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“Congress Consorting To Thwart U.S. Diplomacy?”: The NSA Reportedly Spied On Congress. Is That The Real Scandal?

There’s a lot we don’t know beneath The Wall Street Journal‘s report today that the National Security Agency picked up intelligence on meetings with U.S. members of Congress and domestic political groups while spying on the Israeli government after credible reports (subsequently validated by the surveillance) that the Israelis were collecting and leaking intelligence on the sensitive U.S.-Iran nuclear talks.

The story has many dimensions. But, so far, virtually all of the reaction involves two questions: (1) Should the U.S. be spying on our ally Israel? (This was raised immediately if cautiously by Marco Rubio, who’s in a bit of a quandary because he’s normally a fan of surveillance.) And (2) should the Executive branch be spying, even incidentally, on the Legislative branch? (Former House Intelligence Committee chairman Peter Hoekstra called for an investigation of this possibility and for indictments if it turned out to be true.) These are both important and complex issues. But there should be a third question raised as well: Should members of Congress be consorting with agents of a foreign government to thwart U.S. diplomacy?

Perhaps this question seems obvious in the context of a situation where the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives invited a foreign prime minister to address Congress with the thinly veiled intention of building opposition to approval of the U.S.-Iran nuclear deal. But most Republicans and some Democrats have long adopted the habit of arguing that the U.S. should defer to Israel on all matters relating to the Middle East, to the point of abandoning any pretense of an independent point of view. The dominant position among Republicans was articulated by Mitt Romney in October of 2012: “The world must never see daylight between our two nations,” meaning the U.S. and Israel. No one was under the illusion that Romney was instructing Israelis to move closer to the U.S.

This was and remains a dangerous and largely unprecedented position. Even if one intends slavish obeisance to a foreign government, there’s something to be said for keeping up the appearance of independence. After all, a lot of the conservatives most determined to carry Bibi Netanyahu’s water in Washington are also outspoken about the U.S. being the unchallenged colossus of global affairs, unconstrained by alliances with Euro-weenie socialists or even friendly relations with Muslim countries. So it would be preferable if American politicians who want to signal to conservative Evangelicals or to Sheldon Adelson that Bibi’s policies will be their own could find a way to do so without meeting with people who are under U.S. intelligence surveillance. Their hatred of Barack Obama is no excuse for disloyalty to the United States.

 

By: Ed Kilgore, Daily Intelligencer, New York Magazine, December 30, 2015

December 31, 2015 Posted by | Congress, Foreign Policy, Israel, National Security Agency, Treason | , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

“Things To Celebrate, Like Dreams Of Flying Cars”: Progress In Technology Has Made Saving The World Much More Plausible

In Star Wars, Han Solo’s Millennium Falcon did the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs; in real life, all the Falcon 9 has done so far is land at Cape Canaveral without falling over or exploding. Yet I, like many nerds, was thrilled by that achievement, in part because it reinforced my growing optimism about the direction technology seems to be taking — a direction that may end up saving the world.

O.K., if you have no idea what I’m talking about, the Falcon 9 is Elon Musk’s reusable rocket, which is supposed to boost a payload into space, then return to where it can be launched again. If the concept works, it could drastically reduce the cost of putting stuff into orbit. And that successful landing was a milestone. We’re still a very long way from space colonies and zero-gravity hotels, let alone galactic empires. But space technology is moving forward after decades of stagnation.

And to my amateur eye, this seems to be part of a broader trend, which is making me more hopeful for the future than I’ve been in a while.

You see, I got my Ph.D. in 1977, the year of the first Star Wars movie, which means that I have basically spent my whole professional life in an era of technological disappointment.

Until the 1970s, almost everyone believed that advancing technology would do in the future what it had done in the past: produce rapid, unmistakable improvement in just about every aspect of life. But it didn’t. And while social factors — above all, soaring inequality — have played an important role in that disappointment, it’s also true that in most respects technology has fallen short of expectations.

The most obvious example is travel, where cars and planes are no faster than they were when I was a student, and actual travel times have gone up thanks to congestion and security lines. More generally, there has just been less progress in our command over the physical world — our ability to produce and deliver things — than almost anyone expected.

Now, there has been striking progress in our ability to process and transmit information. But while I like cat and concert videos as much as anyone, we’re still talking about a limited slice of life: We are still living in a material world, and pushing information around can do only so much. The famous gibe by the investor Peter Thiel (“We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters.”) is unfair, but contains a large kernel of truth.

Over the past five or six years, however — or at least this is how it seems to me — technology has been getting physical again; once again, we’re making progress in the world of things, not just information. And that’s important.

Progress in rocketry is fun to watch, but the really big news is on energy, a field of truly immense disappointment until recently. For decades, unconventional energy technologies kept falling short of expectations, and it seemed as if nothing could end our dependence on oil and coal — bad news in the short run because of the prominence it gave to the Middle East; worse news in the long run because of global warming.

But now we’re witnessing a revolution on multiple fronts. The biggest effects so far have come from fracking, which has ended fears about peak oil and could, if properly regulated, be some help on climate change: Fracked gas is still fossil fuel, but burning it generates a lot less greenhouse emissions than burning coal. The bigger revolution looking forward, however, is in renewable energy, where costs of wind and especially solar have dropped incredibly fast.

Why does this matter? Everyone who isn’t ignorant or a Republican realizes that climate change is by far the biggest threat humanity faces. But how much will we have to sacrifice to meet that threat?

Well, you still hear claims, mostly from the right but also from a few people on the left, that we can’t take effective action on climate without bringing an end to economic growth. Marco Rubio, for example, insists that trying to control emissions would “destroy our economy.” This was never reasonable, but those of us asserting that protecting the environment was consistent with growth used to be somewhat vague about the details, simply asserting that given the right incentives the private sector would find a way.

But now we can see the shape of a sustainable, low-emission future quite clearly — basically an electrified economy with, yes, nuclear power playing some role, but sun and wind front and center. Of course, it doesn’t have to happen. But if it doesn’t, the problem will be politics, not technology.

True, I’m still waiting for flying cars, not to mention hyperdrive. But we have made enough progress in the technology of things that saving the world has suddenly become much more plausible. And that’s reason to celebrate.

 

By: Paul Krugman, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, December 25, 2015

December 27, 2015 Posted by | Climate Change, Energy, Technology | , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Plight Of Syrian Refugees Recalls Tale Of 2,000 Years Ago”: Bar The Gates, Exclude The Stranger, Ignore The Vulnerable

There is irony aplenty in this season, which is celebrated throughout Christendom because of the tale of a babe born in a troubled precinct in the Middle East a little more than 2,000 years ago. You know the story: A couple of modest means finds no accommodations, even as the woman is on the brink of giving birth. After the child is born, they are forced to flee the depredations of a murderous king.

As history rolls on, we find the Middle East once again in upheaval, roiled by murderous tyrants who have spurred families to seek sanctuary. Given the time of year, you’d think the plight of those families would be the preoccupation of the news cycle; you’d think accommodating them would be the pre-eminent call of preachers and politicians alike. After all, the ancient tale has been said to inspire reflection, charity and generosity.

But those sentiments seem in scant supply in these United States. Instead, we are awash in suspicion, waylaid by fear and anxiety, beset by bigotry. Many of the nation’s political leaders have insisted that we bar the gates, exclude the stranger, ignore the vulnerable.

While President Obama has called on the nation to take in more refugees from Syria — where the armies of President Bashar Assad and the self-proclaimed Islamic State represent dire threats to life and limb — 27 U.S. governors, more than half, would attempt to bar Syrian refugees from their states. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has famously said that he wouldn’t even take in orphans under the age of 5.

Indeed, the call to keep Syrian refugees out of the United States has captured a substantial number of voters; 56 percent oppose President Obama’s policy. And that refusal finds support across party lines: Eighty-one percent of Republicans, 59 percent of independents and 31 percent of Democrats, according to an NBC News survey.

The proximate cause of that hunker-down insularity is the threat of terrorist attacks, a danger brought home by the San Bernardino atrocity earlier this month, which left 14 people dead and 22 injured. But humans are notoriously bad at assessing risks. While 45 Americans have been killed in terrorist attacks on U.S. soil since 9/11 (counting the Fort Hood shooting), far more have been killed since then in automobile accidents and non-terrorist-related gun violence.

Besides, as the brilliant novelist and essayist Marilynne Robinson has written: “Contemporary America is full of fear. (But) fear is not a Christian habit of mind. … Those who forget God can be recognized in the fact that they make irrational responses to irrational fears. … There are always real dangers in the world, sufficient to their day. Fearfulness obscures the distinction between real threat on one hand and on the other the terrors that beset those who see threat everywhere.”

Terror is not everywhere, and its risks would not increase if we were to admit substantially more Syrian refugees. They are subjected to a vetting process that takes up to two years. Anyway, Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik, the married couple who allegedly carried out the San Bernardino attack, had no ties to Syria that authorities have detected.

Meanwhile, millions of Syrians have been displaced by war. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Turkey has taken in 1.9 million, while Iraq, which is still beset by armed conflict, has taken in 250,000. More than 1 million Syrian refugees are in Lebanon, and more than 600,000 are in Jordan.

The far wealthier European nations are still wrangling over the numbers they will accept, but German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been steadfast in her welcoming tone; her country has taken in more than 98,000 Syrians and stands ready to accept as many as 500,000 refugees, including Syrians, per year for several years.

With that in mind, President Obama’s call for the United States to take in at least 10,000 Syrian refugees over the next year seems modest. And while providing sanctuary to some of the planet’s most vulnerable populations may not promote peace on Earth, it is certainly a small gesture of goodwill to all men.

 

By: Cynthia Tucker Haynes, Pulitzer Prize Winner for Commentary in 2007; The National Memo, December 26, 2015

December 27, 2015 Posted by | Bigotry, Fearmongering, Jesus, Syrian Refugees | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“ISIS’ Best Recruiter”: Will Clinton Apologize To Trump? ‘Hell, No’

During Saturday night’s debate, Hillary Clinton raised a familiar concern that has a lot of merit: Donald Trump’s bigoted rhetoric has the effect of helping America’s enemies. We need to make sure, Clinton said at the debate, that Trump’s more hateful rhetoric doesn’t “fall in receptive ears” abroad.

“He is becoming ISIS’s best recruiter,” the Democratic frontrunner added. “They are going to people showing videos of Donald Trump insulting Islam and Muslims in order to recruit more radical jihadists.”

The syntax got a little garbled, but it sounded as if Clinton was saying there are already ISIS videos in circulation featuring Trump’s rhetoric. Since that does not appear to be the case, Trump is demanding an apology.

That’s not going to happen.

A spokesman for Hillary Clinton says “hell, no,” the candidate won’t apologize to Donald Trump for calling him “ISIS’ best recruiter.”

“Hillary Clinton will not be apologizing to Donald Trump for correctly pointing out how his hateful rhetoric only helps ISIS recruit more terrorists,” said spokesman Brian Fallon in a statement.

It’s worth unpacking this a bit, because the entire story helps capture just how odd this year’s presidential race really is.

First, let’s focus on the substance. Trump’s whining notwithstanding, the truth of the matter is Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric is noticed abroad and has been utilized by radicals. Rita Katz, executive director of the SITE Intelligence Group, recently explained to NBC News that Middle Eastern radicals “love” Trump “from the sense that he is supporting their rhetoric. They follow everything Donald Trump says. When he says, ‘No Muslims should be allowed in America,’ they tell people, ‘We told you America hates Muslims and here is proof.’”

Clinton could have worded this better, but her underlying point is sound: Trump is providing rhetorical ammunition to America’s enemies. There’s ample evidence to bolster the argument.

Second, the lack of self-awareness surrounding Trump’s complaints is astounding, even for him. Without a hint of irony, the Republican frontrunner said this afternoon, in reference to Clinton’s debate comments, “There is no video.” Seriously? Wasn’t the reality-based community using the same four words when Trump claimed he saw imaginary video of thousands of American Muslims celebrating 9/11 in New Jersey?

Third, Trump may not realize this, but for a guy who’s preoccupied with “strength” and “toughness,” watching him whine about Hillary Clinton hurting his feelings isn’t exactly consistent with the image he works so hard to project.

Finally, note that the fight itself is exactly the kind of showdown Clinton and her team want to have. It’s to their benefit to treat Trump like the Republican nominee, and offer a preview of the kind of general-election fight they’d love to have – with the Democrat on the offensive, and the Republican waiting for an apology that will never arrive.

 

By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, December 22, 201

December 23, 2015 Posted by | Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, ISIS, Radicalization | , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Its Not Just About Bombing ISIS”: Organizing Global Action Related To Financing Of Terrorism

I’ve written previously about the strategy behind President Obama’s containment policy with regards to ISIS.

Its [U.S.] containment policy, Watts explained, is designed to wall ISIS into increasingly restricted territory and letting it fail due to its own mismanagement, economic problems, and internal discord, rather than because of the actions of a foreign oppressor.

If you want to establish an Islamic caliphate in the Middle East and engage in an apocalyptic battle with the West, you need financial resources to do so. Hence, the United States has been pursuing a financial as well as military containment policy.

But those efforts won’t succeed unless the countries of the world join us in both abandoning any financial transactions with ISIS and policing private entities within their own borders who might attempt to do so. That’s why, as U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power wrote, last week Treasury Secretary Jack Lew took on the role of foreign diplomat.

…to defeat these terrorist groups — as we must and will do — the United Nations must reach beyond the expertise of foreign ministries, and our traditional means of countering State aggression.

Instead, we must look to the policymakers who are developing innovative tactics to fight these groups, from strengthening border security and countering violent extremism in communities to choking off various sources of ISIL’s financing.

On Thursday, Secretary Lew is chairing the first-ever meeting of U.N. Security Council finance ministers to intensify international efforts on combating terrorist financing. We recognize that if we want to cut off ISIL’s access to the international financial system and prevent it from raising, transferring and using funds, we need other countries on board.

That is an innovative approach to how the U.N. might function in a world of asymmetrical threats. The idea that it is not simply a place for foreign ministers to discuss state-on-state military matters, but is also a place to organize global action related to terrorism financing means that it can be a vehicle for strategies that address 21st century challenges.

I am reminded of the approach a lot of Republicans have taken to the United Nations – from former Ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton’s casual reference to “losing 10 stories” of their building in NYC to continuous efforts by Congressional Republicans to defund it.

What we have seen from the Obama administration is a strengthening of the United Nations (and other coalitions like NATO) as a way to establish the kinds of partnerships that are necessary to accomplish everything from a global climate accord to a plan to end the Syrian civil war to cutting off the flow of financial resources to ISIS.

 

By: Nancy LeTourneau, Political Animal Blog, The Washington Monthly, December 21, 2015

December 22, 2015 Posted by | ISIS, Republicans, Terrorism | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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