Category Archives: U.S. Politics

Hunger strike at Guantanamo

 

From NPR: Medics Arrive At Guantanamo As Hunger Strikers Increase

About 40 medical personnel have arrived at the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay amid an increase in the number of hunger strikers at the facility.

Since last Saturday, 100 of the 166 prisoners at the camp have been refusing to eat; 21 of them are being fed through nasal tubes.

As the strike gains international media attention, President Barack Obama is reportedly renewing the efforts of his failed 2009 executive order (PDF) to have the prison camp closed by early 2010.

From the New York Times: Amid Hunger Strike, Obama Renews Push to Close Cuba Prison

“It’s not sustainable,” Mr. Obama said at a White House news conference. “The notion that we’re going to keep 100 individuals in no man’s land in perpetuity,” he added, makes no sense. “All of us should reflect on why exactly are we doing this? Why are we doing this?”

 

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Legal files vanishing, more delayed justice in Guantanamo

A soldier in a guard tower at Guantanamo. (JTF Guantanamo photo by U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Michael R. Holzworth)

A soldier in a guard tower at Guantanamo. (JTF Guantanamo photo by U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Michael R. Holzworth)

Guantanamo has been struck by another controversy this week after files belonging to defense attorneys for two high-profile terror suspects began to disappear from their computers.

Last month, it came out that smoke detectors installed in some of the rooms where suspects met with their attorneys were detecting more than smoke. Now, according to a Reuters report, it seems someone has been snooping around the defense’s computers.

Navy Commander Walter Ruiz, who represents 9/11 defendant Mustafa al Hawsawi, said “three to four weeks’ worth of work is gone, vanished.”

But some new files of suspicious origin also mysteriously appeared.

He said what appeared to be a computer folder of prosecution files had turned up on the defense lawyers’ system, though none of them had opened the files.

The odd computer behavior led a judge to push week-long terror hearings scheduled this month back into June. The judge also ordered attorneys on both sides to stop using their government-issued computers.

It wasn’t clear based on the Reuters report if there is an investigation into the matter. The string of suspicious-at-best developments in Guantanamo trials is unsettling, to say the least. It seems odd that someone – presumably within the U.S. government and with access to the facilities – would be jeopardizing the integrity of such a vital trial.

If the defendants are in fact guilty of the crimes they’re accused of, those meddling with the process in their cases are only serving to damage the integrity of any outcome. If anything, all of the controversies around the case are only increasing the chances a guilty man walks free, not to mention turning public opinion against the trials.

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Experts see promise in domestic drone use, privacy concerns delay rollout

A Yamaha RMAX unmanned helicopter in Japan, where such vehicles have been used increasingly for crop spraying over the past 20 years. Flickr user timtak.

A Yamaha RMAX unmanned helicopter in Japan, where such vehicles have been used increasingly for crop spraying over the past 20 years. Flickr user timtak.

More than a year after President Obama signed legislation that will allow drones to fly over American soil, regulators are far behind schedule and proponents are eager to develop what they say could be vital to American high-tech manufacturing and other industries.

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, popularly known as “drones,” have been a controversial topic since they joined the American military arsenal, but a different set of factors is at play on the issue of domestic use. As civil liberties advocates, lawmakers and Federal Aviation Administration officials voice privacy concerns, others are touting the benefits the robotic aircraft could hold for uses in a wide variety of applications such as freight shipping, agriculture and disaster management.

Vince Ambrosia, who helped develop a NASA program that used drones to monitor forest fires over the western United States, said government agencies and private companies alike have seen the value the aircraft could provide. It’s just a matter of developing a logistical, regulatory and ethical framework around their use.

“This is just going to explode,” he said. “This is going to be the next big technology breakthrough. The technology is already in place, it’s just a matter of that framework allowing the use of those platforms.”

Currently, the FAA uses a Certificate of Authorization (COA) system, through which every unmanned aircraft flown over the U.S. must be individually approved for operation (this does not apply to hobbyists using small recreational UAVs). According to a Feb. 15, 2013 report from the Government Accountability Office, the FAA has issued 1,428 Certificates of Authorization since Jan. 2007. However, FAA reports released to the Electronic Frontier Foundation under a Freedom of Information Act request yielded only a few hundred certificates, so a comprehensive list of the various drone authorizations in the U.S. remains elusive.

Chris Mailey, vice president of knowledge resources at Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), a Virginia-based non-profit advocacy group, said the FAA does not yet give Certificates of Authorization for commercial drone use.

“FAA does the COA process,” he said, “and they don’t approve commercial COAs, so either you have to be a government agency or research institution in order to get a COA.”

Last year’s legislation, the FAA Modernization and Reform Act, was designed to change that. The bill, signed into law Feb. 15, 2012, required officials lay out the framework for the integration of drones into the National Airspace System, which regulates all air traffic over the U.S. The first step in this process mandated that the FAA designate six test ranges in American airspace within six months of the bill signing to “test and operate unmanned aircraft systems.” By Sept. 30, 2015, according to the legislation, drones should be fully integrated into American airspace.

But more than a year later, the FAA has not named the test areas. This is due in part to a delay in the process explained by a Nov. 1, 2012 letter from acting FAA administrator Michael Huerta to Congress.

“Our target was to have the six test sites named by the end of 2012,” he wrote. “However, increasing the use of UAS [Unmanned Aerial Systems] in our airspace also raises privacy issues, and these issues will need to be addressed as unmanned aircraft are safely integrated.”

On Feb. 14, 2013, six months after the initial deadline passed, the FAA began soliciting proposals for the test sites.

The FAA release announcing the solicitation did not clarify if the administration had taken any steps to address or study privacy issues since the Nov. 1 letter, but solicited public input on the subject.

“The FAA’s proposed privacy approach emphasizes transparency, public engagement and compliance with existing law,” it reads.

Despite these delays, and having missed their first deadline, FAA officials maintain that they can make the Sept. 2015 deadline.

“The FAA expects to meet all the mandates in the 2012 reauthorization,” spokeswoman Alison Duquette said in an email. She did not address questions about the FAA’s internal deliberations about privacy concerns.

The House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure is scheduled to meet with the FAA next week about the issue, but the purpose of the meeting is unclear. Committee spokesman Justin Harclerode failed to respond to multiple requests for comment.

Washington isn’t the only place where privacy concerns have kept drones grounded. In Virginia, lawmakers, also citing privacy concerns, passed legislation that will ban drones over the state for two years if Gov. Bob McDonnell signs it into law. Other states are considering similar legislation.

Proponents of the unmanned vehicles, which can range from small, low-flying quadrocopters to jet-powered planes with wingspans up to 116 feet, say the privacy issue is an important one, but shouldn’t keep drones out of American skies forever.

Missy Cummings, an MIT professor working with the Navy on an unmanned rescue helicopter, says privacy issues are nothing new.

“Your neighbor has been able to look into your house with high-powered zoom lenses for a long time,” she said. Unmanned aircraft, while they are equipped with high-powered optics, aren’t able to see any more than a similarly positioned human eye.

“I work a lot with police forces,” Cummings said. “You know whatever we’ve got going on with police helicopters, do you think they’re looking maybe not where they should? Yeah, they are.”

Drones are no different, she said.

While lawmakers and regulators struggle with these issues, a growing number of agencies and businesses are preparing to capitalize on the possibilities afforded by relatively cheap, automated flight.

“The thing about the big brother state is – and that’s the drumbeat I keep trying to get out there – is our focus is on drones as spy vehicles,” Cummings said. “And all this development is going on under the radar, you know drones as cargo planes, drones as rescue helicopters.”

The oft-mentioned fear of drone use over the U.S. is that of the Orwellian surveillance state, but Mailey of AUVSI said the law enforcement market is likely to be a small slice of a much larger pie.

The real money, he said, is in agriculture. Crop dusting and other aerial spray methods are very expensive, he said, largely because manned planes and helicopters must carry a pilot in them. The added weight ups fuel costs, and the cost of hiring a trained pilot makes crop dusting with piloted vehicles expensive and often inefficient, he said.

“The big sign we see is Japan,” he said. “What’s been happening in Japan in the last 20 years has been pretty telling.”

In Japan in 2011, 95 percent of aerial spraying was done with unmanned helicopters, according to Yamaha, the manufacturer of one such vehicle. In 1995, unmanned craft did just 8 percent of Japan’s crop spraying.

Beyond agriculture, Mailey said, energy companies are interested in using drones to monitor oil and gas pipelines that are expensive and difficult to monitor on the ground. Other proposed uses include wildlife monitoring, freight transport and even taco delivery. Essentially, Mailey said, it all boils down to economics.

“In the commercial world,” he said, “return on investment is going to be the big driver [of UAV markets].” If companies can get the same result for a lower cost and less risk, they’ll jump for the opportunity.

Mailey holds out hope that the FAA might meet it’s 2015 deadline, while Cummings says it likely won’t happen, but both agree that once the regulatory issues are figured out, drones will help companies and public agencies bring their costs down and perform new tasks manned aircraft couldn’t.

“By 2020,” Mailey said, “I expect the commercial [UAV] market in the U.S. to be bigger than the defense market.”

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Foreign policy debate: Candidates line up on big policy points

While it was full of zingers from both sides, the Oct. 22 presidential debate on foreign policy did a good job of clarifying some of the candidates’ positions on foreign policy issues. Here’s the rundown (all debate quotes come from The New York Times’ full transcript of the debate):

  • Candidates perfectly aligned on drone use

Moderator Bob Scheiffer threw in the obligatory question about drone use – it seemed as though he had forgotten to write one and then saw one of the thousands of tweets coming in demanding one after the debate hit the one hour mark, so came up with something off the cuff. Here is the full exchange on drones:

MR. SCHIEFFER: Let me ask you, Governor, because we know President Obama’s position on this, what is — what is your position on the use of drones?

MR. ROMNEY: Well, I believe that we should use any and all means necessary to take out people who pose a threat to us and our friends around the world. And it’s widely reported that drones are being used in drone strikes, and I support that entirely and feel the president was right to up the usage of that technology and believe that we should continue to use it to continue to go after the people who represent a threat to this nation and to our friends.

Let me also note that, as I said earlier, we’re going to have to do more than just going after leaders and — and killing bad guys, important as that is. We’re also going to have to have a far more effective and comprehensive strategy to help move the world away from terror and Islamic extremism.

We haven’t done that yet. We talk a lot about these things, but you look at the — the record. You look at the record of the last four years and say, is Iran closer to a bomb? Yes. Is the Middle East in tumult? Yes. Is — is al-Qaida on the run, on its heels? No. Is — are Israel and the Palestinians closer to — to reaching a peace agreement? No, they haven’t had talks in two years. We have not seen the progress we need to have, and I’m convinced that with strong leadership and an effort to build a strategy based upon helping these nations reject extremism, we can see the kind of peace and prosperity the world demands.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, keep in mind our strategy wasn’t just going after bin Laden. We’ve created partnerships throughout the region to deal with extremism — in Somalia, in Yemen, in Pakistan. And what we’ve also done is engage these governments in the kind of reforms that are actually going to make a difference in people’s lives day to day, to make sure that their government aren’t corrupt, to make sure that they are treating women with the kind of respect and dignity that every nation that succeeds has shown, and to make sure that they’ve got a free market system that works.

So across the board, we are engaging them in building capacity in these countries and we have stood on the side of democracy. One thing I think Americans should be proud of — when Tunisians began to protest, this nation, me, my administration stood with them earlier than just about any other country. In Egypt we stood on the side of democracy. In Libya we stood on the side of the people. And as a consequence there is no doubt that attitudes about Americans have changed.

But there are always going to be elements in these countries that potentially threaten the United States.

And we want to shrink those groups and those networks, and we can do that, but we’re always also going to have to maintain vigilance when it comes to terrorist activities. The truth, though, is that al-Qaida is much weaker than it was when I came into office, and they don’t have the same capacities to attack the U.S. homeland and our allies as they did four years ago.

While neither candidate seems to note the irony of seeking to reduce Islamic extremism while simultaneously establishing a canopy of lethal robots over a good chunk of the Middle East, that seems to be the policy America will pursue for the next four years, regardless of the outcome of the next election.

  • Iran’s a threat. We should negotiate.

On Iran, Obama went first. After saying that he would support Israel if they were attacked by Iran, he articulated his administration’s approach:

But to the issue of Iran, as long as I’m president of the United States, Iran will not get a nuclear weapon.

I’ve made that clear when I came into office. We then organized the strongest coalition and the strongest sanctions against Iran in history, and it is crippling their economy. Their currency has dropped 80 percent. Their oil production has plunged to the lowest level since they were fighting a war with Iraq 20 years ago. So their economy is in a shambles.

And the reason we did this is because a nuclear Iran is a threat to our national security and it’s threat to Israel’s national security. We cannot afford to have a nuclear arms race in the most volatile region of the world. Iran’s a state sponsor of terrorism, and for them to be able to provide nuclear technology to nonstate actors — that’s unacceptable. And they have said that they want to see Israel wiped off the map.

So the work that we’ve done with respect to sanctions now offers Iran a choice. They can take the diplomatic route and end their nuclear program or they will have to face a united world and a United States president, me, who said we’re not going to take any options off the table.

Nothing off the table means the possibility of a military solution to the Iranian problem.

Now Romney:

Well, first of all, I — I want to underscore the — the same point the president made, which is that if I’m president of the United States, when I’m president of the United States, we will stand with Israel. And — and if Israel is attacked, we have their back, not just diplomatically, not just culturally, but militarily. That’s number one.

Number two, with regards to — to Iran and the threat of Iran, there’s no question but that a nuclear Iran, a nuclear-capable Iran, is unacceptable to America.

It presents a threat not only to our friends, but ultimately a threat to us to have Iran have nuclear material, nuclear weapons that could be used against us or used to be threatening to us.

It’s also essential for us to understand what our mission is in Iran, and that is to dissuade Iran from having a nuclear weapon through peaceful and diplomatic means. And crippling sanctions are something I’d called for five years ago when I was in Israel speaking at the Herzliya Conference. I laid out seven steps.

Crippling sanctions were number one. And they do work. You’re seeing it right now in the economy. It’s absolutely the right thing to do to have crippling sanctions. I’d have put them in place earlier, but it’s good that we have them.

Number two, something I would add today is I would tighten those sanctions. I would say that ships that carry Iranian oil can’t come into our ports. I imagine the EU would agree with us as well. Not only ships couldn’t, I’d say companies that are moving their oil can’t, people who are trading in their oil can’t. I would tighten those sanctions further.

Secondly, I’d take on diplomatic isolation efforts. I’d make sure that Ahmadinejad is indicted under the Genocide Convention. His words amount to genocide incitation. I would indict him for it. I would also make sure that their diplomats are treated like the pariah they are around the world, the same way we treated the apartheid diplomats of South Africa.

We need to increase pressure time and time again on Iran because anything other than a — a — a solution to this which says — which stops this nuclear folly of theirs is unacceptable to America. And of course, a military action is the last resort. It is something one would only, only consider if all of the other avenues had been — had been tried to their full extent.

Both candidates want to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons through peaceful means, but both are willing to follow their diplomacy with military force if necessary.

Can a U.S. President indict a foreign leader under the Genocide Convention, as Romney said, for what might be considered – in the U.S. – free speech? Politico’s Byron Tau looked into it.

In essence, Ahmadinejad’s comments would likely be protected by the first amendment if prosecuted in the U.S. Romney, however, said that he would have the Iranian leader indicted under an international, United Nations convention. That being the case, such a trial would likely occur in international courts which are generally less protective of free speech.

“That said, some of the calls for genocide of the Jewish people, and wiping Israel off the map may be actionable, as true threats.  It is doubtful that this would be prosecuted in the U.S., but international courts may view the rhetoric differently,” he [First Amendment attorney Lawrence Walters] said.

If the candidates have a difference on Iran, it is that Romney’s approach to diplomacy is slightly more hard-nosed. Both candidates have pledged military action, if necessary, to prevent Iran from building a nuclear arsenal.

  • Syria solution: Hold a meeting

Both candidates have strongly condemned the violence of Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria, but neither is willing to devote military troops to removing the dictator from power.

Here’s Obama:

What we’ve done is organize the international community, saying Assad has to go. We’ve mobilized sanctions against that government. We have made sure that they are isolated. We have provided humanitarian assistance, and we are helping the opposition organize, and we’re particularly interested in making sure that we’re mobilizing the moderate forces inside of Syria. But ultimately, Syrians are going to have to determine their own future.

Romney goes out of his way with his answer to talk about the tragic results of the Syrian conflict so far and then mention the strategic importance, especially relating to Iran, of Syria in the overall picture of the Middle East. Then he agrees with Obama: No military action.

Well, let’s step back and talk about what’s happening in Syria and how important it is. First of all, 30,000 people being killed by their government is a humanitarian disaster.

Secondly, Syria’s an opportunity for us because Syria plays an important role in the Middle East, particularly right now. Syria is Iran’s only ally in the Arab world. It’s their route to the sea. It’s the route for them to arm Hezbollah in Lebanon, which threatens, of course, our ally Israel. And so seeing Syria remove Assad is a very high priority for us. Number two, seeing a — a replacement government being responsible people is critical for us. And finally, we don’t want to have military involvement there. We don’t want to get drawn into a military conflict.

And so the right course for us is working through our partners and with our own resources to identify responsible parties within Syria, organize them, bring them together in a — in a form of — of — if not government, a form of — of council that can take the lead in Syria, and then make sure they have the arms necessary to defend themselves.

Romney’s premise that Syria is Iran’s only route to the sea was a bit troubling, given a quick look at a map shows that Iran has coastline on two seas, and does not border Syria.

  • Romney likes democracy, just not the leaders it brings

Romney had a strong opening, summarizing what he likes in the Middle East and highlighting Iran as his big talking point for the evening. He also took a swipe at Mohamed Morsy and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.

With the Arab Spring came a great deal of hope that there would be a change towards more moderation and opportunity for greater participation on the part of women and — and public life and in economic life in the Middle East. But instead we’ve seen in nation after nation a number of disturbing events. Of course, we see in Syria 30,000 civilians having been killed by the military there. We see in — in — in Libya an attack apparently by — well, I think we know now by terrorists of some kind against — against our people there, four people dead. Our hearts and minds go to them. Mali has been taken over, the northern part of Mali, by al-Qaida-type individuals. We have in — in Egypt a Muslim Brotherhood president.

Later, Romney:

So across the board, we are engaging them in building capacity in these countries and we have stood on the side of democracy. One thing I think Americans should be proud of — when Tunisians began to protest, this nation, me, my administration stood with them earlier than just about any other country. In Egypt we stood on the side of democracy. In Libya we stood on the side of the people. And as a consequence there is no doubt that attitudes about Americans have changed.

So Romney has, in less than an hour, listed the Muslim Brotherhood’s leadership in Egypt as a “disturbing event,” despite the fact that Morsy was democratically elected, which Romney thinks “Americans should be proud of.”

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Three questions a sensible opponent would raise about Obama’s foreign policy

As President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney are getting ready to debate on foreign policy. I suspect far too much time will be spent on both sides bickering over whether or not Obama’s policy was too wussy in Libya and whether the White House was trying to pull the wool over America’s eyes about intelligence suggesting the consulate attacks were caused by an organized effort or a spontaneous mob.

However, a sensible opponent to Obama and his policies abroad might touch on another, broader, set of issues. To name a few…

Among progressives and civil-liberties voters, Obama’s initial decision to shelve the Guantanamo issue represented a betrayal of the highest order. Dreaming publicly now about closing Gitmo after he didn’t take the opportunity to do so in the first two years of his term — when Democrats still controlled both houses of Congress — rips open an old wound that only depresses base enthusiasm rather than energize it.

Neither is it clear that the proposal will get much traction in the broader electorate. Americans supportkeeping the prison open for business at a rate of 70 percent.

What other foreign policy issues would you like to see Obama give answers on? Let us know in the comments.

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Romney video isn’t ‘investigative reporting,’ as Mother Jones claims

James Carter IV on Hardball with Chris Matthews after the Romney video leaked.

James Carter IV on Hardball with Chris Matthews after the Romney video leaked.

Mitt Romney has frequently taken shots at ex-President Jimmy Carter on the campaign trail, so it’s only fitting that Carter’s own grandson would be the one to pass the now-viral video of Romney, thinking he’s behind closed doors, slamming the 47 percent of Americans who feel entitled to government handouts and yadda yadda yadda. But Mother Jones, the liberal news magazine that published the video, is trying to cash in on what they claim as their own “investigative reporting.”

Mother Jones (as just about any outlet would), is looking to capitalize on the massive flow of traffic to their site. A popover on the site when readers are on their way to see the videos says “Urgent: Please support investigative reporting.” Their fundraising page urges potential donors with: “We depend on you to support our investigative reporting, like the exposé on Mitt Romney’s secretly taped remarks.”

But the story of how the lefty mag got their mits on the video makes it pretty clear they did only slightly more than jack-squat to get the video. [Hear MoJoer David Corn, who published the video, talk about how he got the tape, around the 12-15 minute mark on On Point with Tom Ashbrook.] The credit, in reality, goes to the unemployed grandson of ex-President Jimmy Carter. James Carter IV, a liberal on a personal mission to take down the former Massachusetts governor for the slights against President Carter, found the video on YouTube.

From The Huffington Post:

The grandson of former President Jimmy Carter and a self-fashioned Democratic opposition researcher, the younger Carter had watched countless hours of footage of Republican Mitt Romney and made it a habit to search YouTube every few days for keywords like “Romney” and “Republicans.”

But on this day in August, one clip jumped out. There was Romney, in an undisclosed location, bluntly discussing a visit to a Chinese factory with substandard conditions.

“The hidden camera video – it was all blurred out at the beginning, and it was mysterious,” Carter said. “It piqued my interest.”

An independent, non-profit news organization is trying to raise money. Having worked for one, I understand the drive, and I don’t fault them for using their 15 minutes to try to raise money, but calling what David Corn did “investigative reporting” is not only misleading, but it steals the credit from a sharp guy who committed a serious act of citizen journalism.

Give money to Mother Jones if you want; the world always needs more voices. But before you do that, get this guy a job.

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Government’s new anti-piracy effort takes aim at moral compass

Neighborhoodwatch

A new campaign announced by Attorney general Eric Holder yesterday is taking aim at piracy, but unlike past campaigns that reminded us about laws against piracy, this one asks us to consider the well-being of the economy.

The new campaign, which will apparently run a spot on MTV, brings up the thousands of jobs in the entertainment industry that could be hurt by piracy.

A one-sheet print ad depicts a forlorn crew member and the message, “That pirated movie you just bought…cost someone her job.”

While it’s much easier to sympathize with a lowly crew-member than the rich and famous actors, directors, and musicians that are the more visible victims of piracy, this ad still misses the point. “That pirated movie you just bought” doesn’t exist, and if it does, you’re probably too dull to realize the social implications of your actions. Buying pirated movies? That’s a thing? Welcome to 2011, where this wonderful thing called the internet lets us pirate movies for free. Anyone buying pirated movies doesn’t deserve their money, and it truly is a shame that that money is going towards some two-bit hustler who knows how to download a movie and burn a DVD instead of our poor “forlorn crew member.”

A serious question: Is the real problem with piracy that people are burning DVDs and selling them off as genuine? Or is it the thousands of people who download and watch movies from their computers without ever reaching for their wallet? Seems to me it’s the latter.

For that, Holder has another solution: vigilance. Danger Room reports that holder is expecting us to tattle to the feds if we find out our friends are illegally downloading music or movies.

“Fortunately, we can all be part of the solution. Anyone who suspects an IP crime can visit cybercrime.gov, fbi.gov, or iprcenter.gov to report suspected offenses,” Holder said. “The public’s proactive attention to these issues can help us to disrupt the sale of illegal goods; to prosecute the individuals, gangs, and international criminal organizations that profit from these activities; and to stop those who would exploit the ingenuity of others for monetary gain.”

In other words, Holder expects Americans to hold the wider, less tangible social costs of piracy over the up-close-and-personal costs of the awkward conversation you have to have with your roommate when he wonders aloud how the feds found him out.

Photo/Creative Commons/Flickr user John Kannenberg

Afghanistan’s Halliburton?

The Daily Beast ran a damning story yesterday about military logistics contractor Supreme Group, a European firm operating a multi-billion dollar operation in Afghanistan delivering food and other goods to U.S. troops there.

The firm is under investigation by the federal government for its billing practices.

Supreme confirmed to Newsweek it is the target of a federal investigation into its billing practices after an audit report this year lambasted both Supreme Group and the Defense Logistics Agency, which awards the firm most of its business. The report alleges, among other things, that Supreme was charging taxpayers nearly $4 just in freight costs for every pound of fruit and vegetables it flew into Afghanistan, racking up $454 million in costs.

Over-billing or not, it’s clear that Supreme is making enough money to provide its executives with a lifestyle most American taxpayers can’t even fathom.

At first blush, Michael Jacques Gans doesn’t appear to be your typical defense contractor. An attorney by training, Gans spends his spare time racing a mint-condition, sky-blue Bugatti race car—vintage 1927—on tracks across Europe. He doesn’t reside inside Washington’s Beltway, preferring instead his home in Germany or a multimillion-dollar duplex on New York’s Fifth Avenue, overlooking Central Park.

But based on accussations made by the government [PDF], it’s not hard to see why Gans, co-owner of Supreme Group, is living so well. Check out the PDF for the full report (if you have a few hours to kill), or read the Beast’s highlights. According to their report, the government alleges Supreme:

  • charged $455 million for food transportation flights. (The $3.74 price per pound shipped was an “oversight,” the Pentagon told auditors.) The auditors said Supreme’s original contract did not include a provision for flying food into the country, and that work was added without rewriting the contract.
  • charged as much as $8.35 per pound shipped when it used a helicopter instead of an airplane.
  • billed the Pentagon in one year for 8.8 million pounds of food flown by helicopter, when it really only flew 7.7 million pounds.
  • sought profits guaranteed at 10% for the airplane flights and 13% for helicopters.
The investigation is still underway, and it’s unclear what disciplinary actions, if any, will be taken. The article touches on the growing spending on no-bid contracts as well as the danger of the “revolving door” between contractors and government agencies, despite the mandatory “cooling off period,” which requires former public officials to refrain from working with their old agencies within two years of moving to the private sector. The poster-child in the Supreme case: Robert Dail, formerly of the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA), which awarded the contract to Supreme Group after the firm hired him as their U.S.-based president in 2009.

Even though Dail refrained from contacting his former agency, his firm managed to persuade DLA in 2010 to declare that Supreme Group was the “only” company that could provide food for America’s 100,000 soldiers in Afghanistan, and that requiring it to face competitive bidding would cause “mission failure.” That declaration pushed the firm into a category of elite contractors that get their work renewed without bidding.

The Pentagon’s growing reliance on such no-bid contracts alarms some watchdogs, who fear bypassing competitive contracting puts taxpayers at risk of being overcharged. The Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit, nonpartisan investigative news organization in Washington, recently calculated that the Pentagon awarded $140 billion in sole-source contracts (including Supreme) in 2010, almost triple the amount spent in 2001.

Allowing these no-bid contracts leads directly and almost certainly to the exact kinds of overspending being investigated here. Had Supreme Group had to bid for their contract, they couldn’t have gotten away with charging $8.35/pound for helicopter-delivered goods. Since they were the only company capable, as decided by their U.S. president’s former employer, price was not the question. As Occupy movements and political campaigns make financial wrongdoings their target, can the U.S. government afford to be awarding no-bid contracts to military contractors supporting wars seen unfavorably by the public?

EU rules privacy more important than piracy

European_union

The European Union Court of Justice today ruled that they see citizen’s privacy rights as a higher priority than copyright laws. The case came to the court when Sabam, a Belgian copyright advocacy group, challenged that internet service providers (ISPs) should be responsible for blocking illegal internet traffic from their users, claiming that use of peer to peer software was responsible for piracy.

Belgian ISP Belgacom appealed the case to the Court of Justice, the EU’s highest court, on the grounds that detecting such traffic would be a violation of users’ privacy.

Bloomberg Businessweek has coverage of the case:

Belgacom, the largest telephone company in Belgium, won antitrust approval to acquire Scarlet in 2008. Scarlet is appealing a June 2007 Belgian court order to “make it impossible” for users to violate copyright laws, saying it would entail breaching customers’ privacy rights.

As the United States pursues anti-piracy laws such as the Stop Online Piracy Act and now the Protect IP Act, the european case may provide some guidance — and some anecdotal ammunition — for advocates against the legislation.

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Facebook’s law enforcement guide leaked, no surprises

Facebook

Hackers claiming to be associated with the group Anonymous breached two Gmail accounts beloning to Alfredo Baclagan, a cybercrime investigator in California. Talking Points Memo reports the hackers last week published 38,000 emails online. Among the emails was a file that led to Facebook’s law enforcement guide, which outlines for law enforcement personnel how they should go about reporting illegal activity to Facebook.

With Facebook’s reputation for privacy, I was somewhat expecting the guide do offer any and all information on a user, so the general theme of compliance is not surprising, but it appears the company won’t just roll over for any official requesting information. One part explains their obligation to the user:

Because we must verify that compliance with your request for information would be mandatory pursuant to local law, we request that you explain in detail the legal authority for your request.

This passage seems to imply that Facebook won’t hand over your information unless they are absolutely legally required.

The guide, dated 2010, does not mention the social network’s location-based services. The information it says they are capable of handing over basically consists mostly of IP addresses of recent logins, profile information (it does not say whether or not they will release messages sent privately), and photos.

Presumably, there is or will be an updated guide with mention of location-based information as well (since users can now use Facebook like the popular foursquare service, “checking in” as they make their way through the physical world.), but unless someone else gets hacked, we’re not likely to see it anytime soon.

While some companies are very transparent about their policies around law enforcement requests, Facebook has not been publicly vocal on the subject. This silence was quite intentional, as indicated on the document:

This guide is CONFIDENTIAL and intended for law enforcement use only. Please do not redistribute it without the express written permission of Facebook.

Photo/Creative Commons/Scott Beale / Laughing Squid