There's a ton of demeaning stuff floating around about Glenn Greenwald's lack of qualifications to be a member of the vaunted journalism profession because he's just a "blogger". And even though he's written numerous books on civil liberties and railed with equal fervor against the Bush administration many members of the press that he's set out to besmirch the reputation of Barack Obama for political reasons.
People can think what they want. But I can't help but be reminded of an earlier story that exposed a secret program and was brutally assailed by members of the media which then systematically distorted it to the point at which the truth was no longer discernible. The original story was factual --- the fun-house mirror version of it that was constructed by big-foot journalism was not.
By coincidence a new movie about this shameful episode has just started shooting. And some of the reporters involved are apparently having attacks of conscience:
Nine years after investigative reporter Gary Webb committed suicide, Jesse Katz, a former Los Angeles Times reporter who played a leading role in ruining the controversial journalist's career, has publicly apologized — just weeks before shooting begins in Atlanta on Kill the Messenger, a film expected to reinstate Webb's reputation as an award-winning journalist dragged through the mud by disdainful, competing media outlets.
Webb made history, then quickly fell from grace, with his 20,000-word 1996 investigation, "Dark Alliance," in which the San Jose Mercury News reported that crack cocaine was being peddled in L.A.'s black ghettos to fund a CIA-backed proxy war carried out by contra rebels in Nicaragua.
Kill the Messenger is based on Webb's 1998 book, Dark Alliance, in which he attempted to rebuild his ruined reputation, as well as my 2004 biography of Webb, Kill the Messenger, which shares the movie's title. (I worked as a consultant on the script.)
The movie will portray Webb as a courageous reporter whose career and life were cut short when the nation's three most powerful newspapers piled on to attack Webb and his three-part Mercury News series on the CIA's crack-cocaine connection.
The New York Times, Washington Post and L.A. Times each obscured basic truths of Webb's "Dark Alliance" series. But no newspaper tried harder than the L.A. Times, where editors were said to have been appalled that a distant San Jose daily had published a blockbuster about America's most powerful spy agency and its possible role in allowing drug dealers to flood South L.A. with crack.
Much of the Times' attack was clever misdirection, but it ruined Webb's reputation: In particular, the L.A. Times attacked a claim that Webb never made: that the CIA had intentionally addicted African-Americans to crack.
Webb, who eventually could find only part-time work at a small weekly paper, committed suicide.
I remember this episode quite well and it was ugly. Professional jealousy, the usual insular clubbiness and the desire to use their hostility to this story to curry favor with the powerful were just some of the discreditable behaviors shown by the mainstream press as they set out to destroy the story and its author.
By the way:
Webb was vindicated by a 1998 CIA Inspector General report, which revealed that for more than a decade the agency had covered up a business relationship it had with Nicaraguan drug dealers like Blandón.
The L.A. Times, New York Times and Washington Post buried the IG's report; under L.A. Times editor Michael Parks, the paper didn't acknowledge its release for months.
The L.A. Times' smears against Webb continued after his death. After Webb committed suicide in a suburb of Sacramento in December 2004 — the same day he was to vacate his just-sold home and move in with his mother — a damning L.A. Times obituary described the coverage by the three papers as "discrediting" Webb.
Greenwald isn't the suicidal type so I'm not worried about that. But this history should inform readers as to the ways and means of the big time press when it comes to stories by those whom they feel aren't quite in the upper tier of respectability. They don't consider Greenwald to be quite as loathsome as the "high school drop out" loser Edward Snowden. He is a lawyer after all. But many of them believe he's just as worthy of disdain in his own way. He's not a member of their club.
Republican misogyny may doom them faster than racism
by David Atkins
In the constant internal GOP tug-of-war between "tone it down to appeal to sane voters" and "ramp it up for the wingnut base", guess which side is winning?
The Republican-led House on Tuesday sought to shore up their support from conservatives with a vote on one of the most far-reaching anti-abortion bills in years.
The measure to restrict abortions to the first 20 weeks after conception will be ignored by the Democratic-controlled Senate but not necessarily by voters in next year's GOP primaries. Supporters see it as an opportunity to make inroads against legalized abortion while Democratic opponents portrayed it as yet another instance of what they call the GOP's war on women.
The legislation, heading for near-certain passage in the House, contravenes the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortions and invites court challenges that could eventually force the Supreme Court to reconsider that decision.
All the pundits like to talk about how racial demographics are dooming the Republican Party longterm. But the GOP's dismal performance among women is also a huge factor. After California's nonpartisan redistricting I now live in CA-26, one of the most contested congressional districts in the nation. In last year's battle between Democrat (and now Congresswoman) Julia Brownley and Republican former State Senator Tony Strickland, this was by far the most effective ad:
The Republican House has taken a number of votes, including this last one, opening themselves up to another round of this all over the country.
While I have many problems with a Hillary Clinton candidacy (I would far prefer a President Elizabeth Warren or Kamala Harris), it would be cathartic to watch the Republican misogynistic id on full display, only to be smacked down in 2016 with a landslide victory for the female Democratic nominee as well as the retaking of the House gavel by Nancy Pelosi.
Republican misogyny may doom them faster than their racism.
In any case, he said a lot of interesting things that are being well parsed all over the blogosphere today. I just wanted to highlight this one little bit in this post:
Charlie Rose: Should this be transparent in some way?
Barack Obama: It is transparent. That’s why we set up the FISA court…. The whole point of my concern, before I was president — because some people say, “Well, you know, Obama was this raving liberal before. Now he’s, you know, Dick Cheney.” Dick Cheney sometimes says, “Yeah, you know? He took it all lock, stock, and barrel.” My concern has always been not that we shouldn’t do intelligence gathering to prevent terrorism, but rather are we setting up a system of checks and balances? So, on this telephone program, you’ve got a federal court with independent federal judges overseeing the entire program. And you’ve got Congress overseeing the program, not just the intelligence committee and not just the judiciary committee — but all of Congress had available to it before the last reauthorization exactly how this program works.
The assertion that the secret FISA court is transparent is fairly mind boggling all by itself. And if this is an adequate check and balance, then I'm an Olympic ice dancer.
Obama has said that there are tradeoffs between privacy and security in an age of international terrorism. But he emphasized that the two surveillance programs exposed this month were repeatedly authorized and reviewed by Congress, with federal judges "overseeing the entire program throughout."
Despite being overseen by judges, they are not examined in the way that a normal application for a search warrant is.
For decades, the government conducted warrantless wiretaps of people in the United States deemed to be a national security threat. But in 1978, after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled such warrantless searches unconstitutional, Congress passed legislation that created a special intelligence court to review government requests for warrants. The law was tweaked over the years, but the core of the court's powers remained unchanged for decades. If the government wanted to listen in on conversations or other communications in the U.S., it had to get a warrant from the foreign intelligence court based on individualized suspicion and probable cause to believe that national security was being compromised.
After 9/11, the Bush administration circumvented that law; President Bush authorized new surveillance programs without submitting them to the foreign intelligence court. After news reports blew the lid off the administration's dodge, Bush submitted to Congress proposed changes in the law, which were adopted in 2008. Those changes allowed the government to conduct the so-called PRISM program and monitor any and all conversations that take place between the U.S. and someone in a foreign country. No longer is there a requirement of individual targeting, observes Jameel Jaffer of the ACLU.
"It's a very different role that the FISA court is playing now than it played five years ago," Jaffer says. "The FISA court is just reviewing at a very programmatic level: Is the government targeting only international communications, or is it impermissibly targeting domestic ones? That's the only question that the FISA court asks."
In short, the FISA court is now far more removed from the specifics of targeting people for surveillance.
Former National Security Agency general counsel Stewart Baker concedes the point. "But let's remember that the reason they lost that authority was some aggressive actions on the court to enforce what was called the wall between intelligence and law enforcement," Baker says. "That may have cost us our best chance at catching the 9/11 hijackers ... before the hijackings."
As a result, the FISA court became "less a court than an administrative entity or ministerial clerk," says William Banks, director of the Institute for National Security and Counterterrorism at Syracuse University. "They weren't reviewing law anymore; they were simply sort of stamping papers as approved or filed."
After 2008, Banks adds, the FISA court didn't "have a substantive review of these directives that come down the pike."
Either the president doesn't understand what's been going on with the FISA court or he's willfully misleading the people about what it does. I think he's pretty up the details so it's likely the latter, but I could be wrong.
This is what's so frustrating about this argument. The system they are all selling us as being a smashing success in catching terrorists while protecting our vital civil liberties is full of deliberate Catch-22s to prevent anyone from challenging that assertion. Indeed, the whole bizarroworld nature of this story is best illustrated by the nonsensical statement that the administration "welcomes the debate" even though they've gone to extreme lengths to prevent one. So extreme that they've been on an unprecedented crusade to shut down all leaks of the programs they now say is completely above board and within the law and which people should be perfectly happy to support. Just trust the fine professionals.
A secret NSA surveillance database containing millions of intercepted foreign and domestic e-mails includes the personal correspondence of former President Bill Clinton, according to the New York Times.
An NSA intelligence analyst was apparently investigated after accessing Clinton’s personal correspondence in the database, the paper reports, though it didn’t say how many of Clinton’s e-mails were captured or when the interception occurred.
The database, codenamed Pinwale, allows NSA analysts to search through and read large volumes of e-mail messages, including correspondence to and from Americans. Pinwale is likely the end point for data sucked from internet backbones into NSA-run surveillance rooms at AT&T facilities around the country.
Those rooms were set up by the Bush administration following 9/11, and were finally legalized last year when Congress passed the FISA Amendments Act. The law gives the telecoms immunity for cooperating with the administration; it also opens the way for the NSA to lawfully spy on large groups of phone numbers and e-mail addresses in bulk, instead of having to obtain a warrant for each target.
If an American’s correspondence pops up in search results when analysts sift through the database, the analyst is allowed to read it, provided such messages account for no more than 30 percent of a search result, the paper reported.
The NSA has claimed that the over-collection was inadvertent and corrected it each time the problem was discovered. But Rep. Rush Holt (D-New Jersey), chairman of the House Select Intelligence Oversight Panel, disputed this. “Some actions are so flagrant that they can’t be accidental,” he told the Times.
I'm completely confident that's been fixed, aren't you?
Just imagine if Edward Snowden had been the type of person who had a partisan agenda and wanted to do political mischief or wanted to sell his secrets to a foreign government for a profit instead of working with journalists to expose them. (Here's a recent vivid example of someone who had both motivations.) I know a lot of you don't see the difference, but there is one. And it's big.
The people in the experimental welfare-to-work group were much likelier to obtain employment, but they weren’t likely to make more total income than those in AFDC, once you take cash assistance and other forms of income AFDC recipients received into account. Of the 1,611 experiment participants in the county the study focused on, 75 died by November 2011. Of the 1,613 members of the control group, by contrast, 67 died by November 2011. That means the welfare-to-work had 16 percent higher mortality than those receiving normal cash assistance, a result that was highly statistically significant and, because of the study’s random design, can be attributed to the different welfare program. That amounts to a nine-month reduction in life expectancy between the ages of 30 and 70.
But hey, I'm sure they were comforted in their last days by their increased sense of self-esteem.
People are always going on about "trade-offs" as if the people who are doing the trading are people who have a choice. They rarely do.
I think we all need a laugh at this point, don't you?
Read this review of James O'Keefe's turgid new memoir at Wonkette. A taste:
Every time one of James O’Keefe’s liberal enemies comes along claiming he’s got a problem with women, our first thought is, “What are you people even talking about?”
Indeed. But it's not just O'Keefe. Right wingers in general loooove that particular metaphor. And the more violent the better --- it's always ram, cram, shove, force etc. They certainly don't seem to see this act as something that's commonly done with the consent of both parties involved. But then, that would be dirty.
When the United Arab Emirates wanted to create its own version of the National Security Agency, it turned to Booz Allen Hamilton to replicate the world’s largest and most powerful spy agency in the sands of Abu Dhabi.
It was a natural choice: The chief architect of Booz Allen’s cyberstrategy is Mike McConnell, who once led the N.S.A. and pushed the United States into a new era of big data espionage. It was Mr. McConnell who won the blessing of the American intelligence agencies to bolster the Persian Gulf sheikdom, which helps track the Iranians.
“They are teaching everything,” one Arab official familiar with the effort said. “Data mining, Web surveillance, all sorts of digital intelligence collection.”
Yet as Booz Allen profits handsomely from its worldwide expansion, Mr. McConnell and other executives of the government contractor — which sells itself as the gold standard in protecting classified computer systems and boasts that half its 25,000 employees have Top Secret clearances — have a lot of questions to answer.
Don't worry your pretty little heads about any of that. The professionals are taking care of everything for you. No reason not to trust them implicitly with your secrets. They would never let anything slip ...
The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence has taken the unusual step of actively blocking a former committee aide from talking to TPM about congressional oversight of the intelligence community. At issue isn’t classified sources and methods of intelligence gathering but general information about how the committee functions — and how it should function. The committee’s refusal to allow former general counsel Vicki Divoll to disclose unclassified information to a reporter was the first and only time it has sought to block her from making public comments, based on her experience as one of its most senior aides, since she left Capitol Hill in 2003.
Read the whole thing to see just how ridiculous they're being. Now they won't even talk about their process for keeping secrets.
At what point does the press become truly exercised about this stuff, I wonder? I remain gobsmacked at their acquiesence to the government's position that they must basically sit down and shut up in order to "protect the American people."
Greg Sargent on the impact that Sen. Frank Lautenberg's passing may have on the nuclear option in the Senate:
It’s being privately discussed at the highest levels of the Democratic Party: The passing of Senator Frank Lautenberg has cast doubt on the ability of Senate Democrats to exercise the so-called “nuclear option” and change the Senate rules via a simple majority.
Here’s what this means: A very plausible scenario being mulled by top Dems is that the prospects for changing the rules may rest on a tie-breaking Senate vote from Vice President (and Senate president) Joe Biden.
It’s simple math. Lautenberg’s passing means Dems now only have 54 votes in the Senate. (His temporary Republican replacement can’t be expected to back rules reform.) Aides who are tracking the vote count tell me that Senator Carl Levin (a leading opponent of the “nuke option” when it was ruled out at the beginning of the year, leading to the watered down bipartisan filibuster reform compromise) is all but certain to oppose any rules change by simple majority. Senators Patrick Leahy and Mark Pryor remain question marks. And Senator Jack Reed is a Maybe.
If Dems lose those four votes, that would bring them down to 50. And, aides note, that would mean Biden’s tie-breaking vote would be required to get back up to the 51 required for a simple Senate majority. That’s an awfully thin margin for error.
A half-witted porcupine could have predicted that Republicans would remain as intransigent in 2013 as they were in 2012. It's not getting better, either.
Republicans have been given many chances to prove that they can make comity work in the Senate. They have failed every chance they've been given. The time to fix the filibuster was at the beginning of the legislative session, but if there's any chance that Biden can be brought in to make it happen, so be it. It has long been time to act.
Since from the looks of things there aren't a huge number of reporters who think uncovering secrets is part of their job I think Dan Froomkin's idea may be the only way for citizens to stay informed:
[W]hat’s needed is a new beat, to cover secrecy itself.
“Too often, the press adopts a passive sort of stance, waiting for others to define the agenda. But it is possible, within the norms of journalism, for reporters and editors to define a beat and run with it,” says Steven Aftergood, who runs the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists in Washington, and writes the essential Secrecy News blog.
When it comes to aggressive reporting about secrecy, Aftergood says, one story could well lead to the next. “I think by creating more channels for information to flow, the information will start to flow. News has a sort of gravitational force, that when you do stories, people will come up to you and say: ‘Well, do you know about this?’ There’s a snowballing effect waiting to happen if someone, or a bunch of someones, will take the first few catalytic steps.”
David Sobel, senior counsel at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which advocates for online rights, notes that secrecy comes up as an important issue in any number of beats, and in reaction to specific events, sometimes producing major headlines. But, he says, “I have long thought that transparency as a standalone issue has gotten short shrift. Independent of the specifics of any given issue, there is the overriding issue of informed democratic participation on the part of citizens,” Sobel says. “And if there’s not sufficient transparency, the public debate on any issue that arises within the government is going to be lacking.”
I would have thought that this was part of every beat, but clearly it isn't.
This clever piece by Walter Shapiro spells out quite nicely what the next Howard Dean should do to become the upstart candidate in 2016 and capture the hearts and minds of the activists in the Party who might be looking for a change from the change:
Let me start with the year 1960. Do you know its significance beyond the Kennedy-Nixon debates? It was the last time that any presidential candidate (incumbent presidents aside) was handed the nomination rather than having to fight for it. And even in 1960 Richard Nixon had to bow and scrape before Nelson Rockefeller to head off a primary challenge.
What this means is that you have a chance no matter how daunting the polls or lopsided the potential fund-raising gap. Someone is going to be embraced by grassroots Democratic activists as the different-drummer alternative—and it could easily be you. But to be anointed THE CHALLENGER with capital letters, you have to be peddling more than the Maryland Miracle, the Colorado Comeback, the Albany Apotheosis or an uplifting personal story about how you grew up on a played-out rutabaga farm as the child of alcoholic parents.
To succeed, you have to anticipate the answer to a very tricky question: On the eve of the 2016 Iowa caucuses, what aspects of the Obama presidency will have angered, exasperated or disappointed loyal Democrats? The answer explains whom you will become—the candidate who convincingly promises to save the Democrats from Obama’s deficiencies.
It's an interesting question and the answers he provides sounds right to me.
As Shapiro admits, if President Obama is riding high in the polls and everyone in the country is yearning for a third term, the only people who have a chance are those who were in the administration --- meaning Clinton or Biden (probably.) But if there's the usual ambivalence (or downright hostility) t the end of the second term, there is a chance for an upstart to emerge. And they're going to have to make a case for how they will be different. These questions are a good place to start.
(I'd add a pledge to deep-six the Chained CPI, expand Social Security and turn the word "austerity" into an epithet. But that's just me.)
With Orwell at the top of many minds lately and sales of 1984 on the rise due to the NSA spying revelations, a smaller but significant Orwellian issue is also being dealt with in the California legislature: disclosure of the real forces behind ads backed by groups with Orwellian names. Consider this, for instance:
As part of what advocates call the “next step” of the Affordable Care Act, California voters will consider an initiative next year that will empower regulators and consumer advocates to challenge health insurance premium rate hikes.
Though healthcare reform, better known these days as Obamacare, gives the government the ability to shine a spotlight onto insurance rates, it does not in itself enable regulators to block them. That power resides with the states. Currently, about thirty-four states have some laws on the books to give regulators the authority to block unjustified rate hikes; California is not one of them. And while advocates in California are optimistic about the prospects of reform, the health insurance lobby has wasted no time in preparing to defeat the measure.
Californians Against Higher Healthcare Costs, a political group created to defeat the rate review initiative, describes itself as a “coalition of doctors, hospitals, health insurers, and California employers.” Though the group bills itself as a diverse coalition, our review of disclosures with the California secretary of state’s office show that, since last year, the organization has received 99.27 percent of its funds from health insurance companies and health insurance political action committees. Health insurance interests such as UnitedHealth, Anthem Blue Cross, HealthNet and Kaiser Health Plans have raised $1,366,120 to fight the rate review. In addition, the California Hospital Committee on Issues has donated a mere $10,000.
The group has retained a number of consultants to help defeat rate review, including Thomas W. Hiltachk, a Sacramento attorney known for creating deceptive corporate campaigns for oil and tobacco companies. The media company retained by the insurers, Goddard Claussen (now known as Redwood Pacific Public Affairs), gained infamy for helping insurance companies block health insurance reforms in the past, including the advertising campaign known as “Harry and Louise” that many believe helped sink President Clinton’s attempt to overhaul the health care system.
There is no way that a group of health insurance companies should be able to lobby and put on ads while calling themselves "Californians Against Higher Healthcare Costs." You can't, of course, prevent people from giving themselves whatever names they want when they organize. It's a free country, we have a first amendment, and creating some of sort of panel to decide if an organization has taken a valid name would be a cure worse than the disease.
SB 52, the California DISCLOSE Act, passed the full Senate yesterday in an overwhelming vote for increased disclosure in political ads as 27 Democrats, led by authors Senator Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) and Jerry Hill (D-San Mateo), were joined by Republican Senator Anthony Cannella (R-Merced) in voting Yes.
"In recent years there has been an unprecedented increase in election spending, which makes it more important than ever that we strengthen our disclosure laws to help raise voter confidence in the electoral process and shed light on who is funding political advertisements," said Senator Leno, D-San Francisco. "With more information at their fingertips, voters will be more encouraged to vote and can make better informed decisions at the ballot box."
Over $475 million was spent last year in California on ballot measures alone, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics. Most of it was spent by committees hiding their funders behind misleading names.
"This legislation is vital to protecting the integrity of our democratic process and ensuring fair elections in our state," said Senator Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo. "After seeing billions of dollars flow into elections across our country after the Citizens United decision, we need the DISCLOSE Act now more than ever."
SB 52, sponsored by the California Clean Money Campaign, requires state and local political ads in California to clearly and prominently list their top three funders. Committees would be required to maintain a website voters can easily access that lists the largest funders.
SB 52 applies to ballot measure ads and ads by outside groups for and against candidates. SB 52 would also extend existing law to require disclosure on sham issue and issue advocacy advertisements that attempt to influence legislative or administrative action.
It was originally sponsored by former Assemblywoman and now my Congresswoman Julia Brownley, and passed the Assembly last year. It should pass again, and should get a signature from Jerry Brown. If it does, it will be at least one blow against an overly Orwellian future.
I realize that many Americans are busy and want to be able to trust the men and women they voted for to do the right thing and really don't want to know any more. But I've been more than a little bit surprised at journalists who feel the same way. After all, one would think they, of all people, would value the whistleblowers and the truth-tellers. And one would certainly have thought they'd have a healthy skepticism about government police power. I had always thought it was in the job description.
On the other hand, there are certain competing incentives aren't there?
This is a screen-shot of today's dead tree version of Politico:
I think that spells out the relationship between much of the beltway press and the government quite well don't you?
"This is not the first time that we have had this problem"
I posted this the other day, but if you missed it take a minute to watch it now. Alan Grayson is a lawyer and a good one. And he knows how to make a case to the jury. If you have questions about what is happening or the larger implications, I urge you to watch this. Watch it even if you already know the details and understand the implications. It's very good:
Don't worry honey, Big Data will look out for you
Over the week-end the Washington Post featured an excellent article by Nancy Scola, a journalist and former staffer on the House government oversight committee, about the Obama administration and its relationship to "Big Data" --- and not just in the national security realm. I hadn't thought about it quite this way before an it strikes me a relevant to the discussion we are having. I've always had a sense that Obama had a weakness for the whiz kids and suffered from the "best and brightest" syndrome and this is one specific way in which it manifested:
In the political world, the promise of data — whether it’s Nate Silver’s spot-on election predictions or President Obama’s clearinghouse of government information, Data.gov — is that we no longer have to take so much on faith. “What do the data show?” is the new “What do you think?,” the new “Is this a good idea?”
But belief in the clarifying power of data is its own kind of faith, and it is one Obama has embraced, even before winning the presidency. And now, with the revelation that the National Security Agency is processing huge caches of telephone records and Internet data, the American public is being asked to take on faith how data — and how much data — is being gathered and used in Washington.
The “big data” presidency transcends intelligence-gathering and surveillance, encompassing the White House’s approach on matters from health care to reelection. A big-data fact sheet the White House put out in March 2012 — upon the launch of its $200 million Big Data Research and Development Initiative — listed more than 85 examples of such efforts across a number of agencies. They include the CyberInfrastructure for Billions of Electronic Records (CI-BER), led in part by the National Archives and the National Science Foundation, and NASA’s Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS), which the fact sheet described as a “collaborative, international effort to share and integrate Earth observation data.” And the Defense Department is putting about $250 million a year into the research and development of such projects — “a big bet on big data,” as the White House called it.
Data is just data. It has no intrinsic moral character one way or the other. But I do get the feeling from a fair number of wonkish leaders in all aspects of public life that it has taken on a sort of well ... religious significance. It is beyond any questions, the ultimate arbiter of what is real and what is true. Except, it's just data ... subject to interpretation by those fatally flawed machines known as human beings.
As this article points out, the real question is what to do with it. She quotes Eisenhower's military industrial complex speech from 1961:
“In holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite. It is the task of statesmanship to mold, to balance and to integrate these and other forces, new and old, within the principles of our democratic system, ever aiming toward the supreme goals of our free society.”
More than 50 years later, the task of the modern statesman and stateswoman is to engage the public in the work of integrating the old and the new.
But when the statesmen in charge are in awe of the scientific-technological elite it's perfectly fair to wonder if they agree with that. It seems to me there's a blanket belief among our elites that Big Data is an unalloyed good and the degree to which average people must submit to it is of secondary interest at best. Why wouldn't we?
With all the sturm und drang of the past couple of weeks over the NSA revelations, we haven't heard a lot about the possible solutions. Greg Sargent had a well circulated column about possible fixes and David Atkins wrote about it here as well. My personal view is that biggest threat is the gargantuan size and scope of our surveillance bureaucracy and that job one is to scale it back --- and not just the NSA, but across our whole security apparatus. The mere existence of such a system is offensive to a free society in my opinion.
This conversation between Bill Moyers and Lawrence Lessig is one of the most sophisticated discussions I've seen about the problems we face with the technology and our ability to contain it and use it to protect the citizens from threats outside the government and within it:
Whatever your take on the recent revelations about government spying on our phone calls and Internet activity, there’s no denying that Big Brother is bigger and less brotherly than we thought. What’s the resulting cost to our privacy — and more so, our democracy? Lawrence Lessig, professor of law and director of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University and founder of Stanford Law School’s Center for Internet and Society, discusses the implications of our government’s actions, Edward Snowden’s role in leaking the information, and steps we must take to better protect our privacy.
“Snowden describes agents having the authority to pick and choose who they’re going to be following on the basis of their hunch about what makes sense and what doesn’t make sense. This is the worst of both worlds. We have a technology now that gives them access to everything, but a culture if again it’s true that encourages them to be as wide ranging as they can,” Lessig tells Bill. “The question is — are there protections or controls or counter technologies to make sure that when the government gets access to this information they can’t misuse it in all the ways that, you know, anybody who remembers Nixon believes and fears governments might use?”
Few are as knowledgeable about the impact of the Internet on our public and private lives as Lessig, who argues that government needs to protect American rights with the same determination and technological sophistication it uses to invade our privacy and root out terrorists.
“If we don’t have technical measures in place to protect against misuse, this is just a trove of potential misuse…We’ve got to think about the technology as a protector of liberty too. And the government should be implementing technologies to protect our liberties,” Lessig says. “Because if they don’t, we don’t figure out how to build that protection into the technology, it won’t be there.”
“We should recognize in a world of terrorism the government’s going to be out there trying to protect us. But let’s make sure that they’re using tools or technology that also protects the privacy side of what they should be protecting.”
Here's just one excerpt I wanted to highlight:
BILL MOYERS: You sounded a warning, back in 1998 when you testified before, 15 years ago, when you testified before the House Judiciary Committee. You begin by describing how the Russian people were technologically monitored by their government. Here's what you said.
LAWRENCE LESSIG testifying:
The Russian people learned to live with this invasion. They learned to put up with the insecurities that technology brought. If they had something private to say, they would go for a walk in a public park. If they didn't want a call traced, they would make it from a public phone. They learned to live with this intrusion by adjusting their life to it. They found privacy in public spaces, since private spaces had been invaded by a technology.
And who could blame them? They lived in a totalitarian regime. The State was unchallengeable.
The last 20 years have seen an extraordinary explosion in technologies for invading people's privacy and for a market that feeds on the product of these technologies.
We are told that our E-mail can be collected and searched by our company or university, and so op-eds advise us not to put private matters into E-mail. Our credit card records become the source for direct marketers, and rather than object, we simply buy with more cash. We have responded to this increasing invasion as the Soviets responded to theirs.
Bovine, we have accepted the reduction in private space. Passive, we have adjusted our life to these new intrusions. Accepting, we have been told that this is the way we have to live in this newly digitized age. Now I find this quite bizarre. For while this increasing Sovietization of our personal and private life occurs, we live in no Soviet State. While passivity dominates, there is no reason we couldn't do things differently. We accept these invasions and these restrictions on our freedom, though there is no Soviet army to enforce them on us.
We accept them, these reductions in the space of our privacy, even though we are the architects of the technologies that give effect to this reduction in privacy. And worse than accept them, sometimes we are told we have no choice but to accept them.
Technologies of monitoring and searching erode our privacy, and yet some will argue that the Constitution restricts Congress' power to respond. Technologies make it possible from a half-a-mile away to peer into one's home and watch what goes on there, or eavesdroppers to listen to the conversations in our bedroom, but we are told that the free speech clause of the First Amendment bars Congress from doing anything in response.
Congress, our Constitution is no Politburo. The free speech clause does not render us hostage to the invasions of new technologies. It does not disable you, as representatives of the people, from responding to these changes through laws that aim to re-create the privacy that technology has removed. Indeed, other values, themselves as essential to our democracy as free speech, should push you to take steps to protect the privacy and dignity that changing technologies may take away.
That was 15 years ago. And here we are. I don't know what the difference is between people who simply accept this way of living and those who don't, but we're seeing that tension being played out in the current debate over government secrecy and surveillance. If the polls are to be believed, a large majority are fine with these sorts of activities as long as they personally trust the party in charge of the government that's doing it.
Lessig has some thoughts about what we can do and it's well worth watching if you have time. It's going to take a different consciousness among the American people or an outbreak of conscience and courage among our leaders. I honestly don't know where that leaves us.
Hullabaloo veteran Dave Dayen writes in The New Republic of the theft of disaster recovery funds by mortgage services. Focusing specifically on the victims of the Moore tornado, he points out an appalling reality:
But residents of Moore may be shocked when they receive their insurance checks in the coming weeks. Like survivors of previous natural disasters, they will encounter a major obstacle to rebuilding their homes and putting the catastrophe behind them: their mortgage servicer. Turns out the same companies that ripped off homeowners during the foreclosure crisis are, after disasters like the Moore tornado, withholding repair money, often to force homeowners to use the proceeds to pay their mortgage.
The key issue concerns the standard practice for large homeowner’s insurance claims. As laid out in the fine print of mortgage and insurance contracts, the insurance company will make out the check jointly to the homeowner and the homeowner’s mortgage servicer. If the homeowner has a second mortgage on the home with a different servicer, the insurer writes a three-party check. This is intended to protect the lender if the house simply cannot be rebuilt, at which point the proceeds from the insurance claim can get used to pay off the loan. But in all other cases, it means that the homeowner must secure the endorsement of the check from the servicer(s) before they can get the money to pay for repairs.
Only the most fastidious of homeowners know this. The rest learn the hard way—like the residents of Bastrop, Texas. The most destructive wildfires in Texas history tore through the town in September 2011 and destroyed 1,691 homes. Most of these were total losses, and the insurance claims should have gone toward rebuilding. But a survey by the nonprofit consumer advocacy group United Policyholders found that over one-third of respondents were told by mortgage servicers that they would only release funds if the homeowner used them to pay off or pay down their mortgage, rather than make repairs. Though United Policyholders executive director Amy Bach hadn’t seen such a scenario in her 21 years of advocacy, “It made me think that the problem is more common than I realized,” she said. “It’s not like Bastrop is the only time lenders ever overreached.”
This is America, a land where doing anything but offering anodyne "thoughts and prayers" in the immediate aftermath of a tragedy is considered gauche, but where demanding that the victims of horrible tragedies not be ripped off by unscrupulous financial services leeches is socialist.
If ever I'm homeless as a result of a natural disaster, please feel free to skip the thoughts and prayers on my behalf. They're not helpful. Instead, please do call your Congressmember to make sure disaster aid is provided quickly without stupid cuts to other parts of the budget, and that the aid is allowed to go where it's supposed to rather than getting stolen by the worst sorts of humanity hiding under the mask of capitalism.
On its own, the decision will have only a marginal impact on the Syrian war -- the real risks lie in what steps might follow when it fails. The significant moves to arm the rebels began last year, with or without open American participation. Assad's brutal campaign of military repression and savage slaughters and the foreign arming of various rebel groups has long since thoroughly militarized the conflict. The U.S. is modifying its public role in a proxy war in progress, providing more and different forms of support to certain rebel groups, rather than entering into something completely new.
The real problem with Obama's announcement is that it shatters one of the primary psychological and political footholds in the grim effort to prevent the slide down the slippery slope to war. He may have chosen the arming option in order to block pressure for other, more direct moves, like a no-fly zone or an air campaign. But instead, as the immediate push for "robust intervention" makes obvious, the decision will only embolden the relentless campaign for more and deeper U.S. involvement in the war. The Syrian opposition's spokesmen and advocates barely paused to say thank you before immediately beginning to push for more and heavier weapons, no-fly zones, air campaigns, and so on. The arming of the rebels may buy a few months, but when it fails to produce either victory or a breakthrough at the negotiating table the pressure to do more will build. Capitulating to the pressure this time will make it that much harder to resist in a few months when the push builds to escalate.
That's how it usually works. And Lynch avoids the possibility that this may actually make things worse. More guns rarely makes things better.
Everything I read says that President Obama, unlike many in his cabinet (including his former Secretary of State) has been extremely reluctant to engage but finds himself hemmed in by the circumstances. He certainly isn't the first president to find himself in that situation. America's military empire has perhaps been the most "exceptional" thing about us in recent decades. I hope he resists the pressures that Lynch illustrates above. But the first step is always the hardest. The next ones will probably be easier which argues for not taking the step in the first place.
A friend of mine from Seattle sent me an email the other day to alert me to this controversial High School graduation speech by novelist David Guterson. Apparently, it caused quite a ruckus. My friend wrote:
It almost caused a riot...I tell you, this guy has balls if nothing else. People who were expecting another cotton candy speech about "the world is wonderful and everything is your oyster" got something else entirely.
I've never seen an audience so polarized. Also some political overtones - he mentioned global warming, which of course caused the wingnuts in the audience to go off their rockers and start screaming "Obama, Obama" at him as if that were akin to being the devil.
I called a friend who was also there to confirm that they were shouting "Obama!", and that these were the passages that drove them absolutely nuts:
It is an economy that motors along on your dissatisfaction, that steams ahead only if it can convince you that something is missing in your life. It knows that you are insecure about your appearance, for example, and in advertising it does everything it can to make you feel even worse about it, because if you feel worse about it, you will buy expensive clothing or pay a doctor to change your face. So in our society, not only do you have to be unhappy on that existential level that is just part and parcel of being human, you also have to be unhappy in ways designed for you by others, and if you are a woman or gay or a person of color, your society will make it even harder for you by tilting the playing field so you have to walk uphill, and by confounding your inner life in ways white men don’t have to face. Add to this your natural anxiety about the future—your distress about what it means that we are developing smart drones and melting the polar ice cap—and happiness begins to feel, for a lot of us, impossible. So impossible that the rate of mental illness in America, of depression in particular, is higher that it has ever been.
Can you imagine, mentioning that society discriminates against women, gays and people of color, and then following that up with a mention of global warming?
I certainly did. It was gloomy, but thrilling and hopeful as well. And I'd guess that all the 18 year olds who aren't channeling Tracy Flick will be able to relate to exactly what he's saying, in both mood and content.
And he gives some extremely good advice for this generation, which is like to get the exact opposite from most graybeards:
Cultivate those states of mind that actually produce happiness and cast out those that don’t. After a while you will find that you care much less about your own hopes and dreams and a lot more about other people.
You will move in the direction of self-less-ness, which is a good thing, because if there is no self, who is it that has to die some day? There will be no one there to die. There will be no self. Die now, so you won’t have to do it later.
Stop thinking about yourself every second of every day, which only produces boredom, dissatisfaction, fear, dread, anxiety, and hopelessness. Put yourself away and begin to find freedom. And you can find this freedom, which we might also call happiness.
Your life can open toward greater happiness and greater freedom, and it is entirely up to you to make that happen. Because in the end you have the power to do it no matter what the universe seems to be like and no matter the challenges of our place and time.
You really are in charge of your own happiness. Which is, I think, both exhilarating and terrifying. Wouldn’t it be nice if someone could do it for you? It’s such a daunting and important task, really the central task of life.
But I urge you to work, on your own, or with the right mentors, or preferably, in both ways, as honestly and fiercely as you can on this matter of your own happiness. Don’t settle for the answers all around you that are not really answers. Don’t settle for a life of quiet desperation.
And most of all, don’t settle for unhappiness. I want to tell you that happiness is possible, and that you don’t have to be despairing and afraid. But it’s up to you, to each of you, to seek out the wisdom that happiness requires. Not learning but wisdom, which is something else altogether.
I wish you a long life, the better to find and deepen that wisdom. And I wish you happiness.
I wish them happiness too. It's the very best thing to wish for any young person.
I really hope at least some of those kids heard what he was saying and were able to dismiss the silly, predictable outbursts from frightened people who truly cannot bear the idea of all people being allowed the freedom to pursue their own happiness.
And the irony is that they consider themselves to be the only Real Americans.
Is James Risen a "real" journalist or should we be ignoring him too?
It would appear that New York Times national security reporter James Risen must be a fool who knows nothing about national security because he sounded an awful lot like Glenn Greenwald (and me) this morning when he went on Meet the Pressand said the following:
There's some limited evidence of abuse. It's been anecdotal and there's never been a thorough investigation inside the government of that. One of the problems going back to the Bush administration was all of this was kept so secret, even after we began to report about it, that the inspectors general and the internal investigations were kept secret.
So there's never been a full public accounting of the level of abuse, the level of-- there's virtually no transparency at all about how much of this really has caught up American citizens. And I think that's really one of the issues here is you've got the creation of a modern surveillance infrastructure with no debate publicly except on a ad hoc basis whenever someone in the press reports about it.
The only reason we've been having these public debates, the only reason these laws have been passed, and that we're now sitting here talking about this is because of a series of whistleblowers. That the government has never wanted any of this reported, never wanted any of it disclosed.
If it was up to the government over the last ten years, this surveillance infrastructure would have grown enormously with no public debate whatsoever. And so every time we talk about how someone is a traitor for disclosing something, we have to remember the only reason we're talking about it is because of it.
I'm sorry. One of the things that really I think concerns people is that you've created something that never existed in America history before, and that is a surveillance state. The infrastructure that I'm basically using software technology and data mining and eavesdropping, very sophisticated technology to create an infrastructure that a police state would love.
And that's what really should concern Americans, is because we haven't had a full national debate about the creation of a massive surveillance state and surveillance infrastructure, that if we had some radical change in our politics could lead to a police state.
And I think one of the reasons that's happened [whistleblowers going to the press] and has repeatedly happened throughout the War on Terror is that the system, the internal system for whistle-blowing, for the watchdog and oversight system is broken. There is no good way for anyone inside the government do go through the chain of command and report about something like this. They all fear retaliation, they fear prosecution.
And so most whistleblowers, the really, the only way they now have is to go to the press or to go to someone, go outside like Snowden did. He chose people in the press to go to. He picked and chose who he wanted. But the problem is people inside the system who try to go through the chain of command get retaliated against, punished, and they eventually learn not to do it anymore.
ANDREA MITCHELL:Jim, I think they can go to Congress, they can go to the Intelligence Committee. They can go to--
RISEN: If you go-- if you're not in the intelligence community, if you're a low-ranking person in the intelligence community and you go to the Congress, to the Senate, or the House, you'll-- you will be going outside the normal bounds of-- going to Congress would be an--unauthorized disclosure
He's obviously some low-life blogger who is completely unqualified to speak on this topic. Let us pay no further attention to anything he says.
The good news is that David Ignatius was there to tell us that we have already had full debate on all this and that the Supreme Court affirmed these programs [!] so we must follow the law --- which in his view is that the government has carte blanche and that's that. I'm thinking he must be talking about that other dimension he apparently lives in.
Andrea Mitchell piped up to complain about the fact that a lowly GED holder could possibly make more than a mere subsistence wage (what's become of our caste system anyway?) and to point out that Peggy Noonan observed that people don't trust government anymore after Banghazi and the IRS scandal. (She really said it, I swear.)
Finally we had Sub-Commandante Michael Hayden just ... well, it's hard to describe. I'll let him speak for himself. This was in answer to Andrea Mitchell asking about Snowden's qualifications:
No, no, that's not the issue. It's people of this personality type having access to this, whether they're--a green badge or a blue badge. Contractor or a government employee, all right? So it's not so much contractors. Contractors don't grant themselves clearances, all right? The government grants government employees and government contractors clearances. So this is a government issue. Remember I said as people learn about the facts of the case, they'll ...
Snowden's wrong. He could not possibly have done the things he claimed he was able to do in terms of tapping communications. James, five inspectors general looked at the program I governed and which he wrote about, and a public report said there were no abuses. Controversial program, but no abuses.
DAVID GREGORY: Well, respond to Jim, too. You as head of the C.I.A. or N.S.A., you didn't want to have a debate.
No, you give up operational capacity the more these programs are known. And I know honest men argue, "Oh, they knew they were doing that all the time." But they don't know the details. And actually, what I fear Al Qaeda learns about this program is not what we're allowed to do, but they learn what we're not allowed to do. And they learn the limits of the program. [Hide all copies of the Constitution, stat!]
And just one comment, the programs we're talking about here now, prism and the metadata program were established under the court, under President Bush in 2006 and 2008. And although Candidate Obama had problems with it, President Elect Obama was briefed on it and embraced them as they existed when he came to office.[Zing ...]
David, for part of my life when I was running the N.S.A. program, I thought lawful, effective, and appropriate were enough. By the time I got to C.I.A., I discovered I had a fourth requirement, and that's politically sustainable. And by the time I got to C.I.A., I was of the belief that I would have to probably have to shave points off of operational or effectiveness to inform enough people that we had the political sustainability and the comfort of the American population concerning what it was we were doing. So I think it's living in this kind of a democracy, we're going to have to be a little bit less effective in order to be a little bit more transparent to get to do anything to defend the American people.
This man was a General running the CIA before it occurred to him that the people for whom he worked might have some interests at stake beyond "daddy knows best." And I'm afraid I don't have a lot of faith that he means it, even now. After all, he's a proven liar.
For some reason I feel the overwhelming urge to watch Dr Strangelove again. I hope it's on Netflix.
Why skepticism of the so-called success stories is called for
You know, I'd feel a lot more confident in the abject necessity of gathering all of our phone information if the supporters of the programs didn't keep bringing up these particular example of their necessity:
Saxby Chambliss (on today's Meet The Press): Well, the tool that the N.S.A. has talked about and they've allowed us to talk about are the Zazi case that was generated out of the monitoring of phone calls under 702 initially, where we picked up on a phone call made from Pakistan into the United States. And then 215 was used after that to coordinate the ultimate monitoring and arrest of Zazi who was headed to New York with backpacks loaded with bombs to blow up the New York subway system.
The other incident that we've been able to talk about is the David Headley case. Dual citizen, U.S. and Pakistani who lived in Chicago who was involved in the Mumbai bombings. And those two cases did-- we did pick up information in those two cases with the use of 702 primarily, though particularly in the Zazi case. Also there was coordinated use of 215.
Actually, in both those cases, there is evidence that the tip came from either Pakistan or British Intelligence in the Zazi case, and British Intelligence in the Headley case. I'm pretty sure it's not a huge problem to get warrants when someone is legitimately suspected of terrorism, so it's hard to see why this capability would have been necessary.
But a closer examination of the [Headley]case, drawn from extensive reporting by ProPublica, shows that the government surveillance only caught up with Headley after the U.S. had been tipped by British intelligence. And even that victory came after seven years in which U.S. intelligence failed to stop Headley as he roamed the globe on missions for Islamic terror networks and Pakistan's spy agency.
Supporters of the sweeping U.S. surveillance effort say it's needed to build a haystack of information in which to find a needle that will stop a terrorist. In Headley's case, however, it appears the U.S. was handed the needle first — and then deployed surveillance that led to the arrest and prosecution of Headley and other plotters.
As ProPublica has previously documented, Headley's case shows an alarming litany of breakdowns in the U.S. counterterror system that allowed him to play a central role in the massacre of 166 people in Mumbai, among them six Americans.
That last strikes me as a slightly important detail. This vaunted system didn't thwart anything in the Headley case. In fact,it was one of the most successful terrorist attacks since 9/11. Why in the world are they using this as an example of how well this program works?
Maybe Saxby Chambliss is too dumb to see the illogic of this but you'd think a journalist or two would have picked it up.
When bureaucrats speak gobbldygook, watch your back
There were a couple of big stories yesterday about the NSA programs, from the AP and the Washington Post. You can read them for yourselves and decide if they are, as critics contend, treason or something else.
As I noted, the WaPo makes it clear one of the most sensitive parts of the government’s surveillance programs is the collection of Internet metadata.
But the thing is, it doesn’t come out and explain whether and if so how it continues to go on.
This passage, written in the present tense, sure seems to suggest it continues.
MARINA and the collection tools that feed it are probably the least known of the NSA’s domestic operations, even among experts who follow the subject closely. Yet they probably capture information about more American citizens than any other, because the volume of e-mail, chats and other Internet communications far exceeds the volume of standard telephone calls.
The NSA calls Internet metadata “digital network information.” Sophisticated analysis of those records can reveal unknown associates of known terrorism suspects. Depending on the methods applied, it can also expose medical conditions, political or religious affiliations, confidential business negotiations and extramarital affairs.
What permits the former and prevents the latter is a complex set of policies that the public is not permitted to see. “You could do analyses that give you more information, but the law and procedures don’t allow that,” a senior U.S. intelligence lawyer said.
Yet buried in the last paragraphs of the story, WaPo’s sources suggest “the NSA is no longer doing it.” Or — as elaborated — doing “it” under the guise of and with the oversight of the FISA court.
As for bulk collection of Internet metadata, the question that triggered the crisis of 2004, another official said the NSA is no longer doing it. When pressed on that question, he said he was speaking only of collections under authority of the surveillance court.
“I’m not going to say we’re not collecting any Internet metadata,” he added. “We’re not using this program and these kinds of accesses to collect Internet metadata in bulk.”
I was struck by that last as well. It's an oddly specific way of denying something, isn't it? We used to call this a non-denial denial.
Marcy has developed some very interesting speculation about why they are speaking in this odd way: they are trying to focus everyone's attention on the specific programs managed under Section 215 of the PATRIOT ACT and the FAA. But it's highly possible that the data collection in question is being done under different auspices altogether.
I obviously don't know if that's the case. But I do know that when bureaucrats start speaking in tongues, you should be suspicious.
By the way --- if you aren't reading Marcy Wheeler on this story, you're not getting a full picture. Not only is she a gifted close reader, she has an amazing memory and has been following this story since the early Bush years. He speculation is well grounded and her suspicions are worth taking seriously. If you need more than my dirty hippie endorsement, be advised that some of the most highly respected national security journalists in the country follow her work.
Greg Sargent asks if the Obama Administration couldn't simply declassify the FISC rulings to have the "debate" over national security that it claims to welcome. And the answer is, well, yes it can:
But couldn’t the Obama administration declassify the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) opinions that make this surveillance possible if it wanted to?
The answer is Yes, according to Michelle Richardson, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union. “It’s totally within the administration’s control to declassify these opinions, after redactions, if necessary,” Richardson says. “So there could actually be an informed debate about the legal basis for this sort of data collection.”
A bipartisan group of senators — led by progressive Jeff Merkley and Tea Partyer Mike Lee — is coalescing around a bill that would require the declassification and release of these legal opinions. But the appetite in Congress for this step appears limited, given that most Members support the programs.
Still, it seems clear that the administration could declassify these opinions itself, at least in some form. Indeed, even Senator Dianne Feinstein — the chair of the Intelligence Committee and a very aggressive defender of the NSA programs – signed a letter earlier this year to the FISC, asking the court to do just that. The letter noted that the court could issue “summaries” of its interpretations of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act — revealing the legal thinking behind using the Act to authorize surveillance activity — while keeping the classified aspects of each specific administration request for this authorization under wraps.
A lot of people ostensibly on the left have been divided on the whether the government's spying actions have been appropriate or not. I think not; others differ.
But what almost everyone seems to agree on is that there needs to be much more transparency about what the government is doing so that Congress and the people can make up their own minds how much security they are buying with their loss of freedom, and whether it's at all worth it. It's a conversation the country needs to have. It's a conversation the Obama Administration says it wants to have. It's a conversation that candidate Barack Obama said he wanted to have in the 2008 campaign.
And it's a conversation that President Obama can make happen of his own accord.
So make it happen, Mr. President. Declassify the FISC rulings and let the sunshine in.
Saturday Night At The Movies Spree killers are funny! Nuclear energy is safe!
By Dennis Hartley
Pandora's Promise: Just a nation of worrywarts?
"Dogs flew spaceships! The Aztecs invented the vacation! Men and women are the same sex! Our forefathers took drugs! Your brain is not the boss! Yes! That's right! Everything you know is wrong!" -From the Firesign Theatre album Everything You Know is Wrong.
Wow. My world's been turned upside down. My mind is blown. For most of my adult life, I've apparently been walking around in a spoon-fed daze: Everything I thought I knew about nuclear energy is wrong! I'm shocked. Shocked no one previously took the time to grab me by the lapel to sit me down and set me straight about this whole "nuclear energy is inherently unsafe" meme that my environmentalist bruthuhs and sistahs have been shoving down my throat ever since I was knee-high to a recycled glass hopper. That is, until I saw Robert Stone's new documentary, Pandora's Promise. Now, I'm free! Free to ride...without getting hassled by the Man! Alright, I suppose I’m being a tad sarcastic.
Stone, a self-described "passionate environmentalist for as long as [he] could remember" goes on to write in his Director's Statementthat in recent years, he sensed "...a deep pessimism that has infused today's environmental movement, and to recognize the depth of its failure to address climate change." Ouch. Then, "...through getting to know (Whole Earth Catalog founder) Stewart Brand", he was "introduced to a new and more optimistic view of our environmental challenges that was pro-development and pro-technology" (I should note at this juncture that Paul Allen and Richard Branson are a couple of the, shall we call them, "pro-development and pro-technology tycoons" with possible vested interest listed amongst the producers). Stone has enlisted members of the "small but growing cadre of people" willing to challenge "the rigid orthodoxy of modern environmentalism" as talking heads for his decidedly rah-rah pro-nuclear energy eco-doc.
I'll admit that I hadn't read the synopsis very carefully, and was anticipating yet one more film along the lines of last year's cautionary eco-doc The Atomic States ofAmerica (my review), preaching to the choir and telling me what I already knew (or thought I knew?) about the health effects on populations living in proximity of nuclear plant mishaps like Chernobyl and Fukushima. Initially, as it began to dawn on me that Stone's film was taking an unabashed debunker's stance toward what has become the accepted "green think” on such matters, I must say I found it quite compelling, if for no other reason than the fact that it was breaking the mold of your typical eco-doc. Besides, his interviewees take great pains to identify themselves as environmentally-conscious, politically progressive folks who at one time were stridently anti-nuke (yet have come to see the light). But haven't hundreds of thousands of Russians died of health issues related to Chernobyl? Pshaw! According to the film, the "official” number is...56? They cite a World Health Organization report that appears to support that number. France is held up as a prime example of one country that has happily embraced nuclear energy. And so on.
Still, by the time it ended, I couldn't help but feel that what I’d just been handed was a one-sided debate, and the more I thought about it, the more it played like a 90-minute infomercial for the nuclear energy lobby. I began to wonder about the purported "green cred" of the interviewees. And what exactly is this "Breakthrough Institute", the nebulous benefactor thanked in the end credits (sounds like one of those secret labs that get blown up at the end of a Bond movie)? Don't get me wrong...I'm all for weighing both sides of an issue, but apparently, I'm not the only movie-going rube with such an inquiring mind regarding a possible hidden agenda; it took all of 10 seconds on Mr. Google to find a 9-page investigative probe about the film's cast and backers, posted by the activist group Beyond Nuclear. That said, I'll grant Stone his chutzpah, and he gives food for thought. Should you see it? Hmm. Approach it as you would a reactor room...Enter with Caution.
Wish you were here: Sightseers
I think we can all agree that there is nothing inherently amusing about mass/serial/spree killers; especially in the midst of these troubled times when they have become a daily occurrence. Nonetheless, filmmakers have been playing the subject for laughs for many a moon, going at least as far back as Frank Capra's 1944 film adaptation of Joseph Kesselring's early 40's Broadway hit, Arsenic and Old Lace, Charlie Chaplin's 1947 black comedy Monsieur Verdoux or the 1949 Ealing Studios classic, Kind Hearts And Coronets. Of course, those films could almost be considered "kind and gentle" next to contemporary genre fare like Bob Goldthwait's God Bless America (my review) or the insanely popular Showtime series Dexter, which begins its 8th (and final) season June 30.
Sightseers, a dark comedy from the UK directed by Ben Wheatley, falls somewhere in between. Sort of a cross between The Trip (my review) and, erm, Natural Born Killers, it's the story of a slovenly gent named Chris (Steve Oram) who drops in on his agoraphobic girlfriend Tina (Alice Lowe, who co-wrote with Oram and Amy Jump) to spirit her away from her over-protective Mum for a road trip to the north of England. Chris is eager to open Tina's eyes to wonders like the Ribblehead Viaduct and the Keswick Pencil Museum, planning to camp out in their caravan along the way. Besides, this will give the fledging couple a chance to get to know each other (as Chris assures the wary Tina.) The journey begins well enough, until Chris sees a man littering on a bus. Chris gets unusually bent out of shape when the man dismisses his admonishment with a middle fingered salute. Tina is concerned, but Chris' anger passes. She's relieved. That is, until Chris "accidently" runs over the litterbug with the caravan when he happens to spot him later that day. Oh, dear! Just when you think you're really getting to know somebody.
So do the laughs pile up in tandem with the escalating body count? I don’t know; maybe I’m already witnessing more than enough mayhem on the nightly news, but I couldn’t squeeze guffaws out of seeing someone run over by an RV, or having their skull pulverized into ground chuck by repeated blows with a blunt object. Call me madcap. Despite being infused with wry British wit and oddly endearing performances from Oram and Lowe, Wheatley’s film may have made me chuckle a bit, but it didn’t really slay me.