Is Wikileaks a terrorist or a news organization?

Julian Assange
Wikileaks founder, journalist, and proto-terrorist Julian Assange (photo by New Media Days on Flickr)

The news is abuzz with the story of Wikileaks releasing some of the 250,000 State Department documents they acquired.  Some, like Congressman Peter King, are claiming the release is worse than a military attack and calling for Wikileaks to be treated as a terrorist organization.  Others are touting Wikileaks founder Julian Assange as a hero for shining light on covert government actions using the government’s own documentation.

Clearly, some of the leaked documents are embarrassing, not only to the U.S. government, but to many foreign officials and diplomats as well.  But by and large, the documents just confirm rumors and suspicions of activities widely believed to have been happening anyway.  Is anyone truly shocked to learn that some diplomats are suspected to be spies?  Is it news that Middle Eastern countries other than Israel also view Iran as a growing threat? Are people aghast that China was actually behind the Google Gmail hacks?  On the contrary, it could be seen as comforting to ordinary citizens that our leaders are not as blind to what’s going on as it would seem from the official press releases.

While sunshine may be the best disinfectant, it’s hard to argue that some amount of secrecy isn’t required in order for the government to operate.  The key is trying to figure out where to draw the line.

The press was responsible for exposing information leaked from inside the government that resulted in the downfall of  President Nixon in 1974.  Were Woodward and Bernstein terrorists?   There’s no doubt the last decade would have played out much differently had the manufactured run-up to the Iraq War been exposed back in 2003.  Those secrets needed sunshine.

One of the recent Wikileaks releases shows that the President of Oman lied to his parliament about attacks against Al-Qaeda within their borders.  President Ali Abdullah Saleh covered up U.S. military strikes in Oman claiming instead that Omani forces carried out the attacks.  From the perspective of the Omanis who were lied to, was this valuable sunshine?

So far, no one has identified any specific released information that poses a danger to soldiers, diplomats, or anyone else, despite claims from the Pentagon that Wikileaks has “blood on their hands.”  In fact, there appears to have been some sort of self-censorship, coordinated by the NY Times, to redact documents deemed to potentially endanger individuals or national security.  Were some of the published documents over the line anyway?  Probably, especially considering that everyone draws the line in a slightly different spot.  But so far, indications are that all of the information released is at least close to the line, and thereby is much nearer to news than a terrorist action.

If there are lessons to be learned from this, perhaps they are these:

  • If you truly want to keep a secret, don’t share it on a network where millions of people have the security clearance to see it.  It only takes one rogue “friend” to expose you.  Has Willow Palin taught us nothing?
  • Think twice before you justify warrantless wiretaps or invasive security scans based on the assertion, “If you have nothing to hide, then you have nothing to fear.”  Just because you haven’t committed a crime doesn’t mean you’ll be comfortable hanging all your laundry on the line… and turnabout is fair play.
  • Stop labeling everything you don’t like with the word “terrorist”.  The meaning is diluted enough already.  If Wikileaks’ actions induced genuine terror in you, then you likely lack the constitution to sit through the Bride of Frankenstein without running screaming from the theater.  Buck up soldier.

Given that the 21st century press has earned the reputation as the lapdogs of government, it’s somewhat refreshing to see them reclaim at least a bit of their watchdog credibility—even if it does push the envelope a little.

A plan to take the government back from the corporations

Corporate American Flag
Corporate American Flag (by Yire Shalom 3000 on Flickr)

The country is awash in the political rhetoric of taking our country back.  The problem is, the cries are to take it back from the Democrats, and previous to that, to take it back from the Republicans.  All of which would be fine, but neither party is the one holding it hostage.  The vilification of the respective political parties is all just theatrical misdirection.

Backroom corporate influence in politics has always been with us, but in recent times it has emerged from the dark and smokey recesses of the halls of government and sits proudly center stage.  The rich have never been richer.  Corporate profits have never been higher.  Meanwhile, unemployment remains high, health care and college tuition costs continue to spiral out of reach.  And the plans to remedy these ills?  Cut Social Security and Medicare, lower taxes on the wealthy, eliminate the estate tax, and cut long term unemployment benefits.  Reduce or stall regulatory actions curtailing corporate freedoms to game the financial system or pollute the environment, while pushing the government to create or enforce laws designed to shore up existing business models.  Reduce the size of government forcing it to sell off assets like prisons, parks, and government buildings as well as outsource operations such that private companies are now able to make a profit from government programs and services.

These are all corporate friendly policies designed to pad the pockets of big business at the expense of ordinary citizens.  The policies are not unique to any one party, and arguing over which party is more at fault is simply wasted breath.  The solution is not as simple as voting in one party or the other, or creating the optimal balance between them.  The corporations via the lobbies and PACs they fund and the media they control  are playing both sides.  Picking between Democrats and Republicans is a false choice.

None of this is groundbreaking news.  The recognition of the emerging corporatocracy that is America’s future underlies much of the anger, frustration, and helplessness felt by voters.  The Tea Party channeled much of that emotion, but it was masterfully bent into a movement advocating for the shrinking or dismantling of the government.  An outcome that plays directly into the plan of the corporate lobbyists, because government inaction or inability to act is a boon to corporate America.

It’s important to recognize that corporations are not evil, they are merely self-interested.  They operate to maximize short term profits.  Period.  They are unconcerned with the well being of citizens.  They are not troubled by unemployment rates.  They don’t lose any sleep over how America can rebuild a strong vibrant middle class with the potential for children to be better off than their parents.  And they shouldn’t be.  That is the job of the government.  The government of, by, and for the people, not the corporations.  This is the government we’ve let slip away.  This is the government we need to take back.  We need the government to once again play the balance to the corporate interests.  Not to oppose or destroy corporations, but simply to be a yin to their yang.  To make the coin whole again, in the interest of both sides.  Mindful that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Accomplishing this will not be something we can simply elect politicians to do under the current system.  Rather, it will only come about with the emergence of a large scale highly focused bipartisan grassroots movement that manages to not be co-opted by corporate influences along the way.  It can only achieve that by maintaining a laser-like focus and clarity on its goal.  To that end, that movement needs to aim for two objectives, and two objectives only.

  • All campaigns are financed by the government—a fixed amount of money available only 3 months prior to election day.
  • All elected officials must sign a contract stating they will not accept money, jobs, or any other material benefit from any private company for a period of 5 years after leaving office.  They will have the option to retire or to enter public service in the interim.

These two objectives significantly reduce the ability of corporations or wealthy individuals to buy elections and thereby politicians.  They also curtail the incentive to enter public office as way to be financially set for life, and return it more to the notion of contributing a public service.  And finally, they stop the never-ending campaign cycle that dominates the lives of politicians today such that they have little time or incentive to do any real work.

A movement focused on implementing these two objectives alone would have an opportunity to make a significant sea change in the process by which government occurs.  It could and should rise above being concerned about specific policies, and as such, could be a truly bipartisan movement.  The issue is not whether a government led by people elected in such a manner would support gay marriage, carbon taxes, abortion, or bank bailouts.  The issue is simply to get people back in office who truly represent the citizenry of this great nation.  And having achieved that, let the policy cards fall where they may.  The only goal of this movement being that America shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the Earth.

Shimkus on the genesis of global warming

New Orleans Flood
Don't sweat the coming flood, there'll be fresh veggies in Greenland

Illinois Republican John Shimkus is vying to be the head of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce when the new Congress convenes in 2011.  This committee is one of the oldest in existence, and plays a central role in the formulation of energy policy.  It would also be the genesis of any carbon or climate based legislation.

I’m sorry, did I say genesis?  No, a Shimkus led Energy and Commerce Committee would be the genesis of no such thing.  Why?  Because of Genesis, as in the Book of.  Shimkus recently quoted Genesis 8:22 on the House floor, “As long as the earth endures, seed time and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, will never cease.”  He cites the passage as proof that we needn’t worry about this whole silly global warming thing because God says He won’t let us destroy the planet.  It’ll be over when He says it’s over, and not before.  (Charles Jaco, of KTVI in St.Louis covers the story in a video clip.)

Yet Shimkus doesn’t stop there.  He explains that the notion of puny little mankind impacting something like the global climate is strictly arrogance on our part.  Sure, the climate’s changing, but we didn’t do it, can’t stop it, and frankly should just embrace it—go with the flow, so to speak.  He goes on to tout the upside to global warming.  Sure, New Orleans and NYC will be underwater, but hey, vegetable gardens in Greenland!

Where was this line of reasoning during the cold war?  We’d have saved billions of dollars and countless man-years of worry and angst if only we’d realized global nuclear annihilation would be prevented by God instead of MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction).  And think of all the money wasted on smokestack scrubbers to abate the northeast’s acid rain in the 70’s.  If only we’d have been patient, God would have set it right for us.

God’s fine with us being irresponsible.  He kind of expects it.  After that whole Eve and the snake debacle He learned that having given us free will meant he was going to spend eternity chasing us around with a galactic size roll of supernaturally absorbent Bounty towels to clean up our messes.  So, you know… no worries.

Maybe Shimkus is fully aware he’s using the bible as a lever to carry out the objectives of the big oil lobby.  Maybe he’s dumber than a starving polar bear who walks 1000 miles to hug a man in his driveway and fails to think, “(sniff, sniff) Hmmm… smells like lunch.”  Either way, let’s not put this guy in charge.

A Second look at the Fourth Amendment

AirportSecurity (by redjar on Flickr)
Airport Security (Photo by redjar on Flickr)

The TSA has been taking an enormous beating this past week over the new enhanced security measures.  Whether you believe all the sordid tales of naked pictures, groped breasts, and fondled genitalia are the unfortunate exceptional case we endure for our safety, or the overreaching rule of a government agency overstepping its authority, let’s at least take a moment to feel pity for the TSA agents themselves.

These hard working front-line employees not only need to deal with the irate and discourteous among us, but they are condemned to spend eight hours a day staring at bad pictures of naked fat people, and running their hands up and down our cottage cheese laden thighs.  It’s a small wonder the suicide rate for TSA employees hasn’t gone through the roof.  If there’s blame to lay here, it’s on the Homeland Security policy that created this mess.  Not the poor people who are stuck implementing it.

There are a lot of valid questions about the safety of the backscatter and millimeter wave scanners, and many more about the efficacy of the scanning technology at preventing terror attacks.  Yet the major unanswered question is, does this sort of scanning technology violate our fourth amendment rights.  The Fourth Amendment assures us a right to a reasonable expectation of privacy.  As I’ve written about before (here and here), the laws defining how new technology can and cannot be used in the context of the Fourth Amendment are decades behind the engineering work.

The current TSA situation makes it clear the so-called naked scanners are the equivalent of searching your clothes, pockets, and body.  Something courts have historically ruled cannot be done without probable cause.  That technology enables the search to be conducted at a distance doesn’t make it less an invasion of privacy.

If you were walking down the street minding your own business and a cop pulled up and told you to empty your pockets and submit to a full pat down, you’d have a lawyer and a lawsuit filed before he got on his latex gloves.  It shouldn’t be a different case if he had a portable scanner that accomplished the same purpose without actually touching you or even stopping you.  The time to decide the legality of these issues is now, before the handheld scanners are developed and deployed.

Although, even with the existing scanners, we are copping to probable cause based solely on the evidence that we purchased a ticket for Toledo.  Would such scanners be as easily accepted in bus stations, movie theaters, or shopping malls?  Probably not.  Clearly airports are different.  We willingly give up rights in airports we would not allow to be infringed anywhere else.

The reason being that collectively we have an irrational fear of terrorists.  It’s not that terrorists don’t warrant our vigilance and attention, but the size of the fear is irrational.  The 9/11 attacks have forever bound airplanes and terrorism together, and it is often argued that we simply have to give up some of our rights at airports in order to be safe.  But we don’t actually live like we believe that.

Over the last decade, terrorists have killed about 3000 Americans on or with airplanes—almost all of them on one day.  Meanwhile, according to the CDC, there are over 30,000 deaths each year caused by firearms.  That’s 300,000 people over that same decade.  For scale, that’s about the same as a medium size city or half the population of the entire state of Alaska.  While outlawing guns would clearly not have saved all those people, if there were no guns many tens of thousands of them would undoubtedly be alive today.  Yet we would never remotely consider a gun ban.  This clearly isn’t a rational decision based on preserving our actual safety and well being.

The point is, we accept some level of risk every day.  It’s not completely safe to drive to the supermarket, and it’s certainly not safe to be around Dick Cheney when he’s got a loaded gun.  But we take those risks anyway.  Sure, we drive cars with airbags and buckle our seatbelts.  We try not wander into urban gang territory at night wearing spandex and singing show tunes.  We lock our doors, but we don’t bar them and hire perimeter guards to walk the yard at night.  We take reasonable, but not oppressive precautions.  There’s no reason airports can’t be handled the same way.

Yes, I’d just as soon the guy sitting next to me on the plane wasn’t packing heat.  But I can live with him having nail clippers, a pocket knife, and 5oz of shampoo.  And yes, that leaves open the possibility that he has a rectum full of C4 and the cool disposition to detonate it.  Although the TSA scanners wouldn’t have picked that up anyway, so at least I’d have gotten to spend more time at home before the flight rather than waiting in line for a security inspection.

USPS vs. Internet: pick a side

USPS v Internet
Which is the more vital part of U.S. infrastructure? (created by Tim)

The venerable U.S. Postal Service announced last Friday that it lost $8.5 billion in the fiscal year that ended in September.  It is on pace to be completely broke by the end of 2011.  It is seeking freedom from onerous requirements that mandate Congressional approval for changes to delivery schedules and routes, closing post offices, and setting rates.

Meanwhile, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), who is set to lead the House committee overseeing postal affairs, is determined to assure the USPS doesn’t require a taxpayer bailout, but is not supportive of helping it either.  Instead he’s urging the post office to consider further cost cuts so that it lives within its revenue.  This leaves the USPS in a bind no private company would have to endure.  The USPS can’t raise its rates, and it can’t cut back its service offerings either.  It doesn’t even have the right to go out of business.

A combination of two outside forces have dealt the USPS dramatic blows to its business model.  Delivery companies like FedEx and UPS together with the adoption of the Internet have significantly eroded the need for and the value provided by the USPS.  While it was an essential and effective part of our national infrastructure at one time, those days are largely gone.

Given the current groundswell of grassroots enthusiasm for private businesses being able to do things more efficiently than the government, it’s inexplicable why Congress is clinging to this anachronistic heavily federally regulated and backed delivery system.

It’s conceivable the argument could be offered that the postal service is a vital part of our communications infrastructure and in our national interest to assure it keeps running.  But if that’s true, it would be impossible to then argue that the Internet should remain under the auspices of private companies, and remain unregulated.

At its core, this is an ideology issue.  Either the government has an obligation over our communications infrastructure or it doesn’t.  If it does, then stop worrying about telephone companies and the post office and pay attention to wireless carriers and Internet service providers.  That is unarguably the core of our national communications network today.  If the government has no such obligation, then set the USPS free.  Let it live or die as a for profit company, or be bought out by one of its competitors.  That is the nature of capitalism.

Republicans are currently on both sides of this issue.  They want the post office alive and well and under the government’s thumb, yet they oppose regulation or nationalization of  ISPs and wireless carriers.  Points which are ideologically at odds with each other.  It’s time to pick a side.