Wednesday, June 19, 2013

What in the world is Metadata....defined and defanged.

I thought I was up on newspeak vocabulary until the exposure of the word “metadata” by a former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor, Edward Snowden. Snowden spilled the beans to the Guardian publication that the NSA was collecting “metadata” on everyone using Verizon communications. “Metadata” was a new one on me.  What is it , does it help keep us safe, and is it constitutional?
 The online Merriam Webster dictionary defines Metadata as “data that provides information about other data”. The first known use of word “metadata” was in 1983.
In fact, I was employed in “metadata” as a college student working in the central circulation file of the library filing Dewey Decimal system index cards.  There were card catalogues full of 3x5 cards, filed in a particular order.   You gave the card to a clerk to fetch a book, or you made a note of the decimal that gave you the location in the shelves and found it  yourself.  These cards were metadata, information about an author or a title, but they contained no  cliff notes of the contents of the publication. I still had to do the grunt work of reading  the book.
In these days of modern computerized technology, the ability to collect and store data has been amplified multi millions of times. Such is the metadata the NSA has been collecting on Verizon telephone calls. It contains dates, times, location, and the telephone numbers to and from, but it does not contain the content of the calls or the names associated with the numbers.  It is an index used by  US intelligence officials  to connect dots on terrorist networks in and out of the US that some   or to spot patterns of calls to certain numbers.  To get  the substance of the contact, a warrant (court ordered permission)  would have to be issued by the secretive FISA court, with specifics of who, what, and why , evidence of probable cause or reason to believe the suspected number was connected to a terrorist. The right to conduct such a surveillance is an interpretation of the Patriot Act of  2002. 
 To what extent does collecting metadata protect us?.We have been given two examples, the Zazi attempt to bomb New York subways and David Headley, connected to the Mumbai bombing.  We have been promised  more examples of where such surveillance stopped attacks.
What was curious about a subsequent statement of  Snowden  was his carefully worded claim that   "I, sitting at my desk, certainly had the authorities to wiretap anyone, from you, or your accountant, to a federal judge, to even the President if I had a personal email. “ It appears  he is referring to his alleged authorization, but  inability to tap phones  due to a lack of  email addresses.  But for some shrill talking heads on media to claim with certainty that Big Brother was” listening to your telephone conversations”is misleading, given what we know so far.
Is the telephone metadata collection and storing unconstitutional?  The ACLU filed a lawsuit against the US government last week in federal district court arguing  that the telephone metadata program is in violation of the First and Fourth Amendments of the Constitution  and that the government’s  interpretation of the Patriot Act is wrong.    The US Supreme Court will  be ultimate decider, but on the issue of Fourth Amendment rights, the ACLU faces an uphill fight.  In 1979 Smith v. Maryland, the Supreme Court  held that the  use of a register  (telephone numbers of calls made and received)was not a "search" within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment, and hence no warrant was required. The Supreme Court rarely reverses prior decisions, so that chances are collecting telephone metadata without a search warrant will continue to be constitutional.
For comments on White House Syria policy changes, see

Friday, June 14, 2013

Bosnia...a blueprint for US intervention in Syria?

Intervention by the US in the Syrian civil war might lead to a political settlement.  It did in Bosnia.

Below is a reposting of a column I wrote regarding Syria and what could be the best endgame of a US intervention in their civil war.   It is  pertinent now, over a month later, but the mechanism for some political settlement has been set up.  It appears that Russia, who agreed to the political mechanism for negotiation, has continued to supply Syria with heavy weight armaments and the momentum in the war has swung to  the Assad side.   Pres. Obama, bitten by not so good outcomes in Libya and Iraq, has procrastinated in his decision until now, and hopefully it will not be too late.  He received a push from former Pres. Bill Clinton, urging humanitarian intervention,  which might give Obama  some domestic cover to protect him from the ire of the liberal wing of the Democratic party.

The irony of Clinton's statement is that Clinton's reluctance to take action in the Bosnia conflict resulted in 100,000 killed and 2 million refugees and the coining of the phrase of "ethnic cleansing" while he dawdled.  It took enormous bi-partisan effort to get him off his dime and finally working with NATO, a no fly zone was created that equalized the power of those fighting the Serbian attempt to carve out greater Serbia from Bosnia.  The result is that ultimately there was a political settlement in the Dayton Accord that resulted in the end of fighting and killing.  There was also a mechanism set up to bring to justice the perpetrators of the ethnic cleansing campaign in the war crimes trials in the Hague, which is still on going. 

The quandaries regarding Syria are many:  Will armaments supplied to the rebels be  enough to equalize the civil war so that both sides see value in negotiation?  It took a no fly zone to bring Serbs to the Dayton Accord, but Russia, backing Assad, is calling such a no fly zone  against international law. So far Russia has not said what it would do if a no fly zone became a reality. Is a bad Assad better than a continuing civil war in Syria post Assad? ,  The turmoil would continue because it is a religious/ethnic conflict  and if Assad left, that does not address the root cause.  Both sides seem capable of committing atrocities and the more radical Islamist groups could  likely be able to hijack the rest of the rebel side. .   Will the US be flying solo or can it convince other Western European countries to join in?  Once we get in, can we get out or  will we be visiting another post war Iraq or Afghanistan?. Or will it be an ungovernable Bosnia that we have now, but at least sans bloodshed? What sort of endgame is there? Is Bosnia and example of the best endgame, even with its faults.  Even to this day peacekeepers from 24 countries are still stationed in Bosnia to make sure the Dayton Accord is enforced.  Some thoughts are contained in
a version of my  following post that  appeared  in the Sky Hi Daily News during the week of May 8, 2013.:

 Syria’s civil war  is emerging as a  US foreign policy crisis  and there is a gnawing feeling   of “been there, done that in Iraq and Afghanistan”.  While it was probably a  mistake, last year Pres. Obama drew a red line that would trigger greater US involvement if  Syrian Pres. Assad’s used  chemical weapons. There is some evidence Assad did.  
Empty threats risk future threats not being taken seriously and the president has been under pressure to make good on his threat. At least Obama is right in being cautious now. All of his options carry risks. Ethnic  civil wars like the one in Syria are the tar sands of  outsider intervention; easy to get into and  difficult  to get out of , and risk  spreading conflicts beyond borders.
The New York Times reported Israel  wiped out Syria’s main chemical weapons facility and long range missile storehouses last week.   While the strikes served Israel’s purpose to take out Syria’s arming  Hezbollah in Lebanon, it  may  also have made the chemical weapons redline  issue  moot.     No  one is claiming Israel’s strikes were a proxy for making good on a US threat, but  it served that purpose, too.
Military aid to the rebels and no fly zones should still be on the table because they  promote an end that serves our national interests. . Israel’s airstrikes demonstrated the weakness of Syria’s air defense and the feasibility of enforcing no fly zones. Boots on the ground have wisely  been ruled out by about everyone in the US. We learned some hard lessons  in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The situation on the ground has changed since last year,  with Al Qaeda- like  organizations  hijacking many of the rebel groups and with few  moderate  forces left to arm.     Our weapons could fall  into the wrong hands, making the situation more dangerous. We can only hope our intelligence assessments are accurate.
 Giving military aid  and enforcing no fly zones could   be the catalyst to get  Russia to force Assad to step down, since  military aid to the rebels could tip the stalemated conflict against Assad. The final outcome is still mostly in Russia’s hands. Assad is their client.   Russia’s reluctance to force Assad out is understandable. The fall of Assad could put Al Qaeda like rebels in charge,  closer to their borders.
Russia may be gambling that our  reluctance to get involved  will not change. Beware.  We found ourselves eventually caught up in the Balkan Wars in the 1990’s as the former Yugoslavia broke up.   Media coverage of  ethnic cleansing , fleeing refugees, and the shelling of Dubrovnik  and Sarajevo  turned  US public opinion around  to support  intervention.  Western countries also   feared Bosnia could become a stronghold for Al Qaeda Europe.  
During  the Balkan conflict NATO put only peacekeeper boots on the ground, but they enforced   no fly zones and  bombed Serbia  during the Kosovo  conflict.  Military aid flowed freely to all parties, with Russia supplying Serbia and the West backing Croatia.  
The conflict  in the Balkans  was ultimately  resolved by diplomats and the agreements   contain models that could benefit both Russia and the West in Syria.   Croatia and Serbia were carved from   the former Yugoslavia.  These new nations  were left with even fewer ethnic minorities  though these were already   areas with  historical cohesiveness.   Croatia joins the European Union this July  and last month Serbia agreed to enter in negotiations to resolve Kosovo’s status.
 Bosnia, still balanced  demographically  between Muslims, Croatian Catholics, and Serbs,  is a less successful result of the settlement. Ethnic factions are hunkered down in cohesive geographic sectors,  barely working together cooperatively on a national level.   At least the shooting, ethnic cleansing  and threat to Europe was  stopped. 
 Syria  also has  some  religious cohesive regions . A Balkanized solution just might  work for Russia and the US.   
For Felicia Muftic’s  Balkan background, visit
Column translated into Croatian is also posted at

Footnote:  The New York Times today reports that Secretary of State John Kerry will be in Russia today meeting with their President and high ranking officials to discuss a negotiated settlement.  It appears that either the threat of US military aid to the rebels or a switch in the view of what Russia believes to be in their self interest has  changed.  Whether the Israeli strike figured into the equation is not known, but it did demonstrate the fear that the Syrian civil war would spread which would not be in the interest of either Russia or the US.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

How much freedom are we willing to give up to stay safe? Courts may decide for us

How much personal freedom are we willing to give up in the name of homeland security? That’s the political question that erupted last week. The underlying legal question is whether interpretation  and application of the 2002 Patriot Act  passed to protect us from terrorist attacks   is constitutional.   In the long run, the Supreme Court may make the decision for us.
 At issue is the potential violation of the 4th Amendment to the Constitution  which requires warrants for  search and seizure  that are based on probable cause  and have specifics that some violation of law is suspected.   The 2002 Patriot Act authorizes some types of warrantless searches.
Details of the workings of the Patriot Act  had been kept hush hush until a  British publication, the Guardian, opened the worm can.  It published leaks from a former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor that warrantless gathering of information  was conducted on all of Verizon’s telephone calls (Sprint and AT&T, too, revealed later) and that there was surveillance  contents of  internet communications of suspected terrorists and their connections abroad.
Colorado has become a high profile  focus  of  the  debate.   Colorado Democratic Senator Mark Udall, member of the Senate Intelligence Committee,  has consistently voted  and spoken out against    the Patriot Act,  because he objected that  warrantless telephone call metadata mining was  kept secret from the public and  was conducted on telephone customers whether they had terrorist connections or not . On CNN Sunday  Udall told Candy Crowley “that it was not clear the program gave information that could not be found elsewhere” in thwarting attacks .
 Others including the President   believe the telephone metadata program is helpful . CBS News Saturday reported that the telephone metadata collection enabled the  apprehension  of Denver resident Najibullah Zazi  before he could carry out a  plot to bomb the New York City subways in 2009.
It seems creepy to know even  limited phone data is being collected and it leaves many, including me, with a gnawing fear that someone in the future could get their hands on the data base to use it  for witch hunting.
Another  surveillance program  exposed by the Guardian is called PRISM. It allows the NSA to tap into  the content of internet communications of suspected terrorists abroad, including the content of those communications of non US citizens in the US communicating with them. Warrants are issued by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance (FISA) Court  good for a year.  While acknowledging PRISM’S effectiveness in thwarting  terrorist attacks, Sen. Udall objected anyway since “some Americans have been swept up in it”.  The administration expressed outrage that exposing  PRISM  damaged American’s security interests.
Trusting the user is not enough; are the controls enough to protect us from abuse?.
What is  this  FISA court, anyway?  Eleven judges are appointed by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court  for seven year terms.  It works in secret and deals with classified information related to terrorism, in order not to  blow the cover off covert operations and tip off suspects. The Court informs the Senate and House intelligence committees of their rulings. The telephone metadata mining is reauthorized every three months.
 Wide spread  collection of telephone metadata is limited to numbers, length, date, and location, though customers’ names are not collected.  To access content or conduct wiretaps, warrants still must be sought from the FISA court.
This is still a dangerous time .  The Boston Marathon Bombing, the Ft Hood shooting, and the nearly successful Times Square and New York subway bombers involved difficult to detect  lone wolves living in the US.  We would not like to handicap our government agents executing their  mission.
Civil libertarians, left and right, are not waiting for Congressional action. They are threatening to take the issue to court which will ultimately decide the constitutionality issues.
For more, visit
This is a version of my column which will appear in the this week

Friday, June 7, 2013

The Fact , highly respected, independent, funded by the Annenberg Foundation
poked enough holes in the Heritage Foundation claim of the $6.3 trillion cost due to immigration reform to call it false. 

"Critics of a bipartisan Senate bill to overhaul the nation’s immigration system falsely claim that it will cost an additional $6.3 trillion, citing a study by a conservative group that opposes the bill."
...for the rest of their analysis,  see

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Hyping the scandals is not a game changer

The “scandals”  seem to be heaped one on top of another on the White House lately.   While there is some fire in the substance, the hyperventilated, over the top smoke  blown mightily   by the GOP   is also about the 2014 midterms. It is a political strategy that is  sound and fury likely to signify little in the end.
 The GOP seems determined to pin the problem on Pres. Obama, best if he can be found to be the actual perpetrator (and so far they have failed to do that), or at least the head of   an overreached, out of control, incompetent administration.  Therefore, the GOP hopes the President will be so wounded,  Congressional and Senatorial elections will go their way as voters become disgusted with anything tied to him.
The GOP views the  rollout of Obamacare   like a fox salivating at the possibilities of catching chipmunk in a rock garden.  They hope Obamacare will fail miserably.  They have laid the groundwork to self  fulfill their prophecy.    Whenever  some southern and Midwestern  governors and state legislatures were in  GOP control, they have refused to set up the state managed exchanges…resulting in the mistrusted feds having to do it for them and leaving a gap of millions who would not have access to expanded Medicaid or Obamacare. They have cut out funds slated  to encourage  currently uninsured into subscribe to  the subsidized exchanges,  hoping if  they built it, no one came.
Except where they have tried to sabotage the roll out, the GOP is taking a risk.  The roll out might work…because California, Colorado, and Massachusetts, and New Jersey  and Pacific Coast states are well prepared . The cost of the subsidized premiums in California have come in much lower than actuarial studies predicted.  Colorado is well ahead of the game, already testing  technology and with 17 private insurers signed on to participate.
 Where the GOP will be able to howl in protest and point to failure will be in states where they are  already  strong. All politics in electing representatives and s enators are local.  They will be preaching to their  choir,  safe  in gerrymandered non competitive  districts.    Any failures of the roll out could blowback on the GOP when the successes in other states could be contrasted with the bungling in the purposefully unprepared states.
The GOP has tried to inflate the “scandals”  by painting them as “Nixonian”.    In their zeal to try to draw  comparisons  of Obama with Nixon they  fall very flat.  Nixon himself  ordered the IRS to  audit politicians, groups and journalists on his enemies list.  It was not a case of  bungling by career service bureaucrats  and an overprotective White House staff, as it appears involved in  this current “scandal”.
 The attempt by Nixon  to hush up the Washington Post was not because the CIA or national security was  jeopardized by their reporting. The Watergate coverup was his directed attempt to cover his role in a criminal act. However, it  was AP’s and Fox’s reporting of the leak  that blew the cover off covert action against Al Qaeda in Yemen, endangering our war against terrorists, that triggered the Attorney General’s investigation.  
Nothing this year equals the Iran Contra Scandal in which the Reagan administration  skirted laws to run  Central American covert actions,  or the revenge seeking W Bush administration blowing CIA operative Valerie Plame’s cover.
As a strategy, even these more substantive  scandals have  not  changes the  party domination in the immediately following elections in the past. Economic issues were always larger factors.
So…fire away GOP.  Voters will begin asking where  is  your replacement  for Obamacare or what you will do about employment and the disappearing middle class. A GOP  blocking immigration reform will only feed  Democrats’ winning demographics.  Those are the real game changers.
For more, visit

This is a version of my column that will appear in the Sky Hi Daily News this week.