Lazy Caturday Reads: Winter Solstice Edition

Good Morning Sky Dancers!!

The Winter Solstice arrives tonight at 11:19 PM. Justin Greiser at The Washington Post: Winter solstice: There’s beauty in the darkest day of the year.

There’s something enchanting about the winter solstice, which arrives this weekend and marks our longest night of the year here in the Northern Hemisphere.

Perhaps it’s the stark contrast between daylight and darkness that we experience when the winter sun is shining and not hiding behind a thick blanket of clouds. Or maybe it’s the fact that the sun hangs so low in the sky all day at this time of year that it almost feels as if our nearest star is within tangible reach, despite being 91 million miles away….

When astronomical winter officially begins, we’ll be less than halfway through our longest night of the year, which lasts more than 14 hours here in Washington. On both Saturday and Sunday, the sun will be up for just nine hours and 26 minutes, rising in the southeastern sky at 7:23 a.m. and setting to the southwest at 4:49 p.m.

I’ve always considered the winter solstice one of my favorite days of the year. Long before the dawn of modern technology, ancient cultures and civilizations have celebrated the winter solstice as a seasonal turning point, welcoming the inevitable return of the sun’s light.

Even in the modern age of technology and artificial lighting, the darkest day of the year forces us to ponder the importance of sunlight in our daily lives. It affects our moods, our productivity and even our sleep patterns. While the dark, gloomy days of winter can trigger seasonal affective disorder in many people, there’s something about the sun’s blinding, golden glow around this time of year that feels bizarrely uplifting.

Yule Cat (Icelandic folklore)

In Icelandic folklore, there are Christmas monsters, one of which is the Yule cat. Smithsonian Magazine: Each Christmas, Iceland’s Yule Cat Takes Fashion Policing to the Extreme.

For most kids who celebrate Christmas, new clothes probably sit just above lumps of coal on the good present scale. But according to an Icelandic tradition, getting new socks before Christmas might just save your life. That’s because the Jólakötturinn, or Yule Cat, eats anyone who hasn’t received new clothes by the time Christmas rolls around, Matthew Hart writes for Nerdist.

The story of the Jólakötturinn likely dates back to the Dark Ages, though the oldest written accounts are from the 19th century. In any case, much like the Krampus, the Yule Cat has long been a Christmas-time enforcer of good behavior, Miss Cellania writes for Mental Floss. According to Icelandic tradition, anyone who finished their chores before Christmas would get new clothes as a reward. Meanwhile, lazy children who didn’t get their work done would have to face the Jólakötturinn.

For starters, the Jólakötturinn is no mere kitten—it towers above the tallest houses. As it prowls about Iceland on Christmas night, the Yule Cat peers in through the windows to see what kids have gotten for presents. If new clothes are among their new possessions, the big cat will move along. But if a child was too lazy to earn their new socks, the Jólakötturinn will eat their dinner, before moving on to the main course: the child herself, Hart writes.

Read more at the link.

I posted this story on the thread yesterday, but I’m doing it again just because: The mystery of the missing police station donation toys has been solved. The thief is very cute.

A Massachusetts police department has a thief in its midst.

Officers with the Franklin Police department had worked diligently to collect toys for needy children this holiday season, but noticed that some of those toys were disappearing, according to CNN affiliate WFXT.

Fortunately, the culprit was caught in the act and on camera. It was their own therapy dog, Ben Franklin.

“When Ben saw the toys, he thought they all belonged to him,” Deputy Chief James Mill told the station.

Among the stolen items was a baby doll.

Ben tried to outrun officers when they caught him carrying a baby doll in its carrier by the handle. But he ended up just leading them back to the stash of goodies by his bed under a desk.

Police were unable to recover the toys from Ben, due to an excess of slobber. Officers have instead replaced the stolen toys, the station reported.

He will likely not face charges, the station said, but he has been banned from the toy room.

I just love that Ben wanted to play with a baby doll.

I hate to have to post actual news today, but I’ll force myself.

A new story at The Daily Beast reveals that the White House is blacking out important information in documents it has been ordered by a judge to release: Trump Administration Officials Worried Halt to Ukraine Aid Violated Spending Law.

When President Donald Trump ordered a halt to aid to Ukraine last summer, defense officials and diplomats worried first that it would undermine U.S. national security. Ukraine is, as some of them later testified before Congress, on the front lines of Russian aggression, and only robust American support would fend off aggressive Moscow meddling in the West. This worry eventually helped galvanize congressional support for one of the two impeachment articles approved by the House of Representatives on Dec. 18.

By Inge Sigrid Micha Koeck

But there was also a separate, less-noticed facet of the internal administration uproar set off by Trump’s July 12 order stopping the flow of $391 million in weapons and security assistance to Ukraine. Some senior administration officials worried that by defying a law ordering that the funds be spent within a defined period, Trump was asking the officials involved to take an action that was not merely unwise but flatly illegal.

The administration so far has declined to release copies of its internal communications about this vital issue—the legality of what Trump had ordered. On Friday, in 146 pages of new documents provided to the Center for Public Integrity under a court order, the Justice Department blacked out —for the second time—many of the substantive passages reflecting what key officials at the Pentagon and the Office of Management and Budget said to one another.

But considerable evidence is still available that those at key institutions responsible for distributing the Ukraine aid worried the halt potentially violated a 45-year-old law written to keep presidents from ignoring the will of Congress, according to public statements and congressional testimony.

Click the link to read the rest.

Bloomberg: Trump Quest to Expose Whistle-Blower Hard to Pull Off in Senate.

President Donald Trump says his impeachment trial should deliver on a goal he’s nurtured for months: unmasking the whistle-blower who started it all. But that would pose legal and ethical challenges that would be hard to overcome….

A Senate demand that the whistle-blower testify would probably be challenged in court as a violation of the law’s protections, and as a move that could put the unidentified person at risk while extracting only secondhand evidence of limited value. Lawmakers of both parties may share those concerns….

By Kazuaki Horitomo

Experts on whistle-blower laws say disclosing the person’s identify, as Trump desires, would clash with protections from reprisal under the Intelligence Community Whistleblower Protection Act of 1998.

“Everyone knows that the whistle-blower’s career will be devastated” if identified publicly, said Stephen M. Kohn, who has represented whistle-blowers for more than three decades. “There is no doubt that this whistle-blower will be attacked on social media vigorously and for years to come.”

I didn’t watch the debate, but reportedly one of the big issues was about the “progressive” candidates who have pledged not to hold fundraisers for big donors. Frankly, I think that’s silly as long as Republicans are raking in all the money they can. It only makes it harder for Democrats to compete. Anyway, a very generous donor is insulted. The New York Times: Democrats Sparred Over a Wine Cave Fund-Raiser. Its Billionaire Owner Isn’t Pleased.

To reach the wine cave that set off a firestorm in this week’s Democratic presidential debate, visitors must navigate a hillside shrouded in mossy oak trees and walk down a brick-and-limestone hallway lined with wine barrels. Inside the room, a strikingly long table made of wood and onyx sits below a raindrop chandelier with 1,500 Swarovski crystals.

The furnishings drew the ire of Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts on Thursday, when she chastised Pete Buttigieg for holding a recent fund-raiser in a wine cave “full of crystals” where she said guests were served $900 bottles of wine….

Illustration by Théophile Steinlen, ’Compagnie française des chocolats et des thés’ (ca. 1895-1900)

On Friday, the billionaire couple who owns the wine cave — wine is often stored underground because of the cool, stable temperatures — said they were frustrated that their property had set off one of the fiercest back-and-forths of the debate. Watching the contentious moment on television, they grew frustrated as Ms. Warren and other candidates used their winery as a symbol of opulence and the wealthy’s influence on politics.

“I’m just a pawn here,” said Craig Hall, who owns Hall Wines, which is known for its cabernet sauvignon, with his wife, Kathryn Walt Hall. “They’re making me out to be something that’s not true. And they picked the wrong pawn. It’s just not fair.”

Mr. Hall said he had not settled on a favorite Democratic candidate, but that Mr. Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., was a leading contender. His positions on climate change, gun safety and immigration appealed to the couple, said Mr. Hall, who added that he wanted it to be easier for middle-class Americans to start successful businesses.

The Halls have given at least $2.4 million to Democratic candidates, committees and PACs since the 1980s, according to Federal Election Commission records. They have donated to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senator Kamala Harris of California before she ran for president.

Of course Warren had no problem beginning her campaign with money she got from wealthy donors.

The Washington Post published a shocking immigration story yesterday: Under secret Stephen Miller plan, ICE to use data on migrant children to expand deportation efforts.

The White House sought this month to embed immigration enforcement agents within the U.S. refugee agency that cares for unaccompanied migrant children, part of a long-standing effort to use information from their parents and relatives to target them for deportation, according to six current and former administration officials.

By Utagawa Hiroshige, ‘Asakusa Ricefields and Torinomachi Festival’ (1857) Japanese

Though senior officials at the Department of Health and Human Services rejected the attempt, they agreed to allow Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents to collect fingerprints and other biometric information from adults seeking to claim migrant children at government shelters. If those adults are deemed ineligible to take custody of children, ICE could then use their information to target them for arrest and deportation.

The arrangement appears to circumvent laws that restrict the use of the refu­gee program for deportation enforcement; Congress has made clear that it does not want those who come forward as potential sponsors of minors in U.S. custody to be frightened away by possible deportation. But, in the reasoning of senior Trump administration officials, adults denied custody of children lose their status as “potential sponsors” and are fair game for arrest.

The plan has not been announced publicly. It was developed by Stephen Miller, President Trump’s top immigration adviser, who has long argued that HHS’s Office of Refugee Resettlement is being exploited by parents who hire smugglers to bring their children into the United States illegally. The agency manages shelters that care for underage migrants who cross the border without a parent and tries to identify sponsors — typically family members — eligible to take custody of the minors.

Read more at the WaPo.

That’s it for me. What stories are you following today?


Thursday Reads: DNI Facing Intel Committees and Trump Facing Impeachment

Good Morning!!

Acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire is testifying before the House Intelligence Committee this morning. Maguire has given his opening statement and the questioning has begun. At about 8:30, the whistleblower complaint was released to the public. You can read it here.

So far Maguire is working pretty hard to obfuscate Adam Schiff’s questions, but he has admitted that he first took the complaint to the White House counsel’s office for advice. He keeps claiming that he can’t violate executive privilege but he also admits that the “president” has not asserted executive privilege. Next he went to the DOJ even though Bill Barr is specifically mentioned in the whistleblower complaint as likely being involved in Trump’s wrongdoing!

Anyway, if you’re watching, please post your thoughts in the comments to this post.

Here’s the latest:

The Washington Post: Whistleblower claimed Trump abused his office and that White House officials tried to cover it up.

The whistleblower complaint at the heart of the burgeoning controversy over President Trump’s call with the Ukrainian president claims not only that the president misused his office for personal gain and endangered national security but that unidentified White House officials tried to hide that conduct.

“In the course of my official duties, I have received information from multiple U.S. government officials that the President of the United States is using the power of his office to solicit interference from a foreign country in the 2020 U.S. election,” the whistleblower wrote in the complaint dated Aug. 12. The House Intelligence Committee released the document Thursday morning.

“This interference includes, among other things, pressuring a foreign country to investigate one of the President’s main domestic political rivals. The President’s personal lawyer, Mr. Rudolph W. Giuliani, is a central figure in this effort. Attorney General (William P.) Barr appears to be involved as well,” the complaint states.

In that phone call, Trump pressed President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate Joe Biden, one of his chief political rivals, and Biden’s son Hunter — offering to enlist Barr’s help in that effort while dangling a possible visit to the White House, according to a rough transcript of the call released by the White House on Wednesday.

Read the rest at the WaPo.

The New York Times: Whistle-Blower’s Complaint Says White House Tried to ‘Lock Down’ Ukraine Call Records.

President Trump used the power of his office to try to get Ukraine to interfere in the 2020 election to investigate a political rival “for personal gain,” according to an explosive whistle-blower complaint released on Thursday after days of damning revelations about Mr. Trump’s dealings with Ukraine.

Attorney General William P. Barr and the president’s personal attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani were central to the effort, the complaint said.

In addition, the complaint says that whistle-blower, an unidentified intelligence officer, learned from multiple American officials that “senior White House officials had intervened to ‘lock down’ all records of the phone call, especially the official word-for-word transcript of the call that was produced as is customary by the White House Situation Room.”

“This set of actions underscored to me that White House officials understood the gravity of what had transpired in the call,” the complaint said.

The whistle-blower’s complaint was based on accounts from multiple White House officials who were “deeply disturbed” by what they heard on the call, the complaint said.

Read more at the link above.

The New York Times last night: Phone Call Showed Only a Slice of Trump’s Obsession With Ukraine.

Long before the July 25 call with the new Ukrainian president that helped spur the formal start of impeachment proceedings against him in the House, Mr. Trump fretted and fulminated about the former Soviet state, angry over what he sees as Ukraine’s role in the origins of the investigations into Russian influence on his 2016 campaign.

His fixation was only intensified by his hope that he could employ the Ukrainian government to undermine his most prominent potential Democratic rival in 2020, former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.

His personal lawyer, Rudolph W. Giuliani, has undertaken a nearly yearlong, free-ranging effort to unearth information helpful to Mr. Trump and harmful to Mr. Biden.

And Mr. Trump has put the powers of his office behind his agenda: He has dispatched Vice President Mike Pence and top administration officials with thinly veiled messages about heeding his demands about confronting corruption, which Ukrainian and former American officials say is understood as code for the Bidens and Ukrainians who released damaging information about the Trump campaign in 2016. This summer he froze a package of military assistance to Ukraine even as the country, eager to build closer relations with Washington, continued to be menaced by its aggressive neighbor Russia.

HuffPost: Donald Trump Actually Has 2 Whistleblowers To Worry About.

…there’s another whistleblower ― one with possible evidence that Trump tried to corrupt an Internal Revenue Service audit of his personal tax returns ― who has received relatively little attention.

The tax whistleblower…went straight to Congress ― specifically to the House Ways and Means Committee, which had sued the Trump administration for refusing to provide copies of the president’s tax returns in response to a formal request. Democrats say they need Trump’s returns to make sure the IRS properly enforces tax laws against the president.

But Ways and Means Chair Richard Neal (D-Mass.) is far less outspoken than Schiff, and his approach to the tax case has been cautious. He decided to stay focused on the lawsuit, using the whistleblower’s material to bolster that case.

In a brief last month, the committee told the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia that a “federal employee” had approached them with “evidence of possible misconduct” and “inappropriate efforts” to influence an IRS audit of the president. The document provided no further detail about the whistleblower, but in a footnote, Democrats offered to tell U.S. District Judge Trevor McFadden all about it in private.

A spokesman for the committee said this week that McFadden, a Trump nominee who donated to the Trump 2016 campaign and volunteered for the Trump presidential transition, has so far not asked to hear more about the whistleblower. He denied a Democratic motion to speed up the case.

Selected analysis:

This one is really interesting. I hope you’ll read the whole thing by Murray Waas at the New York Review of Books: Trump, Giuliani, and Manafort: The Ukraine Scheme.

The effort by President Trump to pressure the government of Ukraine to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and his son had its origins in an earlier endeavor to obtain information that might provide a pretext and political cover for the president to pardon his former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, according to previously undisclosed records.

These records indicate that attorneys representing Trump and Manafort respectively had at least nine conversations relating to this effort, beginning in the early days of the Trump administration, and lasting until as recently as May of this year. Through these deliberations carried on by his attorneys, Manafort exhorted the White House to press Ukrainian officials to investigate and discredit individuals, both in the US and in Ukraine, who he believed had published damning information about his political consulting work in the Ukraine. A person who participated in the joint defense agreement between President Trump and others under investigation by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, including Manafort, allowed me to review extensive handwritten notes that memorialized conversations relating to Manafort and Ukraine between Manafort’s and Trump’s legal teams, including Trump’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani.

These new disclosures emerge as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced on Tuesday that the House would open a formal impeachment inquiry into President Trump’s conduct. What prompted her actions were the new allegations that surfaced last week that Trump had pressured Ukraine’s newly elected president, Volodymyr Zelensky, to investigate Trump’s potential 2020 campaign rival, Biden, and his son Hunter, placing a freeze on a quarter of a billion dollars in military assistance to Ukraine as leverage. The impeachment inquiry will also examine whether President Trump obstructed justice by attempting to curtail investigations by the FBI and the special counsel into Russia’s covert interference in the 2016 presidential election in Trump’s favor.

New information in this story suggests that these two, seemingly unrelated scandals, in which the House will judge whether the president’s conduct in each case constituted extra-legal and extra-constitutional abuses of presidential power, are in fact inextricably linked: the Ukrainian initiative appears to have begun in service of formulating a rationale by which the president could pardon Manafort, as part of an effort to undermine the special counsel’s investigation.

Jonathan Chait at New York Magazine: The Ukraine Scandal Is Not One Phone Call. It’s a Massive Plot.

On July 25, President Trump held a phone call in which he repeatedly leaned on Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate Joe Biden and Paul Manafort’s prosecutors. The episode is so blatantly inappropriate even Trump’s most fervent apologists are, with a few exceptions, having trouble defending it. What they are trying to do, instead, is define this phone call as the entire scandal. Trump emphasizes that he “didn’t specifically mention the explicit quid pro quo” of military aid in return for the investigation.

That is true, as far as it goes. The quid pro quo in the call, though perfectly apparent, is mostly implicit. But the real trick in Trump’s defense is framing the call as the entire scandal. The scandal is much more than that. The call is a snapshot, a moment in time in a months-long campaign that put American policy toward Ukraine at the disposal of Trump’s personal interests and reelection campaign.

Last spring, Rudy Giuliani was openly pressuring Kiev to investigate Joe Biden. Giuliani told the New York Times, “We’re meddling in an investigation … because that information will be very, very helpful to my client.” The key word there was “we’re.” The first-person plural indicated Giuliani was not carrying out this mission alone. A series of reports have revealed how many other government officials were involved in the scheme.

Read more at the link.

A few more:

Susan Glasser at The New Yorker: “Do Us a Favor”: The Forty-eight Hours That Sealed Trump’s Impeachment.

Lawrence Tribe at USA Today: Donald Trump’s call with Ukrainian president drips with impeachable crimes.

Neal Kaytal at The New York Times: Trump Doesn’t Need to Commit a Crime to Be Kicked Out of Office.

Please post your thoughts and links on any topic in the comment thread below.


Thursday Reads

reading-in-the-garden Nikolay Bodanov Belsky

Good Morning!!

Yesterday, the White House announced that President Obama will not meet one-on-one with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G-20 meeting in St. Petersburg as previously planned. From The Washington Post:

President Obama has canceled a meeting with Russian Prime Minister Vladi­mir Putin. Russia’s decision to give temporary asylum to former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden has exacerbated tensions with the United States over a number of issues:

“Following a careful review begun in July, we have reached the conclusion that there is not enough recent progress in our bilateral agenda with Russia to hold a U.S.-Russia Summit in early September,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said in a statement.

Carney cited a “lack of progress” with Russia over the past 12 months on a broad range of issues including missile defense and arms control, trade and commercial relations, global security and human rights and civil society issues. Carney added that Russia’s “disappointing decision” last week to grant Snowden temporary asylum, allowing him to live and work in Russia for up to a year, was also a factor.

President Obama discussed some of his issues with Russia in an appearance on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno on Tuesday night.

Saying that he had “no patience for countries that try to treat gays or lesbians or transgender persons in ways that intimidate them or are harmful to them,” Obama criticized a law, enacted in June, that prohibits public events promoting gay rights and public displays of affection by same-sex couples. A Russian official has promised that the law will be enforced during next February’s Sochi Games despite the International Olympic Committee’s contrary stance.

After the announcement, Russian-American journalist Julia Iofee wrote at The New Republic: Obama Bails on His Inevitably Awkward Date With Putin

A week after Edward Snowden was granted temporary asylum in Russia, President Obama canceled his bi-lateral September summit in Moscow with Vladimir Putin, though administration officials are at pains to portray this as something greater than pure tit-for-tattery. Rather, they say, it was an excuse to avoid what, even without Snowden, would have been “a pretty dreary affair.”

A few days before Snowden turned up in Moscow, Obama and Putin met on the sidelines of the G8 conference in Northern Ireland. The resulting photo-op—Obama looking forlornly into the distance, Putin slouched and sullen—said it all: they looked like the aging couple at the neighboring table, intently working on their food and eavesdropping on your conversation because they had nothing to support one of their own. Moscow and Washington had talked and talked, they’d gotten START and the transport route to Afghanistan and the sanctions on Iran, but now, the kids are out of the house and they were talking past each other on Syria, on Iran, on pretty much everything.

Lawrence O’Donnell asked Ioffe to appear on his MSNBC show last night to discuss the issues surrounding the decision; but instead of allowing her to express her opinions, O’Donnell interrupted Ioffe, lectured her about Russia and Putin, basically implying she is a liar. Ioffe responded at TNR:

Tonight, I went on Lawrence O’Donnell’s show, and Lawrence O’Donnell yelled at me. Or, rather, he O’Reilly’d at me. That O’Donnell interrupted and harangued and mansplained and was generally an angry grandpa at me is not what I take issue with, however. What bothers me is that, look: your producers take the time to find experts to come on the show, answer your questions, and, hopefully, clarify the issue at hand.

I was invited on the show to talk about Obama’s (very wise) decision to cancel his Moscow summit with Putin, about which I wrote here. I am an expert on Russia. In fact, it is how you introduced me: “Previously, she was a Moscow-based correspondent for Foreign Policy and The New Yorker.” I’m not going to toot my own horn here, but I was there for three years, I’m a fluent, native speaker of Russian, and, god damn it, I know my shit.

Which is why I wish you’d let me finish answering your bullshit question…

You can watch the interaction at MSNBC and read the things she would have liked to say about Putin at TNR. Basically Ioffe tried to explain the Putin doesn’t control everything that happens in Russia anymore than Obama controls everything that happens in the US. She believes that once the Bolivian plane was forced to land because the US suspected Snowden might be on board, Putin really had no choice but to allow Snowden to stay in Russia, because public opinion there strongly supported him.

I have quoted Ioffe in previous posts, and she certainly is no Putin apologist–as she asserts in her piece. I think O’Donnell treated her shamefully.

In other NSA news, mainstream reporters continue to published far more stunning revelations than anything that has come from Snowden and Greenwald. This morning at The New York Times, Charlie Savage writes about surveillance of e-mails between people in the US and foreign countries without warrants, which is being justified by an interpretation of the 2008 FISA Amendments Act.

The National Security Agency is searching the contents of vast amounts of Americans’ e-mail and text communications into and out of the country, hunting for people who mention information about foreigners under surveillance, according to intelligence officials.

The N.S.A. is not just intercepting the communications of Americans who are in direct contact with foreigners targeted overseas, a practice that government officials have openly acknowledged. It is also casting a far wider net for people who cite information linked to those foreigners, like a little used e-mail address, according to a senior intelligence official.

While it has long been known that the agency conducts extensive computer searches of data it vacuums up overseas, that it is systematically searching — without warrants — through the contents of Americans’ communications that cross the border reveals more about the scale of its secret operations….

Government officials say the cross-border surveillance was authorized by a 2008 law, the FISA Amendments Act, in which Congress approved eavesdropping on domestic soil without warrants as long as the “target” was a noncitizen abroad. Voice communications are not included in that surveillance, the senior official said.

Read more at the NYT link.

And at Reuters, John Shiffman and David Ingram report that a DEA program that appears to use NSA data to target ordinary criminals in the and then require DEA officers to conceal the source of the information was also used by the IRS.

Details of a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration program that feeds tips to federal agents and then instructs them to alter the investigative trail were published in a manual used by agents of the Internal Revenue Service for two years.

The practice of recreating the investigative trail, highly criticized by former prosecutors and defense lawyers after Reuters reported it this week, is now under review by the Justice Department. Two high-profile Republicans have also raised questions about the procedure.

A 350-word entry in the Internal Revenue Manual instructed agents of the U.S. tax agency to omit any reference to tips supplied by the DEA’s Special Operations Division, especially from affidavits, court proceedings or investigative files. The entry was published and posted online in 2005 and 2006, and was removed in early 2007. The IRS is among two dozen arms of the government working with the Special Operations Division, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the National Security Agency and the Central Intelligence Agency.

An IRS spokesman had no comment on the entry or on why it was removed from the manual. Reuters recovered the previous editions from the archives of the Westlaw legal database, which is owned by Thomson Reuters Corp, the parent of this news agency.

Just as a reminder that Russia’s treatment of journalists and whistleblowers is actually a hell of a lot worse than anything that happens in the US, Human Rights Watch reports on Russia’s Silencing Activists, Journalists ahead of Sochi Games.

(Moscow) – Local authorities have harassed numerous activists and journalists who criticized or expressed concerns about preparations for the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi. The six-month countdown to the Sochi Games opening ceremony is this week.

Human Rights Watch has documented government efforts to intimidate several organizations and individuals who have investigated or spoken out  againstabuse of migrant workers, the impact of theconstruction of Olympics venues and infrastructure on the environment and health of residents, and unfair compensation for people forcibly evicted from their homes. Human Rights Watch also documented how authorities harassed and pursued criminal charges against journalists, apparently in retaliation for their legitimate reporting.

“Trying to bully activists and journalists into silence is wrong and only further tarnishes the image of the Olympics,” said Jane Buchanan, associate Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “One of the non-negotiable requirements of hosting the Olympics is to allow press freedom, and the authorities’ attempts to silence critics are in clear violation of that principle.”

Obviously that doesn’t justify the Obama administration trying to influence media coverage of the NSA story, but we do need to keep things in perspective. In that vein, Bob Cesca had a good post yesterday: The Real-Life Stories of Legitimate NSA Whistleblowers (Snowden Isn’t One of Them). I hope you’ll give it a read.

In other news, Yemen has been hit by 6 suspected US drone strikes in the past 2 weeks–probably linked to the recently reported threat of an imminent terror strike that led the US to close a number of embassies last weekend.

An official in Yemen said Thursday that the sixth suspected U.S. drone strike in just two weeks had left six suspected al Qaeda militants dead in the group’s former stronghold in the center of the country. The official told The Associated Press that a missile hit a car traveling in the central Marib province, causing the fatalities.

CBS News correspondent Charlie D’Agata reports that Yemen has long been a haven for al Qaeda leadership, and the country claimed Wednesday to have disrupted a major plot, which may have exposed potential targets.

Yemeni government officials say security forces are turning up the heat on militants from al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the global terror network’s branch based in the nation, after foiling the plot to strike foreign embassies, gas and oil installations, and the country’s port cities.

The government has even given a shoot-to-kill order on anybody who looks suspicious and refuses to identify themselves.

The alleged plot appears to have been similar to the January attack in Algeria which saw gunmen storm the Amenas gas plant, killing more than three dozen foreign workers.

Yesterday in The Daily Beast, Eli Lake and Josh Rogin reported that information about the terror threats came from an al Qaeda “conference call,” involving top al Qaeda leaders and around 20 other people–a report that aroused quite a bit of skepticism on Twitter. Why would these guys risk talking on a conference call? Here’s an excerpt from the Daily Beast article:

The intercept provided the U.S. intelligence community with a rare glimpse into how al Qaeda’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, manages a global organization that includes affiliates in Africa, the Middle East, and southwest and southeast Asia.

Several news outlets reported Monday on an intercepted communication last week between Zawahiri and Nasser al-Wuhayshi, the leader of al Qaeda’s affiliate based in Yemen. But The Daily Beast has learned that the discussion between the two al Qaeda leaders happened in a conference call that included the leaders or representatives of the top leadership of al Qaeda and its affiliates calling in from different locations, according to three U.S. officials familiar with the intelligence. All told, said one U.S. intelligence official, more than 20 al Qaeda operatives were on the call.

To be sure, the CIA had been tracking the threat posed by Wuhayshi for months. An earlier communication between Zawahiri and Wuhayshi delivered through a courier was picked up last month, according to three U.S. intelligence officials. But the conference call provided a new sense of urgency for the U.S. government, the sources said.

Al Qaeda members included representatives or leaders from Nigeria’s Boko Haram, the Pakistani Taliban, al Qaeda in Iraq, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and more obscure al Qaeda affiliates such as the Uzbekistan branch. Also on the call were representatives of aspiring al Qaeda affiliates such as al Qaeda in the Sinai Peninsula, according to a U.S. intelligence official. The presence of aspiring al Qaeda affiliates operating in the Sinai was one reason the State Department closed the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv, according to one U.S. intelligence official. “These guys already proved they could hit Eilat. It’s not out of the range of possibilities that they could hit us in Tel Aviv,” the official said.

Perhaps the call was encrypted in some way and the US had found a way to listen anyway? But then why would they blow future such operations by leaking the fact that they had listened to the call? This morning  CNN’s Barbara Starr tweeted to Josh Rogin:

Barbara Starr ‏@barbarastarrcnn2h

@joshrogin IT WAS NOT A PHONE CALL. IN FACT, AL QAEDA WENT TO EXTENSIVE MEANS TO SET UP WHAT YOU MIGHT SAY A VIRTUAL MEETING SPACE.”

I’m not sue how to interpret that either. I’ll update if I get anything more on this.

Once again, my morning post has gotten way too long. I have other news links, but I’ll put them in the comments. I hope you’ll do the same with whatever stories you’re following today, and have a tremendous Thursday!!


Edward Snowden Issues Bizarre Statement Via Wikileaks

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I’ve been following the endless Edward Snowden soap opera just about non-stop for the past few days. I wish I were capable of writing a reasoned, logically argued post right now, but I’m not. This whole story has just become too crazy. I just can’t guarantee that this post will make a lot of sense, so I’ll just begin by posting Snowden’s statement. I’ve added emphasis to a few passages.

Statement from Edward Snowden in Moscow

Monday July 1, 21:40 UTC

One week ago I left Hong Kong after it became clear that my freedom and safety were under threat for revealing the truth. My continued liberty has been owed to the efforts of friends new and old, family, and others who I have never met and probably never will. I trusted them with my life and they returned that trust with a faith in me for which I will always be thankful.

On Thursday, President Obama declared before the world that he would not permit any diplomatic “wheeling and dealing” over my case. Yet now it is being reported that after promising not to do so, the President ordered his Vice President to pressure the leaders of nations from which I have requested protection to deny my asylum petitions.

This kind of deception from a world leader is not justice, and neither is the extralegal penalty of exile. These are the old, bad tools of political aggression. Their purpose is to frighten, not me, but those who would come after me.

For decades the United States of America have [sic] been one of the strongest defenders of the human right to seek asylum. Sadly, this right, laid out and voted for by the U.S. in Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, is now being rejected by the current government of my country. The Obama administration has now adopted the strategy of using citizenship as a weapon. Although I am convicted of nothing, it has unilaterally revoked my passport, leaving me a stateless person. Without any judicial order, the administration now seeks to stop me exercising a basic right. A right that belongs to everybody. The right to seek asylum.

In the end the Obama administration is not afraid of whistleblowers like me, Bradley Manning or Thomas Drake. We are stateless, imprisoned, or powerless. No, the Obama administration is afraid of you. It is afraid of an informed, angry public demanding the constitutional government it was promised — and it should be.

I am unbowed in my convictions and impressed at the efforts taken by so many.

Edward Joseph Snowden

Monday 1st July 2013

I’m mystified by this statement. Snowden could have stayed here in the U.S. and fought against the government actions that he claims are criminal. He could have followed in the footsteps of Martin Luther King by accepting the consequences of civil disobedience. He would have probably have gotten a great deal of support from the public if he had done so. Instead he chose to flee first to China and then to Russia–two countries with far worse domestic spying and human rights records than the U.S. And now he’s whining about the consequences of his fleeing.

President Obama did not promise not to take any actions to interfere with Snowden’s life. He indicated that he wasn’t going to do something as dramatic as bringing down Snowden’s plane or go to extreme lengths to negotiate with Russia or some other country for his return.  Snowden’s naivete is amazing. World leaders engage in deception. Countries spy on each other. When you reveal secret information stolen from your government you are engaging in espionage and you become a spy.

Because neither Snowden nor Glenn Greenwald has a coherent political ideology, neither of them is able to make a clear political argument to define and defend Snowden’s actions in reasonable, logical ways. So what we get is whining from Snowden and defensiveness and trumped up outrage from Greenwald and his followers.

Snowden apparently sees himself as a tragic martyr who should be applauded for “revealing the truth.”  He has the gall to compare himself to whistleblowers like Bradley Manning and Thomas Drake who faced the consequences of their actions by pleading guilty to crimes. We don’t know yet what the upshot of Manning’s case will be, but Drake is not “powerless.” He served no jail time, and now he is free to make appearances and share his opinions freely. Furthermore, Snowden hasn’t been exiled. I’m sure he could work out a deal to return to the U.S. and face the music. But he doesn’t seem to think the rules apply to him.

As for Greenwald, he has such tunnel vision that he appears to believe that he can simply state that Snowden is a hero who has revealed the most important secret information in American history–and somehow this is so. Anyone who objects or simply asks mild questions about the “revelations” is  an enemy to be dismissed and attacked by legions of Greenwald fans who possess endless reserves of inchoate outrage. As I’ve said before, they remind of the Obot hoards of 2008.

If nothing else, Snowden’s leaks have gotten people talking about what the NSA is doing, although I have no idea if there is serious discussion of the actual content of the leaks outside the of people who closely follow the news and argue with each other on the internet. I have no idea if this episode will end with Americans being more knowledgeable about the government’s domestic spying programs.

The articles written about the leaked documents by Glenn Greenwald at the Guardian and Barton Gellman at the Washington Post have so far been confusing at best. Neither writer seems to have consulted with security and computer experts who could have helped them do a better job of explaining how the NSA programs work. I’ve gotten a much clearer understanding from reading Kurt Eichenwald’s blog at Vanity Fair.

Poor Ed. He’s learning that now that the information is out there, he is no longer that important. Ecuador doesn’t want to deal with him. Even Vladimir Putin has tired of using him to humiliate the Obama administration. Today he announced that Snowden could stay in Russia if he stopped leaking information designed to hurt the U.S.

Glenn Greenwald has also washed his hands of Snowden. Shortly after Putin made that announcement, Greenwald tweeted that “Snowden’s leak is basically done. It’s newspapers – not Snowden – deciding what gets disclosed and in what sequence.” Apparently Glenn is finished with Snowden too. That must have felt like a dagger through poor Ed’s heart.

We’ve learned that Snowden sent copies of the documents he stole to “many different people around the world,” so that he could continue to control the information. But it appears that someone–perhaps Wikileaks–must have all of it now, and Julian Assange has also said that nothing will stop publication of all of Snowden’s files now.

Snowden has become an object of pity at this point. And his whining about his situation isn’t going to help him look like a “hero.” He made the choice to leave his family, his home, and his girlfriend and run away from the consequences of his actions. President Obama did not do that to him.

Please discuss, or use this as an open thread.


Tuesday Reads: Dreaming a Life; Obama and Putin; NSA and Snowden

coffee shop bike

Good Morning!!

I’m going to begin with an article I came across yesterday while reading the Guardian. It’s about a story from 2006 that I remembered and sometimes think about–a woman whose skeletonized body was found in her apartment three years after she died.

On 25 January 2006, officials from a north London housing association repossessing a bedsit in Wood Green owing to rent arrears made a grim discovery. Lying on the sofa was the skeleton of a 38-year-old woman who had been dead for almost three years. In a corner of the room the television set was still on, tuned to BBC1, and a small pile of unopened Christmas presents lay on the floor. Washing up was heaped in the kitchen sink and a mountain of post lay behind the front door. Food in the refrigerator was marked with 2003 expiry dates. The dead woman’s body was so badly decomposed it could only be identified by comparing dental records with an old holiday photograph of her smiling. Her name was revealed to be Joyce Carol Vincent.

Joyce Carol Vincent

Joyce Carol Vincent

How could such a thing happen? So often we hear sad stories like this and never get any answers to our questions. In this case, filmmaker Carol Morley decided to find out who Joyce Carol Vincent was, and she has made a documentary about her quest called Dreams of a Life. She writes:

In a city such as London, home to 8 million people, how could someone’s absence go unnoticed for so long? Who was Joyce Vincent? What was she like? How could she have been forgotten?

News of Joyce’s death quickly made it into the global media, which registered shock at the lack of community spirit in the UK. The story ran on in the British press, but still no photograph of Joyce appeared and little personal information.

Soon Joyce dropped out of the news. I watched as people discussed her in internet chatrooms, wondering if she was an urban myth, or talking about her as though she never mattered, calling her a couch potato, and posting comments such as: “What’s really sad is no one noticed she was missing – must have been one miserable bitch.” And then even that kind of commentary vanished.

But I couldn’t let go. I didn’t want her to be forgotten. I decided I must make a film about her.

She began by placing advertisements in newspapers asking anyone who knew Joyce to come forward. It turned out that Joyce had lots of friends over the years. She had been engaged to be married before she died, and she had also spent some time in a battered women’s shelter.  Eventually, Morley was able to talk to many people who had known Joyce. She describes her journey in the Guardian article. It’s an amazing story, and I hope you’ll go read the whole thing.

Follow me below the fold for some news and opinion…

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Tuesday Reads: The Snowden-Greenwald Show

Sean Connery reads newspaper

Good Morning!!

Edward Snowden is still the top news story this morning. It’s starting to look as if he made a mistake by going to Hong Kong, unless his goal was to gain asylum from the Chinese government. Hong Kong is apparently not interested in fighting an extradition request from the U.S. But it’s also possible he saw Hong Kong as a springboard to other places in Asia where he could hide.

Matt Schiavenza writes at The Atlantic:

In a comment about the case published this morning, my colleague James Fallows brought up a salient point about Hong Kong: it isn’t a sovereign country, and remains very much a part of the People’s Republic of China — a country which notably lacks free speech or any right of political dissent. And while Hong Kong has a different currency, political structure, and legal system from the mainland, divisions between the two are actually far murkier than Snowden’s explanation indicates.

Hong Kong is to some extent in control of its own legal decisions

But in the case of Edward Snowden, which is likely to involve an extradition request by the United States, the Basic Law is less clear. Hong Kong, unlike China, has an extradition arrangement with the United States. But China has the right to intercede in an extradition request if Beijing has an interest in “defense or foreign affairs.” In other words, if China wants to detain Snowden as a useful intelligence asset, Hong Kong couldn’t legally do much about it. And that illustrates an important part of Hong Kong’s current situation: its free speech and political dissent really only go as far as Beijing lets it.

According to Schiavenza,

it’s become increasingly clear that Snowden’s decision to go to Hong Kong was a serious miscalculation. The idiosyncratic territory may in some ways be a libertarian paradise of free speech, robust media, and low taxes, but is in no way independent of China. If Snowden’s ultimate goal were to damage the United States government as much as possible, then going to a Chinese territory would make some sense. But this obviously isn’t what he wanted; in The Guardian interview, Snowden disagreed with Glenn Greenwald’s characterization of China as an “enemy” of the United States by stressing the healthy trade relationship between the two countries. Aiding China — whose record of state surveillance and abrogation of civil liberties is inarguably worse than the United States — would go against the entire moral foundation of Snowden’s decision to leak the NSA secrets.

I’m still not convinced yet about Snowden’s motives. One thing I have concluded is that he’s a very narcissistic young man. I can’t believe he chose to leave without even explaining to his girlfriend and his family. He also chose to tell his story to a high narcissistic writer, Glenn Greewald. More on that later.

From USA Today: Edward Snowden’s travel options

HONG KONG — Whether Edward Snowden misjudged the odds of extradition from Hong Kong before revealing his identity here as the man who exposed secret U.S. surveillance programs may be irrelevant.

The National Security Agency contractor may have chosen to surface in the city for the same reason so many companies from the U.S. and other countries choose to use it for a regional base: It’s the best gateway to much of the world’s largest continent….

Hong Kong is connected to 180 cities in dozens of countries by some 850 flights a day. As the city’s investment development agency says on its marketing web site, “Easy and efficient regional travel is key to Hong Kong’s success as a regional centre.” Many of these countries have loose entry requirements for Americans.

He could go to Vietnam, the Phillippines, or any number of other Asian countries. Or perhaps he could go to Russia, which has already offered to consider a request for asylum from him.

USA Today also notes that Snowden has been “contacted by ‘countless people’ offering to pay for ‘anything [he] might need.'”

jamesbondthunderball

Meanwhile, an entity called “The Q Group” is trying to hunt Snowden down before he finds a safe harbor. From The Daily Beast:

Even before last week’s revelations by The Guardian newspaper that the National Security Agency (NSA) was collecting call records from telecommunications companies and had the ability to mine user data from major U.S. Internet companies, the NSA was already on the trail of the leaker, according to two former U.S. intelligence officers with close ties to the agency….

The people who began chasing Snowden work for the Associate Directorate for Security and Counterintelligence, according to former U.S. intelligence officers who spoke on condition of anonymity. The directorate, sometimes known as “the Q Group,” is continuing to track Snowden now that he’s outed himself as The Guardian’s source, according to the intelligence officers….

The security and counterintelligence directorate serves as the NSA’s internal police force, in effect watching the agency’s watchers for behavior that could pose an intelligence risk. It has the authority to interview an NSA contractor or employee’s known associates, and even to activate a digital dragnet capable of finding out where a target travels, what the target has purchased, and the target’s online activity.

Are there more bombshells coming from Snowden? Glenn Greenwald says there are. According to TPM,

According to Greenwald, Snowden has provided the archives of “thousands” of documents and “dozens” are newsworthy. Greenwald has suggested in recent days that more revelations are imminent, saying Monday during an interview on MSNBC that “there’s a lot more coming.”

Dozens of hit out of thousands of documents doesn’t sound like a very good ratio to me, but I’m not a reporter.

On Glenn Greenwald, it seems the general consensus is that people either love him or hate him. Personally, I don’t hate him but I find him annoying and part of my suspicion of Snowden probably stems from my mixed feelings about Greenwald. In my opinion, he cares only about his own pet issues and disdains anyone who cares passionately about, for example, women’s rights, the environment, or the plight of people with less money and fewer choices than he has. I guess he’s a libertarian, but again only in terms of his own pet issues.

Anyway it seems there are lots of Greenwald haters out there. One is Willard Foxton of The Telegraph, who today has a piece called The problem with Glenn Greenwald and the creepy cult that surrounds him. Foxton isn’t quite sure why he can’t stand Greenwald.

Maybe it’s because of the enormous, turgid pieces he writes, complete with 500-word updates when people challenge him. Maybe it’s the run-ins he had with other British journalists while he was fanatically defending Julian Assange.

Maybe it’s the petty stuff, like the fact he insists on special rock-star privileges, like policing the comments beneath his articles himself and his reluctance to let his pieces be edited, prior to the NSA/Prism disclosures. Maybe it’s the things that suggest he’s a little odd, like self-searching his own name so he can pounce on people criticising him, or the accusations he’s used internet sock puppets to go after people anonymously.

Maybe it’s the devotion of his legion of fans who consider him to be the greatest and most fearless journalist on earth, who hate anyone who dares disagree with their idol. The last time I criticised him I got a barrage of online abuse – including memorably a 24-slide PowerPoint presentation explaining how the American security services had “got” to me, and how Greenwald was their number-one target. Maybe, as his adoring public have suggested, I’m either a homophobe or in the pay of the CIA. Perhaps both.

That said, I’m honest enough to admit that maybe it’s because I’m jealous of the success he’s had, and the stories he’s broken. I’m not the only one. You can practically hear the disdain in the New York Times’s tone here, where it describes him as a “blogger” for a “British News Website” (The Guardian).

What I think is more likely is I dislike him because he has built a huge platform with opinion writing, and now he’s blurring the line between opinion pieces and straight reporting. That huge platform he’s built means sources come forward to him from his vast base of followers, with real hard news stories, and then he insists on reporting them.

sean-connery-reading-on-the-set-of-diamonds-are-forever-1971

In line with the “creepy cult” notion, the Guardian actually published this fan-boy article about Greenwald today. Bizarrely, it asks readers to describe how they feel about Greenwald with a fill-in-the-blanks questionnaire! You have to see it to believe it.

Another writer who seems to strongly dislike Greenwald is Bob Cesca, who critiqued Greenwald’s scoop early on. He offered a few more comments on the Snowden/Greenwald story yesterday. Here are three of them.

–Once again, it’s nearly impossible to have a nuanced position these days. I bent over backwards to repeat my ongoing opposition to the growing surveillance state, and made it abundantly clear that my intent with the column was to question some of the problems with the reporting and why there were such glaring omissions and errors. But there’s an increasingly evident overlap between the kneejerking on the far-right and the kneejerking on the far-left (I will make an effort to point it out whenever I can) and too many people tend to blurt things out without reading or grasping what’s being said. Consequently, criticizing Greenwald makes me an Obamabot. End of story. The left is sliding into a very dangerous place right now, and I’ll definitely report back on this one.

–There are some questions emerging regarding Ed Snowden’s story. Why did someone who was disillusioned with Obama’s record on national security continue to work for Obama’s national security apparatus — for more than four years? Why did he escape to Hong Kong when it’s clearly not the free speech haven he claimed it was? If he prefers to seek asylum in Iceland, why didn’t he go there before the story went public? How did he attain the access to be able to “wiretap anyone?” I assume we’ll get answers to some of these questions. Maybe?

–Marc Ambinder wrote a blindly complicated article for The Week in which he explained what PRISM is. It’s essentially a program that analyses data. It doesn’t retrieve the data, it merely compiles it. He also explained that the way the NSA can have “direct access” is via servers that mirror the tech giant servers. So if the NSA requests information from Facebook about an account in Pakistan, Facebook creates a mirror that clones the real time date from that account. But that mirror site has to be hosted on a server and all of the tech giants denied giving the NSA access to their servers. More questions.

We’ll have to wait and see whether Snowden’s revelations are truly groundbreaking or not. But as Cesca writes, the “war on terror” must come to an end. If what’s happening now helps that happen, I’ll certainly cheer loudly. But I suspect the U.S. government will react by simply doubling down on its current policies.

I’ll end there. Now what are you reading and blogging about this morning? Please share your links on any topic in the comment thread.


Criminal bystanders enable Sandusky

I don’t mean McQueary. I mean everybody who makes this necessary:

man who testified against Sandusky leaving courthouse with a black bag covering his head
Man who testified against Sandusky leaving courthouse with a black bag covering his head.
 

And also everybody who makes this necessary: Sandusky trial sketch artists offer a blurred view of accusers.

The people who can’t show their faces have withstood wrongs and are even fighting against them. That’s the definition of heroism. Why would they want to hide? They should have nothing to expect but admiration and praise, right?

(By the way, that image has been pulled from the web, as far as I can tell. Only the thumbnail is left. Everywhere, it’s been replaced with pictures of Sandusky’s smiling mug. What does it say when shame about the shame is so strong we’re ashamed even to see it?)

There is something wrong here, and it’s not Sandusky, vomit-worthy as he is.

The people who want to be invisible aren’t hiding from him. They’re hiding from everyone else. They’re hiding from the millions of “innocent” bystanders. From those who did nothing, which allowed him to do everything.

It’s bystanders who provide the air for predators.

It’s the millions of kids on playgrounds who don’t stop the bully, the guys at frat houses who don’t stop the rapists, the voters who re-elect leaders that sign off on torture.

In my world, those millions aren’t bigger criminals than the perp. But just being anonymous doesn’t make them that much smaller either.

There are many articles out and about just now, wondering how predators keep escaping notice when we ought to have learned by now. How many powerful pedophiles does it take? How many celebrity athlete rapists? How many executive sharks?

It’s pretty obvious, I think. As many as it takes for bystanders to leave their safe anonymity, to suffer the embarrassment of calling out the high or mighty, and to stop committing the crime of going along.