Friday, January 31, 2014


The NY Times' Kate Zernike reports on what sounds like new evidence against New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, and charges that he has lied in claiming no contemporaneous knowledge of the politically-motivated closure of traffic lanes leading to the George Washington Bridge.

How glad I am to say, “I told you so.”

This stink ain’t going away, but Christie’s irrationally persistent ambition to be President is going to have to.

May we all chant together, “Go away, Gov”?


I recently took one of those rare “trips back in time,” when I saw the award-winning docudrama No, Chilean director Pablo Larrain’s look at the 1988 plebiscite which dealt the death blow to General Augusto Pinochet’s 15 year dictatorship.  Mexican actor Gael GarcĂ­a Bernal plays a young Ad Man who helps create the TV campaign that led Chileans to an overwhelming No vote against the dictatorship.  His ad agency boss runs the Yes TV campaign.

I was there, in Chile, between broadcast jobs, on the State Department’s dime, conferring with the country’s media elite about the future of television, pushing the idea that the coming age of satellite-driven communication was going to make everyplace equidistant from the global center stage, and make Chile’s “end of the road” self-concept an anachronism. 

Some Chileans thought that was an interesting, if radically counter-cultural idea, but most of them were rightfully preoccupied by something else: the role television was then playing in the upcoming national vote on the political future of Chile.

It was quite eerie to see on the movie screen in Albuquerque the very spots and programs I’d seen in Santiago, in production, or as they ran on Chilean TV, to see my best Chilean friend of the visit, Patricio Banados back in the No anchor chair.

It was a fine madness, bred no doubt by a serene confidence in his own re-election, which led Pinochet to approve a perfectly fair plebiscite.  It was also plu-perfectly Chilean.  Part of the horror of America’s Henry Kissinger-led intervention in support of Pinochet’s 1973 coup was that it wrecked the most civil, democratic society south of the United States.  

Thus, in 1988, after 15 years of state violence and deadly “disappearances,” a Chilean plebiscite still had to be real and fair and open.  Even a dictator’s credibility and honor depended upon fidelity to democracy.

In TV terms, this meant that the ground rules of the plebiscite required that the 2 sides on the ballot – Yes, Pinochet rules for another 8 years; No, he doesn’t, and has to leave at the end of his term – share a half-hour of prime time, seen on every TV channel in the country, to make their cases directly to the voting public.  The order of the nightly 15 minute packages alternated, day by day.

The Yes packages argued that 15 years of economic progress (and there had indeed been some under the Dictator) equaled happiness.  The argument was made with a lot of intentionally old-fashioned images of national pride and productivity and a lot of haranguing by “important people,” including most often, Pinochet himself.  This stale concoction was hard to watch, except when the General was on screen, usually in an ornate military uniform, speaking in a voice sounded almost exactly like a chicken.  Then, even to Chileans, it was chillingly hilarious. 

The No packages were a mix of jaunty young people singing and dancing in praise of freedom, gentle reminders of a more civil time from the comfortable, confidence-building anchorman Banados, who was famous in Chile for having been disappeared from the TV screen by Pinochet, and a few moments of brilliant political video.

One of these showed a notorious newsreel of a policeman beating an unresisting demonstrator, labeling both men as “good Chileans,” and insisting that both could, as that American icon of unnecessary violence and conflict Rodney King said, “get along.”

To a foreign media observer, there was no question which was the more effective campaign, but, as I wrote in the NY Times at the time, pre-election polls had the result “too close to call.”

Clearly a lot of people who didn’t feel safe telling some pollster they were against the government, did feel safe when casting their ballots.  The final score was 56% to 44% for the No.  Not even close.

At the climax of the film, after the National TV Channel’s announcement that the No had won a clear majority, there is a moment of terror at the No headquarters when there is a report that General Pinochet has summoned the heads of the security services to the Presidency.  Everyone there knows someone for whom a crackdown could mean prison or death.

People hold their breaths, until a follow up makes it clear, there will be no second strike against democracy: the Chiefs of Staff will have none of that.  They’ve told Pinochet he will have to recognize the vote and move away from power.

For many of the folks I had met in Chile on that trip, and an earlier one for The Committee to Protect Journalists to protest to Pinochet’s Justice and Defense Ministers the dictatorship’s use of military courts to suppress newspeople, that moment of personal pleasure was followed by a surge of national pride.  This is Chile, they congratulated themselves, here we prefer civility and democracy.

Which brings me (hold tight, this is something of a 180) to today and Ukraine.

One of the first scenes in the movie No, shows an early planning session of the No media team.  There are many points of view, many ideas that someone on the team thinks are essential to the campaign against Pinochet, freedom of speech, the right to organize, the crimes of military, the collaboration of the Church, (you should pardon me) blah blah blah (or as the fabulous Banados titled his first book Bla ble bli blo blu).

“No!” says the Garcia Bernal character, there is only one essential idea: gaining enough votes to win the plebiscite. 

And so it was: people voted for freedom, civility, kindness, and comfort and against oppression, violence, cruelty and discomfort.  The No won big.

Unlike Chile, whose perception that it was the last place anyone could or would go had bred not just insularity but a national identity, Ukraine is riven by an ongoing history of division and conflict, that is not just conceptual but geographic.  South and East Ukraine has a longer and closer (if not much happier) history with Russia, the Russian language, the Russian Orthodox Church, and more recently Sovietized industry and collective agriculture.  In the north and west of the country, the same cultural-historic lines lead more to Poland, Austria and Hungary; the Ukrainian language; the Ukrainian Catholic Church, and less mass-oriented economic and political institutions.

Those fractures are real and deep and active and were highlighted at the beginning of the current crisis when President Viktor Yanukovych withdrew from a promised entente with the European Union in favor of closer collaboration with Vladimir Putin’s plan for a renewed Russian empire.  “We want our Europe,” those first protestors seemed to shout, even as they looked nervously over their shoulders to the not-necessarily-on-board East.

But recent polls suggest that those reasons for division may be receding in the face of awidely-shared national disgust with Yanukovych, his government, his predecessors, and their co-dependents, co-defendants, the powerful apparatchiks and oligarchs.

As I was told again and again during my one reporting visit to Kiev and its rural surroundings in 2008, “They’re all assholes, thieves, thugs.”

It must be said, the historical record supports this harsh judgment.  Here’s hoping it sustains to a successful conclusion today’s ongoing “popular uprising.”

After all, Ukraine already had its “Orange Revolution,” 10 years ago, in which today’s Russian-leaning President Yanukovych was booted out, after a clumsily cooked election and replaced by the European-leaning Viktor Yushchenko.  Yuschenko, who doctors believe was not-quite-fatally poisoned by his opponents, was less Soviet than his predecessors, but not more effective.  Worse, he left office with wealth and real estate that could not have been purchased from his official earnings. His replacement, also regarded as pro-EU, Yulia Tymoshenko has been imprisoned by Yanukovych’s people, who charge her with making billions in corrupt dealings in natural gas with Vladimir Putin.  The judicial process in the Tymoshenko case has been widely judged to be deficient, but not absent of apparently damning evidence that she was a grafter.   

The guy before them, President Leonid Kuchma lost his hold on his notorious kleptocracy when audiotaped evidence tied him to the murder of Georgiy Gongadze, the popular and respected investigative reporter who had made Kuchma’s crimes notorious.  President Kuchma’s greatest accomplishment was creating a national consensus that he had to go.

Polls in the past week or 2, taken in all regions of Ukraine, suggest another consensus is building: they all have to go.

A moment of great opportunity is at hand. 

If that 99 to 1 consensus can be kept together, if the un-powerful 99% can put those traditional disagreements, even temporarily aside, national unity to start over, with a new constitution, new leaders, and very new adherence to democracy and of rule of law, might be a real possibility, and Ukraine might be saved.

You can read that possibility, ironically enough, in the hostile analyses of mostly-Russian “experts” quoted in the Christian Science Monitor, and echoed in the Washington Post, which propose – in headline form in the Monitor, less brashly in the Post – an alleged threat of civil war. 

“Amid ‘civil war’ talk, Kremlin keeps wary eye on Ukraine,” is what sits atop Fred Weir’s report in the CSM, which cites 3 Moscow sources.  Alexei Vlasov, director of the Center for the Study of the Post-Soviet Space at Moscow State University says, "The most dangerous variant for Russia is the threat of destabilization in Ukraine. If the situation goes out of control there, it could lead to civil war." Meanwhile, Alexander Konovalov, president of the independent Institute of Strategic Assessments in Moscow projects an even greater threat: "The idea that people can take to the streets and force changes in government and policy orientation is something Putin worries about all the time,” he says. “Though the Ukrainian example is not spreading in Russia at the moment, that doesn't mean it won't have any effect."

These fellows sound like the advisors who told Pinochet he should reject the No vote and “:save Chile from chaos.” 

They are referenced and reified by Max Fisher, the WaPo foreign policy blogger: “There is chatter among analysts,” he writes, “ in Moscow as well as Washington, that if Yanukovych panics and calls in the military to disperse protesters it could lead to a civil war.”

Would civil war in Ukraine (with or without some implicit threat it could ignite rebellion in Russia, too) provoke intervention by Putin?  “No way,” says the man himself.  “Not yet,” murmur his local analysts.

“Russia has no intention of ever intervening,” Putin declared at a Russia-EU summit in Brussels. Then he accused European leaders of butting in themselves. “I can imagine how our European partners would react if at the height of the crisis in Greece or Cyprus, say, our foreign minister turned up at one of the anti-European Union meetings there and began making appeals to the crowd."

The reference, Weir writes, is clearly “a dig at EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and other EU officials who have addressed protesters on Kiev's Independence Square, or Maidan, over the past two months.”

Weir quotes “Sergei Strokan, foreign affairs columnist with the pro-business Moscow daily Kommersant: ‘Putin seems to have come to the conclusion that Ukraine is like a volcano that will erupt from time to time. It's a natural disaster and you just have to get used to it. That's why he comes off looking far more pragmatic, even phlegmatic, than he did [in 2004].’”

So, is this war talk to sell papers, or paper the way to Russian intervention?

I don’t think it matters because I don’t think civil war is coming to Ukraine. 

This is not a country or a culture in love with violence.  It is the government’s resort to force and to repressive legislation that has discredited the Yanukovych regime with this growing majority of Ukrainian citizens.  And by the way, the use of violence attributed to the opposition produces only popular denunciation and disconnection.  The provocateurs are widely suspected of acting for the government, or of being useless nutballs.  Ukraine today, like Chile 25 years ago, has a civil opposition.

In Ukraine, there is a near monopoly on violence that resides in the state and its institutions.  There is no popular army to oppose them, and no popular wish to translate the political battle into literal bloodshed.  Ukrainians will neither support nor sustain terrorism, even to oust their political oppressors and economic exploiters.

Furthermore, as there was in Chile, there is a strong suspicion inside Ukraine’s security services and on its streets, that the state’s violence monopoly cannot successfully be used, because significant numbers of troops and cops would side with the people against their bosses, the generals and politicians.

Putin’s so-called calm in the face of the Kiev uprising may actually be his Obama moment, in which realizes that in Ukraine, as for Obama in Syria, he has no good option.  Russian interference would only trigger Ukrainian resistance and raise the possibility of truly dangerous instability and chaos.

Hence, today’s standoff continues in Kiev’s Independence Square and in provincial offices around the country.  Hence, the possibility exists that tomorrow could bring real political change to Ukraine. As a media guy said to me about Chile, “It could all happen, if we can just get enough people to say No.”

Certainly from what we see reported from Ukraine, no one there is saying anything better.


Thursday, January 23, 2014


Charlie Savage’s NY Times preview of the scathing review given the NSA’s surveillance program by the federal Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board is focused, quite properly, on the questions the Congressionally-created Board raises about the legality, even the Constitutionality of the whole program.

A majority says, in a 238 page report that was released today, that the NSA’s reading of what Section 215 of the Patriot Act authorizes is completely wrong, and that the NSA’s actions taken under their self-generated power abuse the First and Fourth Amendments of the Constitution. 

“David Medine, the board’s chairman and a former Federal Trade Commission official in the Clinton administration; Patricia M. Wald, a retired federal appeals court judge named to the bench by President Jimmy Carter; and James X. Dempsey, a civil liberties advocate who specializes in technology issues,” Savage reports, want the open-ended surveillance of Americans’ “private” lives ended.  “But the other two members — Rachel L. Brand and Elisebeth Collins Cook, both of whom were Justice Department lawyers in the George W. Bush administration — rejected the finding that the program was illegal,” and want the it continued.

That important disagreement aside, the Times says, all 5 members agreed to 10 surveillance reforms that they want implemented immediately.

“Some of those recommendations,” Savage says, “dovetailed with the steps Mr. Obama announced last week, including limiting analysts’ access to the call records of people no further than two links removed from a suspect, instead of three, and creating a panel of outside lawyers to serve as public advocates in major cases involving secret surveillance programs.

“Other recommendations — like deleting data faster — were not mentioned in the president’s speech. And all members of the board expressed privacy concerns about requiring phone companies to retain call records longer than they normally would, which might be necessary to meet Mr. Obama’s stated goal of finding a way to preserve the program’s ability without having the government collect the bulk data.”

Pardon me, but what nonsense the Obama less-than-a-proposal is!  The tracking technology which has radically reduced any rational expectation of privacy should be kept intact, the President says.  OK by me, you can’t abolish knowledge.  But it is inexcusable that the President leaves the heart of the matter, governance, managing the deep-reaching surveillance technology, the limits placed on tracking, on recorded-keeping, on access, and the oversight to enforce the limits, to be figured out sometime in the future by somebody else.  Even worse are his choices for those somebodies:  the flip-flopping record-breaking persecutor of journalists and whistleblowers, Attorney General Eric Holder, or the Liar, to his Congressional and Judicial monitors, Director of National Intelligence Gen. James Clapper. Oy!  Or as my Grandma would have said, “Feh.”

Hey, Mr. President, what? are you tired or something?  Those decisions are for you.

Obama’s big problem – and it’s a whopper – is, too many Americans simply don’t trust his judgment.  That’s bad enough, but the President makes it worse by claiming that a mistrust that is personal to him extends to the American Government.

That institutional mistrust is real, and is another awful problem, assiduously cultivated, not just by a blame-shedding President, but by selfish 0.1%ers like the Koch brothers, who want government undermined like speeders want the highway patrol off the roads or rotten bond-selling financiers want to practice their manipulations without regulation. 

Rather than  fight for his citizens’ trust by making choices and sticking by them, the President coddles the mistrusters by suggesting, the data about them the government ordered gathered, to which it demands the option of immediate access, will be more private if the phone company or some newly created private company actually keeps it.

First off, if the data is there, and the government has the right to call it in when it says it must, what difference does it make where it puts the nozzle of its vacuum cleaner?  Typically, this whole discussion is a distraction, Obama’s “solution,” a diversion.

It is, at bottom, just more “contracting out” another vital government responsibility.  That worked really well for, didn’t it, and in Iraq and Afghanistan? 

There, poorly-paid soldiers learned their Army didn’t trust them with their generals’ security, preferring to hire much-better-paid private contractors.  Even several of the generals I talked with understood this undermined troop morale and cohesion. 

Also in Iraq,  I saw State Department efforts at public outreach destroyed by their security contractor cowboys and bullies.  Blackwater got rich; Iraqis got bruised or worse, and America got a black eye.

Sometimes, both soldiers and diplomats were needed to rescue contractors who hadn’t bothered to co-ordinate their missions -- or even their schedules -- with either the military or civilian chain of command.  And then there was the persistent corruption on the civilian side, between USG-selected American contractors and local sub-contractors -- literally a billion dollar business.

In building the healthcare websites, contractors consistently failed to meet standards or deadlines, then swept problems under the rug, until opening day left their lax overseers humiliated when nothing worked right.  Had the work been done within the government, by people who knew they would have to live with the results, not move on to their next assignment as soon as their contract ran out, more alarms would have been sounded, louder and earlier.

But, the Times’ Savage, like me, buries the lead, the big question: is the super-charged surveillance worth the trouble?  It sounds to me like his answer is no.  The report also scrutinizes in detail a handful of investigations in which the program was used, finding “no instance in which the program directly contributed to the discovery of a previously unknown terrorist plot or the disruption of a terrorist attack.”

If Big Data can’t see around corners, can’t prevent terrorist attacks, who needs it?

My answer?  We do.

It is true, all the surveillance in the world (which the NSA virtually has) can’t and usually doesn’t pre-empt what Don Rumsfeld brilliantly called, “unknown unknowns.”  There are too many grievances, too many weapons, too many opportunities.  Bad shit will happen.

But, if terrorism cannot be prevented, the costs of practicing it can be raised, and the NSA surveillance system should assist in that.  Even when it doesn’t prevent terrorism every “this time,” it can radically reduce the number of “next times.”

It’s no accident Al Qaeda followed 9/11/01 with literally years without a significant strike.  The World Trade Center and Washington attacks cost the group almost 2 dozen operatives, some with years of training and indoctrination behind them.  Each of the terrorists left behind a history, a trail of connections and associations, people who were taken off the board or driven into hiding and relative ineffectuality, because intelligence services could retrospectively identify them. 

And this was during the technological dark ages; today we’re in the renaissance of the digital dark arts, where the metadata of the multitudes can be scanned much more efficiently.

It will still be a difficult job, making sure that only relevant metadata gets collated for the right reasons, but it can be done.  And only government, not some designated private contractor, can be held responsible to do it right.

You would rather trust Google or the Phone Company?  Not me.

But even done right, no miracles should be expected.  No one consistently predicts the future.  Better understanding of the past, however, can change the future. The networking reconstructions the surveillance system can yield after a terrorist attack can defeat others still short of execution.

There was some good news in the Privacy Board’s report.  In its meticulous examination of NSA surveillance activities, the Board unanimously agreed, it found not a single case of misbehavior, of anyone’s privacy being gratuitously penetrated, not a scintilla of evidence that any snooper was cavalier about citizens’ prerogatives.  This is, of course, no more a guarantee of future behavior than the massive nature of the information-gathering inevitably predicts future misbehavior.

Let’s assume Barack Obama knows all of this, all the pluses and minuses, all the likely limits on success, not just the potential catastrophes of failure, the real risks and realistic expectations from NSA surveillance.  Isn’t it past time he talked honestly to us about where lines of conduct should be drawn?  Isn’t this his mandated Presidential role, what his predecessor called being “the Decider?”   

It is a tough job, but somebody does have to do it. 


Here is one of the cruelest facts of life:  You only get to make peace with your enemies.

Here’s another:  Peace means an end to organized violence.  You do not have peace while the perpetrators of organized violence are not restrained (see Bosnia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Mali etc etc etc).

This, in a nutshell, is what is wrong with America’s insistence on excluding Iran for the negotiations to bring peace to Syria ongoing in Montreux.

“The Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, stated on his website his belief that the talks have little hope of success. ‘Because of the lack of influential players in the meeting, I doubt about the Geneva II meeting's success in fighting against terrorism ... and its ability to resolve the Syria crisis,’ Rouhani said. ‘The Geneva II meeting has already failed.’” 

So long as Iran continues to supply fighters (some Iranians, but many more Hizbullah warriors from Lebanon) in support of Syria’s criminal President Bashar al-Assad, there will not be peace.  Excluding the Iranians from the peace talks does guarantee their failure, since it all but takes away any reason for Teheran to restrain either Assad or Hizbullah.

America offers 2 quasi-rationales for the exclusion: (1) the Iranians have not committed in advance to the goal of the conference, the transitioning out of power of President al-Assad and his government, and (2) the presence of the Iranians would trigger a boycott by our favorite rebel group, the Syrian National Coalition (SNC).

Both points have their flaws: (1)  the Iranian position is more or less the same as the Russian position, but the Russians have not been booted from the talks, rather their participation is considered one of the keys to any potential success; and, (2) the SNC by itself can contribute to peace, but cannot come close to assuring it, as it remains out-gunned and out-organized by the rest of the rebel movement, the radical Islamist forces, many allied to Al Qaeda, who have rejected the talks from the moment they were proposed.     

Negotiations only succeed when all the controlling stakeholders can derive some benefit from them.  Excluding a necessary stakeholder to keep a less crucial one on board makes no sense.  Our rebels need and benefit from peace too much to pull out, no matter what they threaten.

So, who are the stakeholders here?  (1) The wretched Syrian government and its 1%ers, the Assad family and its closest associates; (2)  The Syrian rebel forces; (3) The Syrian people, most of them bullied by, but not loyal to any of the contending forces; (4) Assad’s regional supporters, almost all of them Shi’ites, of whom Iran and Hizbullah are the most important; (5) Assad’s regional opponents, almost all of them Sunnis, of whom Saudi Arabia and Qatar are the biggest funders of the rebels; (6) global kibitzers like Russia, the United States and its allies in Western Europe.

What benefits might convince each of the stakeholders to make and sustain peace? 

(1) For Assad and the other beasts of his herd the prime benefit of agreeing to peace and giving up power would be that they will not only be allowed to live, they might be guaranteed immunity from prosecution, judgment, incarceration and loss of all their worldly goods. As if this opportunity were not enough in itself, the Washington Post editorial board says it might seem more valuable were it more aggressively threatened by the Obama White House.

More on this exercise in facile fatuity later.

(2)  The benefits for the anti-Assad forces are both obvious and, alas, fatally incomplete.  “Peace” declared in Switzerland will not become peace in Syria until the SNC’s fellow rebels, their Islamist rivals in rebellion, are subdued, and, as events in Iraq next door daily illustrate, subduing the jihadis will be hard to do.  But like including the Iranians, subduing the Islamists is not a choice, but a necessity to peace.

(3)  Making “peace” pay real-life dividends for the Syrian people will demand not just freeing them from Assad’s homegrown tyranny and the equally overbearing, mostly foreign, Fundamentalist threat, but freeing themselves from their ruinous addiction to sectarian conflict.  Syria’s majority Sunnis must convince their opponents in the Alawite, Shi’ite, Christian and Maronite communities that they are willing to live civilly, even harmoniously, alongside them, that bygones from this brutal war will indeed be bygones.  In many ways this is a more complex, maybe even more difficult task than defeating the Islamists.  But again, necessary.

(4)  The promise of a Levant ruled by law, and based on inter-communal co-operation would relieve Assad’s allies, Iran and Hizbullah of a conflict that has grown ruinous in blood and treasure.  It also might lead to a future in which both the Iranian government and Hizbullah’s leadership could use their strengths of political and social organization to grant their peoples infinitely better lives, safe from foreign threats or local violence. 

(5)  Peace in Syria would not guarantee, but would certainly make more possible, both a wider peace and even a stable region.  The blessings of peace in Syria would be constantly communicated to the peoples of the rest of the Arabic-speaking world by vigorous and competitive news media, hopefully growing a regional constituency for rule of law and civility.  The chief bankrollers of the Syrian rebellion, Saudi Arabia and especially Qatar are much happier being merchandising states than militarizing states, and a Mideast without war plays directly to their strengths and interests.  The removal of the semi-Shi’ite Alawites from power in Syria, the retreat of Hizbullah back to Lebanon (and even better, back to more civil, less brutal political competition within Lebanon), and the predictable advantages of Sunni majority power in Syria would more than offset having to play live-and-let-live with the Shi’ite triumphalists in Nouri al-Maliki’s government in Baghdad. Selling out their temporary allies-in-regime change, buying them off, or helping kill them, would not, I’m betting, be a big problem for either the Saudis or the Qataris.

(6)  The reduction in bloodshed, and progress towards stability would be the biggest payoffs from peace for almost everyone, from the Syrian people who would no longer be dodging daily bombs and bullets, to the regional rulers in Riyadh and Doha, and the global powers in Moscow and Washington who could go back to making money and self-congratulatory pronouncements.  Another important benefit, for Putin, Obama, Hollande, Cameron and the royal, military or democratic leaders of the Islamic world from  ending the conflict in Syria would be the opportunity to join forces in eliminating the irreconcilable guerillas.  No one in any of these governments and almost no one in their countries would mourn their demise.  

(7)  What benefits could convince Al Qaeda and its allies to call off their war and seek the true triumph of jihad, personal religious purity and discipline?  Probably, there are none, which is why they rejected the peace talks and why they must be defeated. 

But, let’s be honest here.  Worthy as these goals may be, they simply cannot be realized without Iran’s assent.  One monkey, the old saying goes, can stop the show, and in the Mideast, Teheran is the headquarters of one hellacious combination of peace-stoppers.

The opportunity to improve their chances to be accepted into the community of peace-makers, and allowed to prove through actions that they are a nation worthy of respect and equal economic and political treatment has proved quite alluring to Iran in the context of its nuclear ambitions.  If Teheran can be convinced that similar benefits would accrue to them and their people, and their allies from Beirut to Bahrain, Iran might rehabilitate itself to everyone’s profit.

The diplomatic negotiation which may well have put Iran on a path to nuclear restraint was called Geneva I.  The people who have put together, and then tossed Iran out of, this week’s conference in Montreux call it Geneva II, for the same reason the folks who play football in New Jersey’s Meadowlands call themselves the New York Giants and Jets: marketing.

But as the humorist Finley Peter Dunne wrote, “Politics ain’t beanbag;” and peace-making ain’t football.  Branding the conference in the name of the city where a watch-makers convention (really!) displaced the diplomats to the smaller town an hour’s drive away won’t accomplish anything.  Real give and take, even with our enemies, is the only way to make peace a best-selling product.

Oh, yes, -- I mentioned the WaPo editorialists and their suggestion that Barack Obama can force humanitarian concessions (even the Posties don’t think he can force real peace) “by presenting Mr. Assad with the choice of accepting them or enduring U.S. airstrikes.”

As if bluffing a guy into giving up just one of his still supreme arsenal of weapons means you can bluff him out of power itself.  This is just self-inflating, self-deluding crap. 

For the editorialists who, I’m sure, would also recommend that Obama back up his bluff, if it were called, I have my favorite 3-word question, the one policy-makers and conference table commanders never seem to ask themselves, “And then what?”

Lob a few bombs, kill off a bunch of bad guys, and then…??  Wasn’t that Don Rumsfeld’s prescription for Iraq?  Not even the Post’s own eternal optimists would buy that sack of ignorant shit a second time.  Or would they?

Better to try to find a deal that meets almost everyone’s need to think it got them something good.


Tuesday, January 21, 2014


NY Times columnist Tom Friedman offers a powerful, and pointed indictment of American education.  Unfortunately, he undermines his own points.

Friedman cites journalist and author Amanda Ripley, 2 heart-breaking, spirit-broken classroom teachers and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to indict public education as the intellectual nullifier it has become.  He frames his discussion with a familiar question: “Are we falling behind as a country in education, not just because we fail to recruit the smartest college students to become teachers or reform-resistant teachers’ unions, but because of our culture today: too many parents and too many kids just don’t take education seriously enough and don’t want to put in the work needed today to really excel?” 

Such a run-on catalog would hardly seem to need additional culprits, but I’d like to suggest a few, among them the columnist himself.

America has been in measurable competitive decline for more than a generation now, and it is useful that Friedman and his sources offer such dramatic and appalling evidence of how and why.  But -- Friedman’s sentence is not just too long and rambling (an offense I commit far too frequently – so I’m an “expert”), it gets an F for basic grammar.  The clause “because we fail to recruit the smartest college students to become teachers or reform-resistant teachers’ unions,” cannot be allowed to stand.  

As Tom and his vigilant copy editors at the Times know, those last 3 words dangle like a parasitic fungus off the trunk of his sentence.  The all too automatic (did someone trigger the infamous Column Generator?) reference to bad unions is in no way parallel to the preceding phrase.  If it had been written “because of our failure to recruit,” the logic might not have been improved, but at least the grammar would have passed muster, especially, if the second phrase had been changed to either “because of reform-resistant,” or “the reform-resistance of” teachers’ unions.”

But Friedman didn’t write that, and his editors, if there were any, didn’t correct a fourth-graders’ error in the copy, and the rhetorical mess got published by America’s “newspaper of record.”

Thus, the Times’ writer and its editorial process actually enacted for us what’s wrong with Friedman’s climactic portion of blame: “because of our culture today: too many parents and too many kids just don’t take education seriously enough and don’t want to put in the work needed today to really excel?”

Instead of saying, students are often led to lower their own performance standards when respected writers like himself, and fabled systems like the NY Times’ copy-editing go wrong, Friedman blames America’s disastrous failure in education on “our culture” and parents and kids.  This sounds to me just like the argument that the Great Recession was caused by “the culture of Wall Street” and improvident homebuyers? 

Sure, blame “the cloud” and the victims.

But what makes “culture,” and how are its malign aspects distributed to people?  In America, culture for the past 60 years has been created, defined and spread through the mass media, especially by the great elite institutions of those media, like the NY Times and the television networks, and the people who work there.

It is those elite institutions, and their star reporters, columnists, editors and publishers who cultured moral failure through their often indiscriminate celebrations and rare critical examinations of the ascendance of, not a “culture,” but a cohort of identifiable corporate criminals. 

No one seemed to notice when these managerial superstars serially shifted money away from contracted responsibilities to pay for their workers’ pensions and medical care to exploding executive salaries and shareholder profits, or in the case of one of the great stars of 20th Century business management, GE’s Jack Welch, when his company poisoned the Hudson River.  He and his equally culpable corporate underlings did it, but none of them went to jail, or even paid a penny of personal earnings.

More and more blatantly, over the past 40 years, America’s media, and its “top” academies of finance, business, political “science,” economics, and ethics have all actively promulgated, or silently assented to, again, not a “culture of financial impunity,” but a series of individual perpetrations of fraud and theft, obsessive self-interest, and unbridled greed by elite institutions and their highly-paid leaders, all at the expense of their customers and the American public. 

When the NY Times cheaps out on, or disempowers lowly sub-editors, and publishes avoidable illiteracy like Friedman’s, or cranky, vicious inaccuracy like Bill Keller’s recent rant against blogger Lisa Bonchek Adams, it robs and cheats its customers as blatantly as hedge fund villain John Paulsen and his Goldman Sachs collaborator Lloyd Blankfein robbed the sucker-buyers of the made-to-fail Abacus “investment opportunity.”

One more time, this has nothing to do with “culture,” and everything to do with personal failure and malfeasance.  Blaming “the culture” means blaming no one and rewarding misbehavior.

To say, subprime mortgage customers were equally to blame for taking the word of corrupted rating services and trusting the reputations of a big Wall Street money shops like Goldman Sachs is simply wrong.  And so is blaming a “culture” of parents and teachers who can’t seem to get students to do their homework. 

Yes, the home-buying schnooks should have known better the limits on their wealth and income, and yes, many parents and school systems need to do better in instilling in their children the will to work hard and learn much.  But, just as it’s tough to say, “I can’t afford this,” when you’re being told by “experts” that you can, and all the world seems to be on a go-go buying spree based on an unsustainable spike of rising house prices; it’s tough to convince your kid to do his homework, when every day, the authorities in the media industry tolerate sloppy errors or celebrate “winners” who substitute marketing for competence and bluff for preparation or knowledge.  (Democrats and Republicans may each see in the last sentence the recent President of their choice. If politicians got “Board scores,” theirs’ would be slipping even more drastically than the students rated by the testing services.)

Why would anyone who watches Fox News or MSNBC or the more august networks’ Sunday morning Washington talkfests suspect that governance (or journalism) consists not of bloviation, but hard work?  Why would anyone cognizant of Tom Friedman’s fame or salary believe they need to “dot every i and cross every t?”

It isn’t a “cultural choice” to shift budget money from teacher’s salaries or training to buy  standardized tests or common core curricula, it’s a bureaucratic method of ass-covering.  As if a rote list of lessons, and a close count of check marks on worksheets could help students learn how to think, and how to work with others, which are, after all, what schools are for.

It’s not the culture, but the political hacks who perpetrate these frauds, seeking to prove to their constituents that they are “doing the right thing,” when, in fact, they know no more about education than they do about Iraq or Afghanistan.  The unending repetition of these ignorance-based choices is clear evidence that some folks haven’t been doing their homework.

We all need to do our homework, and hold ourselves responsible to throw the political bums out and send the financial crooks to jail. Learning precisely who did wrong, how and why, are all necessary steps to making things better.  It’s not America’s culture, but us, who need to set the better example.

Monday, January 20, 2014


Out here on our little green stripe that separates the High Plains from the southern tailbone of the Rocky Mountains, we don’t watch as much TV as we used to, so we depend on people like Michael Barbaro and Bill Carter of the NY Times bring us up to date on the latest news about TV news, like the break-up in the romance between MSNBC and Chris Christie.

MSNBC fell in love with the Garden State Governor for a very good reason: he would talk to them, which very few Republicans would be caught dead doing (because they fear becoming politically dead within minutes of their appearance).

Christie reciprocated MSNC’s ardor because being “the Republican who can talk to Democrats” would enhance his chance of winning a Presidential election, if it didn’t kill him in the primaries.

Then the kiss-kiss turned to bang-bang when 4 days of New Jersey commuter Hell in September became a huge story in December.  Evidence strongly suggested the hours-long paralyzing I-95 traffic jams had been intentionally created by Christie’s staffers and appointees to the Port Authority.

This whiff of scandal sent both the network and the governor rushing back to their “bases.”  For MSNBC, this meant delighting their mostly (oh, Hell, probably entirely) liberal Democrat audience by endlessly banging on “the bully’s bullies.”

Reports the Times, “Over the nine-day period since the controversy erupted, MSNBC has dedicated nearly twice as much coverage to Mr. Christie as CNN and about three times as much as Fox News, according to Mediaite, a blog that tracks the industry. Detailed dissections of the case, and a rotating cast of indignant lawmakers from New Jersey, are now a staple of the network.”

It is not surprising that Christie has taken this personally, hitting back with criticism of the channel and turning aside requests from MSNBC’s bookers and show hosts. 

So far, so what? 

Christie is under no obligation to submit himself to public flaying, and until the story of the political strangulation of the George Washington Bridge goes away, his reply to MSNBC, the Jerseyese “I don’wanna tawkabouddit,” is perfectly appropriate. 

If, as I suspect (see: this story has marathoner’s legs, the Governor may not be seen on MSNBC for a while, since, as he showed in his “apology” news conference, confession is not a Christie specialty.

This is politics and politics is news, and MSNBC’s news agenda is presently in conflict with Chris Christie’s political agenda.

So, who cares if Christie plays to the ever-more-conservative Republicans he needs (if he’s to have any political future) by acting mad at MSNBC?

But, I care when MSNBC’s hosts act sad about losing Chris.  Turns out they were “friends.”

“[Mika] Brzezinski called him ‘my friend,’” note Barbaro and Carter, “her co-anchor Joe Scarborough called him ‘my main man,’ and Chris Matthews referred to him, with the familiarity of a family member, as ‘the guy we like around here.’

“On Sunday,” the Times reports, “Ms. Brzezinski still spoke fondly of Mr. Christie and his wife, Mary Pat, ‘whom I have the biggest admiration for.’”

I have known a lot of politicians whom I liked and admired, and who, I’ll bet, would have made great friends.  One, I actually invited to my house, but that was only after he had retired from politics.  As long as there was a chance he’d be more than a source, but a story, he was kept at arms’ length. 

This is why, although I was twice based in Washington, for a total of 17 years, I never aspired to be a “Washington journalist.” 

Washington may have once ruled the world, and still can uniquely rock it, but Washington, political Washington, does not live in the world.  It lives in the Capitol and works so hard inside the Beltway that it rarely ventures outside it.  Which explains why the inmates know so little about the lives lived “out there.”

Almost everything political Washington thinks it knows, it learned from someone else, which makes them as dependent as our drone shooters in Yemen, who are only as good as the unbiased accuracy of their local sources (whose record for inaccurate targeting, killing innocent civilians, has been appalling.)  This is also true for Washington journalists who rarely reality test what their “inside sources” tell them about the "real world.".  But, inside the Beltway, this crippling handicap is largely ignored, because the particular realities of the world are subsumed in the reality of Capitol City political conflict. 

The best sources on that game are the players and their associates.  Often, they are not just sources; they are the story: "Congressman X to investigate Y,"  "Senator S says such and such."  Nowhere outside Washington is the universal overlap of opinions and assholes so highly valued as breaking news. 

Where access to sources (and not access to “the scene of the crime”) is the key to successful reporting, granting access becomes a “friendly” act, which is reciprocated by “friendly” coverage.  In Washington, professional friendship is reinforced by social friendship.  You can’t cultivate sources at parties or events, if you’re not invited.  And no one knowingly invites a skunk to a Washington garden party.

This may explain why, every election pollsters say, “American voters want change,” and almost nothing changes in Washington, where incumbency, and the incurious, militantly conventional reporting that enables it, are chronic afflictions.

Until the actual emails or text messages or Flickr accounts confirming a miscreant’s misdeeds are too public to give a pass to, friends don’t badmouth friends.  

You cannot honestly cover a friend, was always my assumption, so better never to be a friend than to have to betray that friendship.

Of course, this was when my stock in trade was news (before I loosed the opinionated commentator of blogspot), when my credibility depended on my disconnection from, as well as my reporting and knowledge of and  insight into, a story. I “interviewed” people; I did not conduct “friendly chats” with them.

This not to say that friendly chats cannot turn up as much information as less chummy interrogations; Bob Woodward has proved that, even as he has proved his “friendship” to his sources in his books.  But, notwithstanding their magisterial tone, and often deep reporting, Woodward’s books are less fact-based journalism or analytic history than tendentious collections of particular "friends'" inside views.

The Dagwood and Blondie of Morning Joe specialize in chummy chatter around what might as well be a breakfast table, and they, like Woodward, often have something interesting to say.  But they talk about news, but they do not report it.  One proof of that distinction is that newspeople neither celebrate their friends (while they are), nor mourn their disaffection (after they aren’t).   

It goes against our job.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014


I’ve been all abuzz, the past day and a half about “net neutrality.”  What set me off was a sense that the lawyers, all 66 of them counting the 3 judges of the DC Court of Appeals, and 63 pleaders for various and sundry interests in the case, were  complicating issues that were very simple.

But, of course, simplicity can be complicated.

Here are a few of the, to me at least, remarkably simple issues at stake in the net neutrality case.

First, let’s define the term “net neutrality.” 

For all forms of mass communication there are just 2 essential elements: content and distribution.  What “net neutrality” means is, on the Internet, everyone can contribute content and all content is distributed equally. 

So, far this perfectly democratic economy has worked pretty well.  In roughly 30 years the internet has become by far the most massively used, most information-packed means of communication in human history.  Innovations in both content and distribution have been broad and deep and constant, and more than profitable enough to sustain dramatic growth.

Even if entrepreneurs had to offer their products and services to an inefficiently indiscriminate audience to reach their target: people with money to spend, the payoff to them sufficed, and the access the free-loaders got without spending a dime paid off for them in increasing knowledge and understanding and, perhaps, fellow-feeling.

Now comes yesterday’s decision, a ruling which does nothing less than turn the heretofore successful democratic economy of internet communication into just another branch of the market economy.

What this means is, ISPs, Internet Service Providers, while pledging to keep the content contribution stream wide open, may discriminate in how that content is distributed, with “better service,” faster, higher quality, wider distribution, now for sale to the highest bidders.  This is great for the oligarchy of ISPs, who now have a new source of income, and for the oligarchy of big content providers, who will now be able to pay their way to superior access to markets, while shunting their smaller, less rich competitors aside.

According to yesterday’s winners, Verizon, Comcast, Sony Entertainment et al, this fountain of fresh money will water a garden of creativity, with content creators now being offered new and better funded platforms for their insights, innovations and entertainments.

But, before yesterday, did any visitor to the internet feel deprived of creative offerings?  And is not one of the charms of the internet that, given the merest bit of Googlography, you can as easily access small-time content providers (SELF-INTEREST ALERT!!) like me, as the latest new thinking from big spenders like General Motors, General Electric, or F**kbook? 

It now looks like I and other penny-ante contentists, will be shunted to the slow lane, literally, and for “ordinary” users, their internet may be analogous to “basic cable.”   So guess who the big losers were in yesterday’s decision.  Yep, us.

If the day before yesterday’s net neutrality wasn’t broke, why did the Federal Court fix it?

That, too, is remarkably simple to explain.

As Judge David Tatel wrote in his decision, as simple as 1, 2, 3.     

(1) “Even though the Commission has general authority to regulate in this arena, it may not impose requirements that contravene express statutory mandates.

(2) “Given that the Commission has chosen to classify broadband providers in a manner that exempts them from treatment as common carriers, the Communications Act expressly prohibits the Commission from nonetheless regulating them as such.”

(3) “We think it obvious that the Commission would violate the Communications Act were it to regulate broadband providers as common carriers. Given the Commission’s still-binding decision to classify broadband providers not as providers of telecommunications services” but instead as providers of “information service. ... A telecommunications carrier shall be treated as a common carrier under this [Act] only to the extent that it is engaged in providing telecommunications services.”

Here’s a simple translation: The FCC speaks with a forked tongue. 

The Commission is meant to be the ultimate bulwark of public interest in the now almost entirely privately owned American mass communications industry.  Its public stance in Verizon vs. FCC  was that it was acting to protect the public freedoms inherent in net neutrality.  But that was effectively a sham.  Because, as Judge Tatel pointed out, literally again and again and again, the key to the case was that the Commission was trying to use “common carrier” regulations it had itself given away..

The FCC, since 2002 has defined what broadband services provide, Judge Tatel wrote, “not as telecommunications,” but as “information,” and common carriers, by definition, deal only in “telecommunications.”  This sweet little bit of quiet lawyering was promulgated by Michael Powell, the head of President George W. Bush’s FCC, the most completely corporatist chair in FCC history (and presently the head of the Cable TV industry trade association).

In 2009, a new President, Barack Obama took over, having campaigned as a proponent  of net neutrality.  He installed as his FCC chair an old law school friend, Julius Genachowski, who then promulgated what were called new rules, rules referred to as the Open Internet order and which were allegedly based on net neutrality.

Unfortunately, Genachowski talked the Obama talk, but he walked past Powell’s rule, the one  removing the internet from common carrier regulation, without actually changing it. 

This jurisdictional malfunction, Judge Tatel also repeatedly wrote in his new opinion, had been specifically called to the FCC’s attention in 2010, during another legal case the Commission lost. 

“For the second time in four years,” Judge Tatel noted in 2014, “we are confronted with a Federal Communications Commission effort to compel broadband providers to treat all Internet traffic the same regardless of source—or to require, as it is popularly known, ‘net neutrality.’”  And “This is not the first time the Commission has asserted that section 706(a) grants it authority to regulate broadband,” and lost in Federal Court.”

Genachowski’s successor, Tom Wheeler, as Edward Wyatt pointed out in the New York Times, came to the FCC after a career as “a lobbyist for the cable industry and wireless phone companies,” the very people delighted by what went down in court.

Wheeler, also, Wyatt reported, “has said he supports an open Internet, but he also has expressed willingness to allow companies to experiment with new ways of delivering Internet service.”

If Wheeler plans to get these new services to the public for free, he hasn’t said so, and now, his lawyers’ inevitable failure before the Court of Appeals seems to have opened the floodgates for services for sale.

Brad Cacos in PC World:

“Net neutrality advocates fear that without rules in place, big companies like Netflix, Disney, and ESPN could gain advantage over competitors by paying ISPs to provide preferential treatment to their company's data. For example, YouTube might pay extra so that its videos load faster than Hulu's on the ISP's network.

CNN Money puts the same idea into a contrary frame:

“Net neutrality advocates want to preserve the Web's status quo, in which providers such as Verizon and Time Warner Cable can't auction off priority traffic rights to one site over another, or impose tolls for high-bandwidth sites such as video streamers Netflix and Hulu.”

Verizon hailed the decision in the kind of dissembling language for which American capitalism has become notorious, opining that the court's ruling "will not change consumers' ability to access and use the Internet as they do now.

"The court's decision will allow more room for innovation, and consumers will have more choices to determine for themselves how they access and experience the Internet," the company said.

Here’s a translation of that from Craig Aaron, president and CEO of the digital rights group Free Press   “[The Court’s] ruling means that Internet users will be pitted against the biggest phone and cable companies,” Aaron says, “and in the absence of any oversight, these companies can now block and discriminate against their customers’ communications at will.

"[T]he biggest broadband providers will race to turn the open and vibrant Web into something that looks like cable TV," Aaron’s statement continued. "They'll establish fast lanes for the few giant companies that can afford to pay exorbitant tolls and reserve the slow lanes for everyone else."


Pay-for-your-play, Brian Fung of the Washington Post reported, is likely to be the post-decision order of the day.

“At stake here is an Internet provider's ability to charge Web companies such as Netflix for better service, which public interest advocates say may harm consumers.

Verizon,” he noted has just such a pricing plan in mind. 

"I’m authorized to state from my client today that but for these rules we would be exploring those types of arrangements," said Verizon lawyer Helgi Walker in September.


Can this Mardi Gras of monetization be stopped?  CNN Money quoted former FCC commissioner Michael Copps, now an adviser to the advocacy group Common Cause, urging the commission to preserve the Open Internet rules, by simply heeding the Court’s repeated warnings, and redefining “common carrier” to –as Sam Goldwyn might have said it, “include broadband in.”

"The Court's decision today,” said Copps, “is poised to end the free, open and uncensored Internet that we have come to rely on. Without prompt corrective action by the Commission to reclassify broadband, this awful ruling will serve as a sorry memorial to the corporate abrogation of free speech."

But Stuart Benjamin, a former FCC staffer writing for The Volokh Conspiracy, says the essence of the Court’s opinion need not be awful at all, except for Verizon and its fellow ISP plaintiffs:

Because, he says, the “D.C. Circuit opinion suggests the permissibility of a different form of “no-blocking” rule (one that the FCC’s general counsel at oral argument endorsed and claimed was the no-blocking rule the FCC in fact promulgated, but the D.C. Circuit read the rule differently).  [And] most importantly, the D.C. Circuit majority reads section 706 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 as providing significant regulatory authority to the FCC.”

As Benjamin noted, the Court went out of its way to say, the FCC does have the power to regulate the internet, and if it could manage to do this relatively simple task of re-writing its own regulations, “It could classify broadband Internet providers as common carriers under Title II (as it had initially announced it would do back in 2010) and implement the net neutrality regulations that way. And of course Congress could change everything by passing new legislation.  But I’m not holding my breath.”

Why the pessimism?  Because this is America 2014, and big money, and big lobbying rule, and often “reform” laws, like the new regs meant to rein in Wall Street, contain little lawyerly time bombs, which when read more carefully than legislators often do, have exactly the opposite effect of what was allegedly intended.

In this case, Obama campaigned on defending net neutrality, his FCC Chair declared he would make it so, and when the rulebook hit the court, the Judges had no choice but to point out, the Commission had destroyed, originally by commission, then by omission, its own purported position..

WaPo’s Fung says, the FFC should be able to reclassify broadband as a common carrier.  But he says, it won’t “be easy, as major industry players are likely to resist any attempt to reclassify broadband under Title II of the Communications Act.”

"The reclassification," said John Bergmayer,  a senior staff attorney at Public Knowledge, which supported the FCC's rule “is legally clear,” but politically tricky.

I guess it would be crass to point out, as neither Fung nor Bergmayer do, the real political trick here is the faux-reform of the soi-disant “reformist” Administration.  Its FCC is as deep in the pocket of Big Media as its Treasury Department was captive to Wall Street while writing the crucial details of “finance reform.”

It’s the very definition of complicated simplicity: it’s called duplicity.