Showing posts with label Government. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Government. Show all posts

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

The Patriot Act, Terrorism and the Irrationality of Fear (Part 2)

READ: Part 1 here.

“The essence of Government is power; and power, lodged as it must be in human hands, will ever be liable to abuse.”
James Madison

Now let’s look at the two main arguments that lawmakers and spy agency officials constantly put forward to justify the far reaching and arbitrary nature of the current surveillance programs. Governments around the world agree that acts committed by seemingly normal people with no affiliation to a terrorist group are both the new soup du jour and their greatest fear. Yet, a few honest people in security establishments also add that there is virtually no way to detect or stop these people unless we can find a way to read their minds.

This begs the question whether programs exposed by Snowden, like PRISM, are an attempt by the government (perhaps unwittingly) to build a machine designed to detect an act of terror before it happens? A sort of pre-crime unit like in the one in the Steve Spielberg movie, Minority Report. Is the US government attempting to collect every piece of communication from every citizen, in the hope of trying to establish a pattern of behaviour that might indicate self-radicalization? Proponents of the current NSA programs would have us believe that such a program is the only way for the government and security agencies to keep us safe by stopping lone wolf attacks. 

Many lawmakers defend these programs by talking about the number of terrorist attacks that have been thwarted as a result of this surveillance, but are conveniently unable to provide any statistics due to national security concerns. Both the Justice Department and the FBI have publicly admitted that “in spite of all that added spying, they couldn’t point to one single case that was solved, or one single terrorist act that was thwarted through the use of these Patriot Act provisions.” (Source: Washington Post Article). Some people disagree with this view and argue the opposite, but, since we do not have access to ‘sensitive’ information, let’s look at the last few major terrorist attacks that have been thwarted.

In the case of the Times Square bomber it was a vigilant food vendor that alerted police and not the massive surveillance apparatus the government has built. It was a last minute tip from a Saudi informant that prevented the printer bombs, aboard cargo planes, from exploding in midair en-route to Chicago. The two packages bound for the US, had passed undetected “through four countries in at least four different airplanes, two of them carrying passengers” (source: NY Times). The Nigerian underwear bomber’s father personally went to the US Embassy in Abuja to warn the US government that his son was becoming radicalized. This tip was passed on to counterterrorism officials in the US, yet less than a month later Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab successfully passed through Nigerian and Dutch security using his real identity, paying cash for a one way ticket and never checked luggage – all things that are supposed red flags in our post-9/11 Patriot Act security apparatus. The older brother in the Boston marathon bombings was identified by Russian intelligence, who warned US intelligence that this young man on a path to being radicalized. I guess the NSA’s multi-billion dollar machine did not think so. 

Time after time we have seen that human intelligence is the only surefire way to thwart a terrorist attack. Human intelligence will always be the most valuable and effective way for us to stop any kind of attack, because all attacks require time to plan and the process of radicalisation is visible to the people closest to the would-be terrorist. The attacker needs time to procure bomb-making expertise, buy physical materials and will likely also have some accomplices. A friend, co-worker, family or community member will witness changes in these people; homegrown terrorists do not live in isolation. All of the recent lone wolf terrorists in the US have been well-educated and functioning members of society – but all must at some point have displayed signs of odd behaviour and warning signs to the people around them. This is where we need to focus. 

No amount of reading emails or storing metadata from our Skype and cellphone calls can provide this intelligence. We should focus our energy on winning trust in local communities and educating people to inform authorities the moment they see well-defined warning signs. I am not talking about asking everyone to spy on neighbours, but about picking up on overt changes in behaviour in people we have known all our lives.

One other factor that should concern us is the government’s growing reliance on machines and data. Every data scientist will tell you that ‘too much’ data is worse than having none at all. It can actually hamper one’s ability to prevent attacks because you either miss the needles in the haystack or spread yourself too thin trying to understand and connect every dot. Consider the sheer amount of data being collected today; it requires authorities to cast a much wider net and as a result lose focus on the more important warning signs.  

I am not suggesting that we abandon spying programs or get rid of the entire Patriot Act. Nor am I suggesting that we lay down our arms and meekly accept our fate. We absolutely must be vigilant and put measures in place to prevent attacks, but there also needs to be a discussion about the limits and oversights that must be placed on these programs. Government needs to be more honest about the realities and limits of how safe we can be, rather than pandering to voters and behaving like there is always something more that can be done after a new attack. 

America’s founding fathers were acutely aware of too much power corrupting people and built safeguards into the constitution. Today, our government and security agencies are building deeply sophisticated and frighteningly broad surveillance systems designed to spy on their own citizens in the name of protecting us from acts of terror. The problem is that this is a disingenuous and irrational argument, one that will not make us safer, but will lead to greater abuse of power with less transparency and virtually no accountability.

The question we need to answer is – have we become so irrational in this fear that we would give up freedoms for which our forefathers gave their lives? Are we willing to live in a world where government watches our every move and monitors every form of communication just to find one needle in a vast haystack? I know I do not want to live in such a world. I would rather take my chances and die in a terrorist attack.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

September 11 - Ten Years Later (Part 2)

Read: September 11 - Ten Years Later (Part 1)

If Oscar Wilde were around he might say “To start one war, Mr. Bush, was a necessity but to start two seems like recklessness”. 

As we continue to examine the impact of the decisions made by our government in the months and years after 9/11, it is important to look back at some of missed warning signs and lost opportunity costs for America that were a result of the course the Bush administration chose to set America on.

On 2nd December 2001 one of the world’s largest energy companies, named “America’s Most Innovative Company” for six consecutive years by Fortune magazine, with 22,000 employees and global revenues over $100 billion, filed for bankruptcy. Enron’s entire financial reporting had been based on institutionalized fraud. Their demise also led to the dissolution of an old and reputable accounting firm, Arthur Anderson, the firm responsible for auditing Enron’s books. Close on the heels of Enron a number of other companies fell to similar accounting scandals. These included ImClone and Global Crossing, followed in the summer of 2002 by WorldCom and Adelphia. This brought into question the accounting practices of virtually every corporation in America. It became clear that there were serious discrepancies between the financial pictures companies were presenting to Wall Street, publicly, and the actual state of their internal balance sheets – the vast majority of Corporations were obfuscating their financials using contemporary accounting rules. All this was unfolding against a backdrop of a darkening economic picture based on the stock market bubble which burst in the first quarter of 2001. The economic excesses that had accompanied the heady growth and profitability of the 1990’s were gone. Too many firms, especially those in the technology and telecommunications, had made poor decisions and investments in in the wrong type of assets. However, even as growth slowed there was one startling difference from all post war recessions. Most recessions have been driven by sharp decreases in consumption spending, particularly related to durables and housing. However, during the early 2000’s consumption spending had actually been increasing year on year. This recession was being driven by plunging business investment (source: Joint Economic Committee Reports 2003). There is no doubt that seeds of this economic slowdown were sowed in the Clinton years, and are not directly related to the Bush administration’s policies but it is abundantly clear is that the signs of America’s impending financial meltdown, including the underlying factors that caused it, had started to become apparent early on during Bush’s first term in office.

It was in 2001 that Bush administration became aware of the problems in the overheating US housing market. At the center of the problem were two Government sponsored enterprises (GSE) called Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, whose government mandated mission was to keep mortgage interest rates low, so more Americans could afford to buy homes. By now it was well-known in Washington political circles that both institutions were so highly leveraged that a minor decline in housing values, as little as 1.3% to 2%, could wipe out both companies. And that their failure would have major repercussions on financial markets and US economic activity across the board. Bush was shot down by Democrats in Congress when he tried to bring additional oversight over these GSE’s in 2002. By early 2003 the signs had grown alarming; by this time these two mortgage lenders had more than $1.5 trillion in outstanding debt issued on their balance sheets.  In July, of the same year, a report by independent investigators concluded that “Freddie Mac manipulated its accounting to mislead investors, and critics said Fannie Mae does not adequately hedge against rising interest rates” (source: New York Times). However, with stiff resistance from Democrats, and the administration distracted by two wars, Bush chose to relinquish this battle and focus on what he clearly believed was far more important for securing America’s future: getting rid of Saddam Hussein. By the time Freddie and Fannie finally collapsed at the end of 2008, housing values had dropped 12.8%, since 2006. By now things were pretty dire and it became necessary for government to intervene in every part of the economy as Bush put it, “to prevent the crisis on Wall Street from becoming a crisis in communities across our country." Finding themselves in the midst of yet another crisis this administration decided once more to use fear to push through a $700 billion bailout plan for banks. Giving sweeping powers to the government to dispense gigantic sums of taxpayer dollars in a program that was sheltered from court review. TARP was a three page bill that did not specify which institutions would qualify or what criteria would be used, if any, or what taxpayers would get in return for the unprecedented infusion. It was designed to save companies that had brought this Armageddon upon themselves, and by an administration that had neglected to pay attention to many years of warnings. By all accounts, what would likely have been a minor economic downturn had it been handled when the warning signs first emerged resulted instead in a US and global financial catastrophe.

Another aspect of economic growth is immigration, which early on Bush showed he realized the importance and benefits to the US economy. He saw a need to reform the stagnant US immigration policy. He called for a new and large-scale guest worker program, paths to legalization for existing illegals, and had five meetings with Vincente Fox, the Mexican President, all in his first nine months in office. However, when it became known that all of the 9/11 hijackers had entered the US with legal visas, and that some has stayed after expiration, it changed the complexion of the debate on immigration along with his administration’s healthy stance on it. The administration decided to view the issue of immigration through the lens of ‘homeland security’. One accompanied with rhetoric that heightened fear and focused on detection of terrorists along with greater powers for law enforcement. America went from taking pride in being a nation of immigrants to being afraid of them. In the two years after 9/11 legal immigration fell by 34%, naturalization decreased 19% and employment based immigration also declined, as percentage of overall legal immigration, while absolute numbers dropped by 53% (source: Migration Policy Institute, 2004). To give you one example of the effect of the Bush policies on immigration, pre-9/11 it would have taken an Indian student who came to attend college in America about 18 months to become a permanent resident, and five years to become eligible for citizenship. Today, the same Indian student would have to wait 70 years for a permanent resident visa (source: National Foundation for American Policy). There is no dispute among economists about the importance of immigration, and that it is fundamental to the success of the American economy. Immigrants have founded 52% of Silicon Valley’s companies, creating millions of American jobs (source: Foreign Born Entrepreneurs: An Underestimated American Resource). This is not just true of higher income, better educated immigrants but also uneducated, low skilled workers. Without immigrants “the pace of recent U.S. economic growth would have been impossible. Since 1990, immigrants have contributed to job growth in three main ways: they fill an increasing share of jobs overall, they take jobs in labor-scarce regions, and they fill the types of jobs native workers often shun.” (source: Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas). Instead of using the opportunity to rally Congress to fix loopholes, and sensibly and securely reform what was without a doubt an antiquated and outdated visa system, the Bush administration followed through on a knee-jerk path, deciding to clamp down with archaic rules that made it much more difficult to get any type of US visa and effectively encouraged, if not forced, the smartest minds from around the world to return home after receiving an American college degree.

Across the board this administration seemed to believe it could have its cake and eat it. In late 2002, Cheney summoned Bush’s economic team to his office to push for another round of tax cuts to stimulate the slowing economy. Paul O’Neill, then the Treasury Secretary, and the entire White House economic team had become convinced that the country was careening toward a fiscal crisis, and they pleaded with Cheney to start reining in government spending. Instead, Cheney used Reagan’s words that “deficits don’t matter,” to completely shut down Paul H. O’Neill and the economic team. This was just a few months before the Iraq invasion began. Apart from the two rounds of tax cuts, which added roughly $1 trillion to the deficit over ten years, Bush also created a Medicare drug entitle­ment that will cost an estimated $800 billion in its first decade, he increased federal education spending 58 percent faster than inflation. He became the first President in US history to spend 3 percent of GDP on federal antipoverty programs. He also spent billions bailing out the Detroit auto industry and ended his final term with the $700 billion toxic asset recovery program. It is worth noting that during his two terms the income disparity grew, the poverty rate increased, unemployment rose to reach 7.8% in January, 2009 (the highest level in more than 15 years). When President Bush took office, the national debt stood at $5.727 trillion and when he left office it was more than $9.849 trillion (source: CBS News). That is an increase of a staggering 71.9 percent on Bush's watch. There were a total of seven debt ceiling increases, almost one for every year Bush spent in office. Interestingly, most of Bush’s spending was financed by issuing US treasury bonds (about 40 – 45 percent bought by foreign powers). When Bush took office in February 2001, the mainland Chinese owned a paltry $63.7 billion in U.S. debt. When Bush left office at the end of January 2009 the mainland Chinese owned $739.6 billion in US debt (source: Treasury.gov).

There is no doubt that these were extenuating circumstances, and 9/11 changed America forever; no argument there. The issue has more to do with the priorities and focus of this administration for the many years after 9/11, and their fixation with a hurriedly planned and poorly executed War on Terror. As a result the vast majority of domestic and foreign policy decisions seem to be devoid of short-term priorities and long-term thinking. It was as if this administration decided that the 9/11 attacks gave them cart blanche and zero accountability for all their actions. That it also did not matter how America would pay for its out-of-control spending, as long as it was done in the name of ‘national security’. It seems this administration was perfectly content kicking the can down the road. This at a time when America was clearly in alarming decline with corporate innovation dying, the education system in shambles, entitlement programs going bust and the country heading towards insurmountable debt. Without the distractions of a spiraling situation in Iraq, a war that deeply divided the country and created an acrimonious stalemate in Washington, Congress would also have been much more focused domestically and compelled to act. And had Bush not been completely consumed by his war on terror it is certain he would have also paid greater attention to the many warning signs of US economic decline. All this coupled with a complete lack of diplomacy in his first-term resulted in alienating long-term US allies, weakening its moral authority and having the mighty US military power humbled by a bunch of rag-tag rebels, in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Consider that Bush’s global war on terror will continue to cost US taxpayers for at least another generation, and has almost single-handedly been responsible for tilting the balance of global economic power squarely into the hands of China. In the end, we must ourselves this one question - was all this worth it just to get rid of Saddam Hussein?

Monday, July 12, 2010

Bhopal to BP: A Stark Contrast

“When the people fear their government, there is tyranny; when the government fears the people, there is liberty.”
Thomas Jefferson

People in America are seething with discontent about their President’s handling of the immediate aftermath of the BP rig explosion and oil spill. They feel he has not done all he could and that the Federal government has dragged its feet, not putting the full weight of their resources behind fixing the problem. Many Republicans even believe the government should have taken over the cleanup effort, even though the government does not have the necessary equipment, expertise or means to cap a deep water oil well break. Obama’s popularity has taken a huge beating as a result of this discontent around the country. There has also been growing resentment to his constantly cool and calm demeanor. That he never shows emotion and certainly never seems to fume or display any indignation or rage. Ironically, it was this same trait that catapulted him into a lead in many minds over John McCain during the financial crisis in 2008. However you feel about his personal handling of the response, what cannot be debated is that from the outset he has held British Petroleum fully accountable for the entire disaster and for all the ensuing damage, stretching even the most generous legal definitions of liability for foreign companies operating on US soil. He has made them liable, not only for all costs incurred by the Federal government for the cleanup operation, but also for lost wages of fisherman, riggers and small business owners in affected town. Somehow he even got BP to pony up $25 million for the State of Florida to invest in advertising to re-assure tourists that Florida beaches remain unaffected, open and safe. All this in addition to coaxing BP into putting a down payment of $20 billion into an account administered by a government-appointed third party, which will enable them to process and pay claims in a more expedient manner. And during all of this he managed to help the BP board see the wisdom in not issuing any further dividends to shareholders for the remainder of 2010. Whether you are satisfied with his administration’s sense of urgency and speed of response or not, I think it is fair to say that he has been single-mindedly focused on protecting his citizen’s well-being and livelihoods by ensuring that the blame and liability rests firmly with this foreign company and that taxpayers will not be the ones to bear the burden of this catastrophe.

Now contrast this with the Indian government’s response to the greatest industrial disaster the world has ever seen by an American company called Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL) which operated a majority owned chemical plant in the city of Bhopal, India. One fateful night in December 1984 the plant leaked toxic gas engulfing the city of Bhopal and its environs, exposing some 500,000 people to lethal and poisonous gas. Government estimates indicate that 8,000 people died within the first week. Another 8,000 people died since from gas related causes. Some 5,000 women were widowed. The gas exposure is also blamed for birth defects ranging from minor to very severe disabilities for the next two generations and is still causing unusually high clusters of cancer and other diseases in the families of the exposed. Today, 390 tons of toxic chemicals abandoned at the plant, never cleaned up by UCIL or the Indian government is said to continue to leak and pollute the groundwater in the region and affect thousands of Bhopal residents who depend on it. In 1985 the Indian government filed a suit in US court for damages worth $3.3 billion. In February 1989 the Indian government, led by then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, agreed to an out of court settlement with Union Carbide for a paltry $470 million - approximately 14% of their original claim. To add insult to injury, the then Chief Executive of Union Carbide, Warren Anderson, was arrested in 1985 and released on bail on a visit to India. He fled the country, and while still considered an absconder, has since retired and lives a lavish life in the exclusive Hamptons community on New York’s Long Island. “Greenpeace asserts that as the Union Carbide CEO, Anderson knew about a 1982 safety audit of the Bhopal plant, which identified 30 major hazards and that they were not fixed in Bhopal but were fixed at the company's identical plant in the US” (Wikipedia).

Twenty-six years after the tragedy India’s Supreme Court delivered its ruling in the world’s greatest industrial disaster. The Supreme Court is punishing the 7 of the 8 living Union Carbide board members with a 2 year prison sentence, which can be appealed. The culpable homicide charge was effectively reduced to a charge usually used for reckless driving cases. After a wait of a quarter century this is the justice the tens of thousands of victims of Bhopal received. This is the only justice the President, Prime Minister and government has been able to deliver to their citizens. And it seems the perpetrators will continue to go unpunished even as the people of Bhopal continue to suffer the consequences of their negligence. Dow Chemicals, the company which acquired UCIL, has repeatedly stated it accepts no responsibility for this “tragic accident” and recently also retracted a 2002 statement by DOW’s PR Head saying the US$500 compensation per victim was "plenty good for an Indian.” Curiously though, Times of India found Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) filings from February 2010, where DOW has disclosed that it has taken on all liability for Carbide lawsuits in the US dating back to 1977 (Bhopal happened in 1984), and expects to pay a further $839 million in the coming years to settle these. Carbide became a subsidiary of Dow through a merger in 2001 (‘Bhopal gas tragedy: Dow's double standards exposed’ – Times of India).

Based on a unanimous public outcry the Indian government is now pushing through new measures that include increased compensation for victims, and a renewed effort to extradite the 90 year old Warren Anderson  (an extradition request by India in 2003 was turned down by the US government) along with a pledge to clean up the abandoned UCIL factory. While Dow’s poorly worded statement above says it all, there is another and bigger issue at stake here that goes beyond corporate responsibility and companies doing the right thing in such extreme and tragic situations. It has to do with the weak response and seeming lack of muscle of the Indian government. As India continues to pride its steady advance onto the global stage as an economic and military powerhouse, the government continues to show its impotence when it comes to protecting its own citizens. Victims groups claim that the Indian government did not want to create a hostile climate for foreign companies and foreign direct investment and thus cushioned much of its actions against Union Carbide and DOW Chemicals. I hope this is not true because a government, who does not use every means possible to first and foremost protect its own people, has no business playing on the global stage or calling itself a Superpower.