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Thursday, February 23, 2012

Republican Debate Review

By Bill Maher
Huffington Post
Feb 23, 2012

The Republicans sure have the right symbol with the elephant. Republican debates are nothing but elephants in the room.
The biggest of which must be: to someone out there who's hurting, they spend the whole two hours yammering away about earmarks and illegal immigrants and contraception and every other peripheral, wish-I-had-the-time-to-worry-about-it issue they can think of.
Then there is the elephant of how they all -- with the sometime exception of Ron Paul -- nod along to insane statements just because they don't want to ever look like they're to the left of anybody, on anything, especially the evilness of Barack Obama. So Wednesday night when Newt said the president of the United States had a history of practicing infanticide... yep, yep, yessir, that's what he does all right. Clubs infants like baby seals in his spare time. Ike played golf, Kennedy liked boating...
Ron Paul said foreign aid just helps our enemies. Which, I believe, would make Israel and Egypt our two biggest enemies. Yup, yup, hate foreign aid. A meaningless percentage of the budget, btw.
Newt said where government becomes the central provider of services, it's a move towards tyranny -- yeah, except in all the countries where it isn't, like all of Scandanavia and much of Europe. Today a barium enema paid for by medicare, tomorrow Poland.
And isn't a highlight of every debate when Mitt Romney takes umbrage at being accused of the best thing he ever did in his life -- Romneycare? Something he should be proud of? Last night he took out his dueling glove and declared that when he was governor, he made sure there was NO requirement from the church to provide morning after pills for rape victims. They will be punished with a baby, as Jesus would want. Mitt's attitude is always, "How dare you accuse me of helping people or being compassionate! Why, I'll have you know I'm every bit as much of a cold hearted bastard as any of these other pricks up here with me!"
"But Mitt, we have a picture of you giving money to a homeless person."
"I did NOT give a bum money! I was paying him to blow me!"
This Republican field over the last year has been such a comedy gold mine -- which I have compacted into a stand-up special I'm doing Thursday night, February 23, called #CrazyStupidPolitics -- it's free, and it's live-streamed on Yahoo! 10:30 Eastern (with a mindblowing announcement at the end). I apologize for the shameful plug, but I just want you to have a good laugh! Thank you Arianna, you're the best... and now back to our blog.
The biggest elephant in the room tonight for me was Satan. All day, TV news was talking about Satan because of Rick Santorum's dug-up (but, no doubt still accurate) comments about Satan from 2008. It just shows you how when someone is a nobody politically speaking -- as Santorum was in 2008 -- you can say any kind of crazy shit and it's not newsworthy. But when you are seeking the highest office in the land... in the world -- it really worries me that you believe in demons and a personified creature named Satan.
People get mad at me for using the phrase "this stupid country", which I sometimes do -- but, I'm sorry -- Satan? In 2012? This elephant is not only in the room at the debates, but everywhere on TV today where people were talking about this and not breaking down in the middle and screaming, Wait a minute -- We're modern people, surely we don't give any credence to this comic book character that was created in the bronze age!! It's barely worthy of a children's story, and people take it to the Oval Office -- Bush did -- and it affects their thinking and our lives.

Why is Santorum so against contraception? Because there's a line in Genesis about not spilling your seed. A random brainfart from some desert dweller 3,000 years ago, before people knew about germs or atoms or round planets, and it gets written down and passed down and in 2012 people like Rick Santorum are still too R-word to see that, and that's why some woman in Akron, Ohio might not get birth control.
And as far as Rick's claim tonight that even though he holds these beliefs, he wouldn't legislate them? Bullshit -- he said states absolutely had the right to outlaw contraception. That's the same thing -- as an officer of the government, he should take the opposite position. Ron Paul would.
My favorite moment of the debate was the last question, when they all were asked to summarize themselves in one word: Ron Paul said "consistency," and you know what? I have no argument with that. It's true, and he's earned it.
The other ones however, I think I could find a more honest word. Mitt Romney said "resolute." I would have gone with "shapeshifter." Or perhaps "irresolute." Rick Santorum said "courage" , whereas I would have said "Bellevue." And Newt Gingrich said "cheerful." I was thinking "pus."
One other thing: in the overtime, I heard Ron Paul make the point to John King that his foreign policy was similar to Eisenhower's, how Ike avoided getting militarily involved in Vietnam or the Suez Canal and got out of Korea. Because he was a military man. Ron Paul served, also -- the other three not so much. I know it will never become law, because it would require a constitutional amendment, but I don't think it would be such a bad thing if you had to have served in the military if you wanted to be president. Kennedy also avoided war where many would not have. After him, though, we got into the era of non-servers and draft-dodgers, and used the military like a toy. Ex-soldiers understand it's not. And the president is Commander-in-Chief -- shouldn't you have served some time in an organization you're the head of?
I hope this was the last Republican debate. Well, I say that, but I'll need the material after I use up an hour of good jokes tomorrow night, so, fuck it, keep going.
Last bullshit call: In his closing statement, Rick Santorum said that in the race against the Evil One (no, not that Evil One, he was talking about Obama), the president would have the media in his pocket (yeah, except Fox News, lots of newspapers, all of radio... ), and way more money. Huh? Sheldon Adelson this week said he might give $100 million to Newt Gingrich! If he'd give that to Newt who has no chance, he might give more to Romney. And he's just one old cranky billionaire who hates Obama, there's a whole gaggle of them.
And Sheldon, if you want to blow money so bad, just walk into one of your hotels in Vegas and go to the Roulette table.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

How Team Obama, the GOP, and Tea Partiers Are All Intruding on Your Rights

By Jim Hightower
Hightower Lowdown
February 12, 2012

The earth's core, consisting largely of iron, helps balance our spinning planet. On the other hand, the core of too many of today's prominent political leaders consists almost entirely of unintended irony, which tends to make them go all wobbly on their political stands. This might be comical were it not so destructive for our nation.

For example, check out the politicos who're raising such a cacophony these days about big, intrusive government. Ironically, they're usually the same knee-jerks who so fervidly advocate the expansion of government's biggest and most intrusive force: police power. Since 9/11, this bunch has screeched non-stop that the only way to make the American people secure in this terrifying age is to jackhammer the word "secure" out of the Fourth Amendment--the only place in the Bill of Rights where the term appears.

The founders (made of much stronger stuff than today's political harpies) believed that genuine security for a democratic people comes from strengthening their right and ability to resist the autocratic impulses of the authorities. By deliberately placing "secure" in this key Bill of Rights passage, they certainly did not intend for it to be twisted into a meek call for ever-expanding police power to "protect" the citizenry, but instead to give citizens essential legal guarantees to protect themselves from police power.

It wasn't political theory that shaped their phrasing--it was rough, real-life experience with King George III's security forces. Thus, they wrote with unmistakable conviction: "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause...."

Those few words are our bulwark against the repressive enforcement power of a police state. Yet, practically from the start of America's democratic experiment, the rights that the founders established in Amendment IV have constantly been chipped at, frequently ignored by authorities, and occasionally suspended by fear mongering politicians (ranging from the 1798 Alien Enemies Act to the infamous Patriot Act of 2001).

The good news is that--after an ugly, repressive interlude--the people themselves have historically risen against each of these authoritarian assaults on the wisdom of the constitutional authors, and restored the liberty-protecting provisions of the Fourth to their proper place at the center of our nation's governing ethos.

In 2008, many voters thought that by voting for Barack Obama, they were making just such a correction to the dangerously autocratic course steered by the Bush-Cheney-Ashcroft regime. And why wouldn't they? After all, despite getting hammered by Republicans for being "soft on terror," Obama had campaigned aggressively that year against such grossly unreasonable searches and seizures as the FBI's spying campaign on groups of law-abiding protestors, the Pentagon's massive, data-sucking supercomputer that was covertly sifting through vast piles of personal information on millions of Americans, and the door-busting, pre-dawn raids by heavily armed federal agents into the private homes of medical marijuana users.

Shortly after taking office, the new president lifted the hopes of civil libertarians by declaring that "our values have been our best national security assets--in war and peace; in times of ease and eras of upheaval." Yes! Correct! Excellent!

But, where'd that guy go? Fine words are about the only changes that have come from the Obama administration, which overall has been distressingly Bush-Cheneyish on expanding--not reducing--the power of assorted police agencies to go far beyond legitimate law enforcement.

Unbeknownst to most people--and unmentioned by candidates in this year's presidential elections (with the important exception of Ron Paul)--Team Obama, the entire Republican leadership, tea party lawmakers, and assorted state and local officials have jointly been moving America toward the darkness of unbridled police intrusion into our lives and liberties.

Groups fighting for the preservation of those liberties feel betrayed by a Democratic presidency that has proven to be openly hostile to the Fourth Amendment, taking regressive actions and pushing extremist laws that extend the security state beyond what even Dick Cheney could've imagined! The founders would be in a rage--and we should be, too.

National Defense Authorization Act of 2012. This is a massive bill that okays spending $662 billion in the next fiscal year on the Pentagon's "everywhere and forever" war on terrorists, which presently involves the US in military "hostilities" in Afghanistan, Iraq (still), Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia... and, now flashing on the radar as our next war: Iran. But, what makes this year's war authorization so incendiary and outright un-American is that it explicitly expands the military's battlefield into the USA itself--and it takes direct aim at the Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Amendment rights of all citizens.

Tucked deep inside the NDAA is section 1031, a legislative atrocity that empowers any president (Obama, Romney, Gingrich, Trump, Palin, whomever) to order the military to sweep in, seize, and imprison anyone anywhere (including any place in America) and hold them indefinitely without charging them with any crime or putting them on trial.

All this can be done simply on the say-so of a president that the hapless detainee might have some kind of connection (which need not be stated and can be very vague, distant, and totally innocent) to any group that authorities suspect of being involved in terrorism. Some legal scholars say the act encourages just about anyone with a badge to send a fellow citizen to military detention, to be tried if and when the President says so.

This autocratic "homeland battlefield" decree reincarnates King George III and his tyrannical Redcoats! It enables one official to cancel a sheaf of our fundamental constitutional rights: probable cause, arrest by written warrant, no deprivation of liberty without due process, speedy and public trial by an impartial jury, and habeas corpus.

How did this get written into law? By stealth. Pushed by the superhawk GOP House, a mere handful of congressional and White House leaders negotiated in secret late last year to slip 1031 into the bill with no public input nor a recorded vote. Publicly, Obama made a show of opposing it, even threatening a veto. But Sen. Carl Levin, a key negotiator for Democrats, refutes that pose, saying the White House had demanded that American citizens be included as proper targets of the provision.

Sure enough, when NDAA passed in December, the promised veto shrank into a meek statement by Obama that he would sign the bill "despite having serious reservations with certain provisions." He even declared that "my administration will not authorize the indefinite military detention without trial of American citizens." Yet, there it is, engraved in law and available to any president who chooses to use it.

Tellingly, Obama quietly signed the bill on December 31, when the media and the people were on holiday and busy partying.

Domestic Investigations and Operations Guide. This is the FBI's official manual governing the work of its 14,000 agents, giving them the do's and don'ts of proper investigative techniques.

After 9/11, successive Bush attorneys general "updated" the rules of behavior to loosen and sever many of those pesky constitutional reins on agency snooping, freeing agents to spy on law-abiding Americans and domestic organizations because of their political activity, ethnicity, or religion--with no evidence needed to show that the targets are doing anything wrong.

Then the Democrats displaced the Bushites, and the Obama team issued its own revised edition of the guide last summer. It's a doozy. Valerie Caproni, the FBI's chief lawyer, pooh-poohed the revision as "more like fine-tuning than major changes," but take a peek at the tweaks.

Those 14,000 agents gained new powers to conduct an "assessment" of the connections and actions of any US citizen or group even if they are not suspected of criminal activity or terrorist ties. Agents were newly authorized to burrow into people's trash, secretly search their databases, and even compel them to take lie detector tests--all without requiring the agency to make a record of the intrusive probe. Also, specially trained "surveillance squads" can now secretly tail these assessment targets any time, with no warrant required.

Bear in mind that FBI assessments are not something the agency does infrequently--agents open thousands of these clandestine, "proactive" probes each month, and now Obama allows the intrusions to go deeper into the private lives of innocent Americans than even Bush got away with.

The rationale, according to Obamacans, is that, while these people might not be doing anything wrong, they might know someone who is! As lawyer Caproni explained, agents merely want to sift through trash cans and databases of the innocent in hopes of surfacing some bit of information that would pressure the innocent ones to help the government go after an actual suspect. Ah, yes, tighten the screws--the old squeeze play is newly legit in our land of the free! Who's advising Obama on this stuff--George Orwell?

Patriot Act: The Thing that won't die. This hydra-headed monster arose from the swamp of fear following the 2001 crashbombing of our people, having been spawned by the Machiavellian opportunism of Cheney, Ashcroft, and other far-right authoritarian zealots.

They foisted it on America in the name of "protecting" us from foreign fiends, but we quickly learned that the act itself was the fiend, endowed by its creators with multiple powers to rampage over innocent people's rights. Its Big Brother abuses throughout the Bush years made the Patriot Act a hot political issue in the 2008 presidential contest, and Obama promised again and again that he could and would tame the beast.

Sir Barack the Gallant's shining moment came last May, when congressional Democrats and Republicans were grappling over reforms to several major provisions of the oppressive law:

Section 215, a sweeping and widely despised power, lets the FBI grab "any tangible thing" it considers "relevant" to a terrorism investigation--your library records, phone calls, emails, credit card data, websites visited, etc. Agents can seize your information even if they don't suspect you of being guilty of anything, and they can (and routinely do) search your records without ever telling you they've snuck into your privacy.

Section 206, known as the "roving John Doe wiretap," simply erases the Fourth Amendment's requirement that the government state specifically who or what place is to be searched and what it's looking for before it can get a warrant. The Patriot Act says that agents in vaguely defined terrorism investigations can get a warrant to wiretap an unnamed John Doe just because they want one.

Section 505 hands secret and frighteningly invasive power to FBI agents through "national security letters." These totalitarian documents compel phone, internet, financial, and other corporations to hand over all data on the private communications and transactions of their customers. This is the surveillance-vacuum-cleaner-from-hell, sucking in ridiculous volumes of info on Americans who are not even suspected of doing anything unlawful. The FBI issues tens of thousands of the letters each year in far-flung fishing expeditions that yield practically nothing of value to the agency, much less to America's security. NSLs are the stuff of the old KGB, coming complete with gag orders that prohibit corporate recipients from ever revealing that they got such a letter, while also precluding any court from questioning whether the gag is necessary to protect national security.

The NSL outrages were the subject of a 2009 reform effort when Democrats had a congressional majority. While Obama's official position was that he supported the reforms proposed by his fellow Democrats, his justice department furtively wrote the amendments that stripped away those reforms, then worked behind the scenes to get Republican lawmakers to sponsor and pass the amendments.

Last May, with several of the Patriot Act's liberty-busting provisions set to expire, the White House and Congress had an opportune moment to restore our Bill of Rights' supremacy over the sprawling surveillance superstructure imposed on us by that awful piece of legislation.

The tea party Republicans controlling the House, however, mocked their professed devotion to liberty by locking arms against reform. The Obamacans, having no stomach for a fight, meekly retreated. On May 26, with little media attention and no debate, the Repubs and Dems joined in a rare bipartisan vote--to punt the Bill of Rights. They extended the Patriot Act--including sections 215, 206, and 505--for four more years.

Technology marches on!

Every new high tech advance comes with a flurry of hype about how this latest device or system will "free" humankind from the limits of the old ways.

From the invention of the spyglass forward, nearly every new techno-gizmo has been adopted or adapted by the hundreds of separate (and often competing) local, state, national, and international police agencies that now monitor us. Each breakthrough is hailed by the authorities as an essential tool for protecting you and me from "bad guys." Few politicians are willing to question that, so more tax dollars and broadly invasive authority constantly surge into the automation of surveillance, while our privacy steadily seeps out of the system.

Tracking you. Stakeouts, wiretaps, and actually tailing suspects have required police to specify their suspicion of wrongdoing and get a judge's okay to snoop. Last November, however, Obama's Justice Department argued before the Supreme Court that police are free to track anyone they want (even people not suspected of a crime) by secretly attaching a GPS device to the target's car. No warrant necessary, claimed the Justice Department, because people have no right to expect the movement of their cars on public roadways to be private.

The Supremes were stunned to hear the government's lawyer say that the police could easily slip GPS trackers onto the judges' own cars and follow their travels for weeks or more. The technology, he insisted, merely makes agents more efficient in their job of capturing data. However this pill proved too bitter for even the prosecutor-coddling Roberts Court to swallow--the Justices ruled unanimously on January 23 that such GPS tracking violates the Fourth Amendment's privacy rights.

Tweets and twits. Last fall, Emma Sullivan, an 18-year-old high school student in Kansas, sent a tweet from her cell phone as she listened to Gov. Sam Brownback speak to students. "He sucked," was the opinion she sent to her personal Twitter followers. It turns out, though, that Brownback staffers secretly monitor social media, trolling for any mention of the guv. Unhappy with Sullivan's opinion, these gubernatorial twits contacted school authorities.

She was scolded and ordered to write an apology to his eminence--but the feisty teen refused, instead going to the media to talk about free speech in social media. Brownback then got such a blowback from outraged Kansans that he was the one who had to apologize to her "for our overreaction." Nice ending, except Kansans are still wondering why their governor has the time, money, staff, and arrogance to be eavesdropping on teen tweets.

It's not just a Kansas issue, for last February the humongous Department of Homeland Security issued a little-noticed announcement that it has set up a permanent Social Media Monitoring and Situational Awareness program. It's a computerized system that routinely monitors the postings of all users of Twitter, Facebook, blogs, and other electronic communications by private citizens.

DHS is deploying search tools, forming social media profiles, analyzing "an array of potentially sensitive search terms," recording results, storing the information (including names of senders) for up to five years, and disseminating relevant findings "to federal, state, local, and foreign governments, and private-sector partners."

Look, up in the sky! Neither a bird nor Superman, the next must-have toy for assorted police agencies is the unmanned aerial vehicle, better known as drones. Yes, the same miniaturized aircraft that lets the military wage war with a remote-controlled, error-prone death machine is headed to your sky, if the authorities have their way. Already, Homeland Security officials have deployed one to a Texas sheriff's office to demonstrate its crime-fighting efficacy, and federal aviation officials are presently proposing new airspace rules to help eager departments throughout the country get their drones.

But airspace problems are nothing compared to the as-yet-unaddressed Fourth Amendment problems that come with putting cheap, flying-surveillance cameras in the air. As usual, this techno-whiz gadget is being rationalized as nothing more than an enhanced eye on crime. But the drone doesn't just monitor a particular person or criminal activity, it can continuously spy on an entire city, with no warrant to restrict its inevitable invasion of innocent people's privacy. Drones will collect video images of identifiable people. Who will see that information? How will it be used? Will it be retained? By its nature, this is an invasive, all-encompassing spy eye that will tempt authorities to go on fishing expeditions. The biggest question is the one that is not even being asked: Who will watch the watchers?

First, secure liberty

Astonishingly, the present, widespread torching of the Fourth Amendment is being done by or with the complicity of politicians who claim to be on our side! Now is not the time to push back on police power, they tell us. Jobs, war, deficits, and such have to come first. Hello--the Constitution is on fire!

The good news is that we do have a solid core of liberty stalwarts in public office across the country (including some police officials), and there is a host of smart, intrepid organizations working across the country to put out the fires of authoritarianism and to plant new seeds of democratic rights (see Do Something).

When leaders won't stand tall, We the People must. Connect with these folks to help secure the tools of liberty that the founders put in the Bill of Rights.

Jim Hightower is a national radio commentator, writer, public speaker, and author of the new book, "Swim Against the Current: Even a Dead Fish Can Go With the Flow." (Wiley, March 2008) He publishes the monthly "Hightower Lowdown," co-edited by Phillip Frazer.

© 2012 Hightower Lowdown All rights reserved.

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Sunday, February 12, 2012

Why I Signed ACTA

Helena Drnovek Zorko
Jan. 31, 2012

"Slovenia's ambassador to Japan, Helena Drnovek Zorko, writes: 'I signed ACTA out of civic carelessness, because I did not pay enough attention. Quite simply, I did not clearly connect the agreement I had been instructed to sign with the agreement that, according to my own civic conviction, limits and withholds the freedom of engagement on the largest and most significant network in human history, and thus limits particularly the future of our children.'"

On Thursday, 26th January, 2012, I signed the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) on behalf of the Republic of Slovenia, following the directive and authorisation of the Slovenian government. A somewhat longer clarification of the signature can be found on the Media section of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs website, which explains the role of the Ministry and my role as the Slovenian Ambassador to Japan. This explanation states that I signed the agreement because I was instructed to do so by the government, and because it is a part of my job.

And yet, why did I sign ACTA.

Every day there is a barrage of questions in my inbox and on Facebook from mostly kind and somewhat baffled people, who cannot understand how it occurred to me to sign an agreement so damaging to the state and citizens. With this reply, which is of a purely personal nature and expresses only my personal views, I wish to respond to all those people, all my friends and acquaintances who have remained quiet, all Anonymous, and not least also to myself and to my children.

I signed ACTA out of civic carelessness, because I did not pay enough attention. Quite simply, I did not clearly connect the agreement I had been instructed to sign with the agreement that, according to my own civic conviction, limits and withholds the freedom of engagement on the largest and most significant network in human history, and thus limits particularly the future of our children. I allowed myself a period of civic complacency, for a short time I unplugged myself from media reports from Slovenia, I took a break from Avaaz and its inflation of petitions, quite simply I allowed myself a rest. In my defence, I want to add that I very much needed this rest and that I am still having trouble gaining enough energy for the upcoming dragon year.

At the same time, I am tackling a workload that increased, not lessened, with the advent of the current year. All in line with a motto that has become familiar to us all, likely not only diplomats: less for more. Less money and fewer people for more work. And then you overlook the significance of what you are signing. And you wake up the following morning with the weight of the unbearable lightness of some signature.

First I apologised to my children. Then I tried to reply to those acquaintances and strangers who expressed their surprise and horror. Because there are more and more of them, I am responding to them publicly. I want to apologise because I carried out my official duty, but not my civic duty. I don’t know how many options I had with regard to not signing, but I could have tried. I did not. I missed an opportunity to fight for the right of conscientious objection on the part of us bureaucrats.

But there is a second, very important reason why I am writing this. There has been a demonization of “some sneak”, that is me, who in far-off Tokyo secretly signed something on her own initiative. This was heard in the Slovenian parliament and in the Slovenian media, and it is spreading on the web. It is dangerous particularly because it conceals the responsibility of those who had the power to decide, and did in fact decide, that Slovenia would be a signatory of ACTA. 

This was decided by the Slovenian government and by the parliamentary committee for EU matters, and before that, Slovenia was for quite some time involved in coordinating the agreement. All this was done with too little transparency, judging by the outraged responses that have appeared following the signing. 

Back then, the Slovenian media did not demonise this decision to the same extent as they now demonise my signature. This I consider very dangerous for the continuous (non-)development of democracy in Slovenia. At the same time, this means that I was not the only one whose attention slipped, that we, as Slovenian citizens, neglected our civic duty. And that there may be a little known party in the Slovenian political space that missed an excellent opportunity to gain votes in the recently concluded electoral struggle.

On Saturday, 4th February, a protest is planned in Ljubljana for those who object to the ratification of ACTA. The true concern and determination of those Slovenian citizens who feel that the agreement must be stopped will be reflected in the number of people who attend this protest. I would like to ask for somebody to please attend in my name. One of my concerned correspondents asked me what my brother, the late Dr. Janez Drnovšek , would have thought of my signature. The struggle to protect civic freedoms is most certainly in the spirit of his heritage, much more so than the removal or non-removal of some statue. Let my example be a cautionary tale of how swiftly we can make mistakes if we allow ourselves to slip. And if nothing else, we then sleep very badly.