Tuesday, July 27, 2010

I Wondered About This Myself

Glenn Greenwald puts his finger on an important issue: why the recent 'Top Secret America' series has had so little impact:
Political elites don't even feel compelled to pretend to be able or willing to do anything about this. Just think about this: on Monday, the Post documents a vast Secret Government bequeathed with unimaginable secrecy and unaccountability, and the rest of the week is filled with stories of the administration's blocking greater oversight and plans to escalate the privitization of our National Security and Surveillance State. That's why there was so little government angst over the Post's "revelations": aside from the fact that it revealed little that wasn't already known (Priest and Arkin withheld substantial amounts of information at the Government's request), even the impact of having the Post trumpet these facts was not a threat to much of anything, since there's nobody in a position to do much about this even if they wanted to. And few people seem to want to.

It's not hard to understand why. Why would the political class possibly want to subvert or weaken their ability to exercise vast spying, detention, and military powers in the dark? They don't. Beyond that, as the Post series highlights, Top Secret America provides not only the ability to exercise vast power with no accountability, but also enables the transfer of massive amounts of public wealth to the private national security and surveillance corporations which own the Government. Very few people with political power have the incentive to do anything about that. It's probably best not to hold your breath waiting for Dianne Feinstein -- the Democratic Chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee who lives in lavish wealth as a result of her husband's investments in the National Security State (and whose Senate career has a way of oh-so-coincidentally bolstering their wealth) -- to meaningfully address any of the issues raised by the Post series. Despite Feinstein's rhetoric to the contrary, doing so is decidedly not in her interests for multiple reasons.

The Beginning of Another Historical Phase

James Kunstler states the basic cause of our economic decline and fall:
This compressive deflationary collapse is not the kind of cyclical "downturn" that we are familiar with during the two-hundred-year-long adventure with industrial expansion - that is, the kind of cyclical downturn caused by the usual exhalations of markets attempting to adjust the flows of supply and demand. This is a structural implosion of markets that have been functionally destroyed by pervasive fraud and swindling in the absence of real productive activity.

The loss of productive activity preceded the fraud and swindling beginning in the 1960s when other nations recovered from the traumas of the world wars and started to out-compete the USA in the production of goods. Personally, I doubt this was the result of any kind of conspiracy, but rather a comprehensible historical narrative that worked to America's disadvantage. Tough noogies for us. The fatal trouble began when we attempted to compensate for this loss of value-creation by ramping up the financial sector to a credit orgy so that every individual and every enterprise and every government could enjoy ever-increasing levels of wealth in a system that no longer really produced wealth.

This was accomplished in the financial sector by "innovating" new tradable securities based on getting something for nothing. That is what the aggregate mischief on Wall Street and its vassal operations was all about. The essence of the fraud was the "securitization" of debt, because the collateral was either inadequate or altogether missing. That's how you get something for nothing. The swindling came in when these worthless certificates were pawned off on credulous "marks" such as pension funds and other assorted investors.
Tragically, everybody in a position to object to these shenanigans failed to issue any warnings or ring the alarm bells - and this includes the entire matrix of adult authority in banking, government (including the law), academia, and a hapless news media. Everyone pretended that the orgy of mortgage-backed securities, collateralized debt and loan obligations, structured investment vehicles, collateralized debt obligations, and other chimeras of capital amounted to things of real value....

The collective failure of authority, whether of intention or oversight or mental deficiency boggles the mind. And it leaves us where we are: in a compressive deflationary contraction, a.k.a. the long emergency. This is not a cyclical recession. It's the end of one thing and the beginning of another thing, another phase of history in which people will have to learn to live differently or perish. I'm convinced that just about very elected official who can be swept out of office will be swept out of office - even if their replacements turn out to be a very unsavory gang of sadists and morons who will certainly make things worse.

Cancer Spreading

Okay, I just finished reading the first of three parts of 'Top Secret America'.  This is insane.  And I don't even believe 9/11 was a real attack by Al-Qaeda. 

It reminds me of a cancer just spreading out of control throughout a body.  Who or what will stop this?  The only thing that will stop this is a national collapse, akin to death.  Paul Craig Roberts predicts such an outcome here.

Yesterday I finished a book written 70 years ago by the last British Ambassador to Germany before the outbreak of hostilies between the two nations.  He saw firsthand the complete militarization of Germany in the years running up to 1939.  So much of what he said reminded me of America today.

Top Secret America 3

The overlap of all these intelligence agencies produces overload:
Even the analysts at the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), which is supposed to be where the most sensitive, most difficult-to-obtain nuggets of information are fused together, get low marks from intelligence officials for not producing reports that are original, or at least better than the reports already written by the CIA, FBI, National Security Agency or Defense Intelligence Agency.

When Maj. Gen. John M. Custer was the director of intelligence at U.S. Central Command, he grew angry at how little helpful information came out of the NCTC. In 2007, he visited its director at the time, retired Vice Adm. John Scott Redd, to tell him so. "I told him that after 41/2 years, this organization had never produced one shred of information that helped me prosecute three wars!" he said loudly, leaning over the table during an interview.

Two years later, Custer, now head of the Army's intelligence school at Fort Huachuca, Ariz., still gets red-faced recalling that day, which reminds him of his frustration with Washington's bureaucracy. "Who has the mission of reducing redundancy and ensuring everybody doesn't gravitate to the lowest-hanging fruit?" he said. "Who orchestrates what is produced so that everybody doesn't produce the same thing?"

He's hardly the only one irritated. In a secure office in Washington, a senior intelligence officer was dealing with his own frustration. Seated at his computer, he began scrolling through some of the classified information he is expected to read every day: CIA World Intelligence Review, WIRe-CIA, Spot Intelligence Report, Daily Intelligence Summary, Weekly Intelligence Forecast, Weekly Warning Forecast, IC Terrorist Threat Assessments, NCTC Terrorism Dispatch, NCTC Spotlight . . .

It's too much, he complained. The inbox on his desk was full, too. He threw up his arms, picked up a thick, glossy intelligence report and waved it around, yelling.

"Jesus! Why does it take so long to produce?"

"Why does it have to be so bulky?"

"Why isn't it online?"

The overload of hourly, daily, weekly, monthly and annual reports is actually counterproductive, say people who receive them. Some policymakers and senior officials don't dare delve into the backup clogging their computers. They rely instead on personal briefers, and those briefers usually rely on their own agency's analysis, re-creating the very problem identified as a main cause of the failure to thwart the attacks: a lack of information-sharing.

Top Secret America 2

How these agencies grow:
It's not only the number of buildings that suggests the size and cost of this expansion, it's also what is inside: banks of television monitors. "Escort-required" badges. X-ray machines and lockers to store cellphones and pagers. Keypad door locks that open special rooms encased in metal or permanent dry wall, impenetrable to eavesdropping tools and protected by alarms and a security force capable of responding within 15 minutes. Every one of these buildings has at least one of these rooms, known as a SCIF, for sensitive compartmented information facility. Some are as small as a closet; others are four times the size of a football field.

SCIF size has become a measure of status in Top Secret America, or at least in the Washington region of it. "In D.C., everyone talks SCIF, SCIF, SCIF," said Bruce Paquin, who moved to Florida from the Washington region several years ago to start a SCIF construction business. "They've got the penis envy thing going. You can't be a big boy unless you're a three-letter agency and you have a big SCIF."

SCIFs are not the only must-have items people pay attention to. Command centers, internal television networks, video walls, armored SUVs and personal security guards have also become the bling of national security.

"You can't find a four-star general without a security detail," said one three-star general now posted in Washington after years abroad. "Fear has caused everyone to have stuff. Then comes, 'If he has one, then I have to have one.' It's become a status symbol."

Top Secret America

I'm belatedly beginning to read the Washington Post's series on 'Top Secret America'.  It details the explosive growth of the top-secret intelligence 'community' since 9/11.  Here was the first several paragraphs I thought particularly revealing:
With the quick infusion of money, military and intelligence agencies multiplied. Twenty-four organizations were created by the end of 2001, including the Office of Homeland Security and the Foreign Terrorist Asset Tracking Task Force. In 2002, 37 more were created to track weapons of mass destruction, collect threat tips and coordinate the new focus on counterterrorism. That was followed the next year by 36 new organizations; and 26 after that; and 31 more; and 32 more; and 20 or more each in 2007, 2008 and 2009.

In all, at least 263 organizations have been created or reorganized as a response to 9/11. Each has required more people, and those people have required more administrative and logistic support: phone operators, secretaries, librarians, architects, carpenters, construction workers, air-conditioning mechanics and, because of where they work, even janitors with top-secret clearances.

Monday, July 26, 2010

The Growing Case Against the Afghanistan War

Andrew Sullivan explains what we already knew about our Afghanistan occupation that is now being reconfirmed by Sunday's Wikileaks dump:
The notion that a professional military and especially police force can be constructed and trained by the West to advance the interests of a "national government" in Kabul within any time frame short of a few decades of colonialism is a fantasy.

We are fighting a war as much against the intelligence services of Pakistan as we are the Taliban. They are a seamless part of the same whole, and until Pakistan is transformed (about as likely as Afghanistan), we will be fighting with two hands tied behind our backs.

This is the Taliban's country. Fighting them on their own ground, when they can appear in disguise, can terrify residents by night if not by day, and fight and then melt away into the netherworld of mountains and valleys is all but impossible. And as the occupation fails to secure popular support (and after ten years and a deeply corrupt government in Kabul, who can blame the Afghans?), the counter-insurgency model becomes even less plausible than it was before.

The enormous cost in lives and money is in no way proportionate to the eradication of around 500 Qaeda leaders, including bin Laden, who are effectively being protected by a foreign government, Pakistan, we aid with a $1 billion a year.

The troops deserve to fight in a strategy that can actually work. They deserve not to be risking their lives for bases that have to be abandoned, on hillsides where they cannot see the enemy, in a war where the enemy abides by no civilized rules but where every civilian casualty in response is a propaganda victory for the Taliban. This is a lose-lose proposition.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Distinguishing Between the 'Market' and the Humans Behind It

This is an excellent article on economics by Paul Craig Roberts, former Assistant Treasury Secretary in the Reagan Administration.  He has since become a very pronounced 'contrarian'. An excerpt:
I admire Joselph E. Stiglitz, because he has a social conscience and a sense of justice, the absence of which turns economists into monsters. Despite his virtues and Nobel Prize, Stiglitz sometimes falls down as an economist. Readers of my new book, How The Economy Was Lost, will be aware that I take him to task for the Solow-Stiglitz production function, which seriously misleads economics about the scarcity of nature’s capital.

Another of Stiglitz’s shortcomings, one that he shares with most economists, is his habit of reifying the market economy. The market is a social organization. The results of market activity reflect the behavior of the human participants in the market. When economists reify the market, they attribute the behavior, ethics, and morality--or lack thereof--of humans to the market itself. Thus, Stiglitz describes human failures as “market failures,” and he asks in his new book, Freefall, “why didn’t the market exercise discipline on bad corporate governance and bad incentive structures?”

Social institutions are inanimate. They do not possess life and cannot impose good outcomes on human action.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

How Effective Is 'Being Practical'?

This quote from blogger Freddie DeBoer (via The Daily Dish) is for my blog colleague (and son) Nathan.  He and I find we differ about this issue of practicality in politics:
I do want to immediately recognize and admit that I have the extremist’s luxury; I don’t have to sully my beliefs with appeal to dirty partisan politics. But that cuts both ways. People say that politics is the art of the possible, but there’s so much insistence on a narrow range of possibility that they winnow away at what we can actually accomplish. Ultimately I have to admit that there are real constraints on political action, but I also have to insist that when you make practicality a chief concern in politics, you’ve effectively undermined democracy.

What A Country

Bob Herbert of the NYT:
The hustlers and high rollers at Wall Street’s gaming tables are starting to feel lucky again.

Hiring is beginning to pick up in the very sector that led the country to the edge of a depression. An article on the front page of The Times on Sunday noted that this turnaround “underscores the remarkable recovery of the biggest banks and brokerage firms since Washington rescued them in the fall of 2008, and follows the huge rebound in profits for members of the New York Stock Exchange, which totaled $61.4 billion in 2009, the most ever.”

The hustlers and high rollers are always there to skim the cream, no matter what’s happening in the real world of ordinary American families....

School districts across the country are taking drastic steps to cope with collapsing budgets: firing personnel, increasing class sizes, cutting kindergarten and summer-school programs and, in some cases, moving to a four-day school week. The Associated Press, in a demoralizing report, recently noted: “As the school budget crisis deepens, administrators across the nation have started to view school libraries as luxuries that can be axed rather than places where kids learn to love reading and do research.”

What a country. We’ll do whatever it takes to make sure the bankers keep living the high life and swilling that Champagne while at the same time we’re taking books out of the hands of schoolchildren trying to get an education.

With our help, the banks and Wall Street have done fine. Better than they had any right to expect. It’s the ordinary folks outside the casino, in the real world, who are still in desperate need of help. But in a society of, by and for the rich, that help will be a long time coming.


Amidst the froth of so-called 'news', there are those occasional writers who write something that makes you want to say 'yes!'.  One of those recently has been Richard Cohen of the Wasington Post.  His last two columns have been full of insight and an example of 'plain speaking'.  See them here and here.

Here's an excerpt from a third column about how 'dumb is in' and why:
Fortune has not smiled on Obama's presidency. His one uncontested attribute -- a shimmering intellect -- has become suspect. A world of smart guys has turned against us. Everyone at Goldman Sachs is smart, but they seem to have the amorality mocked by the songwriter Tom Lehrer in his sendup of the celebrated American rocket scientist Wernher von Braun, a former Nazi (" 'Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down? That's not my department,' says Wernher von Braun").

The oil industry is full of smart people, and so is the mortgage industry. Smart people seem to have brought us nothing but trouble. Smarts without values is dangerous -- threatening, scary, virtually un-American. This is why a succession of archconservative eccentrics have succeeded. Their values are obvious, often shockingly so. We know what they want, just not how they are ever going to get it. Experience has become a handicap and inexperience a virtue. Smart is out. Dumb is in.