Sunday, June 30, 2013

US Spying on EU

The Guardian is reporting that the US has been spying on major European allies. These reports follow similar accusations by a prominent German news magazine. Safe to say, the reaction will be interesting. Although the reports are significant, they shouldn't be shocking. The US has vested interests in monitoring the activities of the EU. The Lebanese Hizballah offers one good example, Iraq 2003 offers another. The simple truth? When it comes to states like France, US interests don't always align with those of our foreign partners. In some cases, these diverging interests are highly significant - there's a rationale for our understanding of these divergences.

In another regard, it's also worth noting that these latest leaks suggest that the US has not spied on the UK or Germany. Again, this is unsurprising. In the UK's case, espionage action would be construed as a major breach of the longstanding US-UK intelligence alliance. The blowback of such an operation would be catastrophic. This being said, though strong, the US-UK intelligence relationship is not without its challenges.

More important is the fact that Snowden has leaked this information. From my perspective, this particular leak is Snowden's most serious so far. It offers the prospect of seriously jeopardized US relations with historic allies and it will likely lead to a termination of active collection efforts. At a basic political level, it's also terribly embarrassing (imagine the calls that Obama is going to have to make over the next few days...). But the leak also points to another concern for the US Government - how was Snowden (who was a contractor not a government employee) able to access such a wide array of specially compartmentalized intelligence materials? This leads to another question - one that will greatly worry US Intelligence - what else does Snowden know and who else has he given that knowledge to? The US must expect that Russian intelligence officers from the FSB are conducting compliant interrogations of Snodwen. As a result, US Intelligence must protect intelligence assets that Snodwen may have compromised. 'May' is the operative word here. The US Intelligence community cannot afford to risk Snowden only knowing some things - they must guard against all those things he could possibly know. And, to borrow a Rumsfeld quote, they likely don't know what he knows. 

The flowing consequence of all this - major intelligence operations may have to be shut down or reformed. That's why Snowden has annoyed so many in the US leadership.

Finally, it's worth examining why these reports surfaced today. I wonder whether, as he sits in limbo at Moscow's airport, Snowden is attempting to increase his support base re- prospective asylum. Perhaps he thinks that Iceland might offer him a passport? Certainly US influence over extradition arrangements will be weakened.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Kerry's Pursuit of Mid-East Peace

Following in the footsteps of many former Secretaries of State, John Kerry is in the Middle East pursuing a renewal of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. As usual, the task is significant. The Palestinian leadership remains divided between the ideological intransigents of Hamas in Gaza and the weak Fatah Government that sits in the West Bank. In Israel, Prime Minister Netanyahu presides over a coalition cross-party cabinet that holds a variation of viewpoints on the shape that a peace deal could and should take.

Amidst these difficulties it's hard to stay positive. However, we shouldn't write this effort off just yet. Reports from Israel suggest that Netanyahu is newly willing to make serious compromises in the pursuit of peace. In addition, Netanyahu knows that he must at least placate President Obama if he's to receive continued support from the US re- a prospective strike against Iranian military facilities. Further, the Palestinian Authority knows that US support requires engagement with Israel (the US won't accept a unilateral rejection of negotiations). Finally, the major contours of an ultimate Israeli-Palestinian deal are already known: ultimately, a lasting deal is likely to situate around the basic foundations of a combination of Camp David 2000 and Olmert 2008. In this sense, though Kerry's trip is unlikely to provide an immediate breakthrough, it does offer the prospect of forward momentum in the right direction.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Why House Republicans Should Support Immigration Reform

With the Senate having passed an Immigration Reform bill, the House of Representatives will now take up this critical issue. The internal GOP debates are sure to be both fierce and passionate.

From my perspective, Republicans should regard this reform effort as one deserving of their support. Most importantly, the bill offers a flawed but real opportunity to address the two great weaknesses of our immigration system: The presence of over 11 million undocumented illegal immigrants in a state of legal limbo and a border that remains effectively unsecured. This reality poses significant challenges to the well being of the United States. It creates significant financial burdens (for example in uninsured health care costs), it sustains a massive underground economy and it poses major challenges in terms of both criminal/terrorism related concerns. This dysfunction must find resolution.

However, there's another reason why GOP representatives should support reform - politics. 

It's true, in the short term, it's very likely that immigration reform will favor Democrats. The President will sign a law (if it reaches his desk) and as a result, he will be perceived as the primary agent of its creation. In short, Democrats will bear the immediate dividends. Yet, this being said, Republicans need to begin a perception rapprochement with Hispanic Americans. National elections require the engagement of a broad spectrum of voters - this dynamic will only accelerate going forwards. By illustrating a willingness to engage in serious compromise and in a way that meets key conservative concerns (in this case- border security imperatives), the GOP will earn a 'second look' from Hispanic voters as a viable alternative to the Democratic Party. 

Immigration reform won't weaken the Republican brand, it's passage will re-frame and renew that identity.

For conservatives to meaningfully assert those messages most likely to appeal to Hispanic voters - strong families, personal responsibility and social mobility, Hispanic Americans must first be listening. At the moment, we're being ignored.

Monday, June 24, 2013

What Hollywood’s superheroes tell us about America

When it comes to recent superhero movies, Hollywood has quite literally hit the jackpot. Americans like what we’re seeing.
We should think about what this means for our society. To do so, we must first examine the themes that run through these movies.

For a start, consider Hollywood’s renewed celebration of service. In the 2011 Captain America we saw the essence of an American folk hero- Brave, honorable, indefatigable. The metaphor of Old Glory shining brightly upon an unbreakable shield; Selfless sacrifice sustaining an invincible nation. Some might have argued that this was a corny rehash of a bygone era. Instead, with patriotic traditionalism evidently alive and well, American audiences flocked to the theaters.

Interestingly, Hollywood’s contemporary conception of patriotism runs deeper than pure American exceptionalism. Take the Iron Man trilogy. Here, we’ve been given a military industrialist who uses his creations to defend America against all enemies; foreign, domestic and/or alien. In The Avengers, Iron Man literally goes to another galaxy in order to save America. For some, Hollywood’s celebration of capitalism and the arms trade might have been shocking. Then again, the ticket sales speak for themselves. When it’s coupled to honorable purpose, Americans remain comfortable with military power.

This isn’t irrelevant pontification. There’s great topical relevance to be found in our introspection of movie habits. For one example, think about the security vs. civil liberties debate alongside Nolan’s Batman trilogy. In The Dark Knight (the 15th highest grossing movie of all time), the Knight renders a Chinese mobster from Hong Kong. Then, with Batman struggling against the Joker’s unrestrained mayhem, Alfred offers our hero some poignant guidance- ‘’some men just want to watch the world burn’’. To save his city, Batman must ‘’burn the jungle’’. And so, he does. In a grudging embrace of the NSA, Batman uses Gotham’s phone network to find the Joker and defeat him. As gleeful audiences, we accepted that Gotham’s safety required extraordinary measures. But Nolan wasn’t done. In his final chapter, The Dark Knight Rises (8th highest grossing movie), Nolan presented us with another potent message – for all the imperfections of our government, the rule of the mob is no solution. Order exists for a reason – government power is necessary.

        How did we react to Nolan’s not so subtle preaching? By adorning him with the laurel wreath of a movie demi-God.

Talking of Gods, in the new Superman movie, Man of Steel, we’ve seen another telling narrative – religion. This is a movie in which the Christian messaging is far from subtle. In one scene, while framed against a stain glass window, Superman’s priest provides a lesson in faith. In another telling moment, Superman dives from the heavens in a slow, cross shaped presentation of his commitment to the earth. Facing this box office hit, secularism, it seems, can’t yet claim the mantle of cultural victory. 

So what conclusions can we take from all this. Well, for a start, Hollywood studios know that they will rise and fall on the audiences they attract or alienate. As with any private industry, Hollywood focuses on products that will earn positive receptions. The messaging is intentional. Thus, through their stellar box office returns, our superheroes tell two stories – about heroes and about America. 

We expect our superheroes to be just that, super; doing the hard tasks that we cannot and in so, shaping inspirational identities worthy of our energetic support. Taking box office receipts as our measure, Hollywood’s superheroes can, in turn, tell us much about America.
Property: Warner Brothers - ''The Dark Knight Rises''

Friday, June 14, 2013

Obama finds his red lines

I welcome the Obama Administration's clarification that Assad has indeed breached the red line boundaries. US support to select Syrian rebels will be crucial towards finishing Assad's regime and ensuring that the Syrian people are given some prospect of a better future. I would also support the establishment of a limited cordon, no-fly zone inside Syrian territory.

The Supreme Court is about to make 3 important rulings

Next week, the US Supreme Court is expected to rule on three major cases.

The first, Fisher v University of Texas, regards the question of affirmative action. Specifically, the extent to which the University of Texas-Austin may lawfully consider an applicant’s race as part of their admissions process. The plaintiff is Abigail Fisher, a student who claims that her application to UT was unlawfully rejected due to that institution’s affirmative action policy. In legal terms, Fisher submits that UT is in breach of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment for making a functionally prejudicial judgment on the color of her skin.

Fisher challenges the law in the context of two cases that were heard in 2003- Grutter v Bollinger and Gratz v Bollinger. In Grutter, the Court held that if racial considerations were judged as a ‘plus factor’ rather than as a ‘defining’ factor of a student’s application, and that assuming other factors (extracurricular activities etc.) were also granted substantial consideration, affirmative action policies could be legitimate. In contrast, with Gratz, the Court held that where racial background was empowered under an automatic point system; such consideration represented an excessively dominant and thus unlawful procedure. Ultimately, from Grutter and Gratz, the law established that affirmative action requires racial accounting to be ‘narrowly tailored’ to the ‘compelling state interest’ of advancing minority participation in higher education.

Why is Fischer important?

Well, if the Court decides that Fisher suffered unlawful discrimination, the consequential impact for US society could be considerable. Supporters of affirmative action claim that without a cognizant facility to address under-representation of minorities in higher education, American society will lack a broadly representative foundation. Without this foundation, they suggest, businesses and institutions cannot represent the communities that they serve. Conversely, Fisher’s supporters argue that affirmative action propagates the very concern that it aims to redress–racism. By asserting one race in preference to the other, they argue that affirmative action devalues the ethic of hard work as the primary mechanism of American social mobility.

What will the Court decide?

Recognizing that Grutter carried a close 5-4 margin and with the liberally aligned Elena Kagan sitting this one out, the Court seems likely to rule in Fisher’s favor. This being said, it’s important to note that although the Court’s conservative aligned Justices were passionate in their questioning, even if the Court does rule for Fisher, this doesn’t necessarily mean the Justices will overturn Grutter. We’ll just have to wait and see.

Next, let’s consider the other two cases where a decision beckons.

The first is Hollingsworth v Perry. Here, the Court must first decide if the 9th Federal Circuit Appeals Court was correct in ruling that California’s state-constitutional ban on gay marriage (as codified by Proposition 8) breaches the equal protection and due process clauses of the 14th Amendment. The Court must also decide whether the plantiffs (seeking to overturn the 9th Circuit decision) have Constitutional Article 3 ‘standing’ to bring their appeal (if they've suffered ‘injury’ by the 9th Circuit’s decision). As Lyle Denniston notes, the Court must also decide whether Proposition 8 is specifically unlawful in California, or whether bans on gay marriage are unlawful across the United States.
The second gay marriage case is that of United States v Windsor. Here, the case turns on whether the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) unlawfully restricts Windsor’s rights under the equal protection clause of the 5th amendment. On the death of her spouse (a marriage that was lawfully recognized in New York) Windsor was forced to pay Federal inheritance taxes that would not have been due had she been in a heterosexual marriage. Though the Court will also decide on Article 3 considerations in a similar vein to Hollingsworth v Perry, there are two key questions at stake with Windsor. First, the determination as to whether homosexual marriages are unlawfully prejudiced by DOMA’s sex based denial of an array of Federal benefits. Second, whether the Federal Government can challenge Windsor, even if (as is the case here) the Justice Department had previously sided with her.

It’s important to note that through Windsor, we’re witnessing another example of the discord between the Obama Administration and House Republicans (who provide the central element of the Government’s DOMA defense). Regardless of ruling, uproar will follow.

Taken together, these three cases offer major legal clarification on issues of profound public interest. Whatever the Supreme Court decides next week, their rulings are likely to induce noticeable social effects. Albeit adorned by cloaks of formality, the raw power of the American Judiciary remains undeniable. If interested, check out my opinion on free speech.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Obama is exerting new authority over the CIA

The CIA's Deputy Director, Michael Morell, has just announced his retirement (effective in August). President Obama has stated that he will appoint a former Administration official, Avril Haines, as Morell's replacement. Haines played a major role in the development of Obama's new CT policy - establishing a new legal framework to govern US counter-terrorism operations.

Haines's arrival at the agency illustrates the Administration's desire to influence the CIA as an institution (both Brennan and Haines are former Administration officials). As the CIA pursues it's ongoing remit (and especially in the context of the NSA leaks), scrutiny of intelligence activities will heighten. Perhaps Obama believes that Haines can consolidate his position away from criticism that he's too permissive in terms of intelligence gathering methods.

It's also worth noting that by having two former officials as the two highest officers at CIA, Obama has embraced a far more intrusive approach to managing the agency than GW Bush. GWB's first CIA-DCI was Tenet (a successor from Clinton) and the DD's during Bush's tenure were all CIA officers or military personnel.
 Cofer Black - illustrates importance of CIA

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

We need some introspection on the NSA/Snowden saga

By demanding near-total security under the blind expectation that Government can achieve this security via easy means, Americans have embraced an impossible dynamic. A system that evidently lacks public support, but simultaneously requires political continuity - leaders understandably fear the consequences of failing to prevent a terrorist attack. In the space of this dysfunction, we have leakers like Manning, Snowden and Kiriakou who assume the right (however tenuous) to shape the contours of national security.
We need to deal with this problem. We need to engage in a serious discussion over the constitution of balance between security and civil liberties. IE - what risks/threats are we willing to accept and at what price? The internet is facilitating information flows in ever more accessible ways, but we need to realize that criminals and terrorists take advantage of these structures for their own ambitions. Constraining their malevolence is a public policy necessity. We need to move past the short term political actions currently on display by both Republicans and Democrats.
In many ways, this NSA situation is  just another symptom of our broader national-political disease. By expecting easy choices (wars with tax cuts), (debt resolution without entitlement reform), (partisanship and national progress), we've locked ourselves into a false understanding of governance. Matt Lewis had a great piece on this issue a while back.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

NSA Leaks - Analysis

As basic background, the wiretap program is designed to collate pattern activity from telephone calls. This action is pursued in order to try and establish intelligence insight into the identity and network formation of potential terrorist cells. The PRISM program is equally (if not more) significant - in simple terms, it allows US intelligence officers to intercept a wide variety of communications flowing across a wide variety of platforms.

I have a number of observations.

1) From my perspective, there are two core reasons why the public/media reaction has been so strong.

First, these leaks follow in the immediate footsteps of AP/IRS/Benghazi - they paint the picture of an increasingly authoritarian government (whether that understanding is fair or not is another matter!). As an extension to this point, perhaps the public anguish reflects our American sympathy for having things easy and palatable (see Matt Lewis) and maybe we prefer not to know the darker sides of governance?

Second, the leaks speak to a disconnect between the Presidential identity that Obama has sought to purvey (change, openness etc) and his political identity in reality (perhaps this distinction stems from the national security concerns that now arrive at Obama's desk?). Anyway, it will be interesting to see how these leaks affect perceptions of the Obama Administration going forwards. Certainly, the President is witnessing a rapid depreciation in standing among Democrats (see Al Gore) on the political left. We've also seen attempts by some Republicans to score political points on the issue.

2) Let's be clear, even before the leaks hit the news, anyone who knew anything about the US Intelligence Community assumed programs like these were in operation. For me, the striking points to take from these leaks are situated not with the leaks themselves, but the reaction that has followed their arrival. Aside from the evident public anguish as noted above, we're seeing a rapid renwal of civil libertarian politics in both Republican + Democratic circles. I wonder whether with ever more accessible technology, our easier ability to perceive perceived abuses is flowing into our greater scrutiny of power? That leads to another supposition - Perhaps government isn't growing more authoritarian, perhaps we're growing more skeptical?

3) There's an obvious utlity to these programs. Similar collection efforts allowed US intelligence to cripple insurgent networks in Iraq during the 2007-09 period. Related legislation is under consultation by the UK government. This isn't just the US - this is a global trend.

If your interested, check out these two relevant pieces that illustrate my position on this issue - why Government must be tough on leakers and relaxed on reporters.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Why Christie should let the voters pick Frank Lautenberg's successor

In the aftermath of Senator Lautenberg's death, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie faces tough a political situation- Christie must decide on a successor to fill Lautenberg's seat.

For a start, Christie must balance two competing political objectives - this year's New Jersey Gubernatorial election and the 2016 GOP primaries. Regarding the 2016 concern, Christie is likely to face conservative pressure to pick a Republican replacement for Lautenberg - until a special election takes place later this year/early next. On the flip side, picking a Republican replacement would obviously infuriate Democrats who'd believe that Christie was stealing the seat. Instead, Democrats will want the appointment of a liberal Democrat in the form of Lautenberg.

This might appear to be a catch 22, but I think Christie has a way out - he should avoid picking anyone.

By waiting for the special election, Christie would place succession authority firmly in the hands of... you guessed it... voters. It would allow Christie to avoid serious political damage in terms of this year's  election. At the same time, it would also strengthen his brand appeal with Republican primary voters. Many observers think that Christie's willingness to work with Democrats/friendliness with President Obama are negatives re-2016 primaries. To some degree this is true - Christie will face attacks for his bi-partisanship. But Christie's unconventional status inside the GOP is also an asset. Come 2016, Republicans will be desperate to win the election. Desperate. In this sense, Christie's  great 2016 advantage will be his legitimate ability to sell GOP primary voters with his general election prospects. IE - 'Vote for me, because Americans like me and they'll vote for me over Clinton.' Ultimately, Christie's main appeal with Republicans has always been his straight talking style and strong record. Yet, if Christie attempts to placate conservative hardliners in 2016, he won't win the primaries. Those voters have already ruled out voting for Christie - he can't win them over and he shouldn't try. Instead, he should focus on building his brand.

Finally, in addition to fulfilling his political needs, pushing this decision to the voters would also serve a moral interest - avoiding a toxic power mechanism that often reeks of favors/corruption.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Political Corruption, Iraqi terrorist plot, Sectarianism

Three topics today... 

1) A press sting (apparently substantiated by some pretty damning video) appears to show a senior UK Member of Parliament taking money in return for official actions. These include the MP asking official questions in the House of Commons and even offering a parliamentary security pass to lobbyists. This is sickening. It speaks to two realities - First, that the UK desperately needs a register of lobbyists- at present, they quietly permeate the UK politics. Second, that far tougher legal restrictions are required to prevent ''money for favor'' arrangements. This is corruption. Period. Sadly, this news suggests that the UK Parliament retains a sub-surface cesspool.

2) If true, Iraq's disruption of a terrorist chemical weapons plot indicates the serious continuing terrorist threat faced by the United States. President Obama might have declared an end to the war on terror, unfortunately however, our enemies have not. On a related note, I hope to have a piece on Iraq published in the next few days - stay tuned.

3) al-Qaradawi's call to arms indicates the growing sectarian frictions underpinning Middle Eastern political dynamics. I've previously argued that this sectarianism is the greatest enemy of the people of that region. Alongside growing nuclear proliferation, this dynamic will soon pose a severe threat to international security.