Prying Eyes

I haven’t joined the Pardon Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning movement, although I credit her for trying to do something about government overreach, even if it was poorly conceived. It’s fine that she will be spending a few more years in prison, as a soldier. She is genuinely contrite and apologetic.

Given her special struggle with gender identity and decision to live as a woman, I think Manning is destined for hospital treatment and out – as Chelsea Manning – before the expected eight-year term is done.

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I’m more concerned about Edward Snowden, now holed up in Russia on a one-year asylum deal. He is not contrite, but he is collared.  I’m sure he is quickly learning the limits of freedom, particularly in the grip of Vladimir Putin, former czar of the KGB.  After a year of internment, offers of asylum in Venezuela and Uruguay may look less inviting. Snowden may return to face the music. Are we ready for that trial?

Manning, a U.S. army enlisted man serving in Iraq, leaked 250,000 State Department diplomatic cables and 500,000 battlefield action reports from Iraq and Afghanistan, including a video of an Apache helicopter attack in Baghdad that killed civilians, including two Reuters journalists. These releases shone a harsh light on U.S. diplomatic and military activities – an embarrassment, certainly, and a black eye for American relations with some allies.  But also sunshine on a dark place.

Snowden was a civilian computer program analyst working on contract for the National Security Agency.  He used his access to reveal NSA’s massive metadata gathering of U.S. phone records, and its PRISM, EKeyscore and Tempora Internet surveillance programs on Americans. He also revealed parallel British mega-spying, leaking the information to both UK’s Guardian newspaper and The Washington Post.

Both Manning and Snowden maintain they leaked the information to journalists to expose the overreach and deception of U.S. policy makers. Manning’s data dump was to an international Internet clearinghouse called WikiLeaks, which promises no holds barred in releasing government documents and protecting whistleblowers. WikiLeaks and its leader Julian Assange have come to the aid of Snowden, trying to help him find asylum.

What makes Snowden’s case unique, however, is that his leaks involve the U.S. government spying on its own people. The NSA has cast its widest net under the cover of the “war on terrorism” to record and review voice and email communications of Americans, tracking who is talking to whom and how often (metadata).

ImageBased on Snowden’s information, the NSA surveillance programs appear to violate the privacy rights of millions of Americans. Since those revelations, ensuing audits and declassified documents have shown that NSA has, in fact, stepped over the line again and again in the name of fighting terrorism. It’s time for Congress and the administration to sanction illegal surveillance activity, and review and reform these intelligence programs. We need greater oversight.

President Obama has promised to fix it, and I look forward to seeing the details. Part of fixing the program should be giving Snowden credit for time served behind the old Iron Curtain, at least tacit credit for exposing the NSA problems. Perhaps that means that Snowden will deserve a pardon. I look forward to the trial, when Snowden stops running. But first he has a year in the gulag.

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Obama was wise to cancel a September summit meeting with Putin, but the Snowden affair was a red herring. Under Putin, Russia has acted poorly on the world stage, arming Syria’s strongman Bashar al-Assad and repressing its own people, from truth-telling journalists to girl rockers Pussy Riot. Russians are being imprisoned and killed for speaking their minds. Meeting with Putin in summit pomp and circumstance would provide tacit support for the dictatorship.

I’m sure Russia’s ignominious record (and maybe some prying eyes, and fingers) is chilling to Snowden as he sets up house in a Russian dacha. The iron culture engrained in Russian rule is no friend to notions of freedom of speech, freedom of association or freedom, period. The Russian experience is the exact opposite, citizens struggling against an oppressive state, whether it is tied to a tsarist monarchy or to a communist apparatchik.

Meanwhile, we may have a creeping menace of our own, the National Security Agency. I studied at NSA headquarters in another era — focusing on the Vietnamese language and the codes the Viet Cong were using as they ran supplies down the Ho Chi Minh trail. I believe NSA is a critical element of the American intelligence community. It provided the pictures of Bin Laden’s fortress in Pakistan, for example, and images tracking the efforts by Iran to develop nuclear weapons.

Without proper oversight, however, NSA is a scary proposition, the intrusive eye in our affairs, Big Brother. The potential for abuse is enormous. As a democratic people, we have to set the parameters for this kind of intrusive spying. It is only one step removed from the oppressor in George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” watching our every move.

Fortunately, Americans are not taking this sitting down:

Still Keeping Time

Since my last post, I’ve been packing up and preparing to move during another ferocious heat wave scorching the nation. That is the big story from Arizona to Massachusetts. Mother Nature’s frenzy. And that’s another story.

We’re not moving far, but the process of parting with a home and memories accumulated over 22-plus years can be discombobulating, to say the least. I console myself with the fact that this is a new chapter, and there is much to build on. Time marches on, and with it go the flickering vignettes of life, the universe and everything.

Some thoughts on the news of the day, and yesterday:

ImageWho are braver than the firefighters who rush into the flames to save lives and property? They are our most important warriors today in this heat, with wildfires out of control throughout California, Arizona, Colorado, Montana and other states. The 19 firefighters who died fighting a blaze in Arizona this year were the best trained, the most dedicated, the most fearless. My hat is off to the International Association of Fire Fighters and President Harold Schaitberger, who speaks proudly and powerfully about firefighters’ dedication and organization in the public interest.

“The men we lost in those hills lived and served for others, for all of us,” Schaitberger said in tribute during the memorial service for the Arizona “Hotshot” crew. “They chose saving lives and protecting the citizens and country they loved, as their profession.”

They are my heroes. As the Boss says, may their love bring us love:

Perhaps the most outrageous outcome of the Trayvon Martin case, besides a jury of white women actually upholding vigilante injustice against a black teenager under Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law, is the pronouncement of shooter George Zimmerman after his acquittal that he felt “that it was all God’s plan.” What kind of God plans for the stalking and killing of an unarmed teenager? I am disappointed by the verdict but also dismayed by the sanctimony of those who would judge Trayvon Martin but not the acts of a wannabe cop who clearly initiated the confrontation and set it off. It is sad to think that American justice holds that profiling and prejudice are extenuating circumstances, and the perpetrator can walk.

Edward Snowden, the young consultant who walked away from his contract job with a laptop computer full of information about how the National Security Agency has routinely, and with impunity, collected telephone and email communications from Americans, is now holed up in the Moscow airport, although a deal may be underway to grant him temporary asylum in Russia. I have mixed feelings about his actions, which I think fall short of espionage but certainly should be prosecuted, if he can be apprehended. I’m not sure I want him to be apprehended, however. His target audience is the American people, not some foreign government – although foreign governments, friend and foe, must look askance at the U.S. propensity and ability to track any and all communications. The most important question to resolve: Do we trust our own government enough to allow what clearly is invasive prying into our private lives. We will have to revisit this very important issue later.

The selling of “Obamacare” is a bow to the same ugly dealing that got us this flawed health care “reform” in the first place. Delaying for one year the requirement that employers with 50 or more employees provide health care may help the Democrats weather another election season of Obamacare curses, but it sets back the effort to provide health care for every American. Meanwhile, some provisions of Obamacare actually penalize – and may put out of business – good “multi-employer” health care plans, which pool resources to provide good and affordable care. Eventually, this Obamacare system must grow a “public option” if we are to control costs.

Three cheers for the Economic Policy Institute in creating a new instructional website at http://inequality.is// about the dangerous trend toward economic inequality. It is a telling reminder about what we must do as a nation to fix a broken economic system that is seriously out of kilter. Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich’s avatar provides a professorial tour through the brambles of an economy that was created to be unfair and is hurting not only families, but also the future of our nation. Check it out here:

Malala Yousufzai, the young girl shot in the head by Taliban terrorists last year to prevent her from promoting education for girls in her native Pakistan, made a moving and inspirational speech to the UN Youth Assembly on her 16th birthday. The world is fortunate that such a courageous young woman, wise beyond her years, will dare to challenge ignorance, hypocrisy and violence. Ignore the al Jazeera news crawl and watch her speech to the end:

The fight for Fairness at Patriot goes on in the face of a bankruptcy court ruling that gave Patriot Coal carte blanche to drastically cut benefits for retired and active coal miners, most of whom worked at Peabody and Arch Coal and never worked a day at Patriot. I was on hand to witness the nearly 5,000 miners and supporters who gathered in a football field in Fairmont, W.Va. on July 9 to protest the ruling and the corporate swindle authored by Peabody and Arch, which dumped their retiree obligations into a company, Patriot, created to fail. Police arrested 30 miners and supporters during the peaceful protest. The next rally is outside Arch Coal headquarters in St. Louis on July 30. It won’t stop there.

A recent Washington Post article nonchalantly laid out the Koch brothers’ media War Room, KochFacts.org, a media attack machine that challenges every report, and spins every issue their way. With the Koch brothers reportedly planning to buy some of America’s great newspapers as part of a deal with the Chicago Tribune Co., this commentary by Robert Reich is worth repeating: “Suppose a small group of extremely wealthy people sought to systematically destroy the U.S. government by (1) finding and bankrolling new candidates pledged to shrinking and dismembering it; (2) intimidating or bribing many current senators and representatives to block all proposed legislation, prevent the appointment of presidential nominees, eliminate funds to implement and enforce laws, and threaten to default on the nation’s debt; (3) taking over state governments in order to redistrict, gerrymander, require voter IDs, purge voter rolls, and otherwise suppress the votes of the majority in federal elections; (4) running a vast PR campaign designed to convince the American public of certain big lies, such as climate change isn’t occurring, and (5) buying up the media so the public cannot know the truth. Would you call this treason?”

koch-bros-voodoo-dollYes, I would call it treason. Nothing is more destructive to our democracy than the ability of the mega-rich to buy candidates and laws – not only through the well-heeled lobbying firms on Washington’s K Street, but also with slick model legislation writing at the state legislative level through ALEC, an anti-democratic organization funded by Koch and their billionaire ilk to subvert local lawmaking. As long as we have a Supreme Court that rules that corporations are people, and can spend whatever they want to influence public policy, we are at the mercy of Big Money. They are leviathans in the political arena and we are armed with little more than a slingshot. We must create new laws to protect ourselves against corporate tyranny.

Those are some heavy issues weighing on my brow this month, and I’m sure many of these and more have crossed your mind. But we’re up against enormous personal challenges every day, and it’s not easy to focus on things that are once removed from our personal sphere, things we care about in principle, but not necessarily in action. That’s another issue for another day.

Today’s bon mot: Don’t overexert yourself. And drink plenty of water.