From the monthly archives: "March 2014"

My Administration is committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in Government.  We will work together to ensure the public trust and establish a system of transparency, public participation, and collaboration. Openness will strengthen our democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness in Government.

– Barrack Obama, 2009, Memorandum for the Heads of Executive Departments and Agencies, SUBJECT: Transparency and Open Government

DISCLAIMER: This is a photoshop. Obama's not going anywhere :(Although President Barack Obama still has a few years left, it’s becoming clear that he has no intention of bringing any sort of increased transparency to government. His administration has continued the abysmal precedent of the George Bush administration and has even sunk to new lows.

Since the very beginning of his term, Obama has hurried down a path of obfuscation and redaction, denying more Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests in his first two years than George “Patriot Act” W. did.

Even when the Obama administration wasn’t denying requests outright, it showed a disturbing tendency to censor or withhold information. In a 2011 report by the Center for Effective Government analyzing the percentage of requests fully and partially granted since 1998, the Obama administration was found to have fully granted only 44.4 percent. This placed the administration well behind both Bush, who granted 62.8 percent and Clinton, who granted 72.4 percent.

How did we reward Obama for his new-found affection for opaqueness? By giving him a transparency award. Which he received in private. Okay, it wasn’t the end of the world. It made more sense than the whole “Nobel Peace Prize” thing, and, after all, he did release the White House visitor logs. There was still plenty of time to set his administration on the right path.

But then 2012 happened, and another report on FOIA by the Center for Effective Government found that:

Although the number and timeliness of the FOIA requests processed has improved, fewer people are getting complete and full documents. Over the last four years, the proportion of FOIA releases that go out with redacted information has significantly increased. Well over half of all processed requests withhold some information. Agencies are increasingly using exemptions to limit the amount of information disclosed in response to FOIA requests. This is a troubling development for an administration with an avowed commitment to openness.

Unfortunately Obama’s recalcitrance towards enacting any real reforms to improve the FOIA process was only one of his failures. In October of 2013, the Committee to Protect Journalism released a report that accused the administration of “prosecuting more more people as whistleblowers under the 1917 Espionage Act than all former presidents combined.” Hardly the actions of a president worried about transparency.

With the administration busy prosecuting journalists, maybe 2013 would be the year it rolled up its sleeves and got serious about improving its FOIA response. After all the boss no longer had to worry about running for re-election, and (theoretically) had more time to concentrate on the issues. Let’s go back to the Center for Effective Government for a report!

The Freedom of Information Act was purportedly a priority for both the executive and legislative branches in 2013, although nothing made it over the finish line. Our report analyzing the FOIA performance of major federal agencies found that agencies were processing more requests and reduced the number of unprocessed requests; at the same time, they were using exemptions to redact or withhold information more often.

Zing. When even the .govs are getting in on the action you know you’re in trouble.

Finally the mainstream media seemed to take notice — not until after the election, naturally — but better late than never. In January The New York Times editorial board asked What Happened to Transparency, as they cut into the Obama administration over a secret memo that “outline[d] the supposed legal authority for the Federal Bureau of Investigation to collect Americans’ telephone and financial records without a subpoena or court order.”

Now with 2014’s sunshine week here at last, we can again take a look inside the administration’s once and future promise of being the most transparent ever. And the news is not good.

In a devastating report, the AP castigated the government’s pathetic response to FOIA requests, saying:

The administration cited more legal exceptions it said justified withholding materials and refused a record number of times to turn over files quickly that might be especially newsworthy. Most agencies also took longer to answer records requests, the analysis found.

[…]

In category after category — except for reducing numbers of old requests and a slight increase in how often it waived copying fees — the government’s efforts to be more open about its activities last year were their worst since President Barack Obama took office.

These recent revelations should not be a surprise. The Obama administration has spent 6 years slowly tightening its grip on government information. And with 2014 being the worst since Obama took office, there’s no reason to believe the future will hold any improvement.

After all, why would Obama even care at this point? It was a virtual non-issue in 2012 during the presidential campaign. His awful record was public knowledge, yet it was hardly ever mentioned by anyone in the press other than Jon Stewart. He skated by unscathed and now Obama has nothing to gain by attempting to work towards his original promise of an open government. Obama won his re-election, and there’s no one left to pander to anyway.

obama-openAll right, seriously, you can take this down now.

6-8-07-segway-policeBelow is my debut for Rare.us, the conservative/libertarian outlet. As is often the case, I rambled on about how cops have become soldiers, and how that is very bad indeed.

Knowing what 9/11 did to America, it would be easy to assume that an overeager desire to prevent another such tragedy is why our cops look and act more and more like the military these days.

Yet the drug war — first “declared” by Richard Nixon, then militarized by Ronald Reagan — and various laws that came out of the tough on drugs and crime panics of the ‘80s is why every small town seems to have a SWAT team today. Officer Friendly has been taken over by RoboCop.

Though the push-back against the drug war has begun at long last, thanks to successful legislation efforts in Colorado and Washington state, most legislators have yet to stare down the new face of the police themselves.

One rare exception is Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.). On March 10, he co-authored a USA Today editorial in which he announced his plan to introduce legislation which would hinder the Pentagon’s 1033 program that allows police departments to acquire surplus military equipment.

But how much success will legislation have when it aims to restrict willing recipients from receiving tech that might just be destroyed? Not as much as it should.

Since 9/11, cops have been given more powers and privileges for fighting terrorism. The New York Police Department (NYPD) now performs a great deal of CIA-ish surveillance in the name of preventing another attack. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg even described the NYPD as his “private army.”

The rest here

 

approvedThe Pittsburgh Post-Gazette ran a pitiful guest op-ed advertisement extolling the importance of young people signing up for ObamaCare on March 19.

Michael Maher of Dormont, PA,  a healthy young man of 27, told how he was saved from a life of certain blindness by the benefits of ObamaCare. He urged all young people like him to heed his tale and sign up for the Affordable Care Act by March 31.

The article’s provenance smells fishy (Maher should look for a career in newspaper editorial writing, if he really wrote it, or send a thank you card to the P-G editor who rewrote it for him).

The article also was cloudy on some of the facts that would have made Maher’s pitch a little less persuasive to those not working on behalf of the Obama administration.

Here’s the comment I lodged at PG online:

So let’s get this straight: A young man of 27 who’s smart enough to craft a perfectly written endorsement/testimonial for the Affordable Care Act was not smart enough to know that he should spend 70 bucks of his own money to have his own eyes checked?

He had to wait until the fabulous ACA came along and saved him from the possibility of a future of blindness? It’s great that he’s only paying 25 bucks a month for his government-subsidized health care; it’s great that his eyes were Ok.

It would have been helpful to have included the price of that “pricey” Optical Coherence Tomography/Nerve Fiber Analysis in his inspiring tale. It’s about $125. A latte a day at his coffee shop, no doubt.

I tried to find out if eye care for adults is covered by the ACA. It is for kids under 19. I’m not going to waste my time looking through the umpteen-thousand pages of the ACA to find out how or if healthy adults are covered.

But it looks like if you qualify for Medicaid, you can get someone else to pay for your eye care. Is our young man on Medicaid? I don’t know. That fact might spoil his testimonial.

What is that 111 dollar tax credit all about — who is paying Highmark for that each month? The state. The feds?

We’ve been told all the “good” things — all the benefits to the recipient — of virtually “free” or heavily subsidized health care. We’ve not heard about the costs.

Someone bears them, but it wasn’t our healthy young man with the suspiciously high op-ed writing skills.

And here’s what Mr. Maher is doing when he’s not writing phony plugs for the subsidized joys of ObamaCare — helping to sign up the Dormont folk for his man Obama’s Affordable Care Act….  

Organizing for Action

South Hills Get Out The Vote Meeting (Neighborhood Team Meeting)
Join us in Dormont as we talk about what’s going on in the campaign in the next two weeks, and how you can get involved in your neighborhood!
Time:
Host:
Michael Maher
Location:
South Hills Office (Pittsburgh, PA)
2895 West Liberty Avenue
Pittsburgh, PA 15216

 

Twenty-nine seconds in, Geert Mak starts talking about “Bill Steigerwald” during an interview in Holland last spring.

Mak’s book, “Travels Without John in Search of America” is being translated into English. Mak kindly mentions me about a dozen times, favorably. Someday we plan to meet — over there.

If you read/understand Dutch, enjoy:

Geert Mak was in Leeuwarden. Hij vertelt over het boek Reizen zonder John. Maar zijn roadtrip was niet helemaal uniek vertelt hij de aanwezigen. Er waren meer mensen die in de voetsporen van John Steinbeck treden.

For English readers:

If you can read Dutch, you can order Geert Mak’s new book “Traveling Without John in Search of America.” Mak, a well-known and high-quality journalist and author in the Netherlands, did what I did and carefully repeated Steinbeck’s trip in the fall of 2010.

Mak did a lot of the same Steinbeck research I did and his nearly 600-page book about the current state of America includes much of what I discovered about Steinbeck’s real trip.

Here, translated by Google’s clever but imperfect computers, is how the book is described on Mak’s web site:

Travelling without John

Looking for America

On September 23, 1960 left the legendary writer John Steinbeck and his poodle Charley for an expedition across the American continent. He wanted his country and his countrymen again know. Exactly fifty years later, on the hour, was Geert Mak again for the old house of Steinbeck. It was the beginning of a renewed inspection tour in the footsteps of Charley and John, but now with the eyes of 2010. What is the past half century in American cities and towns changed? Where is Main Street USA go?

Which dreams chased the Americans over the centuries their ideals? What is it ended? What remains of that “city on the hill”, the Promised Land which was once the world looked? And above all, what we have together, America and Europe in the 21st century?

Geert Mak avoided, like John Steinbeck, the beaten path. He drove thousands of miles through the potato fields of Maine and the infinity of the Midwest, sat day after day at the table with farmers, laborers, fishermen and schoolmasters, met with shiny suburbs and boarded-up village shops, searched, again and again, to the stories of this country which nobody ever gets finished.

 

 

401977_820298143983_859526031_nBelow is the second edition of “The War at Home” column. I tried to cram in a hasty lesson on the whys and the dangers of the militarized police in America.

Antiwar commenters are often yelling at me for being for open borders or for referring to Chelsea Manning as Chelsea Manning, but they may have a point about my final paragraph being misleading. Noted, commenters. Thanks for the lesson.

(I also should have headlined it “The Blurred Line Between Soldiers and Cops” because that so obviously sounds better. Ugh.)

Nevertheless, do check it out:

In a March 10 USA Today piece, Congressman Hank Johnson (D-GA) expressed his desire to introduce legislation that would place limits on the Pentagon’s 1033 program which is used to supply police departments with gear that was once used on the streets of Afghanistan and Iraq. This is a long overdue “official” recognition that something terrible has happened to police departments in the US. Whether Johnson’s plan has a chance of getting anywhere remains to be seen. Because there are numerous firmly-stuck perverse incentives that lead to the state of policing today and which perpetuate it.

People who casually notice the more military-like qualities of American police would be forgiven for assuming their tactics, weapons, and menacing appearance are a result of post-9/11 fear. Though September 11 and subsequent scares and some real incidents such as the Boston Bombing have aggravated this problem – and there is a similar equipment grant program that comes from the Department of Homeland Security that Rep. Johnson should check on – the catalyst for our mutant police is narcotics prohibition.

Ronald Reagan’s literal drug war began in 1981 with the passage of the Military Cooperation with Civilian Law Enforcement Statute (10 USC 371-380). More loosened restrictions followed that allowed domestic assistance by the military to police in certain (usually drug) cases. It also set up a system where police departments could receive equipment through grants from the federal government. This lead to bizarre commando-style drug raids that sometimes included military helicopters, and even U-2 spy planes. (The flimsy accusation that the Branch Davidian sect had a meth lab was even the excuse for the presence of the Bradley Fighting Vehicles and other military hardware during the disastrous 1993 standoff outside Waco, TX.)

Richard Nixon had declared a “war on drugs” in 1971 and pushed some bad policies – including a DC “no-knock raids” law – with limited success. But the conflict became the monster we see today under Reagan. Those years rocketed the US’s prison population to its current inhumane level of more than 2 million people, and they lead to the normalization of camo-clad cops kicking in doors over reports of weed or other drugs. The spike in crime in the 1990s cemented this supposed need for eternally tough on crime measures from police and politicians. Policies such as mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders made it clear this was was a serious enough issue to warrant life in prison for repeat, nonviolent drug dealers.

The rest over here

ProPublica-LogoDaily Beast has a long, quasi-useful but flawed piece on an alleged victim of gas company greed/evilness/fracking.

It’s from Pro Publica, the journalism outfit that passes off its imbalanced agit-journalism as the work of “an independent, non-profit newsroom that produces investigative journalism in the public interest.”

Read it if you care — the headline, of course, contains the f-word to attract attention.

How Chesapeake Energy, the Kings of Fracking, Double-Crossed Their Way to Riches

And here is the comment I put up on the Daily Beast site, asking a few questions and pointing out a few of the holes in Pro Publica’s piece that might, you know, help to put landowner Joe Drake’s troubles in perspective, and, you know, provide some basic facts to help readers judge whether he’s really a victim, a dummy or a tool of tilted journalism:


Joe Drake sounds like a victim.

But how about a little more detail from Pro Publica on what Drake got — total — for his gas.

What did he get per acre from Chesapeake when he signed with them?

How many months did he get his royalty checks and what were they per month? (He got about $60k for a few months; that sounds good — what did he get the first year?) What was the gas volume of his wells? How many actual wells does he have?

Drake must have neighbors — are they getting screwed too? (There are more than 1100 active gas wells in Bradford County.)

Or is he the only unlucky one? How many landowners like him are there? How about some details about their experiences — good and bad. A lot of them are happy to be rich on gas money, I bet.

Generally, if you own 100 acres and the wells have been drilled and are producing gas from the Marcellus, you will be a millionaire: If you have 100 acres in western pa, you get (depending on the market) 2 or 3 or 5 thousand per acre to sign, and then at least 12.5 percent in royalties; in southwestern pa gas companies are now offering $6k an acre to sign — for 10 acres or more — and 18 percent royalties.)

Marcellus wells (which I assume Drake’s well(s) are), don’t last forever like old fashioned vertical fracked wells in shallow reservoirs  — the production levels fall quickly.

Is that what’s going on with Drake’s drop in royalty revenue. I bet it accounts for a lot more than the jacked up transportation costs — but you can’t tell from this article, can you?

“But then, in January 2013, without warning or explanation, the expenses withheld from Chesapeake’s royalty checks for use of the gathering pipelines tripled. Drake’s income dwindled.”

How about a detail here? — like from what price to what price?

Yeah, Chesapeake and its boss seem uniquely sleazy/devious; yeah, the energy companies are evil and greedy; yeah, yeah, capitalism sucks and fracking will create earthquakes or set the planet on fire.

But a lot of basic journalism has been left out in this “investigation.”

From the latest Bad Cop Blotter:

21-jump-street-posterOn December 11, 2012, 17-year-old Jesse Snodgrass and a few of his fellow students were sitting in their classes in Chaparral High School in Riverside County, California, when they were arrested by armed cops. That raid, dubbed “Operation Glasshouse,” also extended to other schools in the district. At the end of that day, police had arrested 22 students and seized undisclosed amounts of weed, cocaine, pills, heroin, and LSD. The police considered it a great success. Snodgrass’s parents were horrified.

The March 14 issue of Rolling Stone has a detailed, disturbing account of how Sheriff’s Deputy Daniel Zipperstein went undercover at Chaparral and subsequently pretended to befriend Snodgrass (who suffers from autism, bipolar disorder, Tourette’s, and anxiety) and insisted he sell him $20 of weed on two occasions. It only took the 22-year-old cop 60 text messages and weeks of pestering to bend the vulnerable and largely friendless teenager to his will, but when Zipperstein failed to convince Snodgrass to sell him some of his anti-anxiety medication, the deputy stopped pretending to be his friend.

Snodgrass’s parents weren’t informed of his December 11 arrest until the school mentioned he wasn’t there. He spent three days in juvenile lockup, where it had to be explained to him what was going on. Once a judge realized Snodgrass’s health issues, the teen got off with 20 hours of community service and a commitment to stay out of further trouble for six months. But he became withdrawn, blank, and depressed after his arrest and confinement, and Chaparral expelled him. The Temecula Valley Unified School District spent six days at an appeal hearing in February 2013 trying to make sure Jesse stayed gone. An actual human with the actual title of director of Child Welfare and Attendance, Michael Hubbard (one of the few people in the school administration who had known about Operation Glasshouse before the arrests) testified that Jesse knew right from wrong. Hubbard added that he didn’t think the stings were “coercion or entrapment for any of the kids.” That is, an undercover cop begging an autistic teen (who hadn’t ever sold weed before) for drugs was acceptable activity in a high school.

You can read the rest here

Wooly MammothThis weekend I appeared on the Don’t Worry About the Government Podcast hosted by the great Chris Novembrino. We chatted about the Ukraine, why I hate polar bears, rock music with messages, and Rand Paul. Now I can’t promise that I don’t ramble on for extended periods of time, and I also can’t promise I made a lot of sense with my insights. That being said, I highly recommend checking it out. There are 226 OTHER episodes that I didn’t appear on, so there’s plenty of other podcasts to listen to if you don’t find my appearance particularly appetizing.

But seriously check it out, your ears will thank you.