It’s a feature, not a bug

November 14, 2013 – 3:48 pm by John

Many injustices committed by the State make more sense when you consider the possibility that the real goal of government—as championed or at least sanctioned by the majority of the populace and as carried out by State officials—is to wield power over others. Power usually for some (however vaguely stated) goal, but sometimes for no discernible purpose whatsoever. It is probably true that a given person's desire to wield power over others, the strength and severity of such power that that person will support, and that person's concern for the consequences of this power-wielding are strongly influenced by how different those "others" are perceived as being.

Most people (seem to) consider drug users, drug dealers, and others convicted of drug-related charges as violent miscreants who deserve their sentences and who make our cities safer by being locked up. Importantly, most people don't personally know anyone railroaded by the criminal justice [sic] system and its War on Drugs, and they seem to consider those people not victims of the State but rather some kind of boorish, uncivilized perpetual delinquents who are not part of our civil society, who don't deserve any benefit of the doubt, who don't deserve any mercy or even lighter sentences, who must have done something or other that was worthy of a prison sentence because they're those types of people.

While many seem to be coming around on the decriminalization of marijuana, most Americans still strongly support the criminalization of harder drugs such as cocaine, crystal meth, and heroin. When you hear about the crimes the State commits against nonviolent people in its enforcement of said criminalization, you start to realize that most Americans are awful, despicable people. And they have put in power exactly the type of government they want. Oh, I grant you, no one ever seems to be satisfied with the particular policies and functional details of any state or federal government at any time, but the broad strokes reflect the desires of the American populace perfectly.

Nicholas Kristof writes,

So you’re a judge, and Sharanda P. Jones comes before you for sentencing for conspiracy to distribute crack cocaine.

She’s a 32-year-old mom with a 9-year-old daughter and no prior arrests, but she has been caught up in a drug sweep that has led to 105 arrests in her Texas town. Everyone arrested is black.

There are no drugs found on Jones, but her supposed co-conspirators testify against her in exchange for reduced sentences. The whole case is dubious, but she has been convicted. What’s your sentence?

You have little choice. Given the presumptions of the case, she gets a mandatory minimum sentence of life without the possibility of parole. Jump to today and already Jones has spent 14 years in prison and is expected to die behind bars — for a first offense.
Ricky Minor, a meth addict and father of three, was found with 1.2 grams of meth in his home, along with over-the-counter decongestants that can be used to manufacture meth. He was initially charged under Florida law and says he faced a two-and-a-half-year sentence. Later indicted under federal law, he pleaded guilty because his public defender said that otherwise the prosecutors would also pursue his wife, leaving no one to raise their children. Minor had several prior nonviolent offenses, for which he had never served time, and these required Judge Clyde Roger Vinson to sentence him to life without parole. Judge Vinson said that the sentence “far exceeds whatever punishment would be appropriate.”

Danielle Metz became pregnant at 17 and later married an abusive man who was also a drug dealer. To placate him, she says, she sometimes helped him by fetching cocaine or collecting money from Western Union. After one clash in which he punched her in the face, she took the kids and left him. Two months later, she was indicted. She says that she was prosecuted primarily to induce her to testify against her husband, but that she wasn’t knowledgeable enough to have useful information to trade for a reduced sentence. She has now spent more than 20 years in prison.

Those examples come from a devastating new report, "A Living Death," by the American Civil Liberties Union. It identified more than 3,200 such nonviolent offenders sentenced to die behind bars.

Four out of five are black or Hispanic. Virtually all are poor. Many had dismal legal counsel. Some were convicted of crimes committed when they were juveniles or very young adults.

These people are victims of America’s disastrous experiment in mass incarceration. From the 1930s through the early 1970s, we incarcerated people at a steady rate. Since then, incarceration rates have roughly quintupled. America now imprisons people at more than five times the rates of most Western countries.

Large-scale atrocities like the War on Drugs make more sense when you consider that wielding power over others and controlling their lives to the greatest practical extent are the primary goals of politics and government as most Americans see them, and nice-sounding goals like keeping our children safe, ensuring everyone is treated equally under the law, and protecting our lives, liberty, and property are only secondary, post hoc justifications for the primary goal.

Bookmark and Share

Maybe Austrian economics is more mathematical than people think

November 9, 2013 – 2:21 pm by John

I don't mean quantitatively, with equations and graphs and models, but more philosophically and methodically.

At the mathematics blag The Aperiodical, I found this post about the central difference between math and science:

Up to a point, it might seem reasonable to explore an issue by finding a bunch of examples and extrapolating a general rule that your examples seem to obey. I realise there’s a little more to it than that, but this is basically what science does. This process is called inductive reasoning, because a general theory is ‘induced’ from the ground up.

Mathematics, on the other hand, follows a deductive process. A set of basic ideas are assumed (we call these axioms), and a series of propositions are ‘deduced’ from these via proof. Of course, in reality there are mathematicians on the applied side who are effectively doing science, but at its heart, mathematics is a process of deductive reasoning.

So science induces from evidence, while mathematics deduces from assumed truths. This is why a mathematical truth (a true statement within a constrained system) remains true throughout time, while scientific truth (an idea based on a lot of evidence) can be overturned by new observations.

Ludwig von Mises's philosophy of praxeology is also deductive, as it proceeds from the action axiom and draws conclusions about human nature, action, time preference, and decision-making that must always be true.

Praxeology starts from the undeniable axiom that human beings exist and act, and then logically deduces implications of this fact. These deduced propositions are true a priori; there is no need to test them in the way that a physicist might test a proposed "law" of Nature. So long as a praxeological statement has been derived correctly, it must necessarily contain as much truth as the original axioms.

Mathematics is a subset of logic whose true substance is not directly quantitative or computational, but rather logical and theoretical, which can be applied to make quantitative computations in specific situations. Praxeology is also a subset of logic, and its deductive, a priori nature makes praxeological economics, popularly called Austrian economics (after Mises and his forebear Carl Menger) much more closely related to pure mathematics than Austrian economists and their detractors seem to realize.

Bookmark and Share

On stereotyping and skepticism in the Maryville, Missouri, rape cases

October 17, 2013 – 1:20 pm by John

Dan Wetzel of Yahoo Sports wrote an excellent article about the emotions and passions that have erupted in response to the "Nightmare in Maryville". One of Wetzel's main points is that we shouldn't let our emotions get carried away and lead us to incorrect conclusions and rash judgments, such as the conclusion that Nodaway County prosecutor Robert Rice dropped the charges against two boys because of who their families are—specifically, Matthew Barnett, whose grandfather was a longtime politician from Maryville. Reading his article, I felt like he could have been talking about me, as well as thousands of other concerned citizens and amateur blaggers, many of whom tend to take an issue—or one small aspect of an issue—and run with it, drawing conclusions and leveling condemnations according to their pre-established worldviews.

I think I do that a lot less than I used to, because I have made a conscious effort to sound less like an amateur basement-dweller shouting from his blagging chair and more like someone who is worth reading or at least not dismissing outright. The main three ways in which I try to achieve this are backing up all my fact-based claims with sources (links), backing up most of my opinions and conclusions with fact or sound logic (such as economic theory), and making concessions where they are due (instead of glossing over points that might detract from my argument or trying to explain them away somehow). I don't know where my previous post about the Nightmare in Maryville falls on the spectrum between amateur outrage-blagging and thoughtful, journalistic consideration (which, lamentably, often amounts to drawing no conclusions and taking no side at all), but I'm pretty sure it's not too close to either end.

In that vein, I wanted to respond to the aforementioned point of Wetzel's, specifically this passage from his article:

The obvious and first reaction here is one of anger. A young girl taken advantage of, raped, discarded in the frost grass by callous older boys, who because of their athletic ability and family connections are protected by the powers that be in this small backward town.

That may be a true version, although to make that immediate conclusion is to engage in stereotyping. It is to assume that in Maryville no one cares about sexual assault or young girls. It is to conclude that judgments have been blinded by loyalty to a local powerhouse high school football team. It is to presume the possibility of some political muscle – Barnett's grandfather is a former state representative –– trying to make this go away and a prosecutor bending to it.

Those are huge leaps to make here. At least at this point with what is currently known.

He is slightly off base here. It is technically stereotyping to assume that tribalism, blind loyalty, political power, and good-ol'-boy connections, not to mention backwardness and barbarism, are what led to some townspeople's reactions and to prosecutor Robert Rice dropping the charges against rapist Matthew Barnett and iPhone recorder Jordan Zech. But the good thing about stereotypes is that they're usually true. Especially about the government and other powerful, well-connected people. (Also, I don't know how Wetzel could conclude that our condemnation of some townspeople's reactions was off base; why else would they be sticking up for obviously horrible people and blaming the victims? How is it stereotyping if we only condemn the ones who are worthy of condemnation? I haven't read any column or blag post that condemns the entire town of Maryville, only the despicable people.)

Anyway, the assumption that Robert Rice is a corrupt crony who would rather commit the crime of dropping a case for what amounts to personal reasons than, y'know, do his job, is backed by a long, detailed history of such cronyism in the United States and across the world. Sometimes prosecutors, judges, juries, and the law enforcement/judicial system in general do their job right. Take the conviction of Kwame Kilpatrick and the conviction of Steubenville, Ohio, rapists Trent Mays and Ma'lik Richmond. But only part of the law enforcement/judicial system seems to have done its job right in the Maryville rape cases. This is not some wild, unsubstantiated assumption based on my desire to find fault in every government employee and my instinctual desire to defend the seemingly weak against the seemingly strong. It is based on Maryville Sheriff Darren White's certainty that two rapes, in addition to other crimes, had occurred and that the ample evidence pointed entirely to that conclusion. It is also based on the already-realized conviction of the 15-year-old rapist of the 13-year-old girl. What did he do that was so much worse than Matthew Barnett? (Was it based entirely on age?)

So it is not just anger and passion that lead people to conclude that something is amiss in the Nodaway County judicial system. It is the evidence, as presented by Sheriff White, the two girls, their families, and—oh, by the way—Matthew Barnett and Jordan Zech themselves, who admitted to everything they had done but claimed the rape was consensual.

A key point is that prosecutor Rice dropped all charges against Barnett and Zech, not just the rape charge, which depends on whether the sex was consensual, i.e., whether the girl was coherent and capable of consent at that point. Everything I've read indicates that no other facts of the case are in dispute, even by the rapists and their conspirators. Why would the slam-dunk charges (the iPhone recording and leaving the girl in sub-freezing weather) be dropped? It isn't a problem of evidence, testimony, or any other legal/procedural snag. Therefore, it is not a "huge leap" to conclude cronyism and ethical violations.

Another, minor point of Wetzel's that I dispute is that we Rice-bashers assume that Barnett's grandfather must have contacted Rice and urged him to drop the charges. Both Rice and the former politician deny that, and they might be telling the truth. My point is that a specific urging or communication needn't have taken place regarding this particular case or under any other circumstances, at any time. Rice might just want to protect a politically powerful family and another longstanding, popular Maryville family, because that's the way things are done or that's the way he wants to do them in this case. He might just be operating the only way he knows how: to protect the powerful and well connected at the expense of the weak and not well connected. That was half the point of my first post about this case.

Finally, regarding Wetzel's overall point that we shouldn't rush to judgment or jump to conclusions: It is rarely wrong to take a default stance against the government. It is rarely unwise to make a default assumption of corruption, cronyism, or incompetence in government employees and government offices. As I wrote recently about the NSA, it has repeatedly, invariably proven incorrect and unwise to assume the NSA always follows the law, doesn't violate people's privacy, doesn't violate the Constitution, does nothing harmful or unjust with its data, only collects a limited amount or a limited type of data, only focuses its vast efforts on legitimate counterterrorism, and is honest and forthright with Congress and the American people. Many civil libertarians and other fans of Greenwald and Gellman assumed the worst about the NSA early on in their Snowden leak publication process, before a lot of facts were made known. It turns out we were right to assume the NSA was far worse than we knew. Taking this type of default position about the Steubenville case would have been wrong, but the Maryville case is different and I think we're right. If we ever learn the whole truth, I think our assumptions will be vindicated.

So it is not a "huge leap" to assume the prosecutor dropped the charges because of cronyism. In this case, given the evidence published by the Kansas City Star, the quotes from Sheriff White, the dropping of all charges and not just the rape charge, and the testimony of the girls, their mothers, and the boys themselves (not to mention the conviction of the 15-year-old rapist!), it is a huge leap to take Robert Rice at his word and assume he was acting ethically and within the law. Giving that benefit of the doubt to Robert Rice or any other person in power is the wrong default position to take. You might retort that no one should have any "default" position but rather should consider each situation separately based on the facts. That's wise too, but note that being skeptical of all sides and making no assumptions is also a default position, or at least a default strategy. My point is that when the State or any other person(s) in a position of power is involved, the best default position is to assume they have somehow wronged the weaker and less connected party. In addition to being correct the vast majority of the time, this default assumption reinforces a distrust of government power and often leads to the discovery of more and deeper problems than the initial facts indicated, both of which are good and necessary to a healthy, free society.

Bookmark and Share

Oh, but in a libertarian society, the privileged, powerful, and connected would trample the rights of innocents without consequence

October 15, 2013 – 4:02 pm by John

If you haven't heard about the "Nightmare in Maryville, Missouri", you might want to make sure you read about it on an empty stomach, because it will probably make you physically sick. In brief, a 14-year-old girl and a 13-year-old girl were raped by popular older boys, one of whom, Matthew Barnett, is the son of a popular politician from the town and the other also from a well-liked, longstanding family in that town. The 14-year-old was drunk, which was partially the fault of the boys, and after being raped was left on her front lawn in sub-freezing weather (January). The Mayrville sheriff's department said they collected ample evidence, all of it pointing towards rape and endangerment of minors, and that it seemed like an open-and-shut case. But since the families of the accused, or at least one of them, are powerful and well connected, the prosecutor naturally dropped all charges against the boys*, even the charges stemming from the recording of sex acts on an iPhone and leaving the girl in sub-freezing weather, neither of which anyone disputes. Also naturally, half of the town taunted, bullied, harassed, ostracized, and blamed the victims, which I am constitutionally incapable of understanding.

[*Correction: I hear from this Dan Wetzel article that the boy who raped the 13-year-old girl—the boy who isn't the son of a politician—actually has been charged, convicted, and punished by the juvenile judicial system. I guess his family isn't powerful and connected enough. A third boy, Jordan Zech, the 17-year-old who recorded the rape on an iPhone and who participated in dropping the 14-year-old off on the lawn, was the second boy whose charges were dropped.]

One thing that can't be denied about this horrible case is that a lot of the town's disgusting reaction stems from the fact that Maryville is a small-ish, rural, close-knit community consisting mostly of families that have lived in the same town and known all the other families for generations, which (according to the Kansas City Star article) has resulted in a very tribal, outsider-distrusting, protect-their-own mentality, which I'm not sure can be diminished by any political change. (The family of the 14-year-old had recently moved to Maryville from 40 miles away.) But that mentality wouldn't explain a lot of other victim-blaming that occurs in cases that you hear about all the time around the internet. I have no explanation for that phenomenon in general. People suck, I guess?

But another thing that also can't be denied is that the very trait that Statists claim as the greatest advantage of monopolistic government is exactly what allows crimes like these to go unpunished: the girls and their families have no other recourse for justice. Their one and only option, the county court system, has decided to protect its good ol' boy network instead of fulfilling its moral and legal obligations, so now there is nothing else they can do within the law.

This clearly makes the prosecuting attorney compliant in those boys' crimes and therefore a criminal deserving of prosecution himself. This is an important point: Whatever advantage might be gained by granting the State a monopoly on criminal justice, the result is that there is no other authority to which citizens can turn when the State wrongs them. The State can't possibly be expected to treat accusations and cases against itself impartially, and we see in this instance that it can't or won't consider these families' concerns about the prosecutor at all. There is no possibility of a case being brought against the prosecutor or his office or the county—not realistically. The families of those girls can't sue the prosecuting attorney or the county or the district attorney's office or the state of Missouri for the crimes of the county, or at least that one attorney. There is a 0% chance that the prosecutor will be subject to any discipline, or even an investigation, or even a meeting, or even an email or phone call, for his cover-up of these privileged, connected boys' crimes. He belongs in prison, right next to those sociopathic scumbags, in the general population of the state penitentiary. Instead, they will likely go the rest of their lives without suffering very seriously for any of their other crimes, of which there are sure to be many.

These are direct, predictable, and all-too-common consequences of monopolistic government: the powerful and well connected trample the rights of the weak because the weak have no recourse other than the very State that is the source of the power and connections of their aggressors.

I can identify at least one other lesson about the powerful and privileged that is reinforced by this story: People in power are so used to serving that power, are so used to being completely brazen about their daily business of keeping wealth and power in the hands of the powerful few and out of the hands of the weak, dispersed masses, that they don't even see anything wrong with it, and even if they did, they wouldn't know how to conduct their business differently anyway. This complete obliviousness (or shamelessness) led the prosecutor to say, with a straight face, such things as, “There wasn’t any prosecuting attorney that could take that case to trial. It had to be dismissed.” And to call it a case of “incorrigible teenagers” drinking alcohol and having sex. And to say, “They were doing what they wanted to do, and there weren’t any consequences. And it’s reprehensible. But is it criminal? No.”

We see this obliviousness (or shamelessness) all the time in the financial sector, from the Federal Reserve and Treasury Department to Wall Street banks: Despite all the fraud and other crimes committed by billionaire CEOs, mortgage lenders, and investment banks, and despite all the wealth they have destroyed or transferred from average Americans to themselves, and despite all the outrage directed at them from average Americans, and despite politicians' claims that they'll clean up Wall Street and punish white-collar criminals, little has changed and they're richer than ever. The same is true of the National Security Agency and all of its crimes and lies: they continue to spout "9/11!" and change nothing. The same is true of the revolving door between government and lobbying and "consulting" jobs. The same is true of the War on Drugs and its murder of innocents, including pets.

The power elite in every society and in every era focus their daily lives on empowering and enriching the already powerful and rich, and they are so used to doing so that they can't even change tactics in rare, high-profile, particularly egregious situations when every sensible person sees right through them.

Bookmark and Share

Charles Pierce puts Dianne Feinstein in her place

September 22, 2013 – 3:11 pm by John

In response to the Senate Judiciary Committee's bill that purports to define what a journalist is, journalist Charles P. Pierce responds with the appropriate amount of fury:

Hey, Dianne, here's the thing on that First Amendment business. I get to define what you do for a living. And if I decide to define what you do for a living is to be a mewling apologist for the national-security community and a lapdog for the surveillance state, I get to do that, and I get to do it in a newspaper, or video, or on-line, or on a pamphlet stapled to a telephone pole outside your door, if I so choose. You get to sit there, collect your government salary, raise money from plutocrats, and shut...the...hell...up.

Which part of "Congress shall make no law..." do you not understand?

...if we accepted a shield law, then we also would have to accept government's right to define who it would be that the shield law covered, which meant we had to accept the government's right essentially to define what a journalist was....

In response to this passage of the L.A. Times story linked above...

The final hurdle for the Judiciary Committee was defining who is a journalist in the digital era.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) insisted on limiting the legal protection to "real reporters" and not, she said, a 17-year-old with his own website.

"I can't support it if everyone who has a blog has a special privilege … or if Edward Snowden were to sit down and write this stuff, he would have a privilege. I'm not going to go there," she said.

Feinstein introduced an amendment that defines a "covered journalist" as someone who gathers and reports news for "an entity or service that disseminates news and information." The definition includes freelancers, part-timers and student journalists, and it permits a judge to go further and extend the protections to any "legitimate news-gathering activities."

But the bill also makes it clear that the legal protection is not absolute. Federal officials still may "compel disclosure" from a journalist who has information that could stop or prevent crimes such as murder, kidnapping or child abduction or prevent "acts of terrorism" or significant harm to national security.

...Pierce says,

And out comes the kitty, screeching from the burlap. This isn't a law to protect journalists. If it were, that list of loopholes at the end wouldn't be quite so lengthy -- or quite so vague. (You can drive a team of ploughhorses through "information that could stop or prevent crimes such as...") This is a law to protect secrets. This is a law that redefines the exercise of a constitutional right as a privilege "protected" by the government. This is a law that allows the government to define what "the press" is under the First Amendment, and, my god, if that's not the primary consitutional heresy in that regard, I don't know what is. And I don't care that a judge can "extend" that privilege. That's not a judge's job, either.

... But there is nothing about the technology -- or about the effects that technology has had on the profession -- that requires us to abandon the fundamental requirement that journalism always -- and let us speak slowly, lest the gobshites misundertand us, a-l-w-a-y-s, is a profession outside of, and adversarial to, government, politics, and, yes, indeed, even the doings of the all-to-human, error-prone heroes of our intelligence apparatus. Nothing about the internet changes that.

It has been argued -- and, occasionally, by me -- that the worst thing that ever happened to journalism was that it became the professionalized province of the educated. ... There are far too many people right now in Washington who are far too comfortable in being a de facto part of the country's power structure. Their profession is not mine. Let me be quite clear. If you accept the Congress's right to define what a journalist is, you are a miserable traitor to the profession you presume to practice. You have, quite simply, become something less worthy than an informer, something lower than a jailhouse snitch.

Isn't it just typical that politicians would dress up a bill that takes away citizens' rights—and, make no mistake, was designed to take away rights—as a bill that "protects" people and their rights? Look at the headline of that L.A. Times article: "Bill to protect journalists clears Senate panel". Look at some of the sentences from the article:

Journalists and bloggers who report news to the public will be protected from being forced to testify about their work under a media shield bill passed by a Senate committee Thursday.
The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press says the bill, if enacted into law, "goes a long way toward ensuring that reporters will be protected from subpoenas for their confidential information and sources.
President Obama told the Justice Department to develop new guidelines to protect journalists, and he pledged strong support for the media shield bill that was pending in the Senate.
Schumer, however, noted that putting the guidelines into law would prevent the Obama administration and future administrations from overstepping their authority.

Chuck Schumer and Dianne Feinstein are disgraceful, power-hungry creeps who disdain the rights of individuals and the Constitutional limits placed on governments. That's all there is to it. They crave power and control of all kinds. They are repulsed, possibly physically sickened, at the idea of individual citizens living freely, making their own decisions freely, engaging in voluntary associations and transactions freely, publishing their own thoughts freely, without the explicit permission of the State. I am completely convinced that if they had their way (they and many others in government), no human being would be able to do a single thing—take a single action outside of sitting and breathing—that didn't have prior governmental approval and regulation. Well, obviously, no one outside of them and the rest of our wise and gracious overlords.

Finally, note also this telling sentence from the L.A. Times article:

The Senate Judiciary Committee approved the bill on a 13-5 vote and sent it to the Senate floor. Its sponsors are optimistic it will win passage there, but its fate remains in doubt in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.

Everyone who is even a slightly civil-libertarian liberal/progressive/Democrat supporter should let that statement sink in: The majority-Democrat Senate and its majority-Democrat Judiciary Committee favor this unconstitutional, civil liberties–ravaging bill, and the Republican-controlled House is likely to defeat it. This is yet another entry in the long, sad chronicle of Democrats don't give a big fat flying fuck about civil liberties, individual rights, or the common man. They disdain the common man and his rights, and always have.

Bookmark and Share

If you boycott Forever 21, you’re probably a hypocritical moron

August 16, 2013 – 3:38 pm by John

Via Facebook I hear about this letter that the U.S. clothing store Forever 21 sent to many of its employees, telling them they will be cut from full-time to part-time to avoid incurring the costs of medical and dental insurance mandated by the looming Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. Obamacare.

Forever 21 letter

One or two of my Facebook friends shared this photo, from the Facebook page of some outfit called "U.S. Uncut". I don't know anything about U.S. Uncut and don't care to, but some of the comments to their original posting of this letter are beyond stupid, beyond moronic, and into brain-dead-lump-of-carbon territory: The commenters say they're going to boycott Forever 21 for caring so little about its workers, mistreating them all to pad their bottom line, while not even mentioning or probably even thinking about why Forever 21's executives considered this move beneficial.

They're going to boycott a clothing store for making an employment decision that was basically forced on them by federal legislation. Legislation that these very commenters almost certainly supported and continue to support. Commenters who probably voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012 (or would have if they were old enough) and who will vote straight Democratic in 2016. Who voted and/or will continue to vote for the very politicians who imposed this bloated, corporatist, cronyist monstrosity of a healthcare bill on an entire nation.

Their hypocrisy and their obliviousness to that hypocrisy are staggering. Their stupidity and complete lack of awareness of anything outside their little sphere of adolescent life are mind-numbing.

Bookmark and Share

NSA apologists are proven wrong over and over and over again

August 9, 2013 – 12:43 pm by John

The people who have excused, defended, rationalized, and given the benefit of the doubt to the U.S. government and the NSA since Glenn Greenwald began publishing Edward Snowden's leaks are looking more and more pathetic with every new revelation. If nothing else, this shows that you can rarely go wrong assuming the worst of the State.

When Greenwald first published the court order requiring Verizon to give phone records to the government, the NSA apologists said, "I'm sure there is a good reason, and this isn't permanent, and it was approved by a court, so it isn't unconstitutional."

When the Guardian revealed PRISM, the program that gives NSA access to tech companies' user data, all the NSA apologists could focus on was Greenwald's supposedly inaccurate phrase "direct access" and his supposed agenda in trumping up the accusations to foment outrage at the government.

When the Guardian published the details of NSA's program known as Boundless Informant, the NSA apologists cried, "Oh, it only collects metadata, so no one's privacy or Constitutional rights have really been violated. It's all approved by the FISA Court anyway, so it's not illegal."

When the "only metadata" defense was proven blatantly wrong, the NSA apologists said, "They only record the phone calls believed to have some connection to terrorism, and they don't even listen to all of them anyway. If you are doing nothing wrong, you have nothing to fear."

When the Guardian detailed NSA's warrantless collection of Americans' communication records, the NSA apologists said, "It doesn't need a warrant because it only inadvertently collects the data, and it is only targeting communications with non-U.S. people anyway, and it won't act on any of it unless there is a legitimate connection to terrorism."

When the FISA Court allowed the declassification of a 2011 ruling that found some of NSA's surveillance activities unconstitutional, the NSA apologists said, "See? The system works! They stopped their unconstitutional activities! And I'm sure they will never do anything unconstitutional again! And no, of course the perpetrators shouldn't be held accountable for their crimes. They're protecting us from Terrorism! With a capital T and that rhymes with 'me' and I'm a Statolatrist boob who is constitutionally incapable of thinking for myself or distrusting a government official!"

When civil libertarians around the country accuse Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, NSA Director Keith Alexander, and President Obama of lying directly to Congress and the American people about what NSA does and what it is capable of doing, the NSA apologists cry, "What lies, specifically? Who has lied, what did they lie about, and who did they lie to? What specific statement is materially, factually incorrect or misleading?" They make these bewildering comments despite the abundance of evidence of lie after lie after lie after lie after lie after lie after lie.

When the Guardian publishes further damning evidence of NSA's unconstitutional transgressions in the form of XKeyscore, the NSA apologists say, "Whose rights, specifically, have been violated? What harm has come to anyone because of this?"

Well, besides our right to privacy, which has been violated regardless of how our private information was used by NSA, and besides Edward Snowden, who was unjustly driven from his home, charged under the ludicrous Espionage Act, and harassed while seeking asylum from the predatory U.S. government, it seems that Ladar Levison had to shut down his email service Lavabit to avoid giving its users' private information to the NSA or Department of Justice [sic]. In case it still isn't clear to the dolts who continue to make excuses and rationalizations for the NSA and the Obama administration, I will explain basic human rights to you: Ladar Levison and any other individual and any other company has the right to keep their information, their files, their computers, and their data out of the government's hands because there is no reason to suspect them of any wrongdoing and no reason to suspect that information will reveal anything about a crime committed by one of its users or anyone else. Snowden has done nothing wrong and committed no aggression against any person or group (except, I guess, the U.S. government, which we should all realize by now is a good thing, to be celebrated). The government is the aggressor in this situation and Levison the victim, and he is perfectly within his rights to act in self-defense to protect his private property and the private property of Lavabit's users. He would also be perfectly within his rights to continue running the service and to defend himself, his home, and his business with lethal force when the government came knocking, but he would almost surely lose that fight, along with his freedom and possibly his life. These absolute rights are shared by all of Lavabit's users, which is why Levison was right to stand up for them by refusing the government's demands and shutting down the service.

When Charlie Savage revealed that NSA is searching the contents of nearly all Americans' emails and text messages that cross U.S. borders, the comments defending the practice are so stupid they practically drool. "If that's the cost of saving several thousands of lives, I think it's a pretty small price to pay." "This is a common accepted corporate/business practice...why are we worried about the government doing this to protect us from terrorists?" "Of the billions of emails sent every day, less than .01 percent will ever be reviewed by human eyes. If you are a law-abiding citizen, those eyes are not wasting their time on you."

One of the many problems with such "reasoning" is that governments are by their nature in conflict with their subjects and inevitably seek to grow more powerful and more controlling. The U.S. government has grown more powerful by the year since its inception, especially since about the 1930's. One way they do this is by outlawing more and more things so that it is impossible to live a truly "innocent" life in the eyes of the law. Some lawyers and civil libertarians say that state or federal prosecutors could find reason to prosecute every single American adult for breaking some law, and innocent Americans are pushed into confessing to crimes they didn't commit every day.

Now we know via Reuters that the targets of DEA and IRS criminal investigations may have had their due-process rights violated because the government officials conducting the investigations and the federal prosecutors trying the cases lied about the sources of their information on the accused. They lied about the specific nature of their evidence and the specific sources of their evidence, prompting many defense lawyers to challenge the practice and request access to DEA's hidden evidence. To NSA's credit, it denies most requests from other agencies for its own surveillance data, but it's not a big leap for NSA to start sharing its data to help prosecute Americans for victimless crimes. It is short-sighted to start opposing violations of privacy and due process only after they have resulted in wrongful convictions. How many NSA apologists would have defended this DEA practice and its "Special Operations Division" before they heard about it obstructing the due-process rights of criminal defendants? For god's sake, how many defend it now? Can they even concoct a scenario in which they wouldn't support everything their government did as long as the president's name is followed by the correct letter and he says the words "terrorism" and "9/11" often enough?

There has been no instance in this NSA/Snowden controversy in which it has been wrong to take a default stance against the government. It has never proven rash or overreactive to assume that NSA's activities were at least as bad as each new revelation indicated, if not worse. It has never once proven unwise or inaccurate to believe Glenn Greenwald and Edward Snowden and to assume every word out of every Obama administration official is a lie (keeping in mind that lies of omission, for example keeping secrets about surveillance of American citizens, are still lies).

Those of us who assumed the worst, who believed Snowden and Greenwald when they said the worst was yet to be revealed, have been vindicated time and again. Skepticism of the State and its claims and its intentions has proven the wiser course, as it so often does. Those who gave the benefit of the doubt to the U.S. government and its NSA, who chose to focus their skepticism on Greenwald and Snowden, should be unable to say any more for all the crow they're eating. They should be embarrassed. They are an embarrassment. They're an embarrassment to freedom and individualism, to the civil disobedience and mistrust of power that characterize any healthy society. People like the NSA apologists and the Obama cheerleaders are the main threat to peace and freedom in the world today, far more so than any president or dictator. They are the ones who give tyrants their power. They are the masses who give the illusion of consent to all the violations of our rights that governments perpetrate. I don't see too many of them apologizing or admitting they were wrong on Twitter, Facebook, or the comments sections to the increasingly frightening articles that provide each new revelation. I want to see them publish blag posts, Twitter updates, and opinion columns admitting they were wrong—admitting they should have trusted Glenn Greenwald and not James Clapper or Barack Obama. I want to see them admit their shame at having supported Nancy Pelosi and John Boehner and all the other elected criminals who defeated the Amash amendment. I want to see at least some of them come into the light of civil libertarianism and start calling for actual reductions of State power, not mere Congressional acts to contain it or limit it to less unconstitutional means.

Bookmark and Share

Whose rights, specifically, have been violated by NSA?

August 6, 2013 – 4:53 pm by John

That is a question I've encountered more often than I expected in the social-mediasphere and in the comments to articles written by Glenn Greenwald and others. These skeptics say: Is the National Security Agency's surveillance really excessive or over-reaching if it hasn't actually been used to violate anyone's rights or perform any extralegal activities? Does it collect anything beyond metadata of American citizens without a court order or without suspicion of terrorism-related activities? No matter what it collects, how much it collects, and about whom, is there any proof that NSA or another government agency has used any of this data to violate any rights of any American citizen?

The answer to all of these is Yes, for the following reasons.

1. We have a reasonable expectation of privacy. There is no practical, technical, legal, or other reason we should expect our phone conversations, phone metadata, text messages, private emails, internet browsing history, or any other private activities to be accessible by any employee of any government agency or private company. If anyone wants their private activities to remain private, for any reason, including merely sticking it to the government, then they have that absolute right, period. It is irrelevant whether NSA or any other branch of the federal government or any law enforcement agency has used anyone's phone/internet data to violate any other rights; their right to privacy was violated, against their knowledge and without their permission. This has indisputably happened to millions of American citizens who are not suspected of crimes, who are not guilty of any crimes, who are not connected to any terrorist group, and who are not the subject of any (legitimate) warrant.

For a good summary of the privacy violations committed on a massive scale and on a daily basis by NSA, see this FAQ by ProPublica.

2. As summarized in that FAQ, NSA records several types of activities beyond mere phone metadata: emails, Facebook posts, and instant messages; extensive details of our internet activity; and the complete audio content of an unknown number of phone calls. Regardless of the FISA Court's rubber-stamp approval process, the NSA seems to have collected data and records beyond mere metadata—data and records of people not suspected of any criminal or terrorist activity—which violates our privacy and violates the legal guarantee, specified in the Fourth Amendment, that such invasions are prohibited without a specific, individual warrant (as opposed to a broad warrant that says "we want to collect a ton of information and see if we can find any terrorists").

3. The fact that anyone wants all of this data about hundreds of millions of people is proof that they shouldn't have it. The type of person who wants access to NSA-type data is the type of person who is least fit to have it, because that's the type of person who will use it for oppressive, tyrannical purposes. This assertion is backed up by the record of every powerful government in the history of the world. General Keith Alexander, Director of the NSA, is a perfect example of this type of person. The end-goal of establishing an infrastructure like what the NSA has built and continues to build is to spy on and control every citizen it possibly can—to create a super surveillance state in which everyone is considered a suspect and in which we have no recourse when our privacy is violated and our lives are intruded upon. This is the type of state in which people are considered guilty until proven innocent, in which strident defenders of the police state rationalize all of its depredations, and in which crimes are concocted in order to justify the continuous expansion of government powers and put more people behind bars.

4. We have both a legal and a moral right for the law to apply equally to all people at all times, but powerful government officials are clearly exempt from many laws. For instance, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper should be tried, convicted, and imprisoned for lying to Congress. He could also plausibly be prosecuted for obstruction of justice. Not only will that never happen, he hasn't even lost his job or suffered anything approaching a reprimand. In all likelihood, he will retire from government service in a few months or years and get a high-paying private consulting job. Many ordinary Americans are railroaded every year by the justice system for far lesser crimes than perjury, often completely victimless crimes. James Clapper is an admitted perjurer who will never, ever suffer for it in the least bit. This is wrong, and his defenders are wrong to enable the existence of separate standards of justice for the weak vs. the powerful.

5. We have a legal and a moral right for government officials to be completely truthful to us and to keep no secrets. The Obama administration has lied about NSA's spying programs repeatedly (see here and here and here and here and here). The government is supposed to serve the people, and this requires it to be subservient. Any government that keeps secrets from the public is not subservient but rather is accumulating excessive power and doing things it shouldn't be doing. If the government has done nothing wrong, then why does it want to keep secrets from us?

It should be noted that the State is a far, far greater threat to human liberty, safety, and prosperity across the world than all terrorist groups and (private) criminal rings put together. The main reason the U.S. government, military, and citizenry face any threat of terrorist attacks is because our government is so intrusive and aggressive throughout the world, stirring up hatred and resentment and creating more terrorists than it could possibly catch or kill. Therefore, whatever secrets the State's cheerleaders claim it needs to keep, it doesn't. Being powerful, secretive, and above the law are the primary problems with all governments, so a diminution of government that included abolishing all secret surveillance programs would simultaneously eliminate most of the motivation for terrorist attacks and end the intrusive, unconstitutional surveillance of innocent people.

6. Maybe if the Obama administration and NSA would actually divulge all of the information that we have a right to, and stop lying and sidestepping and hedging and evading and re-defining words, we would become aware of more egregious activities than we already are. You could argue that governments have an interest in keeping some secrets for national-security purposes, but any person who claims the United States government has a legitimate national-security interest in more than a small portion of the data that NSA has collected on American citizens has their head in the sand and cannot be reached by facts or logic.

7. To conclude with the question posed in this post's title, yes, there is at least one identifiable American citizen whose rights have been violated by the United States government in connection with NSA's activities: Edward Snowden.

In leaking the documents about NSA programs to Glenn Greenwald, Barton Gellman, and others, Edward Snowden surely committed illegal acts, but he has done nothing wrong. He did nothing that was any more wrong than Bradley Manning did, yet he knows from Manning's example and from Obama's war on whistleblowers that he would never again be a free man if he remained on U.S. soil. The very nature of the powerful, punishing U.S. government has prevented Edward Snowden from remaining in his home country with his family and friends. The Obama administration has pursued and prevented him from settling peacefully into his lifelong exile. If he did come home, his life and liberty would be forever forfeit to the police state that necessitated his fleeing in the first place.

What was wrong and should have been illegal was for the government to implement any of these controversial programs to begin with, and it continues in its wrongdoing by failing to divulge every detail of them, at least as they pertain to American citizens. Edward Snowden has righted some of these wrongs by making them public knowledge, so he should be celebrated as a whistleblowing hero and lauded as a champion of civil liberties and limited, transparent government. He and Bradley Manning should share the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize.

It is irrelevant whether Edward Snowden violated any laws in blowing the whistle on NSA. Illegal does not mean immoral, and we should all know that the law often has little to do with right and wrong. He is the one who has been wronged by being driven from his home and pursued for extradition for actions that were not wrong but rather were noble and good.

Bookmark and Share

Two great links about the George Zimmerman verdict

July 17, 2013 – 10:24 pm by John

Amazingly, I'm only two days behind in reading and posting links to these excellently written and insightful columns. My post from earlier today was originally going to be two or three paragraphs of commentary followed by quotes from these two columns, but I got a little carried away. Ken White of and William Saletan of said everything better than I could have, obviously.

I particularly liked these passages from White, though obviously the whole thing is worth reading (it's not long):

First, experience has taught me not to trust the news media, and therefore not to form confident opinions about the merits of a case based on what the media chooses to emphasize. The media in the Zimmerman case has been deceitful and sloppy. This is not a surprise. The media is good at advancing its chosen themes and bad at reporting accurately about complex legal proceedings like a criminal trial. The media rushes to judgment when a suspect or defendant "looks guilty," ignores or minimizes police and prosecutorial misconduct in order to preserve its relationships with sources (or does so because it has, despite its reputation for liberal bias, uncritically accepted law enforcement narratives and is content to act like the state's cheerleaders), obsesses over tawdry minutiae to the exclusion of substance, and remains lazy and/or defiantly ignorant and wrong about law. I have prosecuted and defended numerous cases that were covered by the media; I have never seen them get all of the details right, even on relatively straightforward matters.

Second, I've been a criminal defense attorney for 13 years now, and it's changed the way I view trials. They aren't (or at least should not be) a vehicle for society's judgment. That's the view the prosecution often hopes to promote, in order to convince jurors to vote their fears and anxieties about crime, which they are told relentlessly (and falsely) is out of control. No: a trial is an attempt by the state to exercise power over an individual, limited by the requirements of the Constitution and the rules of evidence and criminal procedure. The question at hand is can the government offer admissible evidence proving this person guilty of this crime beyond a reasonable doubt to a panel of jurors. When judges and jurors take their job seriously, it acts as an effective bulwark between the incredible power of the state and the freedom of the individual.

Third, the more I observe American culture, the less enthused I am at the notion that a jury's verdict in a criminal case is wrong if it doesn't reflect the collective beliefs of our society. Too often the collective belief of society is that people accused of something probably did it. Too often the collective belief of society is that a properly functioning justice system is one that produces a conviction. Too often the collective belief of our society is that the state, and law enforcement, are entitled to trust — not trust but verify, but uncritical trust, at least when the government actors wear a badge and carry a gun. Too often the collective belief of our society is that how we feel about a thing is entitled to legal force, even in the face of specific rights and privileges of another citizen.
People assail results like the acquittal of George Zimmerman. But critics don't tell us what the alternative should be. Shall guilt or innocence be determined by society's reaction to the vapid summaries of prosecutions on cable news? Clearly not. Should verdicts necessarily reflect social consensus of the time about the crime and the accused? Tell that to the Scottsboro boys — theirs did. Should we make it easier to convict people of crimes in order to reduce injustice against the weak? How foolish. The weak already suffer because it is too easy to convict — because we love to pass criminal laws, but hate to pay for an adequate defense. Thanks to "law and order" and the War on Drugs and our puerile willingness to be terrified by politicians and the media, one-sixth of African-American men like Trayvon Martin have been in prison, trending towards one-third. The notion that we can improve their status in America by making it easier to convict people and by undermining the concept of a vigorous defense is criminally stupid. The assertion that an acquittal is wrong and unjust might, in some cases, be true, in the sense that some juries will vote their ignorance or racism or indifference. But the assertion that an acquittal is by its nature unjust because of how we feel about the case serves the state — the state that incarcerates 25% of the world's prisoners.
It's tragic that Trayvon Martin was killed, and I believe that George Zimmerman bears moral responsibility for his death. The banners of racism that have unfurled in defense of Zimmerman repulse me. I would be damn worried about my kids if I lived in George Zimmeran's neighborhood. But ultimately I am more afraid of the state — and more afraid of a society that thinks case outcomes should depend upon collective social judgment — than I am of the George Zimmermans of the world. Critics might say that view reflects privilege, in that as an affluent white guy I am far less likely to be shot by someone like Zimmerman. Perhaps. But I am also vastly less likely to be jailed, or be the target of law enforcement abuse tolerated by social consensus. Weakening the rights of the accused — clamoring for the conviction of those we feel should be convicted — is a damnfool way to help the oppressed.

If you care at all about the George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin case, chances are you've at least come across the link to Saletan's Slate piece if not already read it. There are many good parts:

Trayvon Martin is dead, George Zimmerman has been acquitted, and millions of people are outraged. Some politicians are demanding a second prosecution of Zimmerman, this time for hate crimes. Others are blaming the tragedy on “Stand Your Ground” laws, which they insist must be repealed. Many who saw the case as proof of racism in the criminal justice system see the verdict as further confirmation. Everywhere you look, people feel vindicated in their bitter assumptions. They want action.

But that’s how Martin ended up dead. It’s how Zimmerman ended up with a bulletproof vest he might have to wear for the rest of his life. It’s how activists and the media embarrassed themselves with bogus reports. The problem at the core of this case wasn’t race or guns. The problem was assumption, misperception, and overreaction. And that cycle hasn’t ended with the verdict. It has escalated.
The initial portrait of Zimmerman as a racist wasn’t just exaggerated. It was completely unsubstantiated. It’s a case study in how the same kind of bias that causes racism can cause unwarranted allegations of racism. Some of the people Zimmerman had reported as suspicious were black men, so he was a racist. Members of his family seemed racist, so he was a racist. Everybody knew he was a racist, so his recorded words were misheard as racial slurs, proving again that he was a racist.

...the wounds, blood evidence, and DNA didn’t match Zimmerman’s story of being thoroughly restrained and pummeled throughout the fight. But the evidence didn’t fit the portrait of Martin as a sweet-tempered child, either. And the notion that Zimmerman hunted down Martin to accost him made no sense. Zimmerman knew the police were on the way. They arrived only a minute or so after the gunshot. The fight happened in a public area surrounded by townhouses at close range. It was hardly the place or time to start shooting.

That doesn’t make Zimmerman a hero. It just makes him a reckless fool instead of a murderer. In a post-verdict press conference, his lawyer, Mark O’Mara, claimed that “the evidence supported that George Zimmerman did nothing wrong,” that “the jury decided that he acted properly in self-defense,” and that Zimmerman “was never guilty of anything except protecting himself in self-defense. I’m glad that the jury saw it that way.” That’s complete BS. The only thing the jury decided was that there was reasonable doubt as to whether Zimmerman had committed second-degree murder or manslaughter.

Zimmerman is guilty, morally if not legally, of precipitating the confrontation that led to Martin’s death. He did many things wrong. Mistake No. 1 was inferring that Martin was a burglar. In his 911 call, Zimmerman cited Martin’s behavior. “It’s raining, and he’s just walking around” looking at houses, Zimmerman said. He warned the dispatcher, “He’s got his hand in his waistband.” He described Martin’s race and clothing only after the dispatcher asked about them. Whatever its basis, the inference was false.

Mistake No. 2 was pursuing Martin on foot. Zimmerman had already done what the neighborhood watch rules advised: He had called the police. They would have arrived, questioned Martin, and ascertained that he was innocent. Instead, Zimmerman, packing a concealed firearm, got out and started walking after Martin. Zimmerman’s initial story, that he was trying to check the name of the street, was so laughable that his attorneys abandoned it. He was afraid Martin would get away. So he followed Martin, hoping to update the cops.
Mistake No. 3 was Zimmerman’s utter failure to imagine how his behavior looked to Martin. You’re a black kid walking home from a convenience store with Skittles and a fruit drink. Some dude in a car is watching and trailing you. God knows what he wants. You run away. He gets out of the car and follows you. What are you supposed to do? In Zimmerman’s initial interrogation, the police expressed surprise that he hadn’t identified himself to Martin as a neighborhood watch volunteer. They suggested that Martin might have been alarmed when Zimmerman reached for an object that Zimmerman, but not Martin, knew was a phone. Zimmerman seemed baffled. He was so convinced of Martin’s criminal intent that he hadn’t considered how Martin, if he were innocent, would perceive his stalker.
The grievance industrial complex is pushing the Department of Justice to prosecute Zimmerman for bias-motivated killing, based on evidence that didn’t even support a conviction for unpremeditated killing. Zimmerman’s lawyers have teamed up with members of the Congressional Black Caucus, inadvertently, to promote the false message that Zimmerman’s acquittal means our society thinks everything he did was OK.

It wasn’t OK. It was stupid and dangerous. It led to the unnecessary death of an innocent young man. It happened because two people—their minds clouded by stereotypes that went well beyond race—assumed the worst about one another and acted in haste. If you want to prevent the next Trayvon Martin tragedy, learn from their mistakes. Don’t paint the world in black and white. Don’t declare the whole justice system racist, or blame every gun death on guns, or confuse acquittal with vindication. And the next time you see somebody who looks like a punk or a pervert, hold your fire.

Bookmark and Share

If every criminal trial followed the same standards that you wanted for the George Zimmerman trial, how would that affect the number of incarcerated Americans?

July 17, 2013 – 2:47 pm by John

If the truthful answer is "the number would greatly increase", as it is for probably tens of millions of Americans, including a lot of my friends, then you are part of the problem with the legal system in the United States.

These people have abandoned the principle (if they ever had it) that a vital protection of the individual against the State is a court system that requires the State to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt before a defendant is convicted and deprived of all or part of their life, liberty, and property. They do not agree (if they ever did) that it is better to let ten guilty people go free than to imprison one innocent person. (I don't know what the optimal ratio is in a free society, but 10:1 is a hell of a lot better than what the vindictive, frenzied, almost bloodthirsty majority seems to want.)

A lot of people try to make the George Zimmerman murder trial and acquittal about race. And you know, I find it impossible to dismiss that possibility. George Zimmerman probably was more suspicious of a black guy walking through his neighborhood than he would have been of a white guy. (He was also surely much more suspicious of a male walking through his neighborhood at night than he would have been of a female, but I haven't heard anyone cry "sexism!") Even though George Zimmerman was not racist, that doesn't mean race played no role in the confrontation that led to his shooting of Trayvon Martin. It very well could have motivated his suspicious, his decisions, and his actions. I think racism is best defined as the belief in the genetic superiority of one race or ethnic group over another. That is a narrow definition, but I think the best. It's worse than mere racial profiling or racial stereotyping, but not by a lot. Racial profiling/stereotyping is treating people a certain way or forming certain opinions about people based on their race. If race motivated Zimmerman's actions that night, then it was racial stereotyping and prejudice, not racism.

Either way, it is important to note that "probably" and "very well could have" hold no water in a murder trial, and neither does race or racism. At least, they shouldn't. They will always affect our opinions and discussions of high-profile murder cases, though. I don't know if there's any way around that, and I'm not even sure it's a bad thing. We need to talk about them.

What is bad is painting people who weren't pining for a conviction and death sentence as racists. It is simple-minded and willfully ignorant—or if no ignorance is involved, then outright malicious—to portray people who praise the jury's decision as racists who must have wanted Trayvon Martin and millions of kids like him dead and wanted Zimmerman to go free for ridding society of a certain menace. It is simple-minded or malicious to classify those who praise the Not Guilty verdict as defenders of George Zimmerman. There are more than two types of opinions that one can have about this or any other trial and its verdict. Based on the moderate amount that I've read about the trial, I think the jury reached the right decision, yet I still think George Zimmerman committed wrongdoing that resulted in the unjust death of Trayvon Martin. I just don't think it was second-degree murder. The jurors didn't, either. Maybe he'll be sued in a civil case like O.J. Simpson, for actions that resulted in a wrongful death or something along those lines.

I can't help but feel that justice in the Zimmerman case was both served and not served; that this particular murder trial reached the most just outcome possible given the known facts, but that some injustice remains out there. Specifically, on Zimmerman, who was overly confrontational, aggressive, presumptuous, and reckless, who made one bad decision after another that night, and it resulted in his fatally shooting an unarmed teenager who, I would guess, was not ever going to end up taking Zimmerman's life, regardless of how heated and physical the defense depicted their confrontation as. I think it's clear that the only reason Trayvon Martin started running from Zimmerman was that Zimmerman started chasing him, and the only reason they got into a fistfight was that Zimmerman continued chasing him and confronted him. But maybe not.

There is a four-minute window of uncertainty between the end of Zimmerman's 9-1-1 call and the shooting. Only George Zimmerman will ever know what happened in those four minutes, but he claims he returned to his car, at which point Martin chased and assaulted him. I don't believe that, but I can't prove it. The State can't prove it. Even if Trayvon Martin hadn't been fatally wounded, his testimony wouldn't have been able to prove it. That is why there is reasonable doubt about Zimmerman's guilt, and that is why Not Guilty was the only acceptable verdict. It seems pretty clear to me—obvious, even—that Zimmerman made some mistakes that could have been avoided that resulted in his fatally shooting Martin, that his mistakes were far worse than Martin's in more ways than one, and that he might not be guilty of the murder charge but is far from innocent.

Yet we have comedians and actors like Kumail Nanjiani tweeting, "Finding it hard to dispell the idea that everyone supporting George Zimmerman is racist." Translation: the only way you could want anything other than a conviction and harsh sentence for George Zimmerman is because you are a racist whose opinions of this murder trial and the events of that fateful night are formed by your racism. But this is clearly wrong. Supporting the verdict is not supporting Zimmerman. Zimmerman is not a very good person—at least not anymore, not after that night—and he is certainly not innocent in any meaningful way, but he is also clearly not guilty of the crimes that the state of Florida was trying to prove him guilty of, as far as the court could determine.

There is a purely practical reason to praise the acquittal of possible murderers like George Zimmerman (and Casey Anthony, etc., etc.), as alluded to above: The State is far, far more dangerous than any overly zealous neighborhood watch volunteer, any gun nut, any racist white supremacist, or any small group of people. The United States federal government and our state and local governments not only can but have murdered or otherwise ruined the lives of far more innocent American citizens than all serial killers, mass murderers, terrorists, and racist gun wielders combined—and they have done so legally, through official governmental channels such as the court system, criminal investigations, and drug raids. The United States currently imprisons far more people than any country and a far higher percentage of its citizens than any country. If criminal trials in the United States (or any other country) were decided on the principles that a lot of Americans hoped would prevail in the George Zimmerman murder trial, then that number would skyrocket even further, beyond all semblance of justice or rights or safety or freedom.

Those who wanted a conviction and harsh sentence might respond, "How free or safe can young black men feel, then, with trials like this resulting in acquittal when the defendant was clearly guilty of some wrongdoing and was clearly motivated by race? How are their rights and justice being protected?" Clearly not well enough, but more zealous prosecution, more gullible jurors, a more bloodthirsty public, and more intrusive investigation would cause more injustice, not prevent it. A criminal justice system that is biased towards conviction, as the Zimmerman haters want, is exactly the problem. A culture and a system of laws that give investigators and prosecutors too much leeway and are too willing to dismiss reasonable doubt, as the Zimmerman haters want, are the problem.

Bookmark and Share

In 2011, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court secretly ruled that some of NSA’s spying programs were unconstitutional

June 23, 2013 – 10:20 pm by John

Michael Isikoff reports that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court will not object to the de-classification of a 2011 ruling in which it declared some of the National Security Agency's spying programs unconstitutional. It sure would be great if I ever heard about or commented on revelations like these shortly after they became news, but 11 days late will have to do. (I couldn't do nearly as well as the people I link to and dozens of others around the internet, anyway.)

In a rare public ruling by the nation’s most secretive judicial body, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court ruled Wednesday that it did not object to the release of a classified 86-page opinion concluding that some of the U.S. government’s surveillance activities were unconstitutional.

The ruling, signed by the court’s chief judge, Reggie Walton, rejected the Justice Department’s arguments that the secret national security court’s rules prevented disclosure of the opinion.
The release of the opinion, they [privacy advocates] say, may prove central in the current controversy over the scope of National Security Agency surveillance programs.

“It’s a brand new day,” said Kurt Opsahl, a senior staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a privacy group that brought the case. He noted that it is extremely rare for any FISC ruling to be made public at all, much less for the court to rule on behalf of disclosure advocates over the objection of Justice Department lawyers.
The EFF’s lawsuit was inspired by a July 20, 2012 letter from an aide to Director of National Intelligence James Clapper to Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., that stated that “on at least one occasion,” the FISC held that “some collection” carried out by the U.S. government under classified surveillance programs “was unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment.”

The letter, from Kathleen Turner, Clapper’s chief of legislative affairs, provided no further information about what the FISC found to be unconstitutional, but did state that the government “has remedied these concerns” and the FISC has continued to approve its collection activities.

It's important to keep in mind that legality and court approvals are far from good enough when judging anything any government does, and they certainly carry little weight when the issue is such invasive spying programs as have been revealed this month. In other words, it doesn't really matter whether FISC or any other court rules that NSA is following the law; what matters is that its activities and in fact its mere existence are wrong and dangerous, and it's no surprise that the type of power offered by an agency like NSA will attract amoral, power-grabbing people. The importance, if any, of this decision by FISC is (1) it can show that government agencies, bureaucrats, and politicians were violating even their own rules and laws, and (2) it might lead to the discovery that some of NSA's unconstitutional programs do, in fact, still exist and that Ms. Turner's assurance that the government "has remedied these concerns" is a lie. If she is telling the truth, it would be a rarity these days coming out of the U.S. intelligence community.

In fact, you know what, I'll go ahead and predict it right now: I predict that it will be revealed that one or more NSA programs that were ruled unconstitutional still exist and are still active, or were for a considerable time after the ruling, in identical form or in an inconsequentially altered form, with the knowledge and approval of senior NSA or other Obama administration officials.

Bookmark and Share

The strange case of Barrett Brown

June 23, 2013 – 1:44 pm by John

This is a fascinating but chilling account of journalist Barrett Brown's cooperation with hacktivists, his investigations into the questionable activities of intelligence/security companies, his discovery of the collusion between them and the Department of Justice, and his harassment and arrest by the FBI. Writing in The Nation, Peter Ludlow chronicles the strange case of Barrett Brown:

[I]t wasn’t Brown’s acid tongue so much as his love of minutiae (and ability to organize and explain minutiae) that would ultimately land him in trouble. Abandoning his book on pundits in favor of a book on Anonymous, he could not have known that delving into the territory of hackers and leaks would ultimately lead to his facing the prospect of spending the rest of his life in prison. In light of the bombshell revelations published by Glenn Greenwald and Barton Gellman about government and corporate spying, Brown’s case is a good—and underreported—reminder of the considerable risk faced by reporters who report on leaks.

In February 2011, a year after Brown penned his defense of Anonymous, and against the background of its actions during the Arab Spring, Aaron Barr, CEO of the private intelligence company HBGary, claimed to have identified the leadership of the hacktivist collective. (In fact, he only had screen names of a few members). Barr’s boasting provoked a brutal hack of HBGary by a related group called Internet Feds (it would soon change its name to “LulzSec”). Splashy enough to attract the attention of The Colbert Report, the hack defaced and destroyed servers and websites belonging to HBGary. Some 70,000 company e-mails were downloaded and posted online. As a final insult to injury, even the contents of Aaron Barr’s iPad were remotely wiped.

The HBGary hack may have been designed to humiliate the company, but it had the collateral effect of dropping a gold mine of information into Brown’s lap. One of the first things he discovered was a plan to neutralize Glenn Greenwald’s defense of Wikileaks by undermining them both. (“Without the support of people like Glenn, wikileaks would fold,” read one slide.) The plan called for “disinformation,” exploiting strife within the organization and fomenting external rivalries—“creating messages around actions to sabotage or discredit the opposing organization,” as well as a plan to submit fake documents and then call out the error.” Greenwald, it was argued, “if pushed,” would “choose professional preservation over cause.”
The data dump from the HBGary hack was so vast that no one person could sort through it alone. So Brown decided to crowdsource the effort. He created a wiki page, called it ProjectPM, and invited other investigative journalists to join in. Under Brown’s leadership, the initiative began to slowly untangle a web of connections between the US government, corporations, lobbyists and a shadowy group of private military and information security consultants.

One connection was between Bank of America and the Chamber of Commerce. WikiLeaks had claimed to possess a large cache of documents belonging to Bank of America. Concerned about this, Bank of America approached the United States Department of Justice. The DOJ directed it to the law and lobbying firm Hunton and Williams, which does legal work for Wells Fargo and General Dynamics and also lobbies for Koch Industries, Americans for Affordable Climate Policy, Gas Processors Association, Entergy among many other firms. The DoJ recommended that Bank of America hire Hunton and Williams, explicitly suggesting Richard Wyatt as the person to work with. Wyatt, famously, was the lead attorney in the Chamber of Commerce’s lawsuit against the Yes Men.

In November 2010, Hunton and Williams organized a number of private intelligence, technology development and security contractors—HBGary, plus Palantir Technologies, Berico Technologies and, according to Brown, a secretive corporation with the ominous name Endgame Systems—to form “Team Themis”—‘themis’ being a Greek word meaning “divine law.” Its main objective was to discredit critics of the Chamber of Commerce, like Chamber Watch, using such tactics as creating a “false document, perhaps highlighting periodical financial information,” giving it to a progressive group opposing the Chamber, and then subsequently exposing the document as a fake to “prove that US Chamber Watch cannot be trusted with information and/or tell the truth.” In addition, the group proposed creating a “fake insider persona” to infiltrate Chamber Watch. They would “create two fake insider personas, using one as leverage to discredit the other while confirming the legitimacy of the second.” The leaked e-mails showed that similar disinformation campaigns were being planned against WikiLeaks and Glenn Greenwald.

It was clear to Brown that these were actions of questionable legality, but beyond that, government contractors were attempting to undermine Americans’ free speech—with the apparent blessing of the DOJ. A group of Democratic congressmen asked for an investigation into this arrangement, to no avail.

By June 2011, the plot had thickened further. The FBI had the goods on the leader of LulzSec, one Hector Xavier Monsegur, who went under the nom de guerre Sabu. The FBI arrested him on June 7, 2011, and (according to court documents) turned him into an informant the following day. Just three days before his arrest, Sabu had been central to the formation of a new group called AntiSec, which comprised his former LulzSec crew members, as well as members as Anonymous. In early December AntiSec hacked the website of a private security company called Stratfor Global Intelligence. On Christmas Eve, it released a trove of some 5 million internal company e-mails. AntiSec member and Chicago activist Jeremy Hammond has pled guilty to the attack and is currently facing ten years in prison for it.

The contents of the Stratfor leak were even more outrageous than those of the HBGary hack. They included discussion of opportunities for renditions and assassinations. For example, in one video, Statfor’s vice president of intelligence, Fred Burton, suggested taking advantage of the chaos in Libya to render Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, who had been released from prison on compassionate grounds due to his terminal illness. Burton said that the case “was personal.” When someone pointed out in an e-mail that such a move would almost certainly be illegal—“This man has already been tried, found guilty, sentenced…and served time”—another Stratfor employee responded that this was just an argument for a more efficient solution: “One more reason to just bugzap him with a hellfire. :-)”
When the contents of the Stratfor leak became available, Brown decided to put ProjectPM on it. A link to the Stratfor dump appeared in an Anonymous chat channel; Brown copied it and pasted it into the private chat channel for ProjectPM, bringing the dump to the attention of the editors.

Brown began looking into Endgame Systems, an information security firm that seemed particularly concerned about staying in the shadows. “Please let HBGary know we don’t ever want to see our name in a press release,” one leaked e-mail read. One of its products, available for a $2.5 million annual subscription, gave customers access to “zero-day exploits”—security vulnerabilities unknown to software companies—for computer systems all over the world. Business Week published a story on Endgame in 2011, reporting that “Endgame executives will bring up maps of airports, parliament buildings, and corporate offices. The executives then create a list of the computers running inside the facilities, including what software the computers run, and a menu of attacks that could work against those particular systems.” For Brown, this raised the question of whether Endgame was selling these exploits to foreign actors and whether they would be used against computer systems in the United States. Shortly thereafter, the hammer came down.

The FBI acquired a warrant for Brown’s laptop, gaining the authority to seize any information related to HBGary, Endgame Systems, Anonymous and, most ominously, “email, email contacts, ‘chat’, instant messaging logs, photographs, and correspondence.” In other words, the FBI wanted his sources.

When the FBI went to serve Brown, he was at his mother’s house. Agents returned with a warrant to search his mother’s house, retrieving his laptop. To turn up the heat on Brown, the FBI initiated charges against his mother for obstruction of justice for concealing his laptop computer in her house. (Facing criminal charges, on March 22, 2013, his mother, Karen McCutchin, pled guilty to one count of obstructing the execution of a search warrant. She faces up to twelve months in jail. Brown maintains that she did not know the laptop was in her home.)

By his own admission, the FBI’s targeting of his mother made Brown snap. In September 2012, he uploaded an incoherent YouTube video, in which he explained that he had been in treatment for an addiction to heroin, taking the medication Suboxone, but had gone off his meds and now was in withdrawal. He threatened the FBI agent that was harassing his mother, by name, warning:

“I know what’s legal, I know what’s been done to me.… And if it’s legal when it’s done to me, it’s going to be legal when it’s done to FBI Agent Robert Smith—who is a criminal.”

“That’s why [FBI special agent] Robert Smith’s life is over. And when I say his life is over, I’m not saying I’m going to kill him, but I am going to ruin his life and look into his fucking kids…. How do you like them apples?”

The media narrative was immediately derailed. No longer would this be a story about the secretive information-military-industrial complex; now it was the sordid tale of a crazy drug addict threatening an FBI agent and his (grown) children. Actual death threats against agents are often punishable by a few years in jail. But Brown’s actions made it easier for the FBI to sell some other pretext to put him away for life.

The Stratfor data included a number of unencrypted credit card numbers and validation codes. On this basis, the DOJ accused Brown of credit card fraud for having shared that link with the editorial board of ProjectPM. Specifically, the FBI charged him with traffic in stolen authentication features, access device fraud and aggravated identity theft, as well as an obstruction of justice charge (for being at his mother’s when the initial warrant was served) and charges stemming from his threats against the FBI agent. All told, Brown is looking at century of jail time: 105 years in federal prison if served sequentially. He has been denied bail.

Considering that the person who carried out the actual Stratfor hack had several priors and is facing a maximum of ten years, the inescapable conclusion is that the problem is not with the hack itself but with Brown’s journalism. As Glenn Greenwald remarked inThe Guardian: “It is virtually impossible to conclude that the obscenely excessive prosecution he now faces is unrelated to that journalism and his related activism.”

Today, Brown is in prison and ProjectPM is under increased scrutiny by the DOJ, even as its work has ground to a halt. In March, the DOJ served the domain hosting service CloudFlare with a subpoena for all records on the ProjectPM website, and in particular asked for the IP addresses of everyone who had accessed and contributed to ProjectPM, describing it as a “forum” through which Brown and others would “engage in, encourage, or facilitate the commission of criminal conduct online.” The message was clear: Anyone else who looks into this matter does so at their grave peril.

... The broader implications of this go beyond Brown; one might think that what we are looking at is Cointelpro 2.0—an outsourced surveillance state—but in fact it’s worse. One can’t help but infer that the US Department of Justice has become just another security contractor, working alongside the HBGarys and Stratfors on behalf of corporate bidders, with no sense at all for the justness of their actions; they are working to protect corporations and private security contractors and give them license to engage in disinformation campaigns against ordinary citizens and their advocacy groups. The mere fact that the FBI’s senior cybersecurity advisor has recently moved to Hunton and Williams shows just how incestuous this relationship has become. Meanwhile, the Department of Justice is also using its power and force to trample on the rights of citizens like Barrett Brown who are trying to shed light on these nefarious relationships. ...

While the media and much of the world have been understandably outraged by the revelation of the NSA’s spying programs, Barrett Brown’s work was pointing to a much deeper problem. It isn’t the sort of problem that can be fixed by trying to tweak a few laws or by removing a few prosecutors. The problem is not with bad laws or bad prosecutors. What the case of Barrett Brown has exposed is that we confronting a different problem altogether. It is a systemic problem. It is the failure of the rule of law.

Bookmark and Share