter”. In an era of constant budget-battling and debt-ceiling standoffs (the next one is right around the corner), where stimulus spending is unthinkable and welfare programs are constantly coming under attack (even though both are extremely important during an economic recovery), it is important for Americans to understand the main drivers of U.S. government debt. Once you understand these main drivers, it is obvious why this G.O.P. position on FATCA is unconscionable.

A quick simplified lesson: There are two sides to government debt, receipts (tax revenue) and outlays (spending). While there are certain drivers of long-term spending which must be reformed (social security, and medicaid, and defense spending specifically), these long term issues have little to do with economic recovery fiscal policies (government stimulus spending and “automatic stabilizers“).

A few historic graphs from the White House Office of Management and Budget (full tables from 1938-2012 can be downloaded: reciepts_endpenditure_historyreciepts_by_source) tell the story of U.S. government debt.

RECEIPTS, OUTLAYS, SURPLUS/DEFICIT(–)% GDP | PERCENTAGE COMPOSITION——————————————————————|  OF RECEIPTS BY SOURCE
Year GDP (in billions of dollars) Total Individual Income Taxes Corporation Income Taxes
Receipts Outlays Surplus or Deficit (-)
1992 6,242.0 17.5 22.1 -4.7 43.6 9.2
1993 6,587.3 17.5 21.4 -3.9 44.2 10.2
1994 6,976.6 18.0 21.0 -2.9 43.1 11.2
1995 7,341.1 18.4 20.6 -2.2 43.7 11.6
1996 7,718.3 18.8 20.2 -1.4 45.2 11.8
1997 8,211.7 19.2 19.5 -0.3 46.7 11.5
1998 8,663.0 19.9 19.1 0.8 48.1 11.0
1999 9,208.4 19.8 18.5 1.4 48.1 10.1
2000 9,821.0 20.6 18.2 2.4 49.6 10.2
2001 10,225.3 19.5 18.2 1.3 49.9 7.6
2002 10,543.9 17.6 19.1 -1.5 46.3 8.0
2003 10,980.2 16.2 19.7 -3.4 44.5 7.4
2004 11,676.0 16.1 19.6 -3.5 43.0 10.1
2005 12,428.6 17.3 19.9 -2.6 43.1 12.9
2006 13,206.5 18.2 20.1 -1.9 43.4 14.7
2007 13,861.4 18.5 19.7 -1.2 45.3 14.4
2008 14,334.4 17.6 20.8 -3.2 45.4 12.1
2009 13,960.7 15.1 25.2 -10.1 43.5 6.6
2010 14,348.4 15.1 24.1 -9.0 41.5 8.9
2011 14,929.4 15.4 24.1 -8.7 47.4 7.9
2012 15,547.4 15.8 22.8 -7.0 46.2 9.9
2013 estimate 16,202.7 16.7 22.7 -6.0 45.5 10.6

Government expenditures will go down when we experience full economic recovery (and not just a recovery for the top 1%)–that’s why welfare programs are known as “automatic stabilizers”. What will not automatically change are tax receipts, which are at their lowest levels since 1950. The American public has been paying a fairly constant portion of total federal taxes over the past 6 decades through income taxes–between 40-50%. Corporate taxes have fluctuated wildly; between 1940 and 1967 they made up 20-30% of federal tax revenue, since 1980 they have hovered around 10%.

The American public continues to pay its fair share, while corporations get a pass (and actually get huge bailouts and subsidies). America, in reality, has a regressive tax system. This low effective corporate tax rate stems largely from tax loopholes; a difficult problem to address rooted in corporate lobbying (money buys influence buys loopholes). Overcoming this problem will take an overhaul of the government tax code and a change in the current lobbying system, neither of which is an easy task.

Much less contentious should be targeting offshore cash holdings. While loopholes at least (allegedly) contribute to job creation, offshore tax evasion is a crime which robs the U.S. of vital tax revenues with no benefit to society. But even this “slam-dunk” reform is being challenged by the G.O.P.

Privacy Narrative:

I thought it was interesting that the Center for Freedom and Prosperity, a conservative think-tank, used the privacy narrative to justify the G.O.P. stance on FACTA. This reminded me how Matt Taibbi, in his book “Griftopia”, explains how the wealthy sell financial sector deregulation to the lay-man.

According to Taibbi, financial regulation is equated to local / state level government regulation–the average person, who experiences government overreach in their day-to-day lives, feels for the “poor banker trying to earn a buck”. Of course this equation is false; however, many people do not know enough about our political system to understand this fallacy, especially when their favorite news outlets are driving this false narrative home.

It seems that something similar is being attempted with this privacy narrative. One of the main issues of the day is NSA “spying”. Perhaps conservatives are trying to latch onto this privacy narrative to drum up popular support for repealing FACTA. I think this is a tougher sell, although financial deregulation sounded like an impossible sell until pundits begin selling it. It is therefore important to expose this fallacy to the general public before the narrative hits the newsroom.

Next time you hear an argument about “fiscal responsibility”, remember the G.O.P is the party of offshore tax evasion. Social spending programs and the tax code need to be overhauled; these issues will take time to remedy and must be addressed with care, they cannot be attached to short term issues like economic recovery or the debt ceiling.

Enabling offshore tax evasion by repealing FACTA benefits nobody except those who engage in offshore tax evasion–this should not be a contentious issue. Those who engage in such activities do not deserve our understanding or support, regardless of your stance on NSA surveillance.


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Conflict Watch: Prison Breaks, Guantanamo, and the War on Terror

Original article:

Interpol issued a global security alert on Saturday, citing prison breaks across nine nations in the past month, including some in which Al Qaeda is suspected of playing a role, and asked for help to determine whether the operations “are coordinated or linked.”

The international police organization requested, in a statement, that its 190 member nations “closely follow and swiftly process any information linked to these events and the escaped prisoners.” It also cited the anniversaries of notable terrorist attacks by Islamic extremists, and a similar security alert issued by the State Department on Friday. It said that it would be “prioritizing all information and intelligence in relation to the breakouts or terrorist plots.”

Late last month Al Qaeda’s Iraq affiliate carried out what were described as carefully synchronized operations at two prisons, in Abu Ghraib and Taji. The group used mortars to pin down Iraqi forces, employed suicide bombers to punch holes in their defenses and then sent an assault force to free the inmates, Western experts said at the time.

A few days later, more than 1,000 prisoners escaped under murky circumstances at a prison near Benghazi, Libya.

Shortly after that, as many as 150 fighters armed with guns and grenade launchers blew holes in the perimeter wall of a century-old prison at Dera Ismail Khan, just outside Pakistan’s tribal belt, the Pakistani police said.

It is certainly concerning that The State Department and Interpol have both issued broad statements indicating a rising threat of a terrorist attack in the near future:

“The intent is to attack Western, not just U.S. interests,” General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, told ABC News in an interview to be broadcast on its “This Week” program on Sunday.

The State Department, and some American allies, will be shutting down embassies and consulates in the following countries:

“Britain said it would close its embassy in Yemen on Sunday and Monday. “We are particularly concerned about the security situation in the final days of Ramadan and into Eid,” Britain’s Foreign Office said in a statement, referring to the Muslim holy month which ends on Wednesday.”

On Thursday, the State Department said U.S. embassies that would normally be open on Sunday – chiefly those in the Muslim world – would be closed that day because of security concerns, adding that they might be shut for a longer period.

The embassies in the following countries will be closed: Afghanistan, Algeria, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Djibouti, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Libya, Mauritania, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen.

The consulates in Arbil, Iraq; Dhahran and Jeddah, Saudi Arabia; and Dubai, United Arab Emirates will also be shut.

The need to close embassies and consulates is a moral victory for terrorists. Diplomacy, communication, cooperation and resulting social capital needed for meaningful international relations are all compromised when regular operations at these facilities cease. However, a governments primary responsibility is to ensure the safety and security of foreign service personnel; after the deadly attack on the U.S. embassy in Benghazi in 2012, and amidst accusations that the U.S. government did not to enough to prevent the attack (whether founded in fact or not), the Obama administration is rightfully unwilling to take any chances going forward.

Resumption of normal diplomatic relationships should be a top concern, but one that must be balanced with adequate security measures. Recent congressional action highlights the bipartisan support and overall importance of these goals:

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee passed a proposal Thursday that aims to bolster security at U.S. embassies and diplomatic posts around the world in the aftermath of the attacks on a diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, Libya, last year.

Committee Chairman Bob Menendez said the proposal, which passed on a voice vote, is a “very meaningful step in assuring the security of missions abroad and the safety of our foreign service personal.”

 
On a related note, the multitude of prison breakouts in terrorist hot-beds is creating even more difficulty in the ongoing attempt to shut down Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp:
 
 
The vulnerability of prisons has been shown in the past ten days with a spate of mass breakouts that have freed nearly 1,700 prisoners in three countries. Analysts said that the four jailbreaks, in Iraq, Pakistan and Libya, could complicate the US Government’s plans to close the prison at Guantánamo Bay
 
 
There has been outrage over recent evidence that the per-prisoner cost at Gitmo may be as high as $2.7 million a year, all things considered. This is on-top of ongoing popular dissent over violations of prisoners rights and due process of law.
 
 
$2.7 million is indisputably a lot of money for a single prisoner/ However, we have to look at in context of the resources we put into arresting these “most wanted” criminals in the first place. Disruption of normal economic activity due to terrorism costs the global economy billions of dollars a year–I will not attempt to cite an estimate because of issues with defining “terrorism” and how open to interpretation the “cost of terrorism” can be. The War on Terror has cost the U.S. government trillions of dollars.
 
 
It is not acceptable to pour all of these resources into capturing criminals only to have them escape from detention. Breaking out high level terrorist officials bolsters the strategic capability of terrorist organizations to plan future terrorist attacks / jail breaks–the effects of a well planned jail break can be truly catastrophic.
 
 
With regards to rights violations and due process of the law, I think as a society we can be pragmatic enough to realize this is a nonsensical argument. The criminals who end up in Gitmo, or places like Gitmo, are generally human rights violators and murderers–they have no respect for human rights or the due process of the law.
 
 
Do you want to know what act surely is a violation of due process of the law and will most likely lead to future human rights violations? Breaking a terrorist leader out of prison. By taking the moral high ground, Western interests would be putting themselves at a systematic and strategic disadvantage in the fight against terrorism that they can ill afford. When considering Gitmo’s future, we have to factor in what the alternatives are.
 
 
Guantanamo Bay is far from perfect or efficient, it is commonly referred to as a “stain” on America’s human rights records. However, when considering the alternatives, it is undoubtedly the lesser of many evils. 
 
—-
 
Update: I did not want to speculate, but there is now official confirmation that intelligence gathering programs have helped expose this most recent threat:
 

Chambliss said one of the surveillance programs revealed by former spy agency contractor Edward Snowden had helped gather intelligence about this threat.

Those programs “allow us to have the ability to gather this chatter,” he said. “If we did not have these programs then we simply wouldn’t be able to listen in on the bad guys.”

 

 


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Transparency Report: Snowden and Snow-now

preview

Just 6 days ago it seemed like their was a chance that the Edward Snowden debacle could be resolved internally:

The United States has made a formal promise to Russia not to execute or torture Edward Snowden if he is sent home to face charges of illegally disclosing government secrets, and the Kremlin said Russian and U.S. security agencies are in talks over his fate.

The 30-year-old former U.S. spy agency contractor has been stuck in the transit area of a Moscow airport for more than a month despite Washington’s calls to hand him over.

Russia has refused to extradite Snowden, who leaked details of a secret U.S. surveillance program including phone and Internet data, and is now considering his request for a temporary asylum.

In a letter dated Tuesday July 23 and released on Friday, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder wrote that he sought to dispel claims about what would happen to Snowden if he is sent home.

“Mr. Snowden has filed papers seeking temporary asylum in Russia on the grounds that if he were returned to the United States, he would be tortured and would face the death penalty. These claims are entirely without merit. Torture is unlawful in the United States,” Holder wrote, without explicit reference to Manning. “If he returns to the United States, Mr. Snowden would promptly be brought before a civilian court.”

“Snowden was charged with theft of government property, unauthorized communication of national defense information and willful communication of classified communications intelligence information to an unauthorized person.

The latter two offenses fall under the U.S. Espionage Act and carry penalties of fines and up to 10 years in prison.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin had expressed “strong determination”, he said, not to let relations suffer over the dispute “no matter how the situation develops”. Putin himself is not personally dealing with the problem, the spokesman said.

But he reiterated Moscow’s stance that Russia “did not hand over, does not hand over and will not hand over anybody”.

Putin, a former KGB spy, has said Snowden could only be granted sanctuary in Russia if he stopped actions that could harm the United States.

However, a smooth ending to the Edward Snowden saga was not to be, as Moscow today extended “temporary asylum”  to Snowden for one. This effectively puts Snowden out of reach for the next year from the American legal system. News of this decision drew a sharply negative response from the White House:

Russia granted National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden asylum on Thursday and allowed him to leave Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport for the first time in more than a month, raising the prospect that the U.S. fugitive will remain in Russia for the foreseeable future and become a constant strain on already-tense relations with the U.S.

“We are extremely disappointed that the Russian government would take this step despite our very clear and lawful request” to have him expelled, said Mr. Obama’s chief spokesman, Jay Carney. “Mr. Snowden is not a whistleblower—he is accused of leaking classified information.”

The decision undermines long-standing law-enforcement cooperation between Moscow and Washington, Mr. Carney said.

Russia’s decision also threatens to derail a planned September summit in Moscow between President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin, which U.S. officials had viewed as a potential breakthrough moment in a monthslong drive to find common ground with Russia on important foreign-policy aims, such as ending the war in Syria. “We are evaluating the utility of a summit in light of this,” Mr. Carney said, adding that no decision had been made.

Senator John McCain, a well respected Senator with unparalleled foreign relations experience (and subsequent influence on foreign relations discourse), was even more critical of the move:

U.S. Senator John McCain is furious about whistleblower Edward Snowden’s newly-acquired asylum, and is demanding that Washington re-examine its relations with Moscow and “strip away the illusions that many Americans have had about Russia.”

Following the news of Snowden’s one-year asylum status in Russia, McCain released an angry statement in which he condemns the “disgraceful” actions of President Vladimir Putin.

“Russia’s action today is a disgrace and a deliberate effort to embarrass the United States,” the senator said. “It is a slap in the face of all Americans. Now is the time to fundamentally rethink our relationship with Putin’s Russia. We need to deal with the Russia that is, not the Russia we might wish for.”

“Today’s action by Putin’s Russia should finally strip away the illusions that many Americans have had about Russia the past few years,” he said. “We have long needed to take a more realistic approach to our relations with Russia, and I hope today we finally start.”

— 

Russia’s response to American outrage has been weak and arguably oblivious to the reality of the matter:

One of Mr. Putin’s aides, Yuri V. Ushakov, said on Thursday that Mr. Snowden’s fate was of “insignificant character” and thus would not affect relations, according to the state news agency, RIA Novosti. He added that the Kremlin was aware that Mr. Obama might cancel his trip to Moscow but had received no official notification from officials in Washington.

It is unfortunate that Russia decided to grant Snowden asylum, as more than anything it adds to what the article refers to as the “constant strain on already-tense relations with the U.S”. Russia and the U.S. have a very interesting historical relationship. Despite obvious fundamental differences, since the end of the Cold War both Russia and the U.S. have been able to coexist, and at times cooperate, in global affairs despite mistrust and misunderstanding by both sides. Because of this longstanding yet complex / secretive relationship, every official action between the two countries adds on top of an already long list of diplomatic baggage. The Snowden issue is just the most recent manifestation of the somewhat cooperative yet mostly competitive and ideologically divided relationship that defines modern US-Russian relations.

Balking at the G-20 talks would be counter productive; I have gone on record recently (here and here) about the importance of the upcoming G-20 talks. It appears the global community is ready to seriously start addressing issues that require global policy coherence, such as corporate tax evasion, environmental and security issues. Furthermore, it appears the U.S. federal government will simultaneously push legislation to operationalize international agreements, hopefully beginning a trend of coherent global-good-governance. There are a multitude of issues, both bilateral and multilateral, which the U.S. must take a leading role on at the G20 summit. How U.S.-Russia relations evolve from this incident is yet to be determined. A good way to press forward constructively is for Obama to attend G-20 talks. By all means boycott the 2018 Winter Olympics, but the G-20 summit should not be used as a diplomatic bargaining chip, there is too much at stake.

In a way, this is a fitting temporary conclusion to the Snowden saga–a life of constant limbo and uncertainty of his own human rights. These are in essence the opposite of core elements of American society–security, freedom, self-determination and expression

For Mr. Snowden, Russia’s hospitality could prove a mixed blessing. The Kremlin has demanded he cease his “political activities” in order to stay in the country, curtailing his potential options for work.

If Snowden thought the U.S. Federal government was bad, he is about the meet the Kremlin (sounds ominous no?). The Russian government violates human rights with relative impunity, and uses national sovereignty as a shield from accountability for domestic and extra-territorial human rights violations (most prominently the continued provision of advanced arms to Assad in Syria). Snowden thought he would be a hero, instead he is for all intents and purposes under house-arrest in Russia.

If recent events have taught us anything it is that governments with adequate resources, aided with advances in information and communications technology (ICTs), have virtually global surveillance capabilities;. Snowden’s every move will be watched during his time in Russia by both the Obama administration and the Kremlin. In his attempt to expose human rights violations by the U.S. government, Snowden has in effect sacrificed his own rights. He has spent the last few months in Hong Kong and Moscow, not exactly hotbeds for human rights or freedom of expression. His only permanent asylum options at the moment are in Latin American countries, where governments tend to be ill-equip at even providing basic personal security.

The U.S. is not perfect–there is no perfect country. Snowden will come to realize in time that in his pursuit of perfection (or fame or more nefarious goals), he flew too close to the sun. The U.S. Government has numerous domestic and international obligations; at times those obligations appear to be incompatible and difficult decisions have to be made. The U.S. government perhaps should have been more transparent about aspects of PRISM, but our leaders believe that by its nature disclosure would inhibit the effectiveness of PRISM, and chose to keep it secret (until Snowden came along).

I never got why the collection of metadata by the U.S. Federal is such a big deal to people. After all, private sector corporations such as Verizon already have this data; are we worried that our elected officials have information that private companies already own and probably sell to advertisers? There have been exactly 0 confirmed instances of the U.S. government using PRISM data to infringe of the rights of U.S. citizens. As a country we should focus our efforts on the real issues in-front of us–there are many of them–instead of on hypothetical rights violations by the global champion of democracy and human rights.

The U.S. government made it clear that it was willing to issue Snowden a temporary passport to come home and have his day in court. Snowden has officially rebuffed this offer, and after a year in Russia, probably will never receive it again.


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Conflict Watch: Edward Snowden Offered Asylum in Latin America, and “Legitimate” Democratic Leadership

Original Article:

“Bolivia offered asylum on Saturday to former U.S. spy agency contractor Edward Snowden, joining leftist allies Venezuela and Nicaragua in defiance of Washington, which is demanding his arrest for divulging details of secret U.S. surveillance programs.

Snowden, 30, is believed to be holed up in the transit area of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo international airport and has been trying to find a country that would take him since he landed from Hong Kong on June 23.

Bolivian President Evo Morales had said earlier this week that he would consider granting asylum to Snowden. But he took a harder line on Saturday, angered that some European countries banned his plane from their airspace this week on suspicion it carried Snowden.”

“”I want to tell … the Europeans and Americans that last night I was thinking that as a fair protest, I want to say that now in fact we are going to give asylum to that American who is being persecuted by his fellow Americans,” Morales said during a visit to the town of Chipaya.

“If we receive a legal request, we will grant asylum,” he said. Bolivia’s Foreign Ministry was not immediately available to comment on whether a formal asylum request had been received.

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro also offered refuge to Snowden late Friday. Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, speaking in Managua, said he would gladly give Snowden asylum in Nicaragua ‘if circumstances permit.’ He did not say what those circumstances might be.

Nicaragua, one of the poorest countries in the Americas, has benefited greatly from financial support from Venezuela, and Ortega was a staunch ally of Chavez.

“Russia has shown signs of growing impatience over Snowden’s stay in Moscow. Its deputy foreign minister said on Thursday that Snowden had not sought asylum in that country and needed to choose a place to go.

Moscow has made clear that the longer he stays, the greater the risk of the diplomatic standoff over his fate causing lasting damage to relations with Washington.

Both Russia’s Foreign Ministry and President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman declined to comment on Venezuela’s offer.

‘This is not our affair,’ spokesman Dmitry Peskov told Reuters.”

“The White House declined to comment. But one U.S. official familiar with the matter, who asked for anonymity, said: ‘It’s fair to say in general that U.S. officials have been pressuring governments where Snowden might try to go to do the right thing here.”

“Morales, Bolivia’s first indigenous leader and a former union leader for the country’s coca leaf farmers, and Maduro both condemned the U.S. spy programs that Snowden revealed and said he deserved protection.

‘Who is the guilty one? A young man … who denounces war plans, or the U.S. government which launches bombs and arms the terrorist Syrian opposition against the people and legitimate President Bashar al-Assad?’ Maduro asked, to applause and cheers from ranks of military officers at a parade.

‘Who is the terrorist? Who is the global delinquent?’

A bid by Snowden for Icelandic citizenship hit an impasse on Friday when the country’s parliament voted not to debate the issue before its summer recess.”

“Ex-intelligence contractor Edward Snowden has been charged with espionage and theft of government records after exposing a massive National Security Agency surveillance program known as PRISM.”

The Snowden issue is a loaded one, with national security and civil liberties implications. The U.S. government has had its hands full trying to balance the democratic principles of transparency and freedom of information with the national security responsibilities that modern warfare imposes on governments.

While PRISM was the first such program revealed, I think many people probably assumed that certain steps had been taken since 9/11 to ramp up intelligence gathering as part of a broader anti-terrorism mandate. In addition, intelligence gathering programs such as PRISM do not appear to be uniquely American.

“U.S. Secretary of State Kerry, on July 1 in Brunei series of meetings held during the East Asian correspondent conference. Asked about the recent burst of the U.S. National Security Agency of the EU institutions as well as some of the leaders of allies wiretapping issue, Kerry said that such behavior for most countries and there is nothing ‘unusual.'”

“But Kerry also said that such behavior for most countries, and there is nothing ‘unusual.’ He said: ‘I would say there is international relations of any one country, when it comes to national security, will take a variety of actions and collect all kinds of information to safeguard national security, which for most countries, and there is nothing unusual.'”

Recent reports suggest that France has a similar program, as more likely than not does any government with adequate information and communication technology (ICT) and manpower / resources. So long as this information is used for legitimate purposes and not as a tool for invading privacy, I support intelligence gathering programs.

I am of the mind that if you live transparently/legitimately, and have nothing to hide, then there is no reason to be afraid of government intelligence gathering. There is certainly lots of information on me out there on the internet, none of which I am concerned about. While some of it could be potentially embarrassing, none of it is illegal, and I do not believe the U.S. governments intelligence gathering has an “embarrassment mandate”. When the U.S. government starts selling personal information to US Weekly, then I will be concerned with PRISM.

I am getting off track, as the Snowden case could certainly be explored over the course of many blogs. I would like to turn focus to the inexplicable statements by Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro. It is not surprising to see a Venezuelan leader railing against the U.S. government. His predecessor Hugo Chavez was an adamant anti-American figure, and remains one of the most popular figures in the country despite the impediment of not being alive. Maduro has often made baseless claims of American-backed plots to undermine his Presidency in his short time as Venezuelan President. But this latest statement truly has me shaking my head:

‘Who is the guilty one? A young man … who denounces war plans, or the U.S. government which launches bombs and arms the terrorist Syrian opposition against the people and legitimate President Bashar al-Assad?’ Maduro asked, to applause and cheers from ranks of military officers at a parade.

‘Who is the terrorist? Who is the global delinquent?'”

The term “legitimate President”  has been tossed around a lot lately, mostly surrounding the military coup and ouster of former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi.The term has been tossed around so much that I believe it has begun to lose its meaning, as highlighted by President Maduro’s anti-American rhetoric. This is unacceptable to us (me and my readers) here at NN, so I would like to set the record straight on what exactly constitutes a “legitimate presidency”

Where does legitimacy come from? In a democracy, a regimes legitimate claim to govern comes predominantly from the execution of free and fair elections. While this is obviously only the starting point of effective democracy, it is –as far as I can tell–an indispensable part of the democratic process.

Morsi was Egypt’s legitimate President not because he was a good leader or even particularly effective (it would appear he was not as calculating a politician as he or his supporters liked to imagine, unless his ultimate goal was martyrdom). Morsi was the legitimate leader because he and his constitution passed open and fair elections in Egypt.

The message being sent to Muslims everywhere by the coup in Egypt is simple–that democracy has no place for them. I cannot help but feel that the normative vision of a democratic and modernized Middle-East took a step backwards this past week. I can only hope that I am wrong, and the The Muslim Brotherhood is embraced as part of a pluralistic and democratic Egyptian government. While talks of a “road-map” to an inclusive democratic government are promising, actions speak louder than words. One has to question the Egyptian military’s commitment to a truly effective democracy, as it represents the strongest vested interest in Egypt that would ultimately lose power if effective democracy took hold.

Bashar-al Assad of Syria IS NOT a legitimate OR effective leader. He is illegitimate because he was never elected in a fair or free election (or any election at all for that matter), but instead succeeded his father in a hereditary autocracy that has lasted 40+ years. He is not effective for a number of reasons, chiefly because he managed to turn peaceful protests into a civil war and regional refugee crisis that has threatened regional stability in the Middle-East. While human rights violations have occurred on both sides of the Syrian Civil War, the majority of these violations have been perpetuated by Assad’s forces.

Regardless of how ineffectual Morsi’s rule was, he was more of a legitimate leader than Assad can ever hope to be at this point.

While it is true there are extremist factions amongst the Syrian opposition, the U.S and allies are taking all steps possible to ensure that military aid is channeled through the proper avenues. To claim that Assad is a “legitimate President” shows an alarming irrationality and hatred of America emanating from the Venezuelan government.

 

 

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Transparency Report: PRISM, The Declaration of Independence, The Constitution, Civil and Human Rights

There has been understandable concern over reports that leaked last week which tied the US government to the collection of peoples personal phone and internet records through a sweeping government program known as PRISM. One questions brings about more questions. Are whistle-blowers hero’s or traitors? Is PRISM a necessary component of national security or an infringement of civil rights? Has PRISM actually been effective in stopping terrorist attacks? Has the leak compromised America’s national security? Perhaps due to still murky details, American’s are still largely divided on these issues.

The New York Times editorial board was particularly one-sided in its assessment of the programs; such a response is not surprising, as a major representative of news Media, the New York Times ability to produce meaningful content relies on civil rights.

“Perhaps the lack of a broader sense of alarm is not all that surprising when President Obama, Senator Dianne Feinstein, the Democratic chairwoman of the Intelligence Committee, and intelligence officials insist that such surveillance is crucial to the nation’s anti-terrorism efforts.

But Americans should not be fooled by political leaders putting forward a false choice. The issue is not whether the government should vigorously pursue terrorists. The question is whether the security goals can be achieved by less-intrusive or sweeping means, without trampling on democratic freedoms and basic rights. Far too little has been said on this question by the White House or Congress in their defense of the N.S.A.’s dragnet.

The surreptitious collection of “metadata” — every bit of information about every phone call except the word-by-word content of conversations — fundamentally alters the relationship between individuals and their government.”

Tracking whom Americans are calling, for how long they speak, and from where, can reveal deeply personal information about an individual. Using such data, the government can discover intimate details about a person’s lifestyle and beliefs — political leanings and associations, medical issues, sexual orientation, habits of religious worship, and even marital infidelities. Daniel Solove, a professor at George Washington University Law School and a privacy expert, likens this program to a Seurat painting. A single dot may seem like no big deal, but many together create a nuanced portrait.

The effect is to undermine constitutional principles of personal privacy and freedom from constant government monitoring. The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit on Tuesday, challenging the program’s constitutionality, and it was right to do so.

The government’s capacity to build extensive, secret digital dossiers on such a mass scale is totally at odds with the vision and intention of the nation’s framers who crafted the Fourth Amendment precisely to outlaw indiscriminate searches that cast a wide net to see what can be caught. It also attacks First Amendment values of free speech and association.”

It should be noted that the open and multifaceted discourse relating to these leaks is hard evidence that our first amendment rights continue to be upheld despite government surveillance–sometimes you just have to look up to see that the sky isn’t falling.  

The ACLU is perfectly within its rights to file a lawsuit, but I believe the Supreme Court will ultimately uphold the constitutionality of PRISM. It is true that PRISM violates the 4th Amendment , in that the government is indiscriminately collecting “metadata” on Americans phone and internet data. The American people want answers. The European Commission wants answers (further complicating US-Euro Free Trade talks). And it seems answers we will get, although perhaps not all the answers we desire:

” The director of the National Security Agency said on Thursday that he would release more information about the top secret programs that sweep up vast quantities of communications data on people here and abroad, and vowed to clear up what he said were inaccuracies and misperceptions about how the programs work.”

“”We have pledged to be as transparent as possible,’ he said after emerging from a classified briefing with House members. “I think it’s important that you have that information. But we don’t want to risk American lives in doing that. So what we’re being is very deliberate in this process so that we don’t end up causing a terrorist attack by giving out too much information.’”

“Among the inaccuracies he said he wanted to clear up was that the N.S.A. is listening to Americans’ phone calls.”

“Mr. Rogers stressed that grave damage was done by the disclosure of the programs, which involve a huge database of the logs of nearly every domestic phone call made by Americans, and the collection of information from American Internet companies like Google without individual court orders if the request is targeted at non-citizens abroad.”

We will get answers, hopefully answers that shed light on previous  terrorists acts thwarted by PRISM. But it is also clear that we will not get answers that compromise national security.

The Constitution was drafted as a living document, a foundation upon which our nation could grow upon. There is no possible way our forefathers could have foreseen modern security risks–in revolutionary times wars were fought with single shot muskets! Reading into any document too literally, be it a legal or religious document, is likely to lead to extreme conservative values which ultimately restrict human rights. For these documents we’re written in different times, and need to be amended to remain relevant today. As a legal document, the Constitution was understandably focused on civil and political rights and liberties. 

The Declaration of Independence, as a more general declaration, was based on what are now known as human rights. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes…”

Subsequent constitutional amendments have been aimed at expanding the universality of civil rights (3/5’s compromise revoked, women’s and minority rights). It was never the intention of the founding fathers for civil rights to constrain the government from upholding basic human rights–such as the right to personal security. In fact, “certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” referred to in Declaration of Independence are almost identical to Article 3 of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights ,”Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person”.

I would argue that America was founded not only on the principles of civil rights, but on the principles of human rights (which include civil rights). The idea government is responsible for providing the services and resources necessary for personal freedom and happiness is 100% consistent with human rights law. That these rights come before the power of government, and with the power to overthrow a government that does not fulfill these duties, places human rights even ahead of constitutional rights (as overthrowing the government would in effect render The Constitution null, but the legitimacy of such action is upheld right there in the Declaration of Independence).

Enough about 200+ year old documents; it is interesting to interpret the wording (many people have made careers out of it, our own President Barack Obama was a professor of Constitutional Law the University of Chicago, one of the most prestigious law schools in the world), but I would like to set my sites on something a bit more modern–the NYT editorial attack on the PRISM system.

The issue is not whether the government should vigorously pursue terrorists. The question is whether the security goals can be achieved by less-intrusive or sweeping means, without trampling on democratic freedoms and basic rights. Far too little has been said on this question by the White House or Congress in their defense of the N.S.A.’s dragnet.”

Of course there are other means of achieving our security goals; we have been actively attempting them for the past 12 years. The problem is that fighting wars is incredibly expensive and often counter-productive. We do not have to live within the constraints of colonial times in our legislation or our military conduct. Technology has evolved since the 18th century, allowing us to change the ways in which we protect our national security.

Expensive wars have compromised the ability of the government to pay for basic goods and services. Inequality of opportunity and social mobility are huge problems facing modern American society. Our civil and political rights cannot come at the cost of our economic and social rights. If gathering intelligence keeps American safer, and does so in a way that relies less on military expenditure, then the resources saved have to factor into societies C-B analysis at some point. 

The tangible benefits of reduced military expenditure should not be dismissed due to unfounded fear of government intrusion. The government has been collecting this data for years already. Has it changed the way people go about their lives? No, until a week ago we had no idea the program existed (although I am sure people have speculated) . Is there even one example of the government using personal information for nefarious or deviant purposes? Not that I have heard of.

The absence of evidence may not be the evidence of absence; but in America everyone is still innocent until proven guilty, and the government has yet to be proven guilty of misusing personal data ascertained via the PRISM program.

It would be nice if the government could be more transparent about its national security programs, but information travels to easily in today’s digital world–there is no way to release America’s national security information to Americans while not allowing anyone else to see it.

This is not 1776, the threat of tyranny is not a real one. In order to use our national resources in the most efficient way, we must focus them on containing real threats (terrorism, and general deterioration of equality of opportunity, meritocracy, and social mobility which is hurting America’s long run economic growth potential and compromising the “American Dream” itself), not hypothetical violations of our rights.