Kevin Drum - September 2013

Here's the Mean iPhone Post I Promised You

| Tue Sep. 10, 2013 1:50 PM EDT

So the new iPhone 5S comes in new colors; has a faster processor; and a slightly better camera; and a fingerprint sensor. Plus there's a motion sensor chip built in, which is supposed to be great for exercise apps. This is in addition to the lower-priced iPhone 5C, which is not just plastic, but "unapologetically plastic." This possibly sets a new world record for the most pretentiously Apple-ish thing ever said.

I know that everyone is going to immediately accuse me of hating Apple, despite the many Apple products I currently own,1 but this sure doesn't sound very revolutionary. In fact, it sounds tired. That's no big surprise, really, since the smartphone space is getting pretty mature. And maybe it doesn't matter. For now, at least, I imagine that gazillions of people will convince themselves that a silver faceplate and a fingerprint sensor are the coolest gizmos in the world if Apple says they are. And the cheaper 5C is certainly a perfectly good attempt to do a bit of old-school market segmentation.

As for me, my 4S continues to work fine. I sure don't see anything in today's announcement to make me rush out and want to replace it.

1In fact, I hate Apple because of the many Apple products I own. Their relentless desire to control what customers can and can't do with their products drives me up a wall.

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Russia "Welcomes" Plan to Control Syria's Chemical Weapons, But That's About It

| Tue Sep. 10, 2013 1:27 PM EDT

Guess what? It turns out that Russia isn't really all that excited about forcing Syria to give up its chemical weapons after all:

A last-ditch effort to avert a U.S. military strike by transferring control of Syrian chemical weapons ran into obstacles Tuesday, as Russia balked at a French plan to enforce an international agreement under a binding U.N. Security Council resolution with a military option if necessary.

....A telephone conversation between French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, revealed a deep divide over their visions of the Security Council’s role — and particularly over the prospect of military action to ensure that an agreement would be honored....After a telephone conversation Tuesday with Lavrov, Fabius said Russia is reluctant to agree to a binding U.N. Security Council resolution that would provide a framework to control Syria’s chemical weapons stocks.

....Russia considers Fabius’s proposal unacceptable at least in part because it would imply that the Syrian government is responsible for last month’s chemical weapons attack on the outskirts of Damascus. Instead, a Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman said, Russia plans to submit a draft U.N. Security Council presidential statement “welcoming” the initiative to transfer Syrian chemical weapons to international control in order to destroy them. The statement would call for the U.N. secretary general, the director general of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and “interested parties” to implement the plans, Russia’s Interfax news agency reported.

There are lots of ways of weaseling the wording on this, of course, and no one is better at that than a bunch of UN diplomats. But this proposal is going to end up in the ash heap pretty quickly if this turns out to be a hard-and-fast position from Russia. Stay tuned.

Also: apologies for the 100 percent focus on Syria so far today. It's just one of those odd coincidences. Maybe next I'll write something mean about the new iPhone in order to spark a witty and enlightening conversation about Apple in comments.

Letting the UN Into Syria Could End Up Strengthening Obama's Hand

| Tue Sep. 10, 2013 12:03 PM EDT

All the chatter today on Syria is about the Kerry/Putin/Assad proposal that would put off U.S. military action while the UN talks about putting inspectors on the ground who would take control of Syria's chemical weapons. (And its biological weapons too, presumably, though no one is mentioning that.) Ed Kilgore figures that Obama has three options now:

(1) Press forward with the original resolution....(2) Come up with an amended resolution that explicitly makes the authorization for military action contingent on the failure of a diplomatic initiative to remove or control chemical weapons within a given time-frame (45 days). This is the approach being worked on by Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin and Heidi Heitkamp, apparently in close consultation with the White House....(3) Take credit for the new peace initiatives and hold off on votes in Congress indefinitely.

....At this point I see no evidence the White House is going with the third approach, but I sure would if I were in their position. Yeah, you can say the French/Russian peace initiative will enable Obama to say tonight that being willing to go to war is the only way to get peace, but the problem with public opinion on Syria is that Americans aren't sure anything that does or doesn't happen there is worth the risk of war. The Manchin/Heitkamp approach doesn't address this problem, either, and is certain to repel Republicans who don't want the "fight" with Syria limited to the chemical weapons issue and/or don't want a multilateral "solution."

Not so fast. Actually, I think Option 2 has at least a chance of turning public opinion around. It's true that there are plenty of Americans who just flatly don't want to get involved in Syria, but it's probably also true that at least some of the skeptics are concerned about whether we're reacting to a one-off use of chemical weapons. If they were persuaded that Assad is likely to escalate and turn rebel-controlled areas into an abattoir of gas attacks, they might change their minds. If Obama goes along with the UN idea, and can then show that Assad is stalling and obfuscating, he could use this as evidence that Assad plainly has imminent plans to use his chemical arsenal as soon as the UN team is finished. At the very least, it would certainly strengthen Obama's hand if Assad goes ahead and launches another gas attack after the UN team leaves.

I'd say that this is probably a slim chance. The more time that goes by, the more likely Americans are to forget the whole thing. And no one should underestimate Assad's ability to tap dance for a long time with the UN inspection team. Still, if it's handled right, I think it's possible that letting the UN proposal play out could strengthen Obama's hand with both the public and with Congress.

Syria Is a Mess. But Every Other Crisis Has Been a Mess Too.

| Tue Sep. 10, 2013 11:10 AM EDT

First Read reports today that attitudes toward military action often depend on whether your guy is sitting in the White House:

However, both Democrats and Republican can probably agree on this: The entire process here hasn’t been pretty. It’s something that Politico writes about today. “Barack Obama’s unsteady handling of the Syria crisis has been an avert-your-gaze moment in the history of the modern presidency — highlighting his unsettled views and unattractive options in a way that has caused his enemies to cackle and supporters to cringe.”

But here’s our question: Has the process been messy because of Obama, or because this is just the reality of a more-transparent world where information — and opinion — travels so quickly? The fact is, this does appear to be the new normal. (Ask yourself: How would have today’s media covered Bay of Pigs or even the Cuban Missile Crisis?) No longer can presidents hand-wring BEHIND the scenes; every incremental development is debated in the media. It’s not just U.S. politicians who conduct themselves this way; it’s world leaders, too.

Clearly, the Washington establishment is uncomfortable with how the president has looked so wobbly and haphazard in some of his decision making process. After all, every major development on Syria has looked, at times, as if the administration was “winging it” — from the initial “red line” declaration to the decision to seek congressional authorization to yesterday’s Kerry answer on Syria giving up chemical weapons. But given the media climate, and the automatic public skepticism that is built in these days with anything a politician says, is it possible that this is the new normal? It certainly appears so. Then again, this doesn’t excuse the White House for what has been a muddled case against Syria from the get-go.

I think this dynamic is worth a lot more attention than it usually gets. We tend to think of current controversies as a lot messier than past ones, but that's mostly an illusion. Part of the reason for this illusion is that we have a rose-colored view of the past. Partly it's because we all know how past crises turned out, and that automatically makes them look a little more predictable than they seemed at the time. Partly it's because we learn about them from books and magazines that provide telescoped accounts. And partly, as First Read points out, it's because the media environment of the past allowed a lot of the confusion and turmoil to remain behind the scenes.

Obama hasn't handled Syria very well. But guess what? George Bush didn't handle Iraq very well. Bill Clinton didn't handle Kosovo very well. Ronald Reagan didn't handle Iran-Contra very well. LBJ didn't handle Vietnam very well. Kennedy didn't handle the Bay of Pigs very well. And even the crises that were handled reasonably well—the Cuban Missile Crisis, for example, or the Gulf War—look that way more in retrospect than they did at the time.

There are lots of things about our modern media environment that I like. But one thing I don't like is the value it puts on responding instantly to every possible provocation and then jumping on those responses like a pack of ravening beasts—for a few hours, anyway, until it's been chewed into an unrecognizable pulp and the next demand for an instant response comes along. Generally speaking, we'd all be better off if we got it through our heads that taking a few weeks to respond to a crisis is usually OK. Not every utterance is important, and not every delay is a sign of spineless leadership. Sometimes you just have to let things play out.

Map of the Day: Climate Change Probably a Factor in Syrian Civil War

| Tue Sep. 10, 2013 9:43 AM EDT

Brad Plumer interviews Francesco Femia of the Center for Climate and Security, who points out that Syria has not only suffered a serious drought for the past five years, but that this has been no ordinary drought:

We found it very interesting that right up to the day before the revolt began in Daraa, many international security analysts were essentially predicting that Syria was immune to the Arab Spring. They concluded it was generally a stable country. What they had missed was that a massive internal migration was happening, mainly on the periphery, from farmers and herders who had lost their livelihoods completely.

....In 2011 [the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] released a report showing that a prolonged period of drying in the Mediterranean and the Middle East was linked to climate change. It was in line with previous projections. And on their map, Syria was colored bright red, meaning it had experienced the worst drying in the region. That really told us we needed to look at these dynamics.

The interview is full of the usual caveats, and you should read it. In particular, no one thinks drought directly caused the Syrian civil war, which might have been inevitable at some point thanks to the fault lines in Syrian society that mirror those in many other Middle Eastern countries. However, the stresses caused by extended drought might very well have affected the timing.

Climate scientists have been warning for over a decade that global warming is going to produce environmental stresses and severe weather patterns that will have devastating impacts on countries that are none too stable to begin with. As always, there will never be proof that any particular war is due solely or even primarily to climate change, just as no particular hurricane is ever solely the product of climate change. But the evidence is striking—and getting more striking all the time—that climate change very likely plays a role.

No Warrant? No Worries! The Immigration Service is Your Friend.

| Tue Sep. 10, 2013 1:35 AM EDT

The New York Times reports today on the case of David House, who raised funds for the legal defense of then-Pfc. Bradley Manning and thereby caught the attention of Homeland Security. There was no evidence that House had done anything wrong and therefore no chance of getting a warrant to search his house or his computers, but that was a mere roadblock for the authorities who were interested in him. They just waited until House took a vacation to Mexico. Upon his return, they detained him and seized his phone, camera, and laptop. No warrant needed:

Although government investigators had questioned Mr. House about his association with Private Manning in the months before his trip to Mexico, he said no one asked to search his computer or mentioned seeking a warrant to do so. After seizing his devices, immigration authorities sent a copy of Mr. House’s data to the Army Criminal Investigation Command, which conducted the detailed search of his files. No evidence of any crime was found, the documents say.

....While many travelers have no idea why they are singled out for a more intrusive screening at a border, one of the documents released in Mr. House’s settlement shows that he was flagged for a device search months before he traveled to Mexico.

....“It is clear from these documents that the search of David House’s computers had nothing to do with protecting the border or with enforcing immigration laws,” said Catherine Crump, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union, which represented Mr. House along with the A.C.L.U. of Massachusetts. “The government used its broader powers at the border to conduct a search of House’s devices that no court would have approved.”

This is all pretty outrageous, and House sued the government with the help of the ACLU. This means that we get a look at some of the documents in the case, which you can read here. It turns out that although the most striking feature of the case is the almost unbounded power of the immigration service to detain and harass innocent travelers, the most striking feature of the documents is their demonstration of the immigration service's almost unbounded technical incompetence when it comes to forensic analysis of computer equipment. I've pasted their narrative below, along with some annotations. Read it and weep.


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NSA Has Apparently Targeted SWIFT Network, Petrobras, and the French Diplomatic Network

| Mon Sep. 9, 2013 8:44 PM EDT

Henry Farrell catches something interesting today. In a show on Brazilian TV about NSA surveillance, the PowerPoint slide on the right appears on the screen. Among other things, it suggests that the NSA has targeted the SWIFT payment network for penetration. 

Now, it's always a good idea to take PowerPoints with a grain of salt, and it's worth noting that this one is even less clear than usual. It merely says that many targets use private networks, which doesn't necessarily mean that the NSA has actually cracked these networks. At the very least, though, this slide certainly implies that NSA is trying to crack them.

Here's why this is interesting. You may recall that shortly after 9/11, the Bush administration worked out a deal with SWIFT officials to turn over all or most of their database voluntarily on a monthly basis. The idea was to use the information to try and track the money flows of al-Qaeda and other terrorist networks. That lasted until 2006. Farrell picks up the story from there:

When EU decision makers became aware of this (thanks to a New York Times story which the Bush administration tried to get spiked), there was political uproar, resulting in the negotiation of a framework under which the US agreed to impose limits and safeguards in return for continued access.

....This is interesting for two reasons. First — the EU thought the US had signed onto a binding deal on access to SWIFT data. If, as appears likely at this point, the US was letting the EU see what it did when it came in through the front door, while retaining a backdoor key for the odd bit of opportunistic burglary, it will at the least be highly embarrassing. Second — there are people in the EU who never liked this deal in the first place, and have been looking for reasons to get rid of it....If the US has demonstrably lied to the EU about the circumstances under which it has been getting access to SWIFT, it will be hard for the EU to continue with the arrangement (and, possibly, a similar arrangement about sharing airline passenger data) without badly losing face. Even though the people who dominate the agenda (officials in the Council and European Commission) probably don’t want to abandon the agreement, even after this, they’ll have a bloody hard time explaining why they want to keep it. The EU-US homeland security relationship, which had been looking pretty cosy a few months ago, is now likely to be anything but.

Of more interest to the Brazilian reporters, of course, is the fact that Petrobras, their national oil company, is an NSA target. And the French will certainly be interested in the fact that their Ministry of Foreign Affairs network is also a target. Stay tuned for further fireworks.

As the Country Ages, the Federal Reserve Becomes Less Powerful

| Mon Sep. 9, 2013 1:57 PM EDT

Neil Irwin writes today about a new theory from Patrick Imam of the IMF suggesting that central banks may have less and less influence over the economy as the population of a country ages:

What’s the theory? To start with, monetary policy works by changing the cost of borrowed money....But borrowing money is disproportionately an activity of the young....That would imply that in an older society fewer people are actively using credit products. Which should in turn imply that a central bank turning the dials of interest rates will be less powerful at shaping the speed of the overall economy.

Imam tested this theory by looking at how much the effectiveness of monetary policy had changed across countries as compared with those countries’ demographics. And he indeed found an impact: A one-percentage-point increase in the “old-age dependency ratio” (the share of the population that is elderly) lessens the effectiveness of monetary policy in affecting inflation by 0.1 percentage points and unemployment by 0.35 percentage points.

I can tentatively buy this. In fact, I'd toss out another possible channel for this effect as well: the elderly often live off investments, which means that their incomes fall as interest rates go down. So the bigger the proportion of elderly in a country, the more people you have who are forced to consume less because of low interest rates and the fewer people you have who are motivated to consume more by low borrowing rates.

I've never been in the camp that thinks monetary policy can be made infinitely effective in the first place, so this doesn't change my personal views too much. Basically, in a downturn you need more government spending along with a Fed promise not to offset it with higher interest rates. Neither one by itself is as effective as both together. It's too bad we all gave up on that idea in 2010. We've been paying the price ever since.

Kerry Gaffes, But Maybe It's the Good Kind of Gaffe

| Mon Sep. 9, 2013 12:40 PM EDT

"I had honestly forgotten what a gaffe factory Kerry was," writes a friend, "but it seems like he's continuing on in his bold tradition of marching foot in mouth first." The damning gaffe, it turns out, was an off-the-cuff response to a reporter who asked if there was anything Bashar al-Assad could do to avoid an American military strike. "Sure," Kerry said dismissively, he could turn over his entire arsenal of chemical weapons this week. That would do it. "But he isn't about to do it," Kerry said, "and it can't be done, obviously."

As usual with these things, I don't actually see quite as big a gaffe as some others, even accounting for the fact that secretaries of state are supposed to be especiallycircumspect. It was obviously a sarcastic comment. However, Russia is pretending to take it seriously:

In Moscow, Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, who was meeting with Syria’s foreign minister, Walid al-Moallem, said in response to Mr. Kerry’s remarks that Russia would join any effort to put Syria’s stockpile of chemical weapons under international control and ultimately destroy them....Although Mr. Kerry appeared to treat the idea that Syria would give up its stockpile as improbable, Mr. Lavrov seized on it as a possible compromise that Russia was prepared to propose to the Syrians.

“We don’t know whether Syria will agree with this, but if the establishment of international control over chemical weapons in the country will prevent attacks, then we will immediately begin work with Damascus,” Mr. Lavrov said at the Foreign Ministry. “And we call on the Syrian leadership to not only agree to setting the chemical weapons storage sites under international control, but also to their subsequent destruction.”

So was Kerry's statement a gaffe? In normal terms, sure. You don't toss out stuff like this without thinking about it, and most likely all it does is give Russia and Syria a handy excuse to play games for a while longer. However, in any terms more sophisticated than those of a five-year-old, it wasn't really much of a gaffe. Kerry's meaning was perfectly plain.

Still, what if the Russians aren't playing games, but are seizing an unanticipated opportunity? It's possible that for all their bluster, the Russians would actually like a way out of this that saves some face. It's also possible, if you believe the latest reports in Bild am Sonntag, that Assad never wanted last month's chemical attack to go forward in the first place. His generals did it without his go-ahead. So maybe he'd just as soon be rid of the stuff.

I doubt it. But it's at least an intriguing thought. If all of this ended up with some kind of UN inspection force taking control of Syria's chemical arsenal, that would be a pretty good outcome for everyone. And it would make Kerry's statement sort of the opposite of a Kinsley gaffe. Instead of a politician accidentally telling the truth, it would end up being a politician accidentally solving a real problem.

105 Years in Jail for Posting a Link?

| Mon Sep. 9, 2013 11:47 AM EDT

A few months ago I passed along the story of Barrett Brown, a young journalist/activist who relentlessly followed up on documents leaked by Anonymous, was targeted for this by the FBI, and who was eventually harassed enough that he cracked—which took the unfortunate form of recording a YouTube rant promising to "destroy" one of his tormentors.

Brown was indicted for posting the YouTube threats, and there's no question that it was an ill-advised rant regardless of the FBI instigation. But David Carr follows up with more today. It turns out that only three of the charges against Brown are related to the video. Twelve more are related to a link he posted in a chat room:

In December 2011, approximately five million e-mails from Stratfor Global Intelligence, an intelligence contractor, were hacked by Anonymous and posted on WikiLeaks. The files contained revelations about close and perhaps inappropriate ties between government security agencies and private contractors. In a chat room for Project PM, Mr. Brown posted a link to it.

Among the millions of Stratfor files were data containing credit cards and security codes, part of the vast trove of internal company documents....According to one of the indictments, by linking to the files, Mr. Brown “provided access to data stolen from company Stratfor Global Intelligence to include in excess of 5,000 credit card account numbers, the card holders’ identification information, and the authentication features for the credit cards.”

....But keep in mind that no one has accused Mr. Brown of playing a role in the actual stealing of the data, only of posting a link to the trove of documents....“The YouTube video was a mistake, a big one,” said Gregg Housh, a friend of Mr. Brown’s who first introduced him to the activities of Anonymous. “But it is important to remember that the majority of the 105 years he faces are the result of linking to a file. He did not and has not hacked anything, and the link he posted has been posted by many, many other news organizations.”

This is almost a textbook case of prosecutorial overreach. As Carr points out, the guy who actually stole the Stratfor information is facing a sentence of only ten years. So why is Brown facing 105 years? Certainly not for a video posted while he was in withdrawal from heroin addiction. More likely, it's because the government considers him a thorn in their side and wants to send a message to anyone else planning to follow in Brown's footsteps. That just ain't right. As Carr says, "Punishment needs to fit the crime and in this instance, much of what has Mr. Brown staring at a century behind bars seems on the right side of the law, beginning with the First Amendment of the Constitution."