Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Country Mice, City Mice

“Drink Driving, Grants for TD’s Constituency, Character References for Criminals: Fianna Fáil Are Back Baby!”
  —Headline on the satirical Irish newspaper website Waterford Whispers News, July 8
“A Cabinet Fit for Cromwell,” proclaimed a headline in the County Mayo-based Western People newspaper four weeks ago. That’s no small amount of pique or annoyance for a Connacht publication to express. To this day, one hears the name of England’s 17th-century military leader and Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell invoked with a revulsion so enduring it feels as though the swath his army cut through Ireland occurred only a week ago.

What cabinet sparked such a visceral reaction in a regional newspaper? Was it a ministerial shuffle by Boris Johnson in the UK or perhaps some dodgy compromise in the Northern Ireland Assembly? No, it was directed at the Republic’s new government in Dublin.

How did this happen? To recap briefly, a general election was held on February 8. The vote was split roughly in quarters—one for left-wing/pro-unification party Sinn Féin and one each for traditional centrist parties Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. The rest went to smaller parties and independents. After four-and-a-half months of posturing and negotiations, a government was formed on June 27. Fianna Fáil’s Micheál Martin heads the government until December 2022 after which Fine Gael’s Leo Varadkar will replace him as Taoiseach. The two also alternate as each other’s Tánaiste (deputy prime minister). The third member of the coalition is the Green Party, giving the government the solid bloc of votes needed for a stable majority.

How stable is it, though? No one seems particularly thrilled by this government. Perhaps die-hard Fianna Fáil partisans are, but their numbers shrank drastically after the 2011 election debacle when the party was punished roundly for its role in the country’s financial crash. Notably unhappy is the half of the electorate that voted for Sinn Féin, independents and other left-wing parties and who felt there had been a pretty clear mandate for change. Quite a few Green Party members also seemed unhappy, although in the end members did ratify the party’s participation in the government in surprisingly large numbers.

While the traditional way of looking at the country’s political division would be in terms of the left/right split, it might be clearer to see it as an urban/rural split. The Western People headline above was in reaction to the fact that, for the first time in yonks, the government’s voting cabinet included no TD (member of parliament) from west of the Shannon River. Westerners were particularly sensitive this time around because the government’s aggressive program for reducing Ireland’s carbon footprint, which was pushed hard by the Greens and, more importantly, mandated by the European Union. As mentioned here last time, as a nation less industrialized than other European ones, Ireland can only achieve this through sacrifices from vehicle owners and farmers. TDs in the Dublin area represent mostly people who never go near a farm and who have access to public transportation, while the West will be asked to undergo a radical change to its traditions and lifestyle.

The omission of a western cabinet minister did soon get rectified in classically Irish fashion. In what seemed like a political hit job, a story came out about the new agricultural minister having been caught for drink driving a few years ago at a road checkpoint after an All-Ireland football match. It further emerged that he had been driving on a learner’s permit up until the age of 47. That fellow (brother of the last previous Fianna Fáil Taoiseach, as it happens) was soon pushed out, freeing up a cabinet seat for a TD from County Mayo. This hasn’t placated the wary westerners much, and now it’s the Midlands complaining they no longer have a minister.

Rural/urban divides are common enough in world politics, and no more so in the United States. Non-urban voters in the U.S. have a bit more of an advantage than in most countries, though. Senate voting and the Electoral College give extra weight to states at the expense of the general population. It was a carefully crafted compromise in the Constitution to convince less populated states to stay in the Union and assure them that their interests would not be overridden by people in dense population centers. That old tension has not gone away. After all, that 18th-century compromise made possible the elections of George W. Bush and Donald Trump.

The looming question in both the U.S. and Ireland is what happens if and when people rural dwellers begin to feel that not only are their interests overridden but they themselves are under attack? We can only hope the various political systems will be up to the challenge.

Sunday, June 21, 2020

Jigsaw Puzzle

“Nation Gives It a Week Before Fianna Fáil & Fine Gael at Each Other’s Throats”
  —Headline on the satirical Irish newspaper website Waterford Whispers News, June 17
Surely, you might be thinking, Ireland must have a government by now. Wasn’t the election way back in February? The current situation here is a good example of the limits of parliamentary government in a politically divided society.

Three of the four largest parties (in terms of seats won) have indeed negotiated a coalition agreement. This is historic for a couple of reasons. For one, it marks the first time that the dominant traditional parties (Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael) have agreed to formally govern together. In Irish terms, this is comparable to the Democratic and Republican parties in the U.S. forming a coalition in, say, the early 1960s (i.e. when the two parties were more heterogenous than they are today) in response to a fast-rising third party. Remember, these Irish parties are remnants of factions that fought a bloody civil war a mere century ago. Some party old-timers are reacting like hell has frozen over.

The other historic thing about it is that the third partner is the Green Party. Yes, the Greens have been in government before, but they were not in a position to seriously affect government policy the way they are now. This time they are playing hardball. They know there will not be a stable government without them, and they have pressed that advantage for all it’s worth. In addition to addressing various social issues, increasing funding for cycling and public transportation infrastructure and raising the carbon tax, it commits the government to cutting the nation’s carbon emissions 7 percent per year.

That last one will prove interesting. Lightly industrialized compared to other European countries, the bulk of Ireland’s emissions (38 percent) come from homes and cars. Another big chunk (33 percent) comes from agriculture, mostly methane from livestock. (Yes, cow farts.) To reduce emissions by that target is going to involve some pretty major changes to both modern and traditional ways of life here. The already-existing urban/rural divide could well become fraught.

Leaders of the two big parties presumably can deliver their members’ support, but the Greens are divided, and the entire membership must vote on the agreement. A lot of the most idealistic members think the deal does not go nearly far enough. Some notable party members have publicly come out against it.

If the deal falls apart, then what? In that case, a new election looks unavoidable. How is that likely to turn out?

Sinn Féin, which was locked out of coalition talks, won the most seats in the February election and were on a definite upswing in the weeks after. Will that bear out in a new poll, thereby putting Ireland on a clearly leftward path? Or will Fine Gael (on the wane leading up to the last election) bounce back because of its caretaker government role in dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic?

Even if the coalition works out, things will not be easy. As Independent TD John Halligan put it, “Fianna Fáil traditionally can’t stand Fine Gael. Fine Gael traditionally can’t stand Fianna Fáil and both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael can’t stand the Greens so you’re going to have some mismatch of a government put together.”

If it does fall apart, the big loser will be Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin, who stands to be the next taoiseach (prime minister) in a rotating arrangement with Fine Gael’s Leo Varadkar. He has long aspired to be the first taoiseach from Cork since Jack Lynch left office in 1979.

As a headline in The Irish Times had it over the weekend, “Micheál Martin, the ‘next taoiseach’ since 1998.”

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Spy Games

“Updated Patriot Act Finally Legalizes 80% Of Current FBI Operations”
  —Headline in The Onion, May 14
Sometimes I think I live in a completely different reality than everyone else. Or maybe I’m the only one who doesn’t have amnesia. Or maybe it’s just that everyone working in the news media is a child with no perspective going back further than his or her recent high school graduation.

The latest thing that has set me off is the reporting on the “unmasking” that has been going on in U.S. government agencies. There are lots of examples of what I am talking about, but let’s pick on an article that appeared in The Washington Post last week. Here is the lead paragraph: “Three Republican senators on Wednesday made public a declassified list of U.S. officials, including former vice president Joe Biden, who made requests that would ultimately ‘unmask’ Trump adviser Michael Flynn in intelligence documents in late 2016 and early 2017—a common government practice but one that some conservatives have seized on to imply wrongdoing.”

Did I miss something? I certainly accept the Post’s assertion that unmasking is “a common government practice,” but when did that happen? More importantly, when did it become an unnoteworthy circumstance in the Post’s journalistic estimation?

Were none of the four reporters credited with working on the article old enough to remember—or at least read about—the huge debate we had over the Patriot Act?

In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, there was understandably a huge spike in the volume of surveillance applications under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). As the possible terrorists being monitored were not U.S. citizens, they did not get protections under the U.S. Constitution, but there was concern about the U.S. citizens (incidental capture, as it was termed) that monitored foreigners might be talking to. What about their rights? The solution to this problem was to mask the names of any U.S. citizens that might be picked up. Extremely senior U.S. government officials, however, could unmask those names if there was a demonstrable security concern. In other words, don’t worry, civil libertarians, Americans’ privacy rights are being looked after. Nothing to be paranoid about.

“In 2019,” our Post correspondents inform us nonchalantly in the final paragraph of their article, “the NSA unmasked just over 10,000 U.S. individuals’ identities, a substantial decrease from the previous year, but still more than in the final year of the Obama administration, according to government records.”

Uh, okay. Maybe it’s just me, but that kind of seems like a lot. Remember, they are supposed to be surveilling only non-Americans. There is a whole different process involved when you actually want to surveil U.S. citizens. You’re supposed to get a warrant from a judge.

The Post’s journalistic nonchalance is presumably because this isn’t an article about American civil liberties. It is an article reassuring us not to be concerned about the unmasking that was occurring during the Obama Administration. Nothing to worry about, folks. This stuff happens all the time.

The thing is, even if we accept that, yes, lots of foreigners’ conversations get monitored by our intelligence services, and yes, a lot of Americans get caught up in that monitoring, and sure, thousands of those Americans have their identities revealed even though they are supposed to have constitutional protections from that kind of fishing-expedition type monitoring, someone still needs to explain to me something else.

You see, because there is nothing I can possibly do about it, I pretty much have to accept that my country’s government is doing all this electronic monitoring and is frequently using a back-door to the Constitution to listen in on Americans without keeping it anonymous. All I can do is hope that this is mostly being done by intelligence professionals whose overriding priority is the country’s security. Should I be concerned that, in the final hours of the Obama Administration, no fewer than 39 officials—including Vice-President Joe Biden and political appointees John Brennan, James Clapper, Samantha Power and Denis McDonough—took the trouble of requesting the unmasking of the incoming National Security Advisor of the newly-elected administration?

Maybe they had a good reason. We now know, thanks to an email that for some reason outgoing National Security Advisor Susan Rice sent to herself on her last day on the job, that FBI director James Comey had concerns about Flynn’s phone calls with the Russian ambassador. He must have also had concerns about incoming President Trump as well because he did not do want you would expect him to do in that situation, i.e. advise his new boss that there were concerns about the new National Security Advisor. In fact, he deliberately kept this information from the new president.

If Michael Flynn had subsequently been revealed to be a double agent, Comey would now be a hero and his surveillance might appeared to have been justified. Instead, a subsequent two-year special counsel investigation—despite catching various individuals in process crimes and an assortment of generally unrelated violations—found absolutely no evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign/administration and Russia.

What about Comey’s concerns about Flynn then? What exactly did Robert Mueller’s final report tell us about Flynn’s phone calls with Ambassador Kislyak? To the extent the report talks about them, they seem pretty innocuous. Here is Mueller’s summary of what is considered the most “incriminating” one:

Immediately after speaking with McFarland, Flynn called and spoke with Kislyak. Flynn discussed multiple topics with Kislyak, including the sanctions, scheduling a video teleconference between President-Elect Trump and Putin, an upcoming terrorism conference, and Russia’s views about the Middle East. With respect to the sanctions, Flynn requested that Russia not escalate the situation, not get into a “tit for tat,” and only respond to the sanctions in a reciprocal manner.

Maybe I’m thick, but that doesn’t sound like treason to me.

We now also know, thanks to FBI notes that have been declassified, that the FBI had basically ended its probe of Flynn in the Russian matter by the early days of the Trump Administration but was then told by upper management to keep the investigation open. In the early, chaotic days of the new administration, two agents (one of whom would later be fired over anti-Trump text messages) met with Flynn in what was meant to be an informal, friendly conversation. Their declassified notes tell us their intention was to catch him in a lie (he did not know he had been under surveillance) or threaten him with a violation of the Logan Act, a two-century-old law that had never been used to prosecute anybody and certainly was never meant to apply to incoming government officials. We have also known for some time that Flynn pled guilty to the charge of lying to the FBI under the threat of his son being prosecuted in an unrelated matter.

So does this make Flynn some sort of hero? Not particularly, since he was largely the victim of his own bad judgments, but he was also very unlucky. Let us remember that Flynn, a Democrat, served in the military more than thirty years and was Obama’s Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency for two years until he was forced out, apparently over policy disagreements, although his management style was the main reason cited.

Former President Obama is still preoccupied with his former DIA director. Two weeks ago in an online talk to the Obama Alumni Association, he railed against the Justice Department decision (after an independent review of the case by an outside prosecutor) to drop the charges against Flynn.

“[T]here is no precedent that anybody can find,” said Obama, “for someone who has been charged with perjury just getting off scot-free. That’s the kind of stuff where you begin to get worried that basic—not just institutional norms—but our basic understanding of rule of law is at risk.”

It is hard to believe that Obama would confuse perjury with the different crime of lying to the FBI, but it is easy to understand why he might do so deliberately in this case. Some of us can remember all the way back to January 2017 when, in his final days in office, he pardoned retired General James E. Cartwright, former vice-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, for—guess what—the crime of lying to the FBI (about discussions with reporters about Iran’s nuclear program).

Let us note that the FBI’s surveillance of Michael Flynn was not illegal. Nor were the unmasking requests for Michael Flynn’s name. (The fact that this information was leaked days later to The Washington Post, however, was indeed a crime and may be one of the things covered in an ongoing investigation by U.S. Attorney John Durham. Should be interesting since the suspect list is pretty short.) No, it is not any breaking of the law that worries me. It is the fact that this is all not only legal but apparently common.

Some things just never change. If you give politicians the legal means to spy on their political opponents, few will be able to resist the temptation. And even when the spying turns up no dirt, these days all you need to cause trouble is just the innuendo caused by the fact the spying was taking place.