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.

Monday, May 11, 2020

Virtual Government

“Teacher Can’t Wait To Use ‘Calculated Grades’ To F*** Over Prick Student He Hates”
  —Headline (slightly edited) on the Irish satirical newspaper website Waterford Whispers, May 8
Here are a couple of questions that come to mind as the pandemic persists. Is Ireland turning into Singapore? Are governments even necessary?

The first question is prompted by the inevitable police-state-style trappings that accompany emergency situations like quarantines and lockdowns. Of course, in typical Irish fashion, when Taoiseach Leo Varadkar addressed the country via television on March 24, he described a lockdown while at the same time saying he preferred not to use the word lockdown. In other words, we aren’t forcing you to stay home; it’s just a helpful suggestion. With time, though, the shutdown has become more stringently enforced. TV news footage on a bank holiday weekend showed traffic jams on major roads as officers of the Garda Síochána stopped cars at checkpoints to decide on a case-by-case basis whether each car’s travel was essential. Reasonable people certainly support law enforcement breaking up large gatherings and people crowding into public spaces, but anecdotal word-of-mouth accounts have also described gardaí stopping people walking alone on beaches and in uncrowded parks and inspecting people’s groceries to determine if their shopping was essential.

There may be a law-and-order silver lining to all this. Newspapers recount incidences of gardaí catching smugglers of drugs and illegal weapons because of the lockdown-enforcing checkpoints. Another silver lining may be—depending on your point of view—the cancellation of the Leaving Certification, the battery of state exams that graduating secondary school students endure for the sake of college placement. Instead students will be awarded “predictive” points based on past performance and evaluations by their teachers and principals. One hopes this system will work better than predictive text when typing on one’s mobile phone.

Of course, it is only reasonable to expect to have your liberty and economic well-being curtailed in a life-or-death emergency. Previous civilian generations have sacrificed much more in wartime and in the wake of natural disasters. What makes it a bit unreal in the current situation, though, is that the emergency has a strangely virtual quality to it. We mainly know how bad things are because of statistics flashed on a screen or printed in a newspaper. In the visible world around us, nothing seems to have changed except for the way everyone is behaving.

Adding to the Singapore effect here is the fact that the dominant source of news is the state broadcaster. RTÉ is in the tricky dual role of official dispenser of government information and journalistic enterprise. Hosts of all public affairs programs on the TV and radio are clearly expected to be generally supportive of the government’s measures and by extension the medical opinions underlying them. After a while—especially to someone used to the clashing ideological news sources in the US media landscape—it starts to feel a bit Big-Brother-ish.

A further complication is that there is currently no government here. By an accident of timing, the pandemic happened at the same moment as an inconclusive general election. Given the results, forming a new government was always going to be a challenge. Because of the emergency, negotiations are competing with even more serious distractions than normal. So Varadkar continues as a caretaker head of government along with his outgoing ministers, some of whom actually lost their seats in the election. In a Catch-22-like situation, the caretaker government cannot pass legislation because that requires a full Senate, and there won’t be a full Senate until there is a new Taoiseach because only the new Taoiseach can complete the Senate with his own appointments, and there won’t be a new Taoiseach until a new government is formed. I wonder if all those politicians who once talked about reforming or abolishing the Senate wish they had actually done something about it when they had they chance.

As of this writing, the two major parties which have always run the country are in what seem to be final negotiations with the Green Party, which appears riven by the prospect of another go as a minority coalition partner. Not only does a sizeable portion of the Greens look to be alienated by the likely result, so will be a big chunk of voters who gave the major-change party Sinn Féin a plurality of the popular vote.

Reassuringly, the lack of a government has not stopped the caretaker ministers and professional civil service from dealing with the pandemic. Whatever they need to do, they just do—whether by written orders or edict or fiat or whatever. They are also spending (actually, borrowing) a ton of money to get through the crisis. You can’t really blame them. After all, what other choice do they realistically have?

It is, however, what prompts the question I asked above. Are elected governments even necessary?

My concern is for when Sinn Féin eventually finds itself in the position of being able to answer that question.

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Life in Lockdown

“As well-armed as the Parliamentary forces were, their deadliest weapon may have been the one they brought inadvertently. People in the town were now dying of a plague that had traveled with the English. Memories were all too fresh of the 1649 plague that had killed well over 3,000.”
   —Excerpt from the 2019 novel The Curse of Septimus Bridge
The above quote is a handy reminder that 1) plagues, endemics and pandemics have always been with us and 2) I actually wrote a novel called The Curse of Septimus Bridge. (For more information on that, as well as an update on my upcoming novel, see my book blog.)

History tells us that armies, explorers, conquistadores, holidaymakers and business travelers have, at various points in time, have helped spread virulent diseases from one territory to another. What is amazing is that, in this age of globalism and cheap-and-easy international travel, such outbreaks do not happen more often. Instead we appear to be going through a once-in-a-century phenomenon with the current crisis evoking mostly recollections of the 1918-1920 so-called Spanish flu pandemic.

That flu is estimated to have infected a third of the world’s population and killed, in the most liberal guesses, as many as 100 million. Then the world was much more defenseless than now. The ventilator would not be invented until several years later, and flu vaccines were decades away.

As the experts remind us, Covid-18 is not an influenza strain and so does not behave like one. That is what makes it scary. We are only learning as time goes on exactly how it behaves and just how dangerous it truly is.

There are signs of optimism if you want to look for them. For those of us in the majority who (as far as we know anyway) have not experienced it, the danger is more theoretical than real. For those who have had a mild or even asymptomatic case, the main concern is for others rather than for oneself. Perhaps the most optimistic sign is that many people’s nerves have relaxed enough that they have already moved past the old-wartime-style-let’s-all-pull-together mentality right to using the crisis as one more political football. I don’t spend much time listening to the White House daily briefings, but based on what I have heard they seem to contain a lot of useful and/or interesting information from government and health officials. When it comes to cable news, the president and his twitter account, though, he and the press corps seem more than content to just carry on the same noisy and distracting game in which they have engaged since the 2016 election.

Here in Ireland the we’re-all-in-this-together spirit still mostly prevails. A lot of that has to do with the fact that news coverage here is led by a dominant state broadcaster that has little space for unsanctioned views or contrarian attitudes at a time like this. There is much collective self-back-patting at the Irish response, frequently drawing meaningless, self-flattering comparisons to other (much larger) countries, particular the UK and the US.

Having said that, there is a growing criticism, or at least collective regret, that the authorities were blindsided by the number of fatalities in nursing homes. With the benefit of hindsight it now seems clear that, while citizens in general were told to hunker down in their homes, not enough attention was given to the vulnerable elder population residing in clusters. This is probably because the planners were watching what was going on hotspots like China and Italy where living and family arrangements are more traditional than here. Ireland has become more like America in that the old folks are more likely to be sent off to a home.

For the average news consumer it is difficult to gauge exactly how bad things are in general. On one hand we see disturbing images of pine coffins stacked on top of each other in a trench on New York’s Hart Island as well as similar photos from Spain and Italy. On the other hand, there is the article in today’s Wall Street Journal about results of hundreds of blood tests taken in Los Angeles. Echoing similar stories from Europe, the emerging picture is that a lot more people than expected have antibodies for Covid-19, suggesting the rate of serious illness and fatalities among those exposed is actually quite a bit lower than previously thought.

I guess that’s a perverse kind of optimism. Another example is the fact that some people are emboldened to go out—against health expert advice—and protest restrictions imposed by authorities. People have marched or found other ways of protesting in such far-flung places as Michigan, Washington, Texas, France, Germany, India and Chile. Others have more cautiously done their protesting online. These are clearly signs of pent-up frustration at the personal and economic restrictions as well as local-issue-fueled discontent. The protestors are willing to test the assertion they risk spreading the disease more widely. In the process, they have become a political litmus test in the debate between those who want everyone to heed government/expert advice/diktats and those who subscribe to the spirit, which was big in the 1960s, of “question authority.”

The other night, protesting fishermen in Dingle, County Kerry, prevented the docking of Spanish-owned trawler for fear of introducing more virus cases. Were they perhaps thinking back a whole century to the Spanish flu?