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Monday, September 26, 2016

Schemes and scams from an unlikely place

U.S. computer networks, government, commercial, and private, are under almost constant attack, many of these attacks coming from abroad. Computer, mail, and telephone scams abound, many also coming from abroad. The standard villains when we hear of hacking attacks against our computer systems are the Russians, the Chinese, and on occasion the North Koreans. When we hear of computer scams, we usually think of the Nigerian groups who are famous for this activity.
There is, however, another source of both these assaults that seldom gets mentioned in the press; India. India, location of many computer self-help desks for U.S. companies, supplier of many IT techs who keep companies here going, is also the source of a lot of vicious computer hacking attacks, and at least one telephone scam that I’m personally aware of.
My son is a computer engineer for a Virginia-based company that provides hardware and software globally. Many of his colleagues are Indian nationals, who he describes as some of the best in the business. But, every coin has two sides. If some of the best programmers and computer engineers come from India, it’s safe to assume that there are also a fair number of black hat hackers who will try to penetrate networks either for the sheer challenge, or to do harm.
I have personal experience with this. This morning, I woke up to find emails from my email provider, and some of my social network accounts informing me that there’d been an attempt to access these accounts from in IP address in India. Fortunately, my firewalls and notification protocols prevented total compromise of my system and accounts, but I had to spend hours that could have been devoted to other tasks, changing all my passwords—a real pain in the . . . neck.
I’m pretty sure I’m not the only victim of this penetration attempt. Another thing that’s come out of India is a phone scam that is really, I mean, really annoying. Your phone rings; caller ID shows a number and the label ‘Wireless Caller.’ If you’re the type to answer calls from unknown numbers, you’ll pick up and hear what gets left on my answering machine; a clearly digital voice of a woman with no discernible accent informs you that the IRS has filed a court case against you and that you must call the number they give you to get the details. I’m not sure what this phishing expedition is looking for, but no way in hell am I calling that number. I’ve reported this to the IRS twice—because I’ve received this call from at least two different area codes and numbers. Not that it’ll help. My son-in-law, who is a postal inspector (the Post Office’s law enforcement arm), informs me that this scam is known to be based in India, but U.S. authorities are unable to track it to a specific address, and even if they did, it’s unlikely the Indian government would cooperate in shutting it down.

So, what am I saying here? The threats to our computer systems are real. Con artists are lurking behind every computer screen or at the end of every phone call, looking for a weakness to exploit. A lot of them come from the places that get the lion’s share of the news, but not all of them.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

How secure are our government computer systems, and does Congress really give a damn?

With all the hyper-partisan noise about Hillary Rodham Clinton’s admittedly unwise use of a private email server during her tenure as secretary of state, an important issue has not been raised in the media among the flurry of coverage of this issue: just how secure are all those government servers that she—and several of her predecessors, for that matter—declined to use?
The furor over Clinton’s use of a private server is a lot of smoke without a flicker of flame. There’s not a scintilla of evidence indicating that the server she used was ever compromised. There is, however, a lot of evidence that U.S. Government computer systems, including those of the Department of Defense (DOD), Department of State (DOD), and other government agencies, have been repeatedly penetrated by hostile hackers, believed to have originated from Russia and China.
In the mid-1990s, for example, it was estimated that on any given day, 5 to 6 DOD computer systems were controlled by hackers. In 1996, DOD’s Milnet computer system (including the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Defense Logistics Agency) were compromised. In 2006, the DOD’s unclassified email was hacked, shutting the system down for several days; the intrusion was believed to have originated abroad. In response to the early intrusions, plans were laid in 1996 to create a Defense Cyber Command to deal with them, and in 2006, the US Air Force Command was created.
These problems were known to the public, but you can search all you want and you’re unlikely to find much media coverage of the issue; certainly not to the degree that HRC’s email server is covered. For instance, in 1998, a group of hackers testified before congress on just how easy it would be to bring down the Internet. That should have provoked a flurry of frantic media coverage—but, it didn’t.
For that matter, nor did the 2008 compromise of DOD’s classified computer system, or again in 2015 when DOD’s unclassified email system was again hacked.
As for the Department of State, in 2014, the DOS email system was hacked and had to be shut down. At the same time, the White House email system was targeted, but as far as we know that attempt was a failure. As far as we know.
There was a momentary upswing of media coverage when the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) system was hacked twice in 2015 (supposedly by hackers in China), compromising over 25 million social security numbers, and exposing current and former government employees to hostile action and exposure of their personal data.
If congress was really interested in the security of government computer systems, one would assume that these incidents would be the subject of dozens of hearings and inquiries. Maybe someone up on the Hill is interested, but search as hard as you wish, you won’t find any evidence of that interest.
Maybe, after the November elections, when the dust is settled, some member of congress who is serious about doing his or her job will take on this issue. I, for one though, will not be holding my breath waiting for that to happen, because it offers no political advantage. Taking the necessary actions to really secure our government computer networks will require a lot of hard work and serious thought. The poor schmucks who have to work with those systems are working hard to get the job done. But, the politicians who should be providing them with the legislation and resources to get the job done have their ey

Monday, September 19, 2016

When Laws and Regulations are not enough

When the Korean War began in June 1950, the United States Army, after five years of occupation duty in Japan, was ill-prepared for combat in the rugged terrain of the Korean Peninsula. It was less prepared, however, for dealing with an enemy that ignored the Geneva Convention and subjected Prisoners of War (POW) to brutal and inhumane treatment. At the end of the war, the American government was shocked when 21 American POWs refused repatriation and took up residence in China, or to learn that one in three American POWs had not only collaborated with the enemy, but had mistreated fellow prisoners.
Despite provisions in the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) that made collaboration with the enemy or abuse of comrades criminal acts, it still occurred because American military personnel were not prepared to resist the physical torture and brainwashing employed by their captors. Determined to do something about it, the Department of Defense developed the Military Code of Conduct, a simple six-article code to guide American forces in combat or captivity in the future. With only a couple of changes since promulgated by President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Executive Order 10631 in 1955, the Code of Conduct has since been the legal, moral, and ethical basis for military conduct, nor replacing, but supplementing the existing laws and regulations.
Why do we need Codes of Conduct?
With the many laws and regulations we have that regulate the conduct of government employees, one might legitimately ask why separate codes of conduct are even necessary. As the Defense Department learned during and after the Korean War, having laws prohibiting conduct is often not enough to enable individuals to make appropriate decisions in situations of uncertainty.
In the last several decades more and more organizations, government and private, have come to the realization that laws and regulations alone are not enough to equip people to do the right thing.
Doctors, nurses, firemen, lawyers, police officers, therapists, and accountants are among the many professions that have a formal code of ethical conduct in addition to the man laws and regulations they must abide by. The diplomatic and government officials of the UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Nepal, among others, have codes of ethical behavior to complement the laws and regulations that guide their conduct. Sadly, one very important profession is missing from the list of those having formal codes of conduct—the U.S. Foreign Service.
The rationale for codes of conduct is that they enable individuals to make difficult decisions, especially when those decisions edge into the gray areas of ethics and morality. They help protect employees who would otherwise be tempted to compromise their integrity under the influence of unscrupulous individuals. Codes also improve an organization’s external reputation by publicizing the goals and the behaviors that are in line with those goals, establishing clear expectations, and holding members of the organization accountable for their actions.
Following are the commonly accepted traits of a profession:
1.      Performs specialized activities based on possession of advanced specialized knowledge, and the activities are primarily intellectual in nature rather than physical or manual.
2.      Confidential relationship between practitioners and their clients or employers.
3.      A substantial degree of public obligation by virtue of the specialized knowledge practitioners possess and employ in their work.
4.      Practitioners share a common heritage of knowledge, skill, and status.
5.      Work is performed in the general public interest.
6.      Practitioners are bound by a distinctive ethical code in interactions with clients, colleagues, and the public.
Number 6, codes of ethical conduct, is perhaps one of the most important traits of a profession, because it is the organization’s institutional ethics that underpin the other five traits, and it is through a formal, broadly understood code of ethics that organizations earn public trust and support. A commonly understood and accepted code is also critical in building esprit within an organization. Just as the Military Code of Conduct reassures members of the armed services that those serving beside them adhere to a code of honorable behavior, in an organization, having a code of ethical conduct helps members know that their colleagues ‘have their backs.’
Laws and regulations, while necessary are not sufficient
As previously mentioned, the U.S. Foreign Service does not have a formal code of ethical conduct for its members. It stands out among the other Western democracies, and even a few non-western countries in that regard.
Coming as I did from a military background, I noted this lack early in my 30 years in the Foreign Service, but didn’t find it particularly troubling until about midway through my career. During one of my assignments I observed two incidents and their disparate handling that highlighted the problem of relying on laws and regulations alone to control behavior. In the first incident, an American embassy staffer became romantically involved with a local. When an effort to end the relationship resulted in the local staging a rather noisy demonstration in front of the chancery, the American employee was immediately sent home by the ambassador, using the ‘loss of confidence’ authority that all chiefs of mission have. Some months later, foreign mercenaries were present in the country, and the ambassador published a written policy stating that only three officials in the embassy were to have any contact with them. An American staffer (not one of the three the ambassador authorized) began a romantic relationship with one of the mercenaries, going so far as to allow him to spend the night in embassy-controlled quarters, during which stays an armed member of the local military would station himself outside the compound gate. In this case, the ambassador, fearing the employee might sue the State Department or the ambassador for intruding on her ‘private’ life, took no action and ordered the DCM to take no action—to allow the employee, who was transferring in three months, to leave quietly.
Why, one might wonder, would two similar actions be dealt with in such a disparate manner? In neither case was a law or formal regulation—in the State Department, the formal regulations are in the Foreign Affairs Manuals (FAM)—was broken. In the second case, one might term the ambassador’s policy a ‘regulation,’ but for the sake of argument, let’s say it didn’t quite rise to that level. What was violated, in both cases, was local policy and common sense. But, one employee was punished by being ejected from the country, while the other was allowed to leave quietly. Why? It was a judgement call, of course. In the first case, the employee took the punishment quietly, while in the second, it was judged that the employee might rock the boat and file a grievance. While I can understand the decision-making process at work here, it struck me at the time, and still does, that this wasn’t a fair and equitable way to deal with these situations. The regulations were interpreted differently for two nearly identical violations.
This was brought home even more forcefully for me recently when I read about the case of the State Department employee who was punished for refusing to obey an order to violate the Federal Acquisition Regulations (FAR). I’m not directly familiar with this case, but what appeared in media accounts left me fuming.
According to numerous reports, State Department employee Timothy Rainey was instructed by his supervisor to pressure a contractor to rehire a fired subcontractor, an action that would have violated the FAR. When Rainey refused to comply, he was given a negative performance evaluation and relieved of his contracting duties. Rainey filed a complaint with the Merit Systems Protection Board (MPSB), claiming that the Department punished him inappropriately for his refusal to obey instructions that violated federal rules. The MPSB disagreed, finding that the ‘right to disobey’ provision of the Whistelblower Protection Act, which protects federal employees from retaliation for refusing to obey an order that would require the employee to violate a federal law, didn’t apply in this situation because he hadn’t been ordered to specifically  violate federal law. The U.S. Court of Appeals agreed with the MPSB decision, finding that rules and regulations are not laws. The irony in this case is that the MPSB, in coming to its conclusion, cited a Supreme Court decision in favor of a TSA employee who’d been fired for leaking that TSA had cut air marshals on long-distance flights to save money. In this case, the court found that the employee was entitled to whistleblower protection because he’d violated a regulation, not a law.
The foregoing highlights the weakness inherent in a system to enforce ethical conduct that relies on legal interpretations alone. What it illustrates is that actions can be ‘legal’ according to the law, but ‘wrong’ in so many other ways.
Let’s take another look at the military’s experience in the Korean War. The UCMJ is quite explicit in its prohibition of certain behaviors. The seven main articles in the UCMJ that govern conduct in combat or captivity are:
            Article 90: Willfully disobeying a superior commissioned officer
            Article 92: Failure to obey an order or regulation
            Article 93: Cruelty and maltreatment
            Article 99: Misbehavior before the enemy
            Article 100: Subordinate compelling surrender
            Article 105: Misconduct as a prisoner
            Article 104: Aiding the enemy
Yet, despite all these statutes, one in three American prisoners of war collaborated with the enemy; many PWs physically abused their fellow prisoners. What explanation is there for this? The finding of the committee that was established by the Secretary of Defense after the war was that the regulations and laws were insufficient to encourage the desired behavior; that what was needed was some over-arching code that inspired service members to act in ways that complied with the laws and regulations without necessarily being related to a specific law or regulation. The Code of Conduct was designed to encourage not just ‘legal’ behavior, but ‘right’ and ‘honorable’ behavior.

Does the U.S. Foreign Service need a code of ethical conduct?
The Department of State and the other agencies employing members of the Foreign Service, have a number of regulations regarding ethical behavior. The State Department, for example, has the Foreign Affairs Manual (FAM), in particular, 11 FAM: Legal and Political Affairs, which sets out prohibited conduct and financial disclosure rules for all State Department employees. In addition, State has published ethical guidelines on a number of occasions, and a number of bureaus, such as Consular Affairs and Diplomatic Security have established ethical guidelines for personnel assigned to their areas of responsibility.
All of these are laudable and necessary, but, in my view, not sufficient. The FAM regulations, despite the court ruling, are legally-based and define prohibited behavior. Moreover, the standards of conduct, or prohibited behavior, are contained in a thick document that is not that easy for employees to access and that is virtually inaccessible to the public. The various bureau codes are fine, insofar as they pertain to performance of duties in those specific areas, but Foreign Service personnel serve across all bureaus of State, in the other foreign affairs agencies, and on assignment to other federal, state, local and international organizations. This calls for a code of conduct that applies to all Foreign Service personnel, in all situations.
I’d like to say that the aforementioned Rainey case is an isolated incident, but my observations over thirty years tell me otherwise. Despite the volumes of legislation and regulations, there continue to be situations that are in ethical gray areas; cases of inequitable treatment and inappropriate behavior that not only threaten to undermine the morale of the service, but in some cases erode the public’s faith in the Foreign Service as an institution.
A well-designed diplomatic code of ethical conduct, on the other hand, could provide clear ethical standards for diplomatic practitioners, and a reference point that those outside the diplomatic profession could use to assess the performance and behavior of American diplomats. It allows the individual to know what’s expected as acceptable behavior, and provides a guide to making decisions that’s in line with the goals of the organization. By setting clear expectations, it protects the individual practitioner from exploitation by unscrupulous people, and establishes core aspirational values to guide individuals at all levels of the institution. The external reputation of the institution is enhanced when everyone is held accountable by a commonly shared code of ethics.
Who should develop the Foreign Service code?
In my conversations with Foreign Service colleagues on this subject, it has been pointed out on several occasions that the Department of State has published codes of ethical behavior a number of times over the past decade, and moreover, several bureaus within State (Consular Affairs and Diplomatic Security, for instance) have codes of conduct, so the Foreign Service as an institution has no need of one.
With all due respect, I believe they are wrong. While the various ethical codes promulgated by the Department of State are valuable, and laudable, the Foreign Service is an institution established by law, and while the vast majority of Foreign Service personnel do work at State, the Foreign Service is separate from State. Foreign Service personnel also work at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), Commerce, Agriculture, Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), and the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG). Like lawyers, doctors, and other professionals, all personnel have to abide by the rules and regulations of the agency or organization for which they work, but other professions also have a unifying professional code of professional conduct. In the military, the activities of army, navy, and air force personnel are quite different, but the Military Code of Conduct is an ethical code that binds them all, regardless of rank or service.
The most effective codes are those that members of the profession feel ownership of. It would seem logical, therefore, that a code of ethical conduct for the Foreign Service should originate from within the Foreign Service itself, and the most logical home for such an effort is the body that represents the entire Service, the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA).
The groundwork for such an effort has already been laid. In 2012, AFSA established the Professionalism and Ethics Committee (PEC), subsequently renamed the Committee on the Foreign Service Profession and Ethics. This ad hoc committee was made up of volunteers dedicated to enhancing the Foreign Service as a profession and promoting the ethical conduct of the nation’s foreign affairs. Having just retired after 30 years in the service, I was honored to be named the first chair of this committee. With the assistance of the Institute of Government Ethics (IGE), we undertook a number of initiatives. One of the first was a survey of AFSA members in 2013, asking them, among other things, to identify the core values they feel are associated with the Foreign Service as a profession.
While a number of traits were mentioned in survey responses, the four that were overwhelmingly chosen as reflecting the highest standards of public service were:
Honesty – Being truthful, transparent and balanced.
Respect  - Giving full consideration to competing perspectives, exercising service discipline, respecting laws, customs, and practices of the United States and the host country, and engaging in a civil and courteous with all persons with whom we interact.
Responsibility – Putting the U.S. Constitution, U.S. interests, and policy objectives before self-interest, and utilizing all resources in the public’s best interest.
Fairness – Acting solely according to the merits of the case at handing and impartially serving, to the best of my ability, the elected administration.
These four traits represent the views of the AFSA membership as reflected in responses to the 2013 survey. While these are the core values as members of the Foreign Service see them, they in no way contradict the values, regulations, or laws of the organizations we serve. On the contrary, they reinforce them, and signal our aspiration to hold ourselves to an even higher standard. Like the physician who abides by the rules of the employing hospital, but at the same time honors the Hippocratic creed to ‘do no harm,’ the Foreign Service should aspire to be the epitome of a front-line force protecting the nation, its people, and its values.

I call upon AFSA, therefore, to step up and do what a professional association is designed to do; take the necessary actions to enhance the status of the Foreign Service as a profession and of AFSA members as practitioners of diplomacy. Establishing a code of conduct is but one of the things needed to achieve that goal, but it would be a useful first step

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Why doesn't the media swarm all over the Trump Foundation?

The editorial drumbeat continues, with calls for closing the Clinton Foundation even from those media outlets that support Clinton—because even though no wrongdoing has been proven, the ‘optics’ are bad. Okay, enough! Let’s call a timeout on this story and do a comparable bit of editorializing and handwringing about the Trump Foundation. What’s the Trump Foundation, you ask? You weren’t aware of it? I’m not surprised, given the paucity of coverage it’s gotten from the mainstream media. Well, let me fill you in on this little-known aspect of Donald Trump that American media, for the most part, finds less interesting than his crude, arrogant behavior.
The Donald J. Trump Foundation, founded in 1987, ostensibly to funnel Trump’s charitable giving to veterans groups and other needy organizations, was headquartered in New York. Good luck in finding them on the Internet. There’s lots about Eric Trump’s foundation (Eric is the Donald’s son), and tons of stories about the Foundation’s claims, and some of its problems, but no direct link to the Foundation itself. Strange for a charitable organization that got the bulk of its donations from individuals.
Here, though, is what you can learn if you type ‘Trump Foundation’ into a search engine:
-         As of December 31, 2014, the Foundation had assets of $1.3 million dollars, received gifts of $497,400, and gave $591,450 in donations. No details on the nature of those donations (was in cash, or as has been reported, free golf and other perks?).
-         When the Florida Attorney General’s office was considering a fraud suit against Trump University, Florida AG Pam Bondi solicited a campaign donation from Trump (he denies having spoken to her). She subsequently received $25,000 from the Trump Foundation, a violation of the law, as charitable foundations are not allowed to make political contributions. When this was outed, Trump reimbursed the Foundation from his personal funds, and the Foundation paid the IRS a $2,500 fine. Bondi got to keep the money rather than, as the law requires, giving it back to the Foundation. Oh, and shortly after receiving the ‘donation,’ she decided that there was no case against Trump University.
-         Trump has received millions of dollars from Saudis renting his expensive properties in New York, being used for the Saudi delegation to the UN.
-         Since he has yet to release his tax returns, there are still unanswered questions about the nature of his business relationships with Russia.
These are just a few of the background questions about Trump that the mainstream media has failed to deploy battalions of reporters to dig into, as they do each time something about Clinton comes up.

I, for one, would love to read that reporting.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Why won't the mainstream media dig into Trump's history?

 Ever since it became clear that Hillary Clinton was the front-runner, and eventually the nominee of the Democratic Party for this year’s presidential election, we’ve been treated to a steady diet of her shortcomings, thankfully, only a few Whitewater references, but a never ending string of articles and editorials about her emails, Benghazi, and the Clinton Foundation. What I look for every day, but have yet to see; is the same degree of media scrutiny of her opponent’s checkered past. Except for the occasional article, the mainstream media seems uninterested in examining the skeletons in Donald Trump’s closets—at least not to the same degree they do Clinton.
He’s just a crude, ego-driven trust fund kid, you say, with no regard for the finer social graces, you say? With Clinton, the things in her background go to the issue of trustworthiness. Aw, come on, I reply. Let’s look at some of the bones buried deep in the Trump closet, and you tell me they don’t have anything to do with whether or not he can be trusted.
First, there are his business interests. If the Clinton Foundation is a conflict of interest problem, how can Trump’s far flung business interests, some of them with faint connections to organized crime, not be a potential conflict of interest? If taking money from donors to a charitable foundation exposes you to possible manipulation, what does profiting from the actions and influence of mob do?
From his connection with Roy Cohn, the lawyer who worked with Senator Joe McCarthy during his Red Scare witch hunt, and who himself had reputed associations with organized crime figures to reported mob involvement in the construction of his Atlantic City casino, Trump has long been on the periphery of activities that the mob had a hand in. Trump was even a character witness for Cohn during hearings that led to his disbarment in 1986, shortly before he died. Except for a September 2, 2016 article in The Wall Street Journal, I’ve seen no mainstream media coverage of this.
While the media covered Trump’s meeting with African Americans in Detroit on September 3, there hasn’t been the constant drumbeat of coverage of the actions of him and his father, Fred Trump, to deny rentals to blacks in their New York the 1970s, or the Justice Department discrimination lawsuit, which was settled out of court. The amount of settlement is unknown as the deal was sealed. Still, there should be enough publicly available information to make this an interesting story, especially with his recent efforts to ‘reach out’ to the black community.
There was, for a time, a lot of coverage of the lawsuit against Trump in regards to Trump University, an organization which many former students claim bilked them out of their cash and offered nothing in return. Most of this coverage, though, was generated by Trump himself, when he went after the judge on the case, claiming that he couldn’t be objective because he’s ethnically Mexican-American. That got front-page coverage for a few days, and then disappeared except for the occasional reference buried deep in other articles.
I’m not saying that the media shouldn’t cover Clinton’s problems. If they can find facts to support their claims—and, not just cherry-picked information that supports a preconceived belief—more power to them. I am saying that the equal time rule should apply here. The lack of coverage (or maybe a more accurate thing to say is, the paucity of coverage) of Donald Trump’s skeletons could lead the unaware to think that he was somehow less untrustworthy than his opponent; that his skirts are ‘cleaner.’ You have to dig to find that this is not the case.

If journalistic integrity means anything, both candidates should be covered with a certain amount of equity. Don’t throw mud in just one direction. If the only thing that matters is readership, then Trump’s history will guarantee that too. Or, is his history of suing anyone who offends him with what they write scaring them off?

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Judicial Watch: Who is watching the watchdog?

Who is watching the watchdog?
 Judicial Watch, a conservative watchdog group that bills itself as a nonpartisan, educational organization devoted to holding officials accountable because ‘no one is above the law,’ was founded in 1994. Although it claims to be funded by thousands of individual donations, its biggest donor is the conservative Scaife Foundation, founded by the late conservative billionaire Richard Mellon Scaife. Its first director was Larry Klayman, a right-wing activist and former Justice Department lawyer, is most noted for the endless filing of lawsuits designed to harass targeted officials and the dozens of lawsuits against the Clinton Administration in the 1990s. He even filed a lawsuit against his own mother.
In the early 2000s, Klayman broke with Judicial Watch and went into private practice, continuing his crusade of law suits and conspiracy theories.
Judicial Watch, however, continues under new management, and although it has taken on the occasional Republican, such as efforts to get Vice President Dick Cheney’s Energy Task Force meeting minutes, most of the organization’s efforts are still aimed at leftist and liberal organizations, causes, and individuals, including the Obama Administration and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. It has been key to the continued flow of ‘news’ about the Clinton Foundation’s influence on the State Department during Hillary Clinton’s tenure as secretary of state, using Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to access documents, and then providing those documents; or often manipulated versions of them; to the media, which then runs with the story, with no evidence that any attempt is made to verify them or check their veracity. As an example, recent newspaper articles and editorials discussing emails between a Clinton aide and a senior Clinton Foundation official, seemed to indicate that a visa was issued to a UK soccer player based on pressure from the foundation official on behalf of a major donor to the foundation. Left out of some of the news reporting was the fact that the Clinton aide was reluctant to even pursue the issue, and the visa was not issued. One article did mention it, but it was buried deep in the article, and was probably missed by most readers. Judicial Watch is often briefly mentioned in media coverage, but not identified as the major source of the information.
Judicial Watch has also been the driving force behind many of the disclosures regarding the 2013 Benghazi attack and Hillary Clinton’s use of a private server when she was secretary of state.
While it calls itself nonpartisan, a look at its web page would seem to tell a different story. The vast majority of its court filings and press releases are anti-Obama, anti-liberal, anti-immigration, and most telling, anti-Clinton. In June, 2016, Charity Navigator, a web site that rates non-profits, gives Judicial Watch an overall rating of 75.28 out of 100, or two stars, and a rating of 74.00 for accountability and transparency. As bad as this is, it’s a significant increase from the 48.50 (no star) rating it got in December 2002.
Given all this, one has to wonder why the media continues to recycle Judicial Watch information with no more fact-checking than it does. The only answer I can come up with is that these are ‘hot’ news items that are guaranteed to attract readers. As long as the good dirt keeps flowing, the stories will continue to run.

If the media is not holding the organization accountable for its actions—who is?

Friday, August 26, 2016

EpiPen price gouging: Big Pharma strikes again!

Big Pharma's like a spider, luring consumers into its web.
 If you watch any TV, you’ve probably seen this ad: two kids talk about their allergies, one from a bee sting, another from peanuts or seafood (I hate to admit it, but I often don’t pay that much attention), a woman talking about ‘never being without her EpiPen, and what is probably a school nurse extolling the virtues of EpiPen for people who suffer from life-threatening allergic reactions. The ad then goes on to tell you how important this life-saving device is, with a few small print warnings about possible adverse reactions that you see (if you look quickly, and that’s usually what I look for) in all pharmaceutical ads.
This ad, though, is more notable for what it doesn’t tell you. For one thing, you need to change the thing annually because after that time it’s not effective, and for another, each refill of a package of two EpiPens costs you $608.68, a more than 400% increase since Mylan acquired the rights to EpiPen in 2007 from Merck-KGaA. Mylan has raised the price of EpiPen several times since the acquisition, but this latest price increase prompted an immediate outcry from politicians and doctors. In response, Mylan has offered to help more patients to cover out-of-pocket costs, but declined to lower the price. Without reading the details of Mylan’s offer, I can bet the fine print will be so detailed that few consumers will qualify, and since Mylan dominates the $1 billion plus market in this type of device, and also excels in lobbying, people who depend on EpiPen will be forced to cough up the money for it. Mylan needs that income, folks. It recently raised its CEO’s base salary to a hefty $1.3 million annually to add to her total compensation of $38.9 million. In order to maintain her lifestyle, they’ll have to sell a lot of the devices, and will probably raise the price yet again when the furor dies down.
Opponents of government involvement in healthcare and health insurance coverage argue that such things should be left to the private sector. Well, if Mylan is any example, we all know what the private sector is focused on, and it’s not the welfare of consumers.

Yet again, Big Pharma is sticking it to all of us. 

Thursday, August 25, 2016

The Clinton Scandals: Parsing Political Punditry

 Benghazi, the emails, and the Clinton Foundation are not the first manufactured scandals the right wing has attempted to hang on Bill and Hillary Clinton. These two have been in the cross-hairs of the right since Clinton was governor of Arkansas, and even then, Hillary was a primary target, even being criticized by some on the right and in the media during the Lewinsky scandal if you can believe that.
There are probably few readers old enough to instantly recognize the term, Whitewater, so a little background is necessary. In March 1992, the New York Times reported that Bill Clinton, then Arkansas governor, and Hillary, a lawyer with a Little Rock law firm, had invested and lost money in Whitewater Development Corporation, an outfit created by their friends James and Susan McDougal, who at the time were under investigation regarding the failure of Madison Guaranty Savings and Loan, which they owned. L. Jean Lewis, a low-level investigator for Resolution Trust Corporation, who was one of the investigators on the Madison Guaranty case, saw the article and began her own investigation, eventually submitting a criminal referral to the FBI naming Bill and Hillary Clinton as witnesses in the case. The U.S. Attorney in Arkansas and the FBI found no merit in the referral and killed it, but Lewis wouldn’t let go, and the Whitewater scandal took off, with congressional hearings, appointment of special prosecutor Kenneth Starr, and the expenditure of around $75 million in taxpayers money, and nothing was found to substantiate Lewis’s belief (or that of the right wing lynch mobs) that the Clintons had knowledge of, or participated in any illegal activity. They had merely done what thousands had done during that period; invested in a real estate deal that tanked. From reading the articles in the Washington Post and New York Times during this expensive debacle, though, you wouldn’t know that.
Fast forward to the present moment, and it’s like déjà vu all over again. First, there was the unfortunate September 11, 2013 attack on the U.S. diplomatic facility (often incorrectly identified in news report as an embassy or consulate) in Benghazi, Libya, in which ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans were killed. The right saw an amazing opportunity to attack President Obama, and Republican representative Daryl Issa took the bit in his teeth and was off and running on a witch hunt that would have almost made Joe McCarthy proud. He was soon replaced by South Carolina Republican Trey Gowdy, who started off on an even keel, but quickly showed his wingnut leanings by shifting the attack to secretary of state Hillary Clinton. After months of an expensive public farce, ably abetted by Fox News as well as much of the mainstream media; with accusations flying like confetti at a Mardi Gras parade, it finally sputtered out. First, the first House hearing found that there was no evidence of a cover up, the White House didn’t order military forces to stand down, Clinton did not personally deny security enhancements for the facility at Benghazi, etc., etc., it sort of died an unheralded death.
Not to be undone, GOP teabaggers quickly seized upon Clinton’s use of a private email server, salivating at the prospect of criminal charges. Boy, were they disappointed when FBI director James Comey, while calling the use of the private server unwise and careless, said that there was nothing that would support an indictment. Another juicy scandal bites the dust.
Now, GOP legislators, along with the erstwhile leader of their party, have latched onto the Clinton Foundation, calling it a pay-for-play scheme, with Hillary Clinton selling access to her when she was secretary of state through donations to the foundation founded by Bill Clinton after he ended his second term as president.
This one will only heat up as Election Day approaches, and to understand it—I mean, truly understand it—you’ll need to read everything that appears in the media carefully. You’ll have to parse the political punditry with as much care as you’d scan a contract before signing, because the details are often in the fine print, slightly modified to fit a political agenda, or just plain omitted. I’ll give just one example, so you know what I’m talking about.
My examples come from the August 23, 2016 issue of The Wall Street Journal, a right-leaning newspaper that is unsure of its support for Donald Trump, but definitely doesn’t like Hillary Clinton. On the front page (jumped to A-4) is an article by Rebecca Ballhaus, ‘Emails Seek Clinton Access.’ On page A-9 is an opinion piece by William McGurn (who I assume is employed by WSJ because of his email), entitled, ‘Hillary and Bill Clinton, Inc.’. Both pieces are about the same subject, and reference some of the same events, but in decidedly different ways.
In Ms. Ballhaus’ article there’s the following sentence:  “The new emails show that while Mr. Band sought to pass along the wishes of donors, Ms. Abedin deferred to official channels.” Mr. Band is Doug Band of the Clinton Foundation, and Ms. Abedin is Huma Abedin, an advisor to Hillary Clinton. The donor being referred to is the Crown Prince of Bahrain, Prince Salman bin Hamad al Khalifa, who has donated a significant sum to the Clinton Foundation to fund education programs in Bahrain.  In McGurn’s editorial he has this to say, “Ms. Abedin responded that the prince had sought a meeting through ‘normal’ channels but had been shot down. Less than 48 hours after Mr. Band had asked her, Ms. Abedin responded that “we have reached out through official channels.” The meeting was on. I’m not going to go on record saying that Mr. McGurn played fast and loose with the truth, but here’s what the front page article had to say about that, ‘the crown prince had sought a meeting with Mrs. Clinton the previous week ‘thru normal channels” and that the secretary of state had said she ‘doesn’t want to commit to anything for Thurs or Fri until she knows how she will feel.” Read these carefully, and you’ll see that they convey completely different meanings. But, it gets even better.
Here’s another excerpt from McGurn’s editorial. It isn’t the only favor Mr. Band requested. A month earlier he had emailed Ms. Abedin to ask for her help in getting an English soccer player a visa to the U.S. The player was supposed to come to Las Vegas for a team celebration, but he needed a special interview with the visa section of the American Embassy in London due to a ‘criminal charge’ against him. Because of this, the office of Sen. Barbara Boxer (D., Calif) had refused to intervene. Mr. Band’s email made clear the request was on behalf of Casey Wasserman, a sports and entertainment exec who had contributed between $5 million and $10 million to the Clinton Foundation via the Wasserman Foundation. McGurn ends this anecdote here, and goes on in his editorial to slam the Clintons for what he calls a pay-for-play operation that’s far worse than anything Donald Trump has ever done (yes, he managed to sneak Trump’s name in). Here, though, is what the Ballhaus article had to say about this same issue: In a separate email exchange, Mr. Band sought Ms. Abedin’s help in obtaining a visa for a member of a U.K. soccer league at the request of Case Wasserman, president of the Wasserman Foundation, which donated between $5 million and $10 million to the Clinton Foundation. “I doubt we can do anything, but maybe we can help with an interview,” Ms. Abedin wrote. “I’ll ask.” She wrote again: “I got this now, makes me nervous to get involved but I’ll ask.” Mr. Band responded: “Then don’t.” A spokesman for Mr. Wasserman said the forwarded email request never resulted in a visa.
See my point? Cherry-picked facts, omitted details, make all the difference in how you interpret an article or editorial, and how many people are as nerdy as me that they’ll compare an editorial with an article on the same subject to spot these kinds of discrepancies? But, if you don’t, you’ll be as misinformed as regular Fox News viewers. This, folks, is how scandals are created.

On a closing note, I’d like to go back to Whitewater. A minor figure in that ‘scandal’, L. Jean Lewis was about as anti-Clinton as could be. She ran an illegal T-shirt business out of her office, selling items that were vulgarly critical of Hillary, and she engaged in on-the-job activity that had her suspended and under internal investigation. But, she was the darling of the rabid right at the time, so special prosecutor Kenneth Starr (who had his own conflict of interest issues) protected her. What became of her, you ask? Shortly after George W. Bush was elected president, L. Jean Lewis, an individual with no previous supervisory experience, was appointed chief of staff for the DOD Inspector General’s Office, overseeing a staff of more than 1,000 people and a multi-million dollar budget. How’s that for pay-for-play?

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Zimbabwe: A ticking time bomb in southern Africa

At 92, Zimbabwe’s president, Robert Mugabe, is the world’s oldest head of state. He has been more or less in charge of the country since its independence in 1980, converting it from the jewel and breadbasket of southern Africa into an economic basket case and a political quagmire. While it can be argued just how ‘in charge’ he has been (and recent events certainly call his  control into question), his ability to manipulate people and events has helped him hang onto his position. 
But, all things, good or bad, have an end point, and Mugabe’s time would appear to be running out. Not just in the sense of the calendar, either, although that is a significant factor, after all, a 92 year-old man with health problems can realistically only look for a few more years. But, it seems that it’s the political clock that’s beginning to toll his final hours. 
After junking its own worthless currency in 2009, and going to the US Dollar as the official currency, Zimbabwe’s economy came out of free fall and enjoyed a few years of relative stability. Not prosperity, or even growth, but at least the hyperinflation was ended, and people were once again able to buy goods from store shelves that for a few years been empty. 
Political violence was rampant during the period 2007-2008, but even that abated somewhat after the political marriage of Mugabe’s ZANU-PF and the opposition MDC, led by Morgan Tsvangirai, was pushed by South Africa. The one-sided coalition government left most of the power ministries in ZANU-PF hands, with MDC running the soft ministries such as Education and Finance. ZANU-PF ‘won’ the 2013 election, and was able to form a government without the opposition. Since then, things have been sliding downhill, politically and economically. Friction within Mugabe’s party increased, resulting in the ousting of Joice Mujuru, formerly number two in ZANU-PF and one of the country’s vice presidents, from both party and government positions. Mujuru was replaced by Emmerson Mnangagwa, formerly defense minister, and one of the people considered a possible replacement for Mugabe when he’s gone (the other was, not coincidentally, Mujuru). Mujuru has now formed her own party and has been reported to have reached out to the MDC. While political violence since 2009 has been nowhere as rampant as it was in 2008, it has been no less deadly. In 2012, Mujuru’s husband, Solomon Mujuru, a liberation fighter greatly respected by many in the military, and the only person in the country who could stand up to Mugabe, died in a mysterious ‘accidental’ fire. Opposition figures, and those within ZANU-PF who spoke critically of Mugabe have been arrested, beaten, or forced to flee the country Mugabe has appeared increasingly erratic and autocratic. 
Mugabe’s wife, Grace, has inserted herself into politics, and is now pitted against Mnangagwa. One can only speculate as to who among the legions of vultures waiting for Mugabe to die is in her camp. 
To make matters worse, the country’s ‘war’ veterans, those associated with the liberation struggle, who once were among Mugabe’s most vocal supporters, are now railing against him. 
The stable—actually stagnant—economy is also showing signs of trouble. Currency controls are once again in place, limiting the amount that account holders can withdraw from their bank accounts, and some in ZANU-PF are calling for a return to the Zimbabwean Dollar, which would once again plunge the country into an inflationary cycle that could make the 2008 hyperinflation look like a blip on the account books. 
Mugabe has never named a successor, and should he die or become incapacitated before the scheduled 2017 elections, there will be a mad, and probably bloody, scramble to replace him. No matter who wins that battle, the losers will be the people of Zimbabwe, once again caught in a vicious cycle of economic upheaval and political violence. And, the sad thing is that for all the power the West has, or the influence that South Africa thinks it has, there not a damn thing either can do about it. 
Zimbabwe is rarely mentioned in western media until it starts to erupt. I predict that during the next 12 months, though, it will appear often.  

Saturday, August 20, 2016

The Daily Show Launches Its Own Version of Extreme Vetting… of Trump Sup...

The Chinese are coming, the Chinese are coming

America’s top national security officials are, I’m pretty sure, pretty occupied these days analyzing the existential threats to America’s security. From the depredations of the Islamic State (IS) in the Middle East to Donald Trump’s near dismemberment of the Republican Party (yes, folks, distortion of the traditional two-party system in this country does pose a credible threat to our national security) they have enough to keep them busy burning the midnight oil to develop strategies to mitigate these threats.
Another security issue that appears from time to time, usually brief articles on the inside pages of our mainstream media, that also poses, in my humble opinion, a potential threat to our national security, is the rise of the Peoples Republic of China (PRC) as a true global power, with global presence and reach.
From its aggressive behavior in the South China Sea and other waters on its borders to the presence of its navy in the Gulf of Aden, China is slowly and inexorably inserting itself into global affairs. The latest move should give security officials pause, and it certainly argues for carving out some time to give it the study it richly deserves. In February of this year, the PRC began construction on a bulk and container port in Djibouti, just 8 miles from the base where the US Joint Task Force/Horn of Africa (JTF-HOA) is located. The base is anticipated to be completed next year, and will probably have weapons stores, ship and helicopter maintenance facilities, and even a small unit of Chinese military from which it can support its vessels taking part in anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden.
While China’s participation in the anti-piracy operation was the first significant deployment of Chinese forces outside Asia, this latest move would be the first time China has established a land base outside neighboring or ‘near abroad’ areas, and is a definite signal that the PRC considers itself a global power.
One can only assume at this point what, besides fleet support, this base will be used for, but the fact that China has already conducted joint operations with Djibouti should give some idea. China has significant interests on the African continent, mostly related to access to desired resources. It will now have military influence in close proximity to its areas of economic interest. Whether this influence will be used in ways that might be detrimental to U.S. interest remains to be seen, but it is certainly an issue that is worthy of close study.

Having grown up during the Cold War to the refrain ‘the Russians are coming, the Russians are coming,’ I might be a bit pessimistic about such things. Only the knowledge that the people who have the responsibility to take the necessary actions to ensure our nation’s security are taking this latest move seriously will allay that pessimism.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

SB-11 Brought to you by the Looney Star State

On August 1, 2016, SB-11, the law passed last year by the Republican-dominated Texas legislature, and signed by Governor Greg Abbot (Republican), went into effect. Known as the Campus Carry law, this piece of legislation allows those with concealed carry permits to have them on the campuses of public universities throughout the state, including classrooms, dorms, and professors’ offices. In fact, university officials must have legislative approval of any guns-free zones they designate on their campuses.
As a native of Texas, and someone who grew up around guns, I have no quarrel with the right of rational people to own guns, but this bit of legislative legerdemain strikes me as about the most stupid thing imaginable. Like former Navy SEAL admiral William McRaven, University of Texas System Chancellor, I grew up hunting and target shooting, but a college campus is not the place to have people packing concealed weapons.

There are a number of reasons I think the honorable members of the Lege, as the legislature is fondly called in Texas, are out of their collective minds.

For starters, having it go into effect on the 50th anniversary of the date that Charles Whitman, an engineering student at UT Austin, took several weapons into the tower on the school campus and began a shooting rampage that left 14 dead and 32 wounded. Talk about rubbing salt into old wounds.
On a more contemporary note, can anyone whose head’s not in rectal defilade think it a good idea to allow concealed weapons in a classroom. What happens if a student takes issue with what the professor is saying, or gets into a beef with a fellow student? Oh, and we all know how sedate dorms are. I can just see office hours for some professors now – what was my grad again, prof? Sure you don’t want to rethink that?
The argument put forth for this law is the same old load of crap that’s always used by the gun nuts—it’s to make people safer. Like having more loaded guns in more hands has ever made anyone really safe. Oh, and don’t start with that’s the way it was in the old west. In the real old west, most towns required people to check their guns when they came to town, despite the crap you see in the phony western movies. That’s what the gunfight at the OK Corral was all about, some nuts not wanting to surrender their shootin’ arns, and the law telling them otherwise.

I can only hope that this won’t end in tragedy. I’m keeping my fingers crossed, but not holding my breath, though. And, I don’t think I’ll be visiting my relatives in Texas any time soon.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

An unusual job for a VP candidate

Mike Pence, GOP VP candidate, spends a lot of his time, according to the WSJ, cleaning up after Donald Trump craps on his fellow Republicans. Bet he didn't see that one coming.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

FBI and GOP at Loggerheads over Clinton Email Investigation - the Devil's in the Details

On Tuesday, July 5, FBI Director James Comey gave a press conference in which he announced that the FBI had completed its investigation into former Secretary of State (presumptive Democratic presidential nominee) Hillary Clinton’s use of a private server for official emails during her tenure at the State Department. While Comey described her and her staff as ‘extremely careless’, he was quite clear in stating that there was nothing turned up in the investigation that would warrant criminal charges. He did say that the actions, had it been some other employee, might have warranted security or administrative action, but went on to say that the FBI did not find any evidence that Clinton or her colleagues ‘intended to violate laws governing the handling of classified information.’

Unsurprisingly, hotheads in the GOP are already having puppies over this decision. Comey has already been summoned to appear before the Senate Oversight Committee, where he will no doubt be grilled mercilessly as to how he could possibly come to the conclusion he did after the GOP has spent so much time creating this so-called scandal. They were so sure, after all, that Comey, who formerly served as an Assistant Attorney General in a Republican Administration, would come up with findings that supported the elaborate fairy tale they’ve concocted.

This just goes to prove that they’re so lost in the fantasy land they’ve created that they overlook the obvious. Comey might be a Republican, but he’s also a professional who has a character trait most of them seem to lack—integrity. If he thought a crime had been committed, by Republican or Democrat, I have no doubt he would have recommended an indictment. If they’d bothered to study his history, that would have been clear. But then, I’m accusing these guys of having critical thinking skills, when clearly they’ve demonstrated for the past decade they only have the ability to be critical.

Another thing they’ve apparently failed to do is pay attention to what he said. I mean his exact words. While the use of a private server was a ‘careless’ act that would have earned a low-level employee security or administrative sanctions, being careless is not criminal. If that were the case, the GOP would all be put in jail for their ‘extreme recklessness’ in shutting down the government in a snit because they couldn’t get their way, or their incessant ‘perjury’ in claiming that the Affordable Care Act has hurt people who now have health coverage for the first time.. As someone who served as a low, mid, and high-level government official for over thirty years, I can agree that there are two standards when it comes to administrative punishments. One has only to look at the case of General David Petraeus who, after admitting that he gave classified material to his mistress, was given a slap on the wrist and allowed to retire with full pension. Had he been a sergeant or a captain, he’d probably be occupying a bunk at the Disciplinary Barracks in Leavenworth right now, or a best would have been given a general (less than honorable) discharge. That’s a bad situation, but it is what it is. There are two standards, one for the big shots, and another one for the rest of us.

While it might be a terrible, even unfair, thing, it’s not a crime, not in a legal sense. It’s like the recent court decision that found that a State Department officer punished with a bad performance evaluation and relief from duties for refusing to violate a regulation, had no protection under the Whistle Blower Act because he hadn’t been ordered to violate a ‘law.’ The court made a clear distinction between ‘laws’ and ‘regulations.’
Oh, and one little point the pointy heads in the GOP keep ignoring; the State Department didn’t have clear regulations on the use of private email until after Clinton left office. Her two previous predecessors both used private email. Of course, both of them were Republican, so we’ve heard nothing about investigating or prosecuting them.

I don’t expect the GOP to come to its senses any time soon. But, we, the voters, need to keep clear heads about this. We need to deal with facts, not innuendo, reality, not the political fantasy that’s cooked up by people who will do or say anything to con you into voting for them—or voting against their opponents.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Vida Designs - A New Place to Get My Photographs

If you like fine photography and fashion, you can now get them both in one place. Voices - Vida now hosts an online shop of custom-designed fashion accessories featuring some of my best photographs. Go to my shop at and take a look at items, such as the ones pictured below; you'll be glad you did.