Skip to content

Of Edward Snowden and Reality Winner

snowdenwinner

The whistleblower/traitor (take your pick) Edward Snowden is again much in the news with the publication of his autobiography/apologia Permanent Record this week. As you may recall, Snowden is a former CIA contractor employee who in May 2013 fled first to Hong Kong and then to Moscow where he sought and received asylum after copying and releasing to journalists thousands of highly classified NSA documents. These documents included evidence that NSA was indeed doing mass surveillance of Americans by collecting metadata on telephone calls, contrary to what NSA’s Director, James Clapper, had told congress. For an excellent overview of both the book and the controversy, see Jill Lepore’s recent New Yorker article here.

Snowden’s book gives his version of why he did what he did and how he ended up in what appears to be fairly comfortable exile in Moscow. He presents himself as a patriotic citizen who was so disturbed by secret US government spying on Americans that he was compelled to expose the truth. But as Lepore points out, he didn’t just stumble on the evidence, but rather he spent months actively looking for it. “Snowden has claimed that he alerted more than ten officials at the N.S.A. about his discovery and expressed his alarm. He has provided no support for this claim. The N.S.A. says he reported his concerns to no one… The classified documents Snowden released to the press contained a good deal more than evidence of the surveillance of American citizens; they included, for instance, a 2006 memo detailing the N.S.A.’s monitoring of the telephone conversations of thirty-five unnamed world leaders, which led the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, to charge the Obama Administration with tapping her phone, causing a diplomatic uproar.”

Snowden doesn’t remark on the obvious irony of a self-proclaimed champion of civil liberties seeking the protection of a country that has for centuries operated the world’s most pervasive and oppressive domestic surveillance apparatus. Well, any port in a storm, right?

It’s worth contrasting Snowden’s situation with that of Reality Winner, the ironically-named former Air Force linguist and intel specialist, who after her military discharge also went to work for an NSA contractor in Georgia. While working there, she came across an NSA report about a Russian attempt to access American election infrastructure through a private software company. According to the report, Russian intelligence sent phishing emails to the company that provides election support to eight states. obtained log-in credentials, and sent emails infected with malware to over 100 election officials, days before the election. On May 9, 2017, the day when Trump fired James Comey, Winner anonymously mailed a physical printout of the document to The Intercept, which then provided NSA with a photocopy to verify its validity and, after making a few redactions, published it. You can read the published version here

Based on metadata contained in the scanned copy of the report that The Intercept provided to NSA, the FBI was quickly able to narrow down who had printed it out, and arrested Winner within days–before Intercept had even published the report. She quickly confessed (though later sought to have the confession suppressed on the grounds that she had not been Mirandized), and was jailed without bond for a year. Eventually, she plead guilty to one felony count of “unauthorized transmission of national defense information”, and on August 23, 2018 she was sentenced to 5 years and 3 months in federal prison, reportedly the longest sentence ever imposed for leaking classified information to the media.

So was Winner’s act of leaking ONE document (unlike Snowden or Chelsea Manning, who both released thousands of classified documents) really a crime that endangered national security or a courageous attempt to alert the US public to an unprecedented foreign attack on America’s electoral system? At the time when she leaked the NSA report, Americans were becoming aware of Russian meddling in the 2016 election to benefit Donald Trump, but it was not yet generally known that specific US electoral databases, including electronic voter registration rolls, had been penetrated and compromised. It was not until May 8, 2018–nearly a year after The Intercept published the leaked NSA report, and 3 months before Winner’s sentencing–that the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) published an unclassified report which stated that at least 18 state election systems had been targeted by Russian cyber attacks. The SSCI report also stated: “In at least six states, the Russian-affiliated cyber actors went beyond scanning and conducted malicious access attempts on voting-related websites. In a small number of states, Russian-affiliated cyber actors were able to gain access to restricted elements of election infrastructure. In a small number of states, these cyber actors were in a position to, at a minimum, alter or delete voter registration data.” The Mueller Report (section entitled “Intrusions Targeting Administration of US Elections”), released in March 2019, contains much of the same information that was in the NSA report published by The Intercept.

Incredibly, however, the details of such intrusions known to the FBI and the US Intelligence Community apparently still have not been made available to local and state officials responsible for voter registration rolls and other electoral databases. In May 2019, the New York Times reported that “At a news conference in Tallahassee, [Florida governor Ron] DeSantis, a Republican, said that officials from the F.B.I. and the Department of Homeland Security had asked him to sign a nondisclosure agreement pledging not to identify the two counties that fell victim to a “spearphishing” attempt by Russian hackers.” Both DeSantis and Sen. Marco Rubio have expressed frustration and dismay that more information has not been forthcoming.

The NSA report leaked by Winner pointed to VR Systems, based in Tallahassee, as a private contractor that was targeted by Russian cyber attackers. According to the Miami Herald, VR Systems is the vendor that handles registration software for most of Florida’s 67 counties, as well as systems in a number of other states. (CNN had reported back in October 2016 that “Federal investigators believe Russian hackers were behind cyberattacks on a contractor for Florida’s election system that may have exposed the personal data of Florida voters”, but did not name the company.) Throughout, everyone officially involved has insisted that there is no evidence that the Russian intrusions changed the voting results.

But how confident can we be about that? The New York Times reported that there were large numbers of suspicious irregularities in North Carolina voter databases in the 2016 election that prevented people from voting, particularly in Durham County where the database used software from VR Systems. The Times article noted, “Beyond VR Systems, hackers breached at least two other providers of critical election services well ahead of the 2016 voting, said current and former intelligence officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because the information is classified. The officials would not disclose the names of the companies.” In any case, it has become clear that voter registration databases are the Achilles heel of the US electoral system, whether for foreign-based tampering or domestic partisan voter repression.

So does Reality Winner really deserve to spend another 5 years in prison? Did her action really endanger US national security, or did she actually perform a noble service to the American public? Does her punishment seem appropriate, when the Trump Administration and the Republican Senate leadership refuse to make any meaningful or systematic effort to secure the integrity of US elections? Who is the real criminal here?

Edward Snowden seems a more complicated call. Ultimately it comes down to what you think about the legitimate limits of surveillance by US intelligence and law enforcement of US citizens and residents in the Internet Age. Should we really be so concerned about NSA harvesting of phone call metadata (i.e., who called who when and for how long) if they’re not actually listening to the content without a warrant.  After all, we willingly hand over vast amounts of far more intimate data to private companies like Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple, etc. who can do literally anything they want with it with virtually no legal restraints. Shouldn’t that concern us more? The collaboration of companies like Facebook with Cambridge Analytica may well have done more to put Donald Trump in the White House than the Russians. As Jill Lepore observes, “Google, Facebook, and Amazon know far, far more about most Americans than the N.S.A. does.”

There are legitimate reasons for classifying information and for imposing penalties for disclosing information that could harm the interests of the country. If you work in that world, you certainly understand the rules as well as what could happen if you break them. That said, classification is often over- and misused. Reality Winner accepted her punishment, even though it seems grossly disproportionate.  But Edward Snowden wants to get off as some kind of libertarian folk hero. He doesn’t fit the mold of a spy, but I am bothered by the indiscriminate magnitude of the information that he stole and disseminated. And whether he recognizes it or not, he is now a Russian asset–a living symbol of the hypocrisy of American claims of freedom who had to flee to Mother Russia for protection. Certainly not nearly as big an asset as Trump, but significant all the same. Let him stay there until Putin or someone else decides he’s no longer useful.

 

 

 

 

Mueller Fails Bigly Again

MuellerHearing

This could have been Robert Mueller’s day to be a patriotic hero, but he chose to stay a timid bureaucrat, following the rules laid down by William Barr and refusing to answer about anything that wasn’t in his report. And sometimes not even that.

Mueller is now a private citizen. He surely has some opinions about the import of the material he put in his report, which he should know better than anyone else.  There is no reason why he could not have connected the dots in this hearing in ways that he might have been constrained against doing while in his role as special prosecutor. But he resisted all questions about that. At the end of the HPSCI hearing, he was given an opportunity to share anything he thought the American people should know, but he said he couldn’t think of anything.

When Mueller was appointed, he was lionized as a fearless and impartial seeker after truth, a giant who Trump needed to fear. What we saw today was something else: a halting, often bumbling, past-his-prime, bureaucratic lifer, who accepted the quite outrageous limits Barr imposed on his testimony and refused time after time to acknowledge the implications of his own discoveries. He essentially admitted that he let Trump bully him into not issuing a subpoena because it would take too long to fight the court battles. He thereby enabled the strategy that the Trump administration is now using to refuse to comply with scores of congressional subpoenas. If, as some believe, that the Report was intended as a road map for impeachment, Mueller was unwilling even to utter the word when asked if that was he meant about leaving presidential accountability to other parts of the government.

Democrats mistakenly bet the farm on the Mueller investigation, and when that proved to be a disappointment, hoped that these hearings would be the blockbuster movie that would animate and make real to the public the dry facts contained in the book that few people had actually read. That didn’t happen.

Mueller made a terrible witness with his endless refusals to answer questions. He came across as evasive, tired, and just old. He refused multiple times to answer the central question that his report left hanging, i.e., did he think there was enough evidence to indict Trump for obstruction, disregarding the OLC opinion about charging a sitting president.

As a media event, which this was meant to be,  it was pretty much a bust. The Democrats had a few small moments and got Mueller to admit some of the most obvious things, e.g., that the Russian attack on the election was real and that the investigation wasn’t a witch hunt. But the answers he did give were couched in such carefully legalistic terms that they likely did not register with a public that wants simple clean answers. To a public raised on reality TV, the aggressive Republican attacks on the investigation and their introduction of fantastic alternative theories of Democrat malfeasance (like the real collusion was between the Clinton campaign and Russia), were probably much more compelling television. The Democrats wanted to move the needle of public opinion. If the needle moved at all, it may have been in the opposite direction.

So Robert Mueller is not our messiah. Nobody is going to save us. Impeachment is probably less likely after today. And Trump’s re-election chances probably just went up.

 

 

The All-Purpose Mashup Smear, con’d: …, Anti-Israel, Anti-Semitic, America-hating… [Part 2]

TrumpNetanyahu

Trump and Netanyahu celebrating US recognition of Israeli sovereignty over Golan Heights, 3/15/2019

Now for the “anti-Israel” part. When Trump and Graham say the congresswomen “hate Israel” or they’re “anti-Israel” or “anti-Semitic”, this is what they’re really saying:

  • Israel, uniquely among all the countries in the world, cannot be criticized, and the policies of its government must be endorsed by all Americans.
  • American national interests are identical to the interests of the Israeli government. 
  • If you criticize Israeli government actions or policies, you are supporting hatred and violence against Jews everywhere. 

This is both logically absurd and offensive in a democracy, but it has become virtual dogma in much of the American political spectrum, especially on the right, and it needs to be called out.

There is no moral clarity in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Jews have built a vibrant and successful nation in Israel, with massive support from the US government and from Jewish communities abroad, particularly in the US.  But Israel’s establishment in 1948 also entailed the dispossession of non-Jewish Palestinians whose ancestors had lived there for centuries and permanent exile of hundreds of thousands of refugees into neighboring countries. Wars in 1967 and 1973 expanded Israel’s effective borders to include all of former Palestine and the Golan Heights , and turned Israel into an occupying power in the West Bank and Gaza, where it encouraged and subsidized further Jewish settlement on what had been Palestinian Arab lands. Violent rebellion in Gaza led Israel to withdraw its forces and settlements there, but it keeps a stranglehold on everything that goes in or out which it tightens at will, leaving Gaza with massive unemployment, scarce resources, and no hope for real economic development. Hamas, backed by the Muslim Brotherhood and supported by Syria (and formerly by Iran) has exploited this power vacuum and hopelessness to become the de facto power there. When Hamas-supplied rockets have been launched from Gaza into Israeli towns, Israel has responded with massive retaliation bombing of civilian communities resulting in hugely disproportionate numbers of Palestinian vs. Israeli casualties.

On the West Bank, Israel has formally and unilaterally annexed East Jerusalem, including the Old City which includes the holy religious sites of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. It has also fostered and expanded strategically located Jewish settlements which have effectively sliced up the West Bank into disconnected chunks of territory which are under de facto Israeli military control. Movement within the West Bank is controlled by Israeli military forces which force non-Israelis to go through humiliating and time-consuming searches at internal checkpoints when traveling from one town to another. When tensions exploded into the second intifada rebellion in 2000 and suicide bombers set off bombs smuggled into Israel proper, the Israeli government responded with increased repression and the construction of a wall or “security barrier” inside the internationally-recognized 1948 boundary between Israel proper and the West Bank, which effectively incorporated significant amounts of the latter into Israel. As in Gaza, Palestinian casualties of violent conflict have far outnumbered Israeli casualties.

Israel has a robust free press, an independent judiciary, and it is a democracy–but with important caveats. Palestinian residents of the occupied territories of the West Bank and in Gaza have no right to vote in Israeli elections or hold office in Israel, but Jewish settlers in the West Bank can do both. This means that the 4.6 million Palestianian residents of the West Bank and Gaza have no voice in the government that has controlled most aspects of their lives for more than 50 years, while the 500,000 Jewish settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem have full rights of Israeli citizens. Arab-Israelis (about 20% of the 8.6 million people in Israel proper) can vote and hold office in the Knesset, but in practice have generally been excluded from positions of power and, according to Freedom House, face various forms of discrimination.

Israel has long struggled with how to reconcile its identity as a Jewish state with recognizing the rights of non-Jews. In 2018, under Netanyahu’s Likud government, it passed a controversial “nation-state law”, which was widely seen as strengthening the primacy of Jewish citizens over all others. The new law:

  • states that “the right to exercise national self-determination” in Israel is “unique to the Jewish people,”
  • establishes Hebrew as Israel’s official language, and downgrades Arabic — a language widely spoken by Arab Israelis — to a “special status,” and
  • establishes “Jewish settlement as a national value” and mandates that the state “will labor to encourage and promote its establishment and development.”

Not surprisingly, Palestinians–including Arab-Israelis–see this as a major step to assigning them permanently inferior status and, in the case of West Bank Palestinians, making them essentially stateless if Israel continues on its apparent trajectory of rejecting a two-state solution and asserting sovereignty over all of Palestine plus the Golan Heights.

Why should Americans care about this? For one thing, the US government has supported Israel financially far more generously than any other country in the world. Until fairly recently (when aid to maintain the US-supported governments in Afghanistan and Iraq was drastically increased), aid to Israel was orders of magnitude greater than to any other country. For FY2017, the amount was $3.2 billion, almost all of it military aid–or about $400 for every Israeli man, woman, and child. American military assistance–including access to advanced armaments and missile defenses–has been a key factor in making Israel the dominant military power in the region.

The US has traditionally given Israel diplomatic protection in the UN and other international organizations as well, often at considerable cost to US relations with other countries in the region. Last year, for example, the US used its veto in the UN Security Council to kill a resolution condemning excessive Israeli force against Palestinian civilians which was supported by France, Russia, China, and Sweden (among others–the UK and Netherlands abstained). 

Then there is the little-discussed issue of Israel’s nuclear weapons program. Israel is the only–if  officially unacknowledged–nuclear power in the Middle East and is believed to possess scores if not hundreds of nuclear warheads since the 1970s.  The US never seriously tried to use its leverage to dissuade Israel from developing nuclear weapons, as it has with other countries–most notably recently with Iran. Israel’s status as a nuclear power obviously is a major factor in the decisions of other regional countries, like Iran, on whether to pursue a nuclear weapons program.

Israel also directly affects US domestic politics to an extent unmatched by any other country.  Trump’s and Graham’s accusations are actually proof of this.  Imagine them saying that Rep. Omar is anti-[insert any other country here] and expecting it to have a similar impact–you simply can’t. Traditionally,  full-voiced support for Israel was not a partisan issue–a legacy of sympathy (and perhaps some guilt) over the Holocaust, a claimed Christian religious affinity with Judaism (and suspicion of Islam), and not least, a desire to tap the US Jewish community for fundraising.  The pro-Israeli lobbying organization AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) has been stunningly successful at delivering its message and directing support to cooperative members of Congress of both parties, and they in turn were (and many still are) eager to appear at AIPAC’s annual conference to demonstrate that they were on board.  (For an inside look at how this system of reward and retribution works, click here.) AIPAC was the “fight club” of lobbying operations; the first rule is that no one was supposed to talk about it or acknowledge its influence. By contrast, the Palestinian cause had virtually no champions in the US congress.

All that began to change around the turn of the century when the Iraq war brought an unprecedented level of direct US military intervention in the Middle East, and the WMD lies used as its rationale were exposed. This prompted, at least in some quarters, a broader look at US policy toward Israel and Palestine, and a less one-sided view of the consequences of unconditional support for Israeli policies, including greater media attention to Israeli repression in Gaza and the West Bank. The increased pace of Jewish settlement of East Jerusalem and the West Bank suggested that the strategy of the Israeli government, dominated by Netanyahu, had changed and that the goal was really permanent Israeli dominion over all of Palestine. When the Obama administration attempted to impose some conditions on US aid, the hostility broke into the open, especially over the Iran nuclear agreement. And it became more partisan, with Israel and AIPAC increasingly aligning with Obama’s Republican opponents. In March 2015, John Boehner and Mitch McConnell arranged (without consulting Obama) for Netanyahu to address congress in a transparent attempt by both Israel and congressional Republicans to derail the Iran deal, and perhaps more importantly, to undermine and embarrass the president. Obama and Democrats were outraged. Obama refused to meet with Netanyahu, and the President and Vice-President did not attend the speech as did a number of Democratic members of congress.

This deliberate intermingling of both US and Israeli domestic politics with critical foreign policy issues thus became blatant, caused many commentators to openly express that an important line had been crossed and that the client state had acquired greater influence over its patron than the other way around.

With the election of Trump, the capitulation of the US to Israeli government goals has become virtually complete. The Trump administration has abandoned decades of US policy (as well as international consensus) by moving the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and, just recently, by explicitly recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights. And, of course, Trump has reneged on US adherence to the Iran nuclear agreement. The US has thereby squandered any possible leverage and received nothing in return, giving Netanyahu and his allies in the Knesset a huge political boost as well as a green light to do whatever they want.

And, of course, Trump’s trashing of previous US policy toward Israel has to be read as yet another example of destroying everything associated with Obama.

All of these issues are legitimate subjects for debate and discussion among American officials, media, academic experts, and the public. The US Jewish community is itself divided over Israeli government policies and includes many voices and organizations that are deeply critical of the direction that the Netanyahu government is going. For Trump or Graham to accuse members of “The Squad” of anti-semitism for having the temerity to criticize Israeli government policies and speak of its influence is false, cynically manipulative, and two-faced.

As New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg put it:

This is a president who regularly deploys anti-Semitic tropes and whose ex-wife said that he slept with a volume of Hitler’s speeches by his bed. When speaking to American Jews, he’s called Israel “your country” and Benjamin Netanyahu “your prime minister,” suggesting that in his mind, we don’t fully belong here any more than Omar does…Trump and his accomplices are simultaneously assaulting the political foundation of Jewish life in America and claiming they’re doing it on the Jews’ behalf…

“It’s worth thinking about how we got to a point where anti-Semitism can be exploited as it has been this week. What we’re seeing is the absurd but logical endpoint of efforts to conflate anti-Semitism with anti-Zionism, and anti-Zionism with opposition to Israel’s right-wing government. Only if these concepts are interchangeable can Jewish critics of Israel be the perpetrators of anti-Semitism and gentiles who play footsie with fascism be allies of the Jewish people. Only if these concepts are the same can an evangelical group claim that Jews are being anti-Jewish when they protest Trump, because Trump loves Israel.”

Anti-semitism certainly remains an endemic danger in America, as the synagogue massacre in Pittsburgh tragically proved, and its most virulent form co-exists with white nationalism directed against blacks, latinos, and other non-white groups.  These were the ones who marched in Charlottesville chanting “Jews will not replace us” in violent protests ostensibly to prevent the removal of Confederate monuments. They are inspired by and support Trump and his allies, and Trump cannot quite ever bring himself to denounce them.

It is also possible for criticism of Israel to spill over into anti-semitism, and this needs to be called out when it happens. But what Trump and Graham were responding to wasn’t that, and what they were doing was simply a revival of the despicable red-bating and race-bating tactics that have always stained American politics at its worst.

 

 

 

 

 

The All-Purpose Mashup Smear: Socialist, Communist,… [Part 1]

mccarthy and cohn

“Mr. Trump then asked, ‘Where’s my Roy Cohn?'” (New York Times, 1/4/2018

It’s pure socialism, worse than socialism. There’s a word called communism too. This is beyond socialism.” Trump, at Social Media Summit, 7/11/2019

We all know that [Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez] and this crowd are a bunch of communists, they hate Israel, they hate our own country, they’re calling the guards along our border—the Border Patrol agents—concentration camp guards. They accuse people who support Israel as doing it for the benjamins, they are anti-Semitic, they are anti-America.Lindsey Graham on Fox and Friends, 7/15/2019

Perhaps I’m not the only one caught by surprise when Donald Trump and Lindsey Graham recently began flinging the epithet “communist” at The Squad (Democratic Congresswomen Ocasio-Cortez, Omar, Pressley, and Tlaib) and Democrats in general. Apparently, calling them “socialist” isn’t scary enough anymore. Where did this red-baiting revival come from and why the escalation?

There were actually two linked odious rhetorical tropes that slithered out of the Republican attacks on the four congresswomen, in addition to the straight-up racism. One was the aforementioned indiscriminate and quasi-interchangeble use of “socialist” and “communist” as political scare labels. The other was the assertion that unconditional support for Israel is necessary to be a patriotic American. Let’s look at each of these separately.

I’m old enough to remember the heyday of the John Birch Society and even to have hazy childhood memories of seeing the McCarthy hearings on the TV news. Being labeled as a communist sympathizer (or “comsymp”) during the height of the Cold War was a political and professional kiss of death. Being labeled “socialist” was almost as bad in America, though not in Western Europe where democratic socialism became the default political system. Our NATO alliance with those European social democratic countries–the UK, France, West Germany, Italy, etc.–became the bulwark that contained and eventually brought down Soviet communism.

But in America, people in public life would go to almost any length to avoid the “socialist” label, and God help you if you got branded as “communist.” Most Americans then and now couldn’t  explain the difference between the two if their lives depended on it, so the two terms became effectively conflated. The implication was that if you were a socialist, then you were “un-American”, and if you were a communist, then you were a traitor. Even social safety net programs which most Americans now cherish and depend on, such as Social Security and Medicare, were bitterly fought by conservatives as “socialist” or “communist” threats to American freedom. And the stigma attached to the words has never quite gone away.

It’s also worth reiterating that African-American civil rights leaders were routinely accused of being “communists” by white segregationists from Strom Thurman to George Wallace to J. Edgar Hoover. That’s basically what’s going on here.

When the Soviet Union collapsed, capitalism seemed triumphant. The two great communist powers, Russia and China, each developed its own system of authoritarian capitalism. It was “The End of History” as Reaganite author Francis Fukuyama famously proclaimed. Communism was essentially dead, barely surviving in isolated backwaters like Cuba and North Korea, and no longer considered a threat. The very word “communist” lost its political potency because it seemed like an archaic joke. 

Or so we thought, which is why it was so shocking to hear Trump use the “communist” smear against the Democrats at his “Social Media Summit” last week. Then Lindsey Graham doubled down with it on “Fox and Friends” while defending Trump for his racist attack on The Squad (this, after looking straight into the camera and proclaiming that Trump was the best golfer ever–twice). Trump then re-tweeted Graham’s attack, adding “They are Anti-Semitic. They are Anti-America…They talk about Israel like they’re a bunch of thugs, not victims of the entire region…” Later that day, Trump upped the ante yet again, ranting on Twitter “We will never be a Socialist or Communist Country. IF YOU ARE NOT HAPPY HERE, YOU CAN LEAVE!…Certain people HATE our Country. They are anti-Israel, pro Al-Qaeda…” Then later Trump told reporters, “[Graham] said they’re communists. I’m saying they’re socialists, definitely. As to whether or not they’re communists, I think they might be…”  You get the drift.

So where was the “communist” meme lurking for the last 3 decades while it seemingly had disappeared from US political discourse? Well, it turns out that the red-bating culture had been carefully preserved and propagated in the bubbling petri dishes of alt-right websites, a number of which were represented at the White House Social Media Summit last week. So that was a perfect venue for reintroducing the virus into a receptive population.

Just google something like “democrats called communist meme”, and you will be led to a surprising number of metaphorical rocks which you can flip over, if you dare, to see what’s wriggling underneath. Pick any at random. Here’s one from The Epoch Times from September 2018 headlined “How 57,000 Socialists and Communists are Planning to Take Over the Democratic Party.” The author, a New Zealander named Trevor Loudon, wrote a book which he self-published in 2013 titled The Enemies Within: Communists, Socialists, and Progressives in the US Congress. His book was reviewed in TeaParty.org under the headline “Communists in Congress? Just Count ‘Em” by Jerome Corsi, of Swift Boat fame, who you may also recall figured fairly prominently in the Mueller Report. The book was made into a documentary movie of the same title in 2016, directed by Judd Saul who is described as a longtime Christian conservative activist from Iowa. You can read a review here, and it’s available on Amazon.

Then there’s this from June 2018 on Real Clear Politics in which Washington Times reporter Charles Hurt tells Tucker Carlson from Fox News about the new crop of Democratic congressional candidates like AOC: “These people are communists.”

So it never really went away; it just went into remission. What exactly prompted this outbreak is anyone’s guess. But it’s no accident that these scurrilous labels are being revived by the most racist president in a century.

 

Trump Threatens Social Media Giants at White House Summit for Internet Trolls

Trump and fly

“How did a fly get into the White House?”

“I’m very concerned that they affected the outcome of the 2018 election, and if you let them do what they’ve been doing it’s going to affect the outcome of the 2020 election as well.” Harmeet Dhillon, speaking at White House Social Media Summit on July 11.

Exactly one week after hijacking the traditionally non-partisan DC 4th of July celebration, Trump invited about 200 of what the New York Times gingerly called “conservative social media firebrands” to the White House for a “Social Media Summit”, which “was dominated by activists willing to share unverified smears against Democratic presidential candidates, disseminate QAnon conspiracy theories and create memes the president might share.” Trump himself gave the keynote speech (watch it yourself here), whose central message was that he and his supporters were being censored and discriminated against by Twitter, Facebook, and Google and he was going to do something about that.

Yes, that’s right. The president who governs by tweet complained that Twitter is stifling his voice. He then announced that “today I’m directing my administration to explore all regulatory and legislative solutions to protect free speech and free speech rights for all Americans.” I think this story deserves closer attention than it has received from news organizations.

The “summit” served several purposes:

  • It set the internet memes for the upcoming election for the very people who will be propagating them.
  • It officially gave Trump’s blessing to some of the most extreme sources of conspiracy theories and disinformation on the Internet. (For a partial list of who showed up, see here. The White House did not publish a list of attendees.)
  • It put Twitter, Facebook, and Google (none of which were represented at this “Social Media Summit”) on notice that this administration will use the full force of the federal government against them if they try to police right wing content on the Web.
  • It fed the firm belief on the right that they are the persecuted and the real victims of a vast leftist conspiracy led by Democrats and the “fake news” media establishment.

Early in his speech, Trump summoned Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO) to the podium so he could spotlight his campaign against the “social media giants who would love to shut us down.” Hawley is sponsoring legislation that focuses on “Section 230”, an amendment to the Communications Decency Act of 1996 that provides a legal shield for internet companies that host user-generated content and without which they could be legally liable for all content they host. Hawley has seized on Section 230 as leverage against Google, Facebook, and Twitter. “They’ve gotten these special deals from government,” Hawley said. “They’re treated unlike anybody else. If they want to keep their special deal, they have to quit discriminating against conservatives.” After Hawley finished his remarks, Trump called his Ending Support for Internet Censorship Act “very important legislation” and added that he didn’t trust the companies to “self-correct”.

Hawley (who defeated Claire McCaskill for the senate in 2018) is about as reactionary as they come (for more on his views, see here), and he is a rising force on the Republican right. His bill may not go anywhere, given Democratic control of the House, but that’s probably not the point, which is to use the “regulatory and legislative solutions” (in Trump’s phrase) of the federal government to intimidate the “social media giants” into relaxing whatever feeble controls they have in place to filter out blatant disinformation and batshit conspiracy theories from their platforms.

There is a strange paranoiac incoherence in TrumpWorld’s argument–a mixture of braggadocio and self-pity–which was on full display in Trump’s rambling and largely stream-of-consciousness speech. On the one hand, Trump bragged about his astonishing success in using social media to deliver his unfiltered message to his followers and its importance in winning the presidency for him. (“I’m hotter now than I have ever been!”) He lauded the brilliance of his senior advisor for digital strategy Dan Scavino’s social media campaign for his re-election.

At the same time, he claims that he and his supporters are victims of on-line censorship and manipulation to prevent their message from getting through. “Censorship like nobody has any understanding, like nobody can believe…” “…horrible bias…” “…They’re playing games…” “…They don’t let them on. They say, sir, I can’t follow you, they make it impossible…”

Then the big one: Trump invited lawyer and former California Republican vice chairwoman Harmeet Dhillon to the podium, where she lambasted the big social media companies and then said this: “I’m very concerned that they affected the outcome of the 2018 election and if you let them do what they’ve been doing it’s going to affect the outcome of the 2020 election as well.” Trump looked on approvingly and then said, “What Harmeet said is so so true!…That’s the collusion! It’s the collusion between the Democrats and the media and social media and these platforms.”

What’s the evidence for all of this? Trump’s tweets don’t “go off like a rocket” the way they used to. According to Trump, Twitter is messing with the numbers, and he doesn’t get as many re-tweets and likes as before. [Let us pause at this point and consider that the President of the United States obsesses over his Twitter following!]

The problem, of course, is that the algorithms and processes used by Twitter, Facebook, and Google to control content and searches are proprietary to those companies and mostly opaque to outside scrutiny. The conspiracy-minded can therefore project onto these black boxes whatever they imagine might be happening inside. And who’s to prove them wrong (and would it matter anyway)? The corollary is that if the social media giants do bow to pressure from Trump, how would the rest of us even know that had happened?

For TrumpWorld, the fact that it is almost entirely the extreme right alleging internet censorship isn’t because their sites were and are purveying falsehoods and disinformation, but rather because they’re being persecuted. The allegations become the evidence. And now the bomb throwers have been explicitly endorsed by the President of the United States, who invites them to the White House and calls them “very special people, brilliant people.” Nothing is too outrageous. “The crap you think of is unbelievable!…Some of you guys are out there, I mean it’s genius, but it’s bad,” said the president in a winking mock reproach.

And Trump gave them the themes to push:

  • Democrats want to impose socialism…no wait, it’s communism. “It’s pure socialism…worse than socialism. There’s a word called communism too…this is beyond socialism.” That’s what the Green New Deal really is. “Our country is going to go one way, or it’s going to head in the direction of Venezuela.”
  • The country is being invaded by dangerous brown people, and the Democrats are encouraging it. “They want open borders, they want people to pour in, including criminals, the worst criminals.” I.e., those Central Americans in those squalid CBP camps and private prisons are criminals and deserve to be locked up and deported along with the ones already here.
  • Russian interference in the last election (“the Russian hoax”) didn’t happen and the investigation was a “witch hunt”. The real collusion is between the Democrats, the “fake news” media, and the social media companies to suppress the truth.

This is dangerous stuff, and its purveyors have been given free rein by the president.

Putin’s Oligarchy as Trump’s Business Model

oligarchy

Why does Trump gaze upon Putin with such rapt adoration? Why does he endorse Putin’s positions and reject the conclusions of US intelligence agencies? Why does he never criticize Russia or Putin? Is it because Russia holds compromising information about him or his businesses? Is it because he’s beholden to Putin for getting him elected? Or is it because Putin is what Trump wants to be?

(These explanations are not mutually exclusive–all could well be true.)

Putin represents everything a corrupt authoritarian demagogue could hope to achieve. He sits atop a small group of fantastically rich businessmen–the oligarchs–who control the country’s leading corporations and resources. He is the arbiter among them and can make decisions that directly affect their interests, and therefore they defer to him and enrich him. He is the nexus for major financial transactions, which require approval from and a payoff to him.  By some estimates, Putin is world’s most wealthy man.

Moreover, he is almost entirely unconstrained by electoral politics, an independent judiciary, or a critical free press. Russian elections are thoroughly manipulated, and opposition leaders who become a possible threat are hobbled by various means, including imprisonment or even poisoning. Such incidents are never seriously investigated or prosecuted. Similarly, journalists who get out of line can wind up beaten, jailed, or killed. The press is therefore essentially state-controlled or cowed into submission.

The regime isn’t really ideological, except insofar as it favors policies that enrich the oligarchy and crushes any that would reduce its power. It’s basically a neo-czarist system, and it exploits religion and ethnic nationalism to bolster support. It uses memes like gay-bashing to get loyalty from socially conservative lower classes who derive little benefit from all the money rising to the top. The egalitarian vision of communism is truly dead, but its repressive apparatus is thriving and a few are getting super rich.

If all this sounds like a more dystopian version of what America is heading toward, there’s a reason for that. The concentration of both wealth and income in the top one percent of the population is actually worse in the US than in Russia. Among developed countries, the US ranks second in concentration of wealth, just behind Ukraine (Paul Manafort’s old stomping grounds), and ahead of Russia.

Trump didn’t create the increasing concentration of wealth, which has been building since the 1980s, but this accretion didn’t just happen in a vacuum and is a direct result of changes in tax policy and deregulation. But more than anyone else, Trump has figured out how to exploit it both economically and politically. And his policies are designed to increase that concentration and to perpetuate it. The most important example is his “tax reform”, which amounts to a massive transfer of wealth to the richest percentile of the population.

The “one percent” that we talk about here–the people who buy $40 million condos in Manhattan, fly their Gulfstreams to the Masters, and schmooze at Mar-a-Lago–are our oligarchs, though they may have arrived there by somewhat different routes. They may not all like everything about Trump, but a lot of them like that he lets them keep their wealth protected and amass ever more of it. So they support him and give astonishing amounts of money to keep him and his Republican acolytes in power, and some of that money even winds up in his pocket. 

One problem for Trump is that, unlike Putin, he doesn’t own the entire oligarchy–yet. If Sheldon Adelson and his wife can donate an amazing $123 million to Republican candidates just in the 2018 election cycle, then Michael Bloomberg can donate $95 million to the Democrats. The US economy is about 12 times the size of Russia’s (in nominal terms), which means it’s a much larger pie to divvy up among more rich people, whose interests are more diverse. The rapid privatization of Russian state assets starting in the 90s meant that a relative small number of insiders with close ties to the old Soviet Communist Party were in a position to gobble them up and that Putin (as head of the FSB) was well placed to guide who got what even before he became acting president of Russia in 1999. The privatization of public wealth in the US has been a slower and bitterly fought process, and there was proportionately less in the public sector to begin with, but with Trump the pace has picked up, accelerating the concentration of wealth.

What that concentration means for American democracy is that what the average voter wants has less and less impact on what actually happens. A fascinating statistical study by eminent political scientists Martin Gillens (Princeton) and Benjamin Page (Northwestern) shows that “the preferences of average Americans have only a minuscule, near zero, statistically insignificant impact upon public policy” when pitted against economic elites. The study concludes that in the US,  “the majority does not rule—at least not in the causal sense of actually determining policy outcomes. When a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites or with organized interests, they generally lose. Moreover, because of the strong status quo bias built into the U.S. political system, even when fairly large majorities of Americans favor policy change, they generally do not get it.” To put it in everyday terms, money talks.

Trump and his Republican allies don’t yet have a totally compliant judicial system that will automatically endorse whatever they want, but they are certainly working to achieve that. Again, this process predates Trump, but has become starker since he took office. Mitch McConnell declared open war when he refused to allow Obama’s nomination of Merritt Garland to the Supreme Court to get so much as a hearing in Senate, and McConnell is perhaps the most enthusiastic enabler of big money in politics as well as the most determined foe of campaign funding reform. The Roberts court is now reliable on key issues affecting political participation having ruled in the oligarchy’s favor on three landmark cases that essentially removed any limits on political campaign contributions, gutted the Voting Rights Act, and (most recently) approved partisan gerrymandering. Lower federal courts are also being packed with ideologically approved judges. After stalling confirmations during the Obama administration, McConnell is now filling vacant slots with unprecedented speed.

Add to that a Justice Department headed by William Barr, who has jettisoned the traditional independence of that office from the White House and acts as Trump’s advocate. As Attorney General, Barr and his newly appointed subordinates are in a position to quash investigations and decide which cases are litigated. Whether career professionals at Justice and the FBI will be able to countervail such pressure remains an open question.

Then there is the increasing ugly White House campaign against the independent press, or as Trump calls it, the “enemy of the people.” According to the New York Times, at the recent private meeting with Putin in Osaka, Trump (after joking about meddling in our elections) “offered the sort of disdain for journalists sure to resonate with an authoritarian like Mr. Putin. ‘Get rid of them,’ Mr. Trump said. ‘Fake news is a great term, isn’t it? You don’t have this problem in Russia, but we do.‘” What’s not a problem to Trump is Fox News which functions as a quasi-official propaganda organ for the Republican Party and the Trump White House–more or less like TASS and Isvestiya in Soviet days. The message then gets amplified, often in more extreme form, in on-line and radio outlets like Breitbart and Rush Limbaugh and repeated by local TV and radio stations owned by conservative organizations like Sinclair and Clear Channel which dominate smaller media markets across the country. Trump doesn’t control newsmedia yet, but there’s really no doubt that he wishes he could.

The signs are everywhere if you look–from symbolic (like turning the 4th of July celebration on the National Mall into a political event) to deeply if more distantly disturbing (like trying to politicize the military). I’m certainly not the first to notice. Anne Applebaum wrote a prescient op-ed in the Washington Post three years ago before the election headlined “The Secret to Trump: He’s Really a Russian Oligarch“, in which she observed that he is “an oligarch in the Russian style — a rich man who aspires to combine business with politics and has an entirely cynical and instrumental attitude toward both…His transition from donor to candidate, although partly motivated by megalomania, has also been designed to shore up his businesses. Just as Russian businessmen use political power to direct money to their own companies, so does Trump.”

What’s different now is that Trump isn’t just another crooked billionaire trying to work the political system to get richer. He’s now the capo di tutti capi. In Russian terms, he’s not Oleg Deripaska, he’s America’s Putin. Or at least that’s what he aspires to be. If only he can smash enough democratic institutions to let him achieve his goal.

The Willful Blindness of the Supremes

gerrymandering

Today’s landmark Supreme Court ruling on partisan gerrymandering (Rucho et al v. Common Cause et al) is likely to go down in history as another in a series of key decisions by the Roberts court that poisoned American democracy–like Citizens United (which opened the flood gates for money in politics) and Shelby County v. Holder (which gutted the Voting Rights Act).  Whether the poisoning is fatal or not remains to be seen.

What all these cases share is a deliberate blindness of the court’s majority to the real world outcomes of their legal reasoning and a passive-aggressive theory of judicial restraint which asserts that the courts are powerless to step in to right wrongs even when they are acknowledged to exist. All were decided by 5-4 split decisions, and all prompted bitter and lengthy dissents from the justices in the minority. All were intensely partisan. These are the Plessy v. Ferguson and Dred Scott decisions for our time, and their impact will likewise be felt for decades.

This could have been a chance for the court to show a principled evenhandedness on this supercharged issue. The Maryland case in question favored Democrats and the North Carolina case favored Republicans, so the optics would have given cover to establish that the courts have the power to restrain egregious partisan gerrymandering. Instead, the Supreme Court majority got the vapors and declared that the problem was too hard because there was no objective way to decide how much was too much and therefore it could do nothing. This kicks the issue back to the states who did the gerrymandering in the first place, thus effectively making the practice entirely legal.

The ruling does not, however, affect Democrats and Republicans equally. While it’s true that “both sides do it”, in this century partisan gerrymandering has been much more aggressively pursued by Republicans and with great success. Academic analysis has consistently shown that partisan gerrymandering has given Republicans a built-in advantage of at least 20 seats in the House of Representatives and that their advantage in state legislatures is often much greater. Republicans have total control of 30 out of 50 state legislatures, and therefore control how both state legislature and US House districts are drawn. They have just been told that partisan gerrymandering is just fine.

The decision is perhaps no surprise, given the hyperpartisan nature of the Roberts court, but the reasoning presented is odd indeed. Read it yourself here.

The ruling accepts that the Court can rule on some electoral issues, including racial gerrymandering. “In two areas—one-person, one-vote and racial gerrymandering—our cases have held that there is a role for the courts…Laws that explicitly discriminate on the basis of race, as well as those that are race neutral on their face but are unexplainable on grounds other than race, are of course presumptively invalid.”

But, according to the court, partisan gerrymandering is different. Legislators can take partisan interests into account because the Framers entrusted districting to political entities. “The ‘central problem’ is not determining whether a jurisdiction has engaged in partisan gerrymandering. It is “determining when political gerrymandering has gone too far.”  The court then cites another 5-4 ruling in a 2004 case (Vieth v. Jubilirer) in which the late Justice Scalia held for a 4 justice plurality “that the plaintiffs’ claims were nonjusticiable because there was no ‘judicially discernible and manageable standard’ for
deciding them.” Justice Kennedy joined in that ruling, but “left open the possibility that in another case a standard might emerge.” The ruling goes on to say that “the question is one of degree: How to provid[e] a standard for deciding how much partisan dominance is too much.” I.e., the Court admits that there could be too much partisan gerrymandering, but how would it determine when it reaches that point?

The ruling then claims that what this is really about is proportional representation (“Partisan gerrymandering claims invariably sound in a desire for proportional representation“), and launches into a disquisition about how the constitution does not require that. And how would you determine what “fairness” is, anyway? As Scalia wrote, “‘Fairness’ does not seem to us a judicially manageable standard.” There follows a lengthy discussion of well-known issues in drawing districting maps, and it concludes that “it is only after determining how to define fairness that you can even begin to answer the determinative question: ‘How much is too much?’ At what point does permissible partisanship become unconstitutional?

Next the Court goes on to deny any equivalence to racial gerrymandering. “Unlike partisan gerrymandering claims, a racial gerrymandering claim does not ask for a fair share of political power and influence, with all the justiciability conundrums that entails. It asks instead for the elimination of a racial classification. A partisan gerrymandering claim cannot ask for the elimination of partisanship.

This assertion is perhaps the strangest of the entire ruling, because racial gerrymandering cases are precisely about fairness in power and influence. Moveover, racial and partisan gerrymandering often coincide or overlap. Many of the the most notoriously contorted congressional districts were drawn deliberately to pack African-American voters in a single district. This does two things: 1) it assures at least a few African-Americans would be elected to Congress, but 2) it also minimizes the impact of African-American votes in “white” districts. And, because black voters tend to vote overwhelmingly for Democratic candidates, such gerrymandering also impacts the partisan distribution of power. The sentence about asking for elimination of a racial classification is simply baffling. 

The lower court ruling (which is here being overturned) cited “predominant intent” which had been used in the racial gerrymandering context. “In racial gerrymandering cases, we rely on a “predominant intent” inquiry to determine whether race was, in fact, the reason particular district boundaries were drawn the way they were. If district lines were drawn for the purpose of separating racial groups, then they are subject to strict
scrutiny because ‘race-based decisionmaking is inherently suspect.‘” But “determining that lines were drawn on the basis of partisanship does not indicate that the districting was improper. A permissible intent—securing partisan advantage—does not become constitutionally impermissible, like racial discrimination, when that permissible intent ‘predominates.'”

The Court here seems to be saying two conflicting things. First it says that there could be too much partisan gerrymandering to be constitutional (but the problem is how to determine what “too much” is). Then it states that gerrymandering for partisan advantage is actually “permissible intent”. So if it’s permissible, how could there ever be too much of it? And if it’s possible to render a judgment on fairness based on some standard in racial gerrymandering, why isn’t that possible in partisan gerrymandering?

Rather than parse that logical conundrum, the Court then washes its hands of the problem. “Excessive partisanship in districting leads to results that reasonably seem unjust. But the fact that such gerrymandering is ‘incompatible with democratic principles,’ does not mean that the solution lies with the federal judiciary. We conclude that partisan gerrymandering claims present political questions beyond the reach of the federal courts.” It says that if the courts were to intervene, that would be “an unprecedented
expansion of judicial power.

Then come the “thoughts and prayers”:  “Our conclusion does not condone excessive partisan gerrymandering. Nor does our conclusion condemn complaints about districting to echo into a void.” So what’s the answer? The states, of course! The very ones who approved the partisan gerrymandering in the first place!

The ruling then notes that some states have somehow managed to determine standards for fairness in districting–something that the Court just declared itself incapable of doing.

Or maybe Congress? The ruling notes: “The first bill introduced in the 116th Congress would require States to create 15-member independent commissions to draw congressional districts and would establish certain redistricting criteria, including protection for communities of interest, and ban partisan gerrymandering.” Oh right, that’s HR1, the”For the People Act” that the Democrats introduced this session to address problems such as voting, money in politics, redistricting, and ethics, and which Republicans vehemently oppose. It faces certain death in the Senate at the hands of Mitch McConnell, and if it miraculously ever passed, certain veto by Trump.

Or maybe the “Fairness and Independence in Redistricting Act”, which the Court notes “was introduced in 2005 and has been reintroduced in every Congress since.” Indeed. It has been reintroduced over and over again, because it was never passed.

The Court concludes “No one can accuse this Court of having a crabbed view of the reach of its competence. But we have no commission to allocate political power and influence in the absence of a constitutional directive or legal standards to guide us in the exercise of such authority.” So gerrymander all you want, we’re not going to stop you.

Some had hoped that on this key case Chief Justice Roberts, out of concern for maintaining a veneer of judicial integrity, would break ranks with Thomas, Alito, Gorsuch, and Kavanaugh, whose votes were preordained. But no. On this as on Citizens United and the Voting Rights Act, he knew what the answer had to be and came up with a rationale, however flimsy, to justify it. I think we can regard his vote in another case that put a temporary stop to including a citizenship question on the census as a gesture of atonement. Or at least an attempt to reclaim some shred of a reputation as something other than a partisan operative.

It’s worth your time to read Justice Kagan’s blistering dissent here (it comes at the end, after the majority ruling.) It demolishes the majority ruling point by point and begins thus:

For the first time ever, this Court refuses to remedy a constitutional violation because it thinks the task beyond judicial capabilities. And not just any constitutional violation. The partisan gerrymanders in these cases deprived citizens of the most fundamental of their constitutional rights: the rights to participate equally in the political process, to join with others to advance political beliefs, and to choose their political representatives. In so doing, the partisan gerrymanders here debased and dishonored our democracy, turning upside-down the core American idea that all governmental power derives from the people. These gerrymanders enabled politicians to entrench themselves in office as against voters’ preferences. They promoted partisanship above respect for the popular will. They encouraged a politics of polarization and dysfunction. If left unchecked, gerrymanders like the ones here may irreparably damage our system of government. And checking them is not beyond the courts…In giving such gerrymanders a pass from judicial review, the majority goes tragically wrong.”