Punting the Pundits

Punting the Punditsis an Open Thread. It is a selection of editorials and opinions from around the news medium and the internet blogs. The intent is to provide a forum for your reactions and opinions, not just to the opinions presented, but to what ever you find important.

Glenn Greenwald: The Obama administration’s war on privacy

In early August, two dictatorial (and U.S.-allied) Gulf states — Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — announced a ban on the use of Blackberries because, as the BBC put it, “(b)oth nations are unhappy that they are unable to monitor such communications via the handsets.”  Those two governments demand the power to intercept and monitor every single form of communication.  No human interaction may take place beyond their prying ears.  Since Blackberry communication data are sent directly to servers in Canada and the company which operates Blackberry — Research in Motion — refused to turn the data over to those governments, “authorities [] decided to ban Blackberry services rather than continue to allow an uncontrolled and unmonitored flow of electronic information within their borders.”  That’s the core mindset of the Omnipotent Surveillance State:  above all else, what is strictly prohibited is the ability of citizens to communicate in private; we can’t have any “uncontrolled and unmonitored flow of electronic information.” . . . .

Anyone who thinks that is hyperbole should simply read two articles today describing efforts of the Obama administration to obliterate remaining vestiges of privacy.  The first is this New York Times article by Charlie Savage, which describes how the Obama administration will propose new legislation to mandate that the U.S. Government have access to all forms of communications, “including encrypted e-mail transmitters like BlackBerry, social networking Web sites like Facebook and software that allows direct ‘peer to peer’ messaging like Skype.”  In other words, the U.S. Government is taking exactly the position of the UAE and the Saudis:  no communications are permitted to be beyond the surveillance reach of U.S. authorities.

The new law would not expand the Government’s legal authority to eavesdrop — that’s unnecessary, since post-9/11 legislation has dramatically expanded those authorities — but would require all communications, including ones over the Internet, to be built so as to enable the U.S. Government to intercept and monitor them at any time when the law permits.  In other words, Internet services could legally exist only insofar as there would be no such thing as truly private communications; all must contain a “back door” to enable government officials to eavesdrop. . . . .

In other words, the Obama administration is demanding exactly that which the UAE demanded:  full, unfettered access to all communications.

(my emphasis)

Dean Baker: Are the Politicians Stealing Your Social Security?

That’s the question that people should be asking their current or would be representatives in Congress. With the huge baby boom cohort at the edge of retirement, there are few issues that will matter more directly to the people who will vote in the November elections. . . .

he threat to cut Social Security should be taken seriously right now since two of the would be cutters are former Sen. Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles, the co-chairs of President Obama’s deficit commission. Key figures in the Congressional leadership of both parties have also indicated an interest in cutting Social Security.

This is especially outrageous, since the fact that the baby boom cohort is ill prepared for retirement is a direct result of economic mismanagement by both the Clinton and Bush administrations. The economic leadership of the last two decades set the economy on a course of bubble-driven growth that was bound to end in a disaster like the one we are currently experiencing. Now, these very same people (all of whom still have their jobs) are targeting the one asset the baby boomers have left: the Social Security benefits that they paid for throughout their working career.

Turkana: Maureen Dowd needs a mirror

Maureen Dowd had a very good column on Sunday, but her congenital solipsism and narcissism likely prevent her from being able to recognize the degree to which she helped create that which she now condemns. Dowd is smart and savvy and an entertaining writer, but she’s also the paragon of everything that is wrong with what passes for political analysis in the traditional media. But she did write a good column, on Sunday, and given her elevated perch at the New York Times, that’s a good thing. Discussing the anti-intellectual movement that now defines the Republican Party, Dowd wrote:

Bill Maher continued his video torment of (Christine) O’Donnell by releasing another old clip of her on his HBO show on Friday night, this time showing one in which she argued that “Evolution is a myth.”

   Maher shot back, “Have you ever looked at a monkey?” To which O’Donnell rebutted, “Why aren’t monkeys still evolving into humans?”

And Dowd quoted from a recent conversation she had with Maher.

“I find it so much more damaging than the witch stuff because she could be in a position to make decisions about scientific issues, like global warming and stem cells, and she thinks primate evolution can happen in a week and mice have human brains.”

And Dowd referred to Sarah Palin’s climate denialism and Sharron Angle’s autism denialism and Joe Miller’s bizarre brand of Constitutional originalism, and correctly assessed the real goal of Palin, Newt Gingrich, John Boehner and Jim DeMint, which isn’t a return to an idealized 1950s but to the 1750s, before the advent of modern science and modern republics and modern democracy. Which, one might add, accords perfectly with those that seem to want to become the effective future monarchy.

So, good for Dowd. Yes. The Republicans are not funny, they are unfettered from reality. And given that they are not the cartoon characters they seem, but a political party that could in the near future gain some semblance of governing power, that makes them dangerous. But Dowd’s long-apparent incapacity for self-reflection necessitates an explication of her own role in propagating a national political dialogue that too often lacks any dialogue about actual politics. The modern Republican Party would not be what it is if not for the enabling of people like Maureen Dowd.

Seth Schoen: Government Seeks Back Door Into All Our Communications

For a decade, the government backed off of attempts to force encryption developers to weaken their products and include back doors, and the crypto wars seemed to have been won. (Indeed, journalist Steven Levy declared victory  for the civil libertarian side in 2001.) In the past ten years, even as the U.S. government has sought (or simply taken) vastly expanded surveillance powers, it never attempted to ban the development and use of secure encryption.

Now the government is again proposing to do so, following in the footsteps of regimes like the United Arab Emirates that have recently said some privacy tools are too secure and must be kept out of civilian hands.

As the Internet security community explained years ago, intentionally weakening security and including back doors is a recipe for disaster. “Lawful intercept” systems built under current laws have already been abused for unlawful spying by governments and criminals. Trying to force technology developers to include back doors is a recipe for disaster for our already-fragile on-line security and privacy. And like the COICA Internet censorship bill, it takes a page from the world’s most repressive regimes’ Internet-control playbook. This is exactly the wrong message for the U.S. government to be sending to the rest of the world.

The crypto wars are back in full force, and it’s time for everyone who cares about privacy to stand up and defend it: no back doors and no bans on the tools that protect our communications.

Politerati: Biden’s instruction to base to “stop whining” backfires instantly

Vice President Biden, seeking to buck up Democratic troops in advance of the midterm elections, instead appears to have stuck a finger in the eye of those working to help the Democrats build levees against the incoming Republican wave.

Speaking before about 200 Democratic activists and donors at a private fundraiser for Rep. Paul Hodes at Stoneyfield Farm in Manchester, N.H., Monday afternoon, Biden urged Democrats to “stop whining.”

Democrats need to “remind our base constituency to stop whining and get out there and look at the alternatives,” he said. “This president has done an incredible job. He’s kept his promises.”

“Don’t compare me to the Almighty. Compare me to the alternative,” Biden quoted former Boston mayor Kevin White as having said.

That went over about as well as previous rounds of what one progressive blogger has called “hippie punching.”

“The ‘professional left’ is busting our butt to mobilize progressive voters in 2010, picking up the ball that this White House dropped when they refused to fight for the overwhelmingly popular public option, refused to break up the big banks, and demobilized Obama voters who expected this president to at least fight for big change,” Progressive Change Campaign Committee cofounder Adam Green said in statement. “When Vice President Biden tells Joe Lieberman to ‘stop whining’ about the public option, and tells Ben Nelson to ‘stop whining’ about voting on a middle-class tax cut that benefits 98 percent of Americans, he’ll have some credibility on the whining front.”

The PCCC backed congressional candidate Ann McLane Kuster in her New Hampshire primary contest; she is running for the seat Hodes is vacating to run for the U.S. Senate, and she spoke at the Stoneyfield Farm fundraiser, which also benefited Rep. Carol Shea-Porter’s bid for reelection and the New Hampshire Democratic Party Coordinated Campaign Committee.

“You’re welcome, Joe Biden, for helping to get the more electable Democrat who actually excites voters to be the Democratic nominee – instead of a lame corporate stooge. How’s Blanche Lincoln working out?” Green said.

Bob Woodward: Military thwarted president seeking choice in Afghanistan

President Obama was on edge.

For two exhausting months, he had been asking military advisers to give him a range of options for the war in Afghanistan. Instead, he felt that they were steering him toward one outcome and thwarting his search for an exit plan. He would later tell his White House aides that military leaders were “really cooking this thing in the direction they wanted.”

He was looking for choices that would limit U.S. involvement and provide a way out. His top three military advisers were unrelenting advocates for 40,000 more troops and an expanded mission that seemed to have no clear end. When his national security team gathered in the White House Situation Room on Veterans Day, Nov. 11, 2009, for its eighth strategy review session, the president erupted.

“So what’s my option? You have given me one option,” Obama said, directly challenging the military leadership at the table, including Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen and Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, then head of U.S. Central Command.

“We were going to meet here today to talk about three options,” Obama said sternly. “You agreed to go back and work those up.”

Mullen protested. “I think what we’ve tried to do here is present a range of options.”

Obama begged to differ. Two weren’t even close to feasible, they all had acknowledged; the other two were variations on the 40,000.

Silence descended on the room. Finally, Mullen said, “Well, yes, sir.”

Mullen later explained, “I didn’t see any other path.”

This stark divide between the nation’s civilian and military leaders dominated Obama’s Afghanistan strategy review, creating a rift that persists to this day. So profound was the level of distrust that Obama ended up designing his own strategy, a lawyerly compromise among the feuding factions. As the president neared his final decision on how many troops to send, he dictated an unusual six-page document that one aide called a “terms sheet,” as though the president were negotiating a business deal.


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