Posts Tagged ‘Democracy’

Some details about the US election campaign.

datePosted on 14:45, April 22nd, 2016 by Pablo

Coverage of the US election in NZ is pretty bad. The local media pundits are shallow at best and take their lead from US cable news services. The best analyses are either reprints or canned footage from US media outlets or in local political blogs (save the rabid frothing on certain reactionary outlets).

Since I get to vote in the elections I follow them pretty closely. Also, having been  based in the US for the twenty years prior to my arrival in NZ, I have practical experience with them, to including voting in 6 states. Because the coverage in NZ is sketchy on certain key details and because it follows the crude narrative of the Yank media, I figured I would offer a short primer on some key details leading up to the Republican and Democratic conventions in a few months.

Open versus closed primaries. 

Primary elections are held in all 50 states and US territories during presidential election years in order to award delegates to candidates pursuing the presidential nomination of their respective parties. The amount of delegates is based upon the number of registered members of a party in a given state, divided among the number of congressional districts in that state. In some states the awarding of delegates is a winner take all affair, while in others it is proportional to the number of votes each candidate receives out of the total number of people voting in a party’s’ primary. In some states there are caucuses instead of primaries, which are more consultative and informal than elections and offer greater leeway in delegate selection and commitment to candidates. Of course, like so much else in US elections, there is a fair bit of gerrymandering and dubious exchanges involved in delegate apportionment, but the general principle is as outlined.

In “closed” primaries only registered supporters of a given party may vote in that party’s primary. That forces voters to declare a preference in advance of the primary. The time frame for registering a party preference in order to be eligible to vote varies from state to state. For example, in Florida, where I am registered to vote, a person must register at least 60 days before the primary election. In New York the registration deadline is six months before the primary election date.

In closed primaries independent voters must either declare a party preference by the official registration deadline or else they are excluded from voting in the primary. This is important because the majority (40 percent) of US voters declare themselves to be Independents (the Democrats and GOP get around 29 percent and 27 percent of all registered voters). The motive for holding closed primaries is twofold: to suppress the vote in order to eliminate uncertainties on election day (since most independents either do not or cannot vote in party primaries); and to thereby allow the most committed party supporters to determine who the winning candidate will be. Although much attention has been directed at Trump and Sander’s complaints about the delegate selection process and inability of independents to vote, respectively, the hard fact is that both the Democratic Party and GOP try to control the primary voting process via closed elections in most states. The Democratic and Republican National Committees co-ordinate (some would say conspire) with state and local party officials to add just enough opaqueness to the process so that electoral uncertainty is limited while the appearance of free and fair elections is maintained.

In “open” primaries voters do not have to register prior to the election date. They can simply declare a party preference on election day or shortly before the election, the walk into the voting station with the voting papers of the party they have chosen. The only requirement for voting is that they show proof of residence in a given state. This allows independent voters to often have a decisive impact on the outcome and leads to greater amounts of strategic voting. For instance, when I lived in Virginia and later in Arizona, which were open primary states during the times I lived there, I would often vote in the Republican primary in order to vote for the most troglodyte candidate on the ballot. My hope was that in doing so I would help said candidate win the nomination because he (it was always a he) was unelectable in the general election. Unfortunately that did not always happen, but you get the general idea.

“Open” primaries are often a better indication of general election outcomes because they are less dominated by internal party logics and less “controllable” by party bosses. Conversely, “closed” primaries tend to reflect better the desires of committed party voters, something that may or may not be translatable into general election victories.

Another important thing to remember is not so much the percentages of the vote won by each candidate but the total number of votes registered for each party in a given primary. For example, in the recent “closed” New York primary the total GOP vote was around 800,000 whereas the Democratic vote was close to 1.8 million (that is, more than double the Republican vote). In conservative rural states such as those of the Midwest and South (the so-called red states), the numbers for each party are reversed (and much lower in aggregate). So a candidate winning by huge margins in party primaries that have significantly fewer voters than the opposition is no sure bet to go on and win a general election.

It is useful to keep this statistic in mind when projecting out to the general election. For example, it does not matter if Trump wins 80 percent of the GOP vote in a primary in which the GOP receives less than half of the total number of votes than that received by the Democratic Party candidates because come general election day his numbers will have to bolstered by a huge amount of independent votes (who are allowed to vote in general elections for whomever they prefer). Since most Independents tend to vote Democratic in general elections, that means that not only will he have to have a historic turn out by Republican voters in his favour (again, at just 27 percent of the general electorate), but he will also have to overcome a deeply rooted historic Independent voting trend if he is to win. That is a big ask.

Brokered or Contested Conventions.

Most national party conventions in US presidential election years are more a coronation than a nomination. Usually the preferred candidate has the winning threshold of delegate numbers pretty much in hand by May or early June, so the conventions (which are always held in July or early August in order to be able to dedicate at least three months to the national campaign) are mere formalities that have become increasingly garish and circus-like in recent years. Long on style and short on substance, these uncontested conventions are designed to show party unity and promote patriotic appeal in the eyes of uncommitted voters.

“Brokered” or “contested” conventions are a whole other kettle of fish. In these type of conventions no candidate has the winning number of delegates on the day the convention opens. That leads to a series of ballots amongst delegates until one candidate emerges with a 50 percent plus one vote majority. The first ballot is a so-called “loyalty” ballot in which delegates vote for whom they are pledged to (the saying is that you vote for the person who brought you to the big dance). Since the first ballot only serves to confirm the lack of a delegate majority by any candidate, then a subsequent round of balloting occurs until a majority candidate is decided upon. That is where things get interesting because after the first loyalty ballot delegates are released from their pledges and can support whomever they think has the best chance of winning the general election (or at least presumably that is the logic at play. It is entirely possible that some delegates may play to lose by selecting an unelectable presidential candidate in order to eliminate him or her from party politics after the defeat).

Balloting continues until a candidate is selected. That not only brings intra-party conflicts out into the open. It also is where the backroom deals in smoke-filled rooms, the backstabbing, horse trading and sausage-making all come into play. It is an ugly process that often leads the winning candidate battered and bruised rather than sanctified, which in turns leads to a weakened position heading into the general election–something the opposing party candidate will pounce on.

If I recall correctly, the last brokered convention was in 1979, when Ted Kennedy challenged sitting president Jimmy Carter at the Democratic convention. Carter won the party nomination, only to be trounced by Ronald Reagan in the general election. As people noted at the time, if an incumbent president could be challenged at his own party convention, why should voters think that he was worth re-electing?

Brokered or contested elections are bad news for the parties in question. That is why both the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and the Republican National Committee (RNC) are doing everything they can to derail the campaigns of the two “outsiders” in the race, Sanders and Trump. Remember that Bernie Sanders has never been a Democrat. From his days as mayor of Burlington, Vermont to his Senate career, he ran and served as an Independent until the time he entered the Democratic presidential nomination campaign. The DNC fears and loathes him, a sentiment made worse by the fact that he has derailed what was supposed to be Hillary Clinton’s inevitable and uncontested  march to the presidency. Now, the path to coronation is not so certain. Clinton needs to win 66 percent of the remaining delegates in order to secure the nomination. With states like California, Oregon, Maryland and Pennsylvania still in play, that task is not going to be easy. Even if she does win enough delegates to secure the nomination before the convention (and the selection of special interest group “super delegates” was designed to ensure that), she will have to make concessions to Sanders’ policy platform if she is to retain the support of his followers (who otherwise will not vote for her even if they fear a Trump or Cruz presidency). This complicates things for her as well as for her largest patrons, since Bernie has his sights firmly focused on Wall Street and other corporate lobbies like Big Phrama that have donated massively to her campaign. And if Clinton does not secure 66 percent of the remaining delegates, then a contested convention is in her future.

As for Trump, well, he is the fly in the RNC ointment. If he gets the necessary amount of delegates by the time of the convention, then the GOP will be forced by their own rules to award him the nomination. If that happens there is some talk of the GOP running an “independent” candidate against him so as to distance their brand from his name in an election that they expect to lose.

If Trump does not secure the necessary number of delegates before the convention, then a brokered convention is likely. The RNC both fears and wants that to happen. Fears, because it most likely will lead to defeat in November. Wants, because it could be the only way to prevent Trump from winning the nomination. If the convention is brokered or contested it is probable that Trump will be denied the nomination in favour of a “compromise” candidate even if he has the most delegate votes in the first round of balloting.  If so, it is likely that he will not go quietly and may mount his own “independent” campaign. Either way, the GOP is doomed in the general election because whoever runs an independent campaign on the Right will divide conservative voters and forfeit the chance of success against Hillary (with or without Bernie’s supporters).

Trump displays his lack of political understanding when he rails about delegate selection and how the person who gets the most GOP votes nation-wide should win the nomination. He fails to understand that, as with the Electoral College and the Senate, delegate selection is specifically designed to put the brakes on demagogic or populist appeals and mass influence over party politics. Moreover, he claims that even if he comes up short (say, by a hundred or less delegates out of the 1237 needed to win the nomination), as the leader in pledged delegates entering the convention he should be given the nomination much in the way a conceded putt is given in golf.

In doing so  he evidences exactly the disdain for institutional rules and procedures that the party elite is most concerned about. His rhetoric has already trashed many GOP sacred cows, so his push to circumvent or change its convention rules is seen as a major step towards the party’s demise (at least in its present form). Add to that his ignorance of even the most elementary notions of separation of powers and Executive Authority, and you have a GOP disaster-in-chief in the making. Heck, Trump as president (or Cruz for that matter) could well make Dubya Bush look positively Churchillian in comparison. Hence the RNC desire to snuff him out, and the only way to do so short of assassination is to force a brokered convention or run an “independent” candidate against him even if it ensures a loss in November.

 Campaign Financing.

I will not get into the intricacies of US campaign financing laws save for a couple of items. Individual contributions to candidates are limited but contributions to so-called Political Action Committees (PACs and Super PACs) are not. Under US electoral law corporations and lobbying groups are considered to be the same as individuals (i.e. there is no ceiling on contributions to PACs). PACs have been created as a way to circumvent the limitations on contributions to candidates and often serve as thinly disguised fronts for individual campaigns. Most of the money used to buy advertising, pay campaign staff and conduct the street level, grassroots get-out-the-vote work is channeled through PACs.

However, there is a twist. Before the national conventions, the DNC and RNC are prohibited from donating money to the campaigns of individual presidential candidates. Conversely, individual candidates can fund raise for themselves but not for others. This is an important detail because much fund-raising done by candidates like Hillary Clinton is done to channel money to so-called “coattail” candidates, that is, people in her party running for non-presidential offices who can benefit from the trickle down effect of her star power. Remember that in a presidential election year it is not just the presidency that is at stake. The entire House of Representatives (elected every two years) and one third of the Senate (elected every six years) are up for grabs as well, as are host of state and local offices.  This year 34 Senate seats are being contested and a shift in six seats would restore a Democratic majority, something that is almost as important to a Democratic presidency as is the person who holds it.

Therein lies the rub. None of the candidates are legally allowed to hold coattail fund-raisers and neither of the party national committees can help fund their candidacies until the nomination is secured. The Sanders campaign has cried foul after Hillary mentioned that her fund-raising was designed not just for herself but for other candidates, but the DNC has dismissed her slip of the tongue as inconsequential. In any event the practical solution to campaign financing is to channel all funds through PACs, which can then be instructed to finance campaigns for political offices up and down the ballot.

This is where, again, Bernie and The Donald have problems. The DNC and RNC are clearly channeling PAC money away from them and towards their rivals. Their own fund-raising efforts are focused on themselves without coattail-inducing support. Bernie has raised millions in small donations from individuals and some (mostly union) money, but is virtually devoid of serious PAC support. Trump is self-funded and it is debatable as to whether the RNC will reverse itself and direct money towards him in the event he secures the GOP nomination. If it does not, even his millions may not be enough to counter a well-financed, PAC-driven Democratic campaign with coattail effect, or even an “independent” GOP campaign focused more on securing the non-presidential positions on the ballot rather than the presidency.

In summation, once you strip away the dog and pony show aspects of the US election campaign, what you get is a contest run by two major parties that are authoritarian and hierarchical at their core, where both attempt to control voting outcomes from above rather than below, and which use electoral frameworks, convention rules and circuitous campaign financing to achieve that end. In that regard, the prospects for victory in November clearly lay on the Democratic side, whereas the prospects for an open party rupture is patently evident in the GOP.

Let the circuses conventions begin!

 

A culture of tax evasion.

datePosted on 11:25, April 15th, 2016 by Pablo

I do not understand what the fuss is all about when it comes to John Key and the revelations in the so-called “Panama Papers.” So what if he and other Kiwi high rollers shield their incomes and assets from the IRD in assorted trusts, funds, investments and even shell companies? Isn’t it an axiom of capitalism that, as Donald Trump has openly stated, you try to avoid as much tax payment as possible? Forget all this nonsense about “paying one’s fair share of taxes.” Only rubes and idealists do that. Everyone else tries to minimise their tax exposure and the rich pricks just do so on a grander and more elaborate scale.

I say this because the entire NZ economy is riddled with tax avoidance. One of the things that struck me after I moved to NZ is the amount of cash transactions that are done with the explicit intention of avoiding tax. Almost every single tradesperson I have dealt with in the course of my time here has proposed a cash transaction that avoids GST, but more importantly, avoids traceable electronic or paper (cheque) financial transfers. And the offers of non-GST cash transactions are done without shame or concern; it is just part of doing business for many people and everyone knows it and acts accordingly based on their own circumstances.

If what I have seen in the small business trade and service sector is any indication, then it is reasonable to expect that such attitudes percolate upwards into larger corporate structures and repositories of wealth. Since these are too big to hide in a cash-only parallel market, the next best thing is to engage in tax evasion and income-hiding schemes whose complexity is based upon the ability of the tax authorities to uncover them. The move to off-shore trusts and the like is simply a matter of keeping one or two steps ahead of the law and three steps ahead of enforcement mechanisms. If those in government choose to structure the financial regulatory regime in such a way that it keeps the holders of wealth five to ten steps ahead of the tax authorities then, well, you get what you vote for.

The difference between the approach of NZ high and low rollers when it comes to tax evasion is in scale, not kind.

This is one reason why I believe that the Transparency International rankings that have NZ listed among the top three least corrupt nations on earth are rubbish.  Add to that the nepotism, cronyism, shoulder-tapping, sinecure swapping and insider trading of everything from personal and professional favours to board directorships to stock shares, and the picture of NZ is far less rosy and far more, let us say, “pragmatic.”  I am particularly critical of the TI indexes because not only are they mostly based on reputational analysis (mostly offered by those who stand to gain from gaming the system), but because I participated in a TI survey of NZ’s intelligence and defense forces and saw my scores (and those of some others) pretty much discarded in favour of higher scores offered by insiders that led to an overall TI assessment that NZ has the highest standard of professional integrity amongst the defense and intelligence services in the Asia-Pacific.

Even so, I am one of those who are a bit idealistic when it comes to taxes. I understand the concept of public goods and therefore comprehend the rationale behind taxation. In NZ I pay tax more readily at a higher rate than I did in the US because, among other things, I am not paying to support a huge war machine that in turn serves the interests of a taxpayer subsidised military-industrial complex. As a small business owner I feel the burden of taxation more heavily and immediately than the corporate moguls that run the nation’s largest firms and whose bottom lines rest on minimising two things: their tax liabilities and their labour force wage bills. Yet I try to believe that I am contributing my small bit towards maintaining a high standard of public education, health and welfare that will lead to future generations of productive and happy citizens (although my experience with NZ academia suggests seriously diminishing returns in that sector, and I have serious doubts that overall heath, education and welfare outcomes are on the rise rather than in decline as a result of nearly a decade of National government public policies).

In spite of these misgivings, I remain a residual idealist and want to believe that my contributions, when taken collectively with those of others, matter for the present and future well-being of NZ. But I do not expect others to share the same hopelessly naive view of how the systems works, and I therefore do not begrudge them trying to dodge the taxman as much as possible. Because in a country where market-reifying ideologies reign supreme in virtually every facet of life, only a fool like me would think that paying taxes is anything but state-imposed theft levied on the productive in order to buy the acquiescence of the parasitical. I know this to be true because National, ACT and certain elements in Labour tell me so, and who am I to argue with those who dominate our economic, political and social narrative?

I have had a professional interest in torture since my days doing human rights work in Latin America. As part of that work I talked to victims as well as perpetrators of state terrorism and subsequently wrote professionally about its usage in Argentina. Later on I consorted with members of the US counter-intelligence community who were responsible for interrogations of suspected spies and other bad people. They helped me understand the difference between coercive (as opposed to passive or sympathetic) interrogations and torture. The combination of experiences made clear to me that torture is more about punishment and collective deterrence through fear than it is about timely and sensitive information-gathering.

When the US started using its “enhanced interrogation techniques” after 9/11, descending into the medieval weirdness of Abu Ghraib and camp X-Ray at Guantanamo Bay, I tried to make sense of it.

In recent years the US Congress and the CIA have conducted investigations into the enhanced interrogation program. The bottom line is twofold: enhanced interrogations did not work any better than “normal” interrogations in extracting valuable information from terrorism suspects; and the justifications for using them was specious and deceptive at best. The best way of garnering valuable intelligence, as it turns out, is through a combination of timely signals collections working in concert with old fashion human intelligence gathering on the ground.

Now along comes Donald Trump claiming that not only does torture work but that he would “do worse” to suspects than water boarding in order to extract information from them. By now it should be clear that he is a blithering idiot on foreign relations, military affairs, intelligence operations, and pretty much everything else when it comes to public policy, to say nothing of being a serial liar with the purest case of narcissistic personality disorder seen since Narcissus himself (and were it that he could only suffer the same fate).

Heck, he makes Al Gore’s claim about inventing the internet look like a child’s fib in comparison!

In any event, Trump is dangerously wrong.

In an interview with a NZ business publication, this is what I had to say bout Trump’s remarks.

Media Link: Brussels’ heart of darkness.

datePosted on 19:56, March 23rd, 2016 by Pablo

I wrote a short opinion piece in the Herald outlining some of my thoughts about the Brussels terrorist attacks. Unless the root causes of the problem are addressed, there will be no end to them. Even if they overlap in the form of foreign fighters, those root causes primarily reside in the disaffection and alienation produced by socio-economic and cultural grievances at home rather than in the conflicts of the Middle East. The solution is to be proactive as well as reactive to the threat posed by domestic radicalisation, and that involves social reform as well as better human intelligence collection in the communities from which home-grown jihadists emerge.

Something Fundamentally Wrong.

datePosted on 14:36, March 18th, 2016 by Pablo

In last Monday’s press briefing, the Prime Minister took my name in vain. Responding to questions from a reporter I had talked to, he said that my concerns about the apparent illegality of undercover intelligence operations were “fundamentally wrong.” Instead, he said that although intelligence agencies could not break laws (tell that to Kim Dotcom), they might require “different laws.”

I beg to differ.

Before delving deeper, let’s address the PM’s remark about the need for “different laws” governing undercover intelligence operations. What does he mean by “different?” Is he proposing that there be one set of laws for regular citizens and another set of laws governing undercover intelligence work? How does that sit with the “equal rights under the law” premise that is at the heart of democratic jurisprudence? And if there is no provision for “different laws” governing undercover intelligence operations today, then what is there in extant law that makes otherwise illegal acts legal? How often and under what circumstances are these illegal-but-legal acts allowed and are they only allowed or legal under warrant? Something tells me that the answers to the last two questions are “frequently and routine” and “no” respectively.

The question about undercover intelligence operations was raised because during the course of conversations with a couple of reporters about the Intelligence Review in general, I pointed out that the most interesting items were buried at the back of the report. Reporters tend to read the executive summaries of official government documents but seldom have the time or inclination to read through 179 pages of dense prose and legal jargon.

But since I have the time and inclination, I did. Plus, in my former life as a US government official I actually helped draft such reports so know that the best way of reading them is from back to front. That way one can get to the meat of the report, often found in annexes, before wading through the fluff.

I should point out that my overall take on the report is this: given who was on the Review committee, the report was inevitably going to have a bias towards institutional continuity and incrementalism with regard to reforms. That is indeed what happened. The report reflects as much if not more of the spy agencies’ concerns than it does that of external parties or stakeholders like the civil society organisations and individuals that were consulted by the Committee. The result is bound to be disappointing to those who wanted a major overhaul of the intelligence community or wanted parts of it disbanded altogether, such as the Greens, but to my mind it is a small but acceptable step towards greater transparency and accountability in the NZ intelligence community and its main collection agencies, the GCSB and SIS.

Even so, there are several problematic areas in the report that are worth considering, and here I will focus on the undercover operations that the PM thinks I have interpreted so fundamentally wrong. Rather than present my views without context, here are (cut and pasted) the recommendations regarding undercover operations as listed in the Report:

163 Annex C: Full list of recommendations (abridged).

Cover for operations and employees

78.The legislation should explicitly provide for the Agencies to obtain, create and use any identification information necessary for the purpose of maintaining the secret nature of their authorised activities. This should include the ability to create cover for anyone authorised to undertake activity for the Agencies.

79. “Identity information” should include anything that could be used to establish identity – such as credit cards and shell companies in additional to traditional forms of identification (such as passports and driver licences).

80. The Agencies should also have the ability to obtain, create and use identification information necessary to keep the identity of their employees confidential.

81. The use of these powers should be covered by a tier 3 authorisation (policy statement) to ensure they are exercised only where necessary and proportionate.

82. There should be corresponding immunities from civil and criminal liability for reasonable acts done in good faith to create or maintain cover as part of an authorised operation or to keep the fact of a person’s employment with the NZSIS or GCSB secret.

Immunities.

83. These powers and immunities should be incorporated through general provisions in the legislation governing the Agencies, rather than by inserting specific exceptions in other legislation as is currently the case.

84. The same immunities should apply to both agencies, in line with our recommendations that the Agencies share functions and an authorisation regime.

85. Immunities should also apply to anyone required to assist the Agencies, such as telecommunications companies, or to human sources or agents acting at the Agencies’ request or direction.

86. The legislation should provide that no person should be subject to criminal liability for acts carried out in good faith and in a reasonable manner that are necessary to give effect to a tier 1 or tier 2 authorisation.

87. Employees of the Agencies should also have immunity from criminal liability for acts carried out in good faith, in a reasonable manner and in accordance with the purposes of the Act to obtain a tier 1 or tier 2 authorisation.

88. The immunities for employees of the Agencies should also extend to any relevant minor offences or infringements that may need to be committed in the course of investigations carried out under a tier 3 authorisation (such as breaches of road user rules).

89. Employees of the Agencies and any person acting at the request or direction of the Agencies should be protected from civil liability for acts or omissions in good faith in the pursuance or intended pursuance of the Agencies’ duties, functions or powers. This is the same protection as is provided to public sector employees under the State Sector Act 1988.

90. Where the GCSB or NZSIS is assisting another agency to perform its functions, any immunities that apply to the agency being assisted should also apply to the GCSB and/or NZSIS.

 

Readers can form their own conclusions about what these recommendations imply. But here are some thoughts. It appears that undercover operations conducted by the SIS (and to a lesser extent the GCSB) do not have specific legal cover as things currently stand. There are no provisions in the SIS or GCSB Acts that explicitly refer to a legal framework under which otherwise criminal acts undertaken by undercover intelligence agents may occur. That means, in effect, that until now undercover intelligence operations are essentially illegal except for the fact that they are conducted by agents of the State at its behest under exceptions to existing legislation (outside of the GCSB and SIS Acts or even the State Sector Act). But even then there is apparently nothing in the law that explicitly authorises undercover intelligence operations that otherwise would be criminal acts (say, burglary, forgery or credit fraud). Yet the recommendations speak directly to such acts so clearly they have been happening.

The problem is not just that SIS agents have no specific legal cover for what they do covertly, something that individually places them at considerable risk in the event that they are caught or detected. There also are no specific provisions on what they cannot do. Where is the line drawn as to what is permissible when acting as an undercover agent of the State. Murder? Arson? Extortion? Blackmail? Kidnapping? Credit card fraud? Money laundering? Burglary? Home invasions? Tail-gating? (I include this because recommendation 88 specifically mentions breaches of road user rules). If an agent is recklessly tail-gating a surveillance target and wrecks while doing so, killing or injuring passerby, is that agent immune from prosecution or liability because s/he was in the service of the State?

These questions are not frivolous. From my personal experience, I know that among other things covert or undercover agents are taught how to pick locks and conduct “traceless” break-ins and burglaries (they are even provided with the tools to do so). Cyber-hacking to install malware or to steal sensitive information is a stock in trade of signals intelligence agencies. Clandestine surveillance of all sorts is the bread and butter of most human intelligence agencies. The CIA has its own lethal drone program and paramilitary branch, as do several other spy agencies. The Mossad is, among many other things, a brutally efficient assassination machine. So where does one draw the line when it comes to otherwise criminal acts carried out by intelligence agents of the NZ state?

The recommendations repeatedly speak about acting in “good faith.” But how is “good faith” defined? The SIS agents who broke into activist Aziz Chowdry’s home in 1996 were probably acting in “good faith” when they committed what otherwise would be a crime, but how is it that stealing documents from activists is justified on national security grounds? Moreover, the person who caught the SIS agents in the act of breaking and entering, David Small, had his home raided, ostensibly to search for bomb-making materials, by the Police a week later, after making the initial complaint (he was able to record the SIS get away car’s registration plate number, which was traced back to an SIS front company). How was the raid on Dr. Small done in “good faith” and at whose behest? The government was eventually forced to settle with Mr. Chowdry for a six figure amount and, worse yet, forced to apologise to him for the break in (you can read a summary of the case here).

Dr. Small also received compensation for “unreasonable search.” If we accept that an apology implies recognition of wrong doing and that “unreasonable searches” may be part of the SIS repertoire, then how and where does “good faith” come into the picture? Add to that events such as SIS break-ins at Auckland University in the late 1990s (if I am not mistaken Jane Kelsey’s office was a target), and one gets the idea that the SIS engages in otherwise illegal acts not so much for national security reasons but because it simply can under a de facto “good faith” immunity clause. So the effect of the current recommendations would be to codify what is already informal usage and practice.

The issue of “good faith” extends beyond New Zealand’s borders. Inspector General of Intelligence and Security Cheryl Gwyn is currently investigating whether the SIS was complicit in the CIA extraordinary rendition and black site program. For those unaware of these, the program involved kidnapping or detaining suspected Islamic extremists and “rendering” them to clandestine detention centres in a number of countries (Poland, Thailand and Egypt, among others). There they were subject to euphemistically labeled “enhanced” interrogation techniques (some of which are more properly classified as torture). Although some of those “rendered” by this program turned up in Guantanamo Bay or in prisons operated by US allies, many others have never been seen again. All of this was conducted off the books and outside of legal guarantees or protections for the detainees.

Assuming that Ms. Gwyn does find that in fact the SIS knew about or was complicit in the extraordinary rendition/black site program in contravention of NZ commitments to international conventions against torture and arbitrary detention, can the SIS turn around and claim that it was doing so in “good faith?” Is “good faith” nothing more than a get out of jail card for the intelligence services?

The bottom line is two-fold. First, undercover intelligence operations to date have been conducted under very porous and somewhat dubious legal cover that allows a multitude of operational sins to occur under what seems to be a wink and nod agreement with other agencies such as the police and Crown.

Secondly, the recommendations in the report about legal cover for undercover intelligence operations are very vague and broad, which allows the possibility for agents to go “rogue” so long as they can claim that they are acting in “good faith.” Neither is acceptable in a liberal democracy.

I agree that a comprehensive legal framework is needed governing the circumstances and permissible activities conducted during undercover intelligence operations. But this framework has to specify as much what is not permissible as what is, and has to ensure clear lines of responsibility as well as authorisation before and during the conduct of said operations. Otherwise we run the risk of allowing State-sanctioned criminal enterprise to masquerade as intelligence gathering.

The destruction of brand Trump.

datePosted on 11:37, March 13th, 2016 by Pablo

As readers may be aware I am delighted by the Trump candidacy because it is destroying the Republican Party and will pave the way for an epic defeat in the November general elections. Not only will the GOP lose the presidential race because none of its candidates will be able to muster the votes needed to overcome the Democratic advantage (be it Hillary or Bernie who lead the ticket). It could well lose control of Congress on the negative coattails of the presidential race (the entire House and 1/3 of the Senate are up for grabs, with the Democrats needing to win 4-5 current Republican seats in order to gain control of the Senate). It does not matter if Trump is the GOP presidential candidate or if he or another Republican go independent in the wake of the convention, which itself promises to be a bloodbath. The vast majority of swing voters and independents, who tend to vote on the Left in any event, will be galvanised to vote against whatever the Republicans have to offer, Trump in particular. For all his bluster about bringing out new voters on the Republican side, what he really has done is bring out new voters on both sides–most of whom are against him. As a result, the GOP is doomed and could well split into Tea bagger/populist and “moderate” right parties in the wake of what is looming as an electoral  catastrophe of historical proportions.

A tipping point has been reached this week with the escalation of protests against Trump at his rallies and the retaliatory violence of his supporters and campaign staff and security against those who dare confront him on his xenophobic bigotry and inflammatory rhetoric (and one has to ask why local law enforcement and the Secret Service act as his praetorian guard when removing peaceful protesters at his behest. After all, they are not in his employ and are not legally authorised to detain, handcuff and arrest people exercising their right to protest in public spaces just because he wants them forcibly removed).

The cancellation of a Chicago rally because of protests will only encourage more of them, and they will be increasingly large and organised in nature. That in turn will enrage Trump, who does not have the good sense (or even basic ability) to moderate his venom, which will bring out the full nut case element in his support base (which has already started to appear more and more frequently). Unfortunately, it is now a very real possibility that someone will be killed or seriously injured at a Trump rally, and the perpetrators will be his supporters, not his opponents.

When that happens, the wheels will come off the Trump political cart.

By then the damage to the GOP “brand” will have been irretrievably done. But what I find just as wonderful is that Brand Trump itself is now irreversibly damaged as well. However illusory, it used to represent luxury, opulence, quality, style and the excess that comes with success. It had global recognition. It was synonymous with capitalist high rolling, only in part because of his obsession with casinos.

In the wake of this presidential campaign, that image has been replaced by something less illusory and much darker. “Trump” is now synonymous with racism, xenophobia, buffoonery, demagoguery, narcism, sociopathy, chauvinism, misogyny, war-mongering, bullying, cheating, lying, senseless violence, stupidity–the list goes on. Whatever people may have done by way of word association with the name Trump in the past, my bet is that the first thing that now comes to mind when his name is mentioned is some of the negative terms mentioned above.  In fact, the word Trump may well become an adjective or verb, as in “that old white dude went all Trump on me when I said that Obama was not a Kenyan,” or “that reactionary fool is just plain Trumped in the head.” It could even be used as a noun, for example, as in “Trumpster:” n.: an idiot, fool, dolt, ignoramus, numbskull, someone who is gullible, slow on the uptake, blindly naive or prejudiced in the extreme.

His tarnished brand may survive in the US, perhaps in red neck resort destinations like the Florida panhandle and the coastal Deep South and/or parts of Appalachia. But many Americans, and not just “ethnic” Americans or Democrats, will shun his products, services and anything with his name on it. There may be boycotts and protests organised against them. And with the possible exception of Putin’s Russia (given the mutual admiration society he runs with Trump), as a global brand it is finished. Think of the Arabs, Latin Americans, Asians and even Europeans that Trump has scapegoated and insulted. Any current or potential Trump business partner or investor now has to wonder if they will be tainted by association with him and whether their business will suffer as a result. Given daily revelations of his less than salubrious past business dealings, profound dishonesty and myriad failures that have ruined others much more than it has hurt him,what foreign governments other than those of tinpot dictators are going to want a bar of him as an investment partner? Even better, increased scrutiny of his business dealings may well result in criminal charges being laid against him, which will only add to the tarnish on the brand.

The hard fact is that the Trump campaign will prove deleterious for Trump business holdings, which explains why his managerial minions, “the best people” in his words,  are currently in the process of putting legal and PR distance on him. The trouble for them, however, remains embedded in that ubiquitous name.

This is the silver lining in the Trump cloud. Not only has he exposed the ugly side of US politics. He has exposed himself and his illusory brand in doing so. He is taking the GOP down along with him, and neither it or his brand will survive the fall intact.

That is truly a good thing.

Questions of the day.

datePosted on 13:46, March 10th, 2016 by Pablo

It seems that a fair share of people are concerned about the Intelligence Review Committee’s recommendation that the GCSB be allowed to spy on the private communications of NZ citizens and residents, most often with a warrant adhering to a three tiered process that requires the signature of the Attorney General and Judicial Commissioner for the most intrusive searches of private individual’s communications and, under highly exceptional circumstances (involving the combination of imminent threat and the need for immediate real time information), accessing private individual’s communications without a warrant.

This essentially codifies what is already being done in practice under the GCSB’s “assist” role whereby it can offer its technological capabilities under warrant to other government agencies when asked and can engage in warrantless spying on NZ citizens and residents if they reside abroad or work for or are associated with foreign-based entities like NGO’s, IO’s embassies, corporations, charities and CSO’s. Remember: this is targeted eavesdropping and signals intercepts, not mass (meta-) data collection or mass surveillance. The argument goes, and I tend to agree in part with it, that the NZ threat environment has become increasingly “glocal” or “intermestic,” meaning that the boundaries between global or international affairs and domestic and local concerns are increasingly blurred thanks to advances in telecommunications, transportation and economic transaction. Hence the need for targeted GCSB involvement in matters of domestic espionage when warranted.

In any event my first question is this: why, if people are concerned about the publicly-debated legal extension of the GCSB’s de facto “assist” role, are they not concerned about the use of military assets (specifically, the deployment of light armoured vehicles, a helicopter and troops) to assist the police in the Kawerau police shooting and siege? After all, the use in a police operation of combat designed equipment and soldiers trained and equipped  for external combat would seem to be stretching the proper, legally defined role of the NZDF even if we consider its civil defense responsibilities (which, if I am not mistaken, would only apply to armed intervention in instances of civil war or insurrectionist  (read: Maori) upheaval). Should there not be a clear separation of NZDF missions and police matters delineated in law? Pardon my ignorance, but is there? Is there a legally outlined “assist” role for the NZDF in armed confrontations like this latest incident and the Napier siege of a few years ago? Or is the operational relationship between the NZDF and Police more ad hoc, informal and circumstantial in nature?

Then there is the suggestion by Michael Cullen that future Intelligence Reviews could consider merging the GCSB and SIS. This would be akin to merging the NZDF and NZ Police. So my next question is: would we ever consider merging the NZDF and Police? If not, why would we consider merging a signals intelligence collection agency with a human intelligence collection agency?

There is more to ask. Most of what the GCSB does is foreign intelligence collection on behalf of the 5 eyes network. The domestic side of its targeted spying is relatively small in comparison and again, done in service of or in concert with domestic agencies such as the SIS and Police, most often under warrant or given the exceptions listed above. Otherwise and for all intents and purposes, the GCSB is a branch of the 5 Eyes on NZ soil, not a fully independent or autonomous NZ spy agency. Think of the amount of money that the GCSB receives from 5 Eyes, amounts that are believed to be well in excess of its NZ government-provided budgetary allocations (the exact figures are classified so are what is known as “black” allocations under he “reciprocity agreement” that binds the GCSB to the rest of the 5 Eyes partners). Think of the highly sensitive technologies it employs. When the GCSB was first established, was the equipment and personnel used completely Kiwi in nature? Is the equipment used today completely Kiwi in nature and are the people manning the listening posts at Waihopai and Tangimoana today all NZ citizens?

Given the network resources at its disposal, were the GCSB to merge with the SIS it is possible that the latter would be subject to institutional “capture” by the former. That would mean that the intelligence priorities and requirements of 5 Eyes could come to dominate the human intelligence priorities of the SIS. I am not sure that is a good thing. And if we consider that the separation of powers concept that is at the core of democratic practice should institutionally extend beyond the tripartite structure at the apex of the state apparatus (executive, legislature, judiciary), then centralising the most intrusive spying powers of the state in one agency answerable almost exclusively to the executive branch seems to be antithetical to that premise.

It could  be the case that the possibility of a merger is being floated so that the SIS and GCSB can concentrate on external espionage and counter-espionage, with the domestic intelligence function reverting wholly to the police (who already have their own intelligence units). But even then the GCSB will continue to have a role in domestic signals collection, so the result of the merger would mainly impact the focus and organisation of the SIS.

I was fortunate to have a private audience with the Review Committee. From what I have read in the report so far, much of what I recommended was ignored. Even so, I do believe that the committee tried to balance civil liberties with security requirements and take what is a hodgepodge of disparate intelligence legislation and craft a uniform legal framework in which the iNZ intelligence community can conduct its operations. Heck, they even have recommendations about the legal cover given to undercover agents, both in terms of the process of assuming false identities as well as in terms of their immunity from liability when discharging their undercover tasks (apparently no such legal cover exists at the moment or is patchy at best).

Although I was disappointed that much of what I recommended to the committee did not appear in the final report, I am satisfied that their recommendations are a step forward in terms of transparency, accountability and oversight. I realise that this sentiment is not shared by many observers (for example, Nicky Hager was scathing in his appraisal of the report), but to them the questions I posed above are worth considering. To wit: If you are comfortable with the military getting involved in domestic law enforcement in exceptional (yet apparently regular) circumstances, then what is the problem with the GCSB getting more publicly involved in domestic espionage in similar circumstances?

There is much more to discuss about the Report and I may well do so as I wade through it. For the moment, here is a good critical appraisal worth reading.

 

I was invited by the nice folk at sustainnews.co.nz to contribute a short essay related to sustainable economics from my perspective as a geopolitical and strategic analysis consultant. The essay wound up  making the connection between political risk and sustainable enterprise, and more importantly, the relationship between sustainable enterprise and democracy. You are welcome to view it here.

Seditious stupidity.

datePosted on 07:58, February 23rd, 2016 by Pablo

To state the obvious, things have gotten pretty crazy in the US this election year. The GOP presidential campaign is a clown car driven by Donald Trump that has a trunk full of gun worshiping liars, opportunists, neophytes, xenophobes, war mongerers, ignoramuses and bigots (except, perhaps, Kasich). The GOP Senate majority are threatening to not even hold hearings on the replacement for the recently deceased and unlamented Antonin Scalia, he of the view that corporations are citizens and contraception is bad because sperm is precious. But to get a real sense of how bonkers the right side of the US political table has become one need go no further than this. I urge readers to peruse the comment thread and other posts on that site in order to get a full idea of the lunacy at play. My favourite comment from that particular thread is that Obama has removed US flags from the White House and replaced them with “Muslim Curtains” (presumably to match the prayer rugs he has installed), but there is much more in that vein. More recently I watched an interview with a white middle aged woman at a confederate flag rally in South Carolina the day before the GOP primary held there. Her answer as to why she was voting for Trump is mint: She is voting for him, she said, “because he is a self-made man and he says why I think.”  Ah, to be a fly on the wall at her dinner table conversations…the stupid must be very strong there.

Views such as those espoused by that woman and on that reactionary thread would be laughable except for the fact that a) about 15-20 percent of US citizens apparently hold them; and b) the GOP controls both chambers in Congress and believes that catering to the lunatic base can win them the presidential election. After all, as Trump himself has said in the past, Republican voters tend to be stupid so that is the party to affiliate with if one wants to hold elective office. The fear and paranoia of the stupid and deranged is palpable–and politically bankable.

The real trouble, though, is that not only is this voting minority stupid or crazy, but they are also seditious, as are their representatives in Congress.

Longer term readers may recall my writing in 2009 about the disloyal opposition in the US. The bottom line is that disloyal oppositions in democracies are those that focus on thwarting anything the government does in order to bring about its collapse. This is what happened to  Allende in Chile and if Senate Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) had his way, this would have been the fate of Obama during his first four years in office (McConnell famously said after Obama’s election that it was his duty to see that Obama become a one term president). From then until today, both Senate and House Republicans have engaged in a pattern of systematic “obstructionism” (as the Democrats quaintly call it) in an effort to stymie every policy initiative advanced by the White House. Fortunately, they have largely failed, although the cost in terms of political gridlock, brinkmanship and federal government closures has been high.

The stupid is also strong in the Republican National Committee, which got suckered into allowing Trump to run for president under the GOP banner even though he had only recently joined the party (in 2009) and had a history of non-conservative views on matters of social policy such as abortion (he was openly pro-choice until 2011). The RNC thought that it could bring Trump to heel and instead what they now have is a rogue candidate who has pulled the entire campaign into tea bagger land and who can win the nomination outright or force a brokered convention in which his ideas on matter of policy will become part of the nominee’s platform even if he is not that person. Worse yet, his candidacy could well irretrievably fracture the GOP into establishment and tea bagger camps, leading to either a split and emergence of a third rightwing party or the destruction of the GOP as a viable political organisation for years to come.

So not only are a significant minority of US voters patently stupid or crazy, but a fair bunch of the GOP representatives are as well if we accept that the definition of stupidity or insanity is doing the same unsuccessful or desperate thing over and over again. But there is something more sinister at play as well, and that is the seditious nature of the disloyal opposition mustered by the GOP, its media accomplices and the variegated assortment of nut cases who are the target of their appeals.

Broadly defined, sedition is any act that encourages rebellion or undermines the lawful authority of a State. That includes any action that foments discontent, disorder or which incites resistance, revolt or subversion against duly constituted authority or government. Although the concept is broad and has been the subject to a number of interpretations (the general rule being that it is more broadly defined in authoritarian states and more narrowly defined in democratic states), in the US sedition is  rather narrowly defined (as “seditious conspiracy’) and sits with treason and subversive actives in 18 US Code Chapter 115.

The reason why the actions of the rightwing disloyal media and GOP opposition are seditious is that they actively encourage resistance to the lawful authority of the Obama administration and federal agencies charged with enforcing laws under it, and actively conspire to undermine the Obama administration at every opportunity. This can range from acts such as the occupation of an Oregon national bird sanctuary by armed militiamen (covered explicitly in 18 US section 2384 on seditious conspiracy, which includes “by force to seize, take, or possess any property of the United States contrary to the authority thereof,” punishable by jail terms of 10-20 years), to refusing to hold Senate hearings on judicial nominees in a timely fashion as the Constitution prescribes.

The gamut between the two poles runs wide, as evidenced in the lunatic thread linked above, but the intention of those engaged in all of these acts of disloyal opposition are clearly seditious in nature. Add to that the regular interpretative abuse of the 2nd amendment by the NRA, gun manufacturers and gun fetishists, and the tilt towards armed defiance is near complete (and in some cases has been completed, as the Oregon standoff and conclusion demonstrates). No wonder that the federal government has moved carefully when dealing with armed rightwing groups since Waco and Ruby Ridge, less the seditious narrative become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

For all the insanity now on display, the real craziness will begin after November’s election. If Hillary or The Bern wins, it is very possible that rightwing seditious speech will turn into actual seditious conspiracy, aided and abetted by conservative media and politicians. The threat of violence cannot be discounted. On the other hand, if Trump or Cruz win, there is the real possibility of protests, demonstrations and even riots in many areas in which those targeted and scapegoated by these candidates are located. They may not be the fully auto, full metal jacket resistance of the right-wingers, but these protests are bound to be (low level if wide scale) violent as well. So the real action will begin after the election, barring the possibility that Kasich or Rubio win the nomination and presidency (in which case most Democratic supporters are likely to adopt a “wait and see” attitude). My hunch is that things will get ugly come Inauguration Day.

Whatever the outcome I am glad for one thing: better than I watch events unfold from here rather than there.

Too Clever.

datePosted on 15:59, February 11th, 2016 by Pablo

The TPPA signing came and went, as did the nation-wide protests against it. I did not think that the government was going to be swayed from publicly commemorating what it considers to be the crown jewel of its trade-dominated foreign policy, but I had hoped that the numbers turning out to protest would add up to more than 100,000. At least that way the government could be put on notice that a sizeable portion of the electorate were unhappy about the surrender of sovereignty to corporate interests enshrined in the 6000 page text. Alas, the numbers assembled came nowhere close.

One interesting sidebar was the decision to stage a parallel protest at the Sky City complex  rather than join with the larger protest march down Queen Street. The specific objective of the Sky City protest was ostensibly to use so-called non-violent direct action (NVDA) and other acts of civil disobedience to block the streets surrounding the gambling complex. In the build up to signing (and protest) day the leaders of the two rival demonstrations publicly debated and largely disagreed on the merits of each. The Queen Street march organisers were concerned that any pushing and shoving at Sky City would feed into the government’s narrative that the matter was a law and order issue (following reports that the police had conducted riot control refresher training and door knocked activists warning them about the consequences of unruly acts). The leaders of the Sky City blockade argued that peaceful marches were simply ineffectual and were ignored by policy-makers. As it turns out, both were right.

The Sky City protesters, some of whom showed up in helmets and assorted face coverings, were forcibly prevented by the Police from effectively shutting down access to and from the venue and surrounding areas. The activists responded by engaging in a series of rolling blockades of major intersections, including the Cook Street on-ramp leading to the Harbour Bridge and Northern Motorway. This continued well after the signing ceremony was over and while the Queen Street march was still in progress. That had the effect of causing gridlock in the Auckland CBD.

Coincidentally or not, there was a bus strike that day. Although Auckland Council allowed its employees to work from home, many other entities did not. That meant that people who normally used buses to get to work had to use alternative transportation, including cars. That added to the number of cars on Auckland inner city roads at the time of the rolling blockades. Needless to say, motorists were not happy with the seemingly random temporary road closures in and around the CBD.

That is why things got too clever. As a tactical response to the police thwarting of the initial action, the move to rolling blockades was ingenious. But that bit of tactical ingenuity superseded the strategic objective, which was to draw attention to the extent of TPPA opposition. In fact, it appeared that the Sky City activists were trying to outdo each other in their attempts to make a point, but in doing so lost sight of the original point they were trying to make. After all, blocking people from leaving the city after the signing ceremony was over was not going to win over hearts and minds when it comes to opposing the TPPA. Plus, it displayed a callous disregard for the motorists affected. What if someone was rushing to a hospital to be with their badly injured child or terminally ill parent? What about those who needed to get to work on time so as to not be docked pay? What about cabbies and delivery people who earn their livings from their vehicles? None of this seems to have factored into the blockader’s minds. Instead, they seemed intent on proving to each other how committed they were to causing disruption regardless of consequence to others.

I have seen this before in other places, most recently in Greece, where anarchists and Trotskyites (in particular but not exclusively) infiltrate peaceful protests and engage in acts of violence in order to provoke what are known as “police riots” (a situation where isolated assaults on individual police officers eventually causes them to collectively lash out indiscriminately at protesters). Fortunately, NZ does not have the type of violent activist whose interest is in causing a police riot. Unfortunately, it has activists who seemingly are more interested in establishing and maintaining their street credentials as “radicals” or “militants” than using protest and civil disobedience as an effective counter-hegemonic tool. So what ended up happening was that the Sky City protestors were portrayed by the corporate media and authorities as anti-social misfits with no regard for others while the Queen Street march was briefly acknowledged, then forgotten.

On a more positive note, Jane Kelsey has to be congratulated for almost single-handedly re-defnining the terms of the debate about TPPA and keeping it in the public eye. As someone who walks the walk as well as talk the talk, she was one of the leaders of the Queen Street march and has comported herself with grace and dignity in the face of vicious smears by government officials and right wing pundits lacking half the integrity she has. I disagree about the concerns she and others have raised about secrecy during the negotiations, in part because I know from my reading and practical experience while working for the US government that all diplomatic negotiations, especially those that are complex and multi-state in nature, are conducted privately and only revealed (if at all) to the public upon completion of negotiations (if and when they are).

For example, the NZ public did not get to see the terms of the Wellington and Washington Agreements restoring NZ as a first-tier security partner of the US until after they were signed, and even today most of their content has been ignored by the press and no protests have occurred over the fact that such sensitive binding security arrangements were decided without public consultation. More specifically with regards to the TPPA, no public consultations were held in any of the 12 signatory states, and in the non-democratic regimes governing some of those states the full details have still not been released. Even so, I do think that it was a good opposition ploy to harp about “secrecy” as it simply does not smell right to those not versed in inter-state negotiations. In any event, what Ms. Kelsey did was exactly what public intellectuals should be doing more often–informing and influencing public opinion for the common good rather than in pursuit of financial or political favour.

I would suggest that opponents of the TPPA focus their attention on the Maori Party and its MPs. The Green Party’s opposition to TPPA is principled, NZ First’s opposition is in line with its economic nationalism and the Labour Party’s opposition is clearly tactical and opportunistic (at least among some of its leaders). So the question is how to wrestle votes away from the government side of the aisle when it comes to ratification. Peter Dunne and David Seymour are not going to be swayed to change sides, but the Maori Party are in a bit of an electoral predicament if they chose to once again side with the economic neo-colonialists in the National government.

For all the sitting down in the middle of public roadways, it may turn out that old fashioned hardball politicking may be the key to successfully stymying ratification of the TPPA in its present form.

Now THAT would be clever.

 

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