Thursday Reads: Rainbows, Wildfires, Gangsters, Spies, and SuperheroesPosted: June 13, 2013
Isn’t that a gorgeous photo? There was a double rainbow over Boston last night, and quite a few people took photos and videos of it. Here’s another shot of it over the harbor and seaport.
You can see more views of it here.
Some people said the rainbow must be a positive sign for the Boston Bruins, who are in the Stanley Cup playoffs against the Chicago Blackhawks. It didn’t work out that way though. The Blackhawks ended up winning game one, after what seemed like an endless triple-overtime hockey game.
In other local news, yesterday was the first day of the trial of 83-year-old Irish gangster James “Whitey” Bulger. Opening statements were apparently riveting. It’s a shame the federal courts won’t allow TV cameras, because this trial is going to be an incredible show. Yesterday both sides gave their opening statements. From The Washington Post:
BOSTON — The trial of James “Whitey” Bulger, the Irish mob boss who allegedly helped scratch out 19 lives and ran this city’s underworld aided by corrupt FBI agents, got underway Wednesday morning almost 20 years after he fled the city on the eve of his indictment.
Now 83 and with just a bit of white hair left, Bulger wore a long-sleeve green shirt and jeans and listened without displaying any reaction as prosecutors laid out their 32 charges against him in a packed South Boston federal courtroom near the gangster’s old hangouts.
“It’s a case about organized crime, public corruption and all types of illegal activities,” federal prosecutor Brian Kelly said during opening statements. “He was no ordinary leader. He did the dirty work himself. He was a hands-on killer.”
Kelly told the story of one of Bulger’s alleged murder victims, Arthur “Bucky” Barrett, who prayed for his life before he was led to a cellar stairwell. “Barrett’s going downstairs to lie down for a while,” Bulger told an accomplice. Barrett walked down the stairs, and Bulger shot him the back, Kelly said.
Bulger’s rise as the city’s brutal organized crime leader was aided and abetted by corrupt FBI agents, who brushed off Bulger’s racketeering and violence in exchange for his help as an informant to bring down the local mafia, according to a lengthy ruling by a federal judge and other investigations.
On the defense side, (Hartford Courant)
Bulger lawyer Jay Carney made it clear in his remarks to the jury that much of the crime boss’s defense will be spent trying to discredit the government’s three chief witnesses. They are close former Bulger associates who agreed to turn on him for leniency or other considerations.
Carney argued to the jury that the three — John Martorano, Stephen Flemmi and Kevin Weeks — will say whatever they think the government wants in order to protect their cooperation agreements. Among other things, he said, they are accusing Bulger of their crimes.
Martorano was sentenced to 14 years in prison for 20 murders. Weeks, once a Bulger protégé, got a shorter sentence for less serious offenses. Flemmi, Bulger’s long-time partner, got a life sentence, but was not exposed to possible death sentences for crimes in Florida and Oklahoma related to the gang’s attempt to takeover World Jai Alai, once one of the country’s largest pari-mutuel businesses.
Carney compared the federal prosecutors to chefs and the three witnesses to elaborately prepared meals.
‘What [we] are going to try to do is show you what happens in the prosecutors’ kitchen before the witness comes out,” Carney said.
I guess I’ve bored you with enough Boston news for today. Let’s see what’s happening in the rest of the world.
Colorado is dealing with terrifying wildfires. CNN reports:
Two ferocious wildfires are roaring across the region, scorching thousands of acres and devouring dozens of homes.
“This part, not knowing if I have a house or not is the worst,” said Paula Warren, one of thousands of residents forced to flee as the Black Forest Fire closed in on her home northeast of Colorado Springs.
“I thought I had about an hour, and it turned out to be about 20 minutes,” she said. “I had a pillowcase full of socks, and that’s basically all I have.”
The Black Forest Fire is one of two major fires taking its toll on the land and resources. The other, the Royal Gorge Fire, is burning on the other side of Colorado Springs, threatening the iconic Royal Gorge Suspension Bridge.
Firefighters have continued their assault on the flames from the ground and from the sky.
But high temperatures, dry brush and gusty winds are proving to be a catastrophic combination.
Read more at the link.
Of course, there’s plenty of coverage of the NSA leak story. The WaPo’s David Ignatius weighs in with his psychological analysis of leaker Edward Snowden:
Journalists have a professional commitment to the idea that more debate is better, so we instinctively side with leakers. But I’m skeptical about some of the claims of Edward Snowden, the young National Security Agency contractor who leaked secrets about that agency’s surveillance programs to The Post and the Guardian.
Snowden has described his actions in idealistic terms. “I’m willing to sacrifice . . . because I can’t in good conscience allow the U.S. government to destroy privacy, Internet freedom and basic liberties,” he said in an interview with the Guardian. But it’s hard for me to see him as a hero.
What worries me is that Snowden is challenging the rule of law. The NSA Internet surveillance program he decided to reveal is legal, in the sense that it was passed by both houses of Congress and is reviewed regularly by the intelligence committees. It is overseen by judges who sit on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. In 2008,that court ruled against a company that challenged the law.
Ignatius mentions a comparison I saw noted yesterday on Twitter.
Snowden’s case is similar to that of CIA dissident Philip Agee. He published a revelatory memoir in 1975 called “Inside the Company: CIA Diary,” which outed the names and code names of scores of operatives with whom Agee had worked. He wrote in the introduction: “When I joined the CIA I believed in the need for its existence. After 12 years with the agency, I finally understood how much suffering it was causing. . . . I couldn’t sit by and do nothing.” Agee died in 2008 in Cuba, where he had sought refuge.
The CIA claimed at the time that it had suffered great damage from Agee’s revelations, but it’s still very much in business. Indeed, you could argue that the agency is far more aggressive and willing to use deadly force today than Agee ever envisioned. In that sense, we should be skeptical both of the efficacy of whistleblowers and of claims that unauthorized disclosures (as by Agee, or now Snowden) will cause irreparable harm. Usually these turn out to be overstated.
Of course Snowden hasn’t outed any names yet, and his experience in the CIA was far less extensive than Agee’s.
At The Nation, Lee Fang writes about the issue of outside contractors: How Spy Agency Contractors Have Already Abused Their Power. He focuses on a much-talked-about contractor called Palantir:
Firms like Palantir—a Palo Alto–based business that helps intelligence agencies analyze large sets of data—exist because of the government’s post-9/11 rush to develop a “terror-detection leviathan” of high-tech companies. Named after a stone in the Lord of the Rings that helps both villains and do-gooders see over great distances, the company is well-known within Silicon Valley for attracting support from a venture capital group led by libertarian billionaire Peter Thiel and Facebook’s Sean Parker. But Palantir’s rise to prominence, now reportedly valued at $8 billion, came from initial investment from In-Q-Tel, the venture capital arm of the CIA, and close consultation with officials from the intelligence-gathering community, including disgraced retired admiral John Poindexter and Bryan Cunningham, a former adviser to Condoleezza Rice.
While Palantir boasts that its government-backed technology is geared towards helping the military track terrorists, stolen e-mails from HBGary Federal show the firm and its senior executives were eager to use its platform on behalf of the Chamber, one of the largest corporate lobbying associations. In the fall of 2010, the Chamber had received unflattering attention, first from a New York Times piece about allegedly laundered money from AIG, and then from my reporting at the Center for American Progress’ ThinkProgress blog about foreign funds flowing to the Chamber’s 501(c)(6) entity used to run campaign advertisements. The Chamber’s attorneys at the firm Hunton & Williams, at the time already busy prosecuting a group of activists for impersonating the Chamber, sought out the help of Palantir to develop a team to go after the Chamber’s critics. As I reported later for TheNation.com, Palantir eventually connected with Berico and HBGary Federal, and along with the Chamber’s attorneys, the group began plotting a campaign of snooping on activists’ families and even using sophisticated hacking tools to break into computers:
The presentations, which were also leaked by Anonymous, contained ethically questionable tactics, like creating a “false document, perhaps highlighting periodical financial information,” to give to a progressive group opposing the Chamber, and then subsequently exposing the document as a fake to undermine the credibility of the Chamber’s opponents. In addition, the group proposed creating a “fake insider persona” to “generate communications” with Change to Win, a federation of labor unions that sponsored the watchdog site, US Chamber Watch.
Even more troubling, however, were plans by the three contractors to use malware and other forms of malicious software to hack into computers owned by the Chamber’s opponents and their families. Boasting that they could develop a “fusion cell” of the kind “developed and utilized by Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC),” the contractors discussed how they could use “custom malware development” and “zero day” exploits to gain control of a target’s computer network. These types of hacks can allow an attacker not only to snoop but to delete files, monitor keystrokes and manipulate websites, e-mail archives and any database connected to the target computer.
Read the rest at The Nation.
There was some good news for opponents of the surveillance state yesterday. From The Atlantic:
The Electronic Frontier Foundation scored a remarkable — and remarkably timely — legal victory on Wednesday. The secret court at the center of the recent NSA surveillance revelations allowed the group’s push for the release of a ruling on violations of Americans’ Fourth Amendment rights to move forward.
In May, we reported on what was then a fairly sleepy issue, a distant node on the EFF’s longstanding push to uncover how the NSA’s intelligence-gathering systems conflicted with the Constitution. In July 2012, a letter from the Director of National Intelligence to Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon revealed that a ruling by the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) found Fourth Amendment violations in the government’s surveillance.
In response, the EFF filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the release of the ruling, an effort that was blocked by the Department of Justice. Justice, it’s worth noting, both relies on the FISC for authorization to conduct intelligence sweeps and is not eager to have those sweeps made public. Justice said that the ruling was confidential, prompting EFF to sue. In response, the agency then said that it couldn’t release even part of the ruling, due to FISC’s rules.
So the EFF asked FISC if that was the case. On Wednesday, the court said: Nope, albeit in more legally appropriate language. “The Court disagrees with the Government,” the decision reads, “that FISC Rule 62 prohibits the disclosure of the copies of the FISC opinion to EFF under FOIA.”
Read more about the legal implications of this decision at the link.
I’m running out of space, but here’s one more interesting article at Bloomberg on Balancing Security and Liberty in the Age of Big Data
I’ll end with a cute story from People Magazine about a little boy in Western Massachusetts, 1½-year-old super-fan Jaxson Denno,” who wanted to meet Ironman, but Robert Downey Jr. showed up instead.
Downey wasn’t wearing his Ironman suit and Jaxson was sooooo disappointed. His mom Heather Denno explained “that her young son ‘was so confused because I kept telling him it was Iron Man and he knew it wasn’t. Well, not Iron Man in the suit.'”
Now it’s your turn. What are you reading and blogging about today? Please share your links on any topic in the comment thread.