“Spying”: Comey Doth Protest Too Much

“We didn’t ‘spy’ on anyone’s campaign,” writes former FBI director James Comey in a recent Washington Post op-ed.

“We asked a federal judge for permission to surveil” former Donald Trump campaign adviser Carter Page,” but that’s not “spying.”

Before that (unmentioned in the op-ed), we infiltrated an informant into the campaign to gather information on its operations, but that’s not “spying.”

What a strange allergic reaction from Comey, and others associated with US intelligence and counterintelligence operations, to US Attorney General William Barr’s simple statement before the US Senate: “Spying on a campaign is a big deal … I think spying did occur. The question is whether it was adequately predicated.”

Comey insists that the spying was indeed “adequately predicated,” and that for some reason this makes it not spying.

It was spying.

You know, the same activity for which 98-year-old Patricia Warner, who infiltrated Nazi circles in Spain during World War Two, just received the Congressional Gold Medal.

The same activity for which dozens of CIA assets have received the Intelligence Star medal, and for which 113 of them have their names inscribed on that agency’s “Memorial Wall.”

The same activity on which the US government spends untold billions per year, assuring us that it is not just good and moral and justifiable, but absolutely necessary to the defense of the United States.

Comey’s trying to have it both ways here.

On one hand, he justifies the spying based on claims that “Russia engaged in a massive effort to interfere in the 2016 presidential election,” and that “we learned that one of Trump’s foreign policy advisers knew about the Russian effort seven weeks before we did.”

He defends the cloak-and dagger approach of the FBI’s espionage (“the practice of spying or using spies”) operation on the Trump campaign, saying that “if there was nothing to it, we didn’t want to smear Americans. If there was something to it, we didn’t want to let corrupt Americans know we were onto them. So, we kept it secret.”

On the other hand, he claims it wasn’t “spying” because … well, just because. “Non-fringe” media, he says doesn’t spend much time on this “conspiracy theory” because it’s just so wacky.

Comey’s sophistry doesn’t even rise to the level of Nixon Logic: “When the president does it, that means that it is not illegal.” His formulation is “if the FBI did it for a good reason, that means the FBI didn’t do it.”

The important question here is not whether the FBI spied on the Trump campaign. It did. Period.

The important question is why Comey doesn’t want to discuss, or even acknowledge, that fact.

The answer to that question is that discussing and acknowledging the irrefutable fact that the FBI spied on the Trump campaign leads into other discussions he finds even less desirable, such as whether the spying was legal — “adequately predicated” — and whether it was politically motivated (in a word, an attempted “coup”).

Why doesn’t Comey want those discussions? That question pretty much answers itself.

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Trump’s Trade War Has Probably Permanently Damaged America’s Tech Leadership Position

On May 15, US president Donald Trump issued an “Executive Order on Securing the Information and Communications Technology and Services Supply Chain.”

Pursuant to that order, a number of firms in the US (including Google, Qualcomm, and Intel) and abroad (including Panasonic and Arm) have reduced or even entirely cut their ties with Chinese firm Huawei.

Beneath the risible national security claims used to justify it, Trump’s order is just another exercise in economic protectionism. He thinks he’s securing America’s position as the world’s leader in the tech sector. In reality, he’s demolishing that position.

Huawei is just one company, but it’s a big one. It sells its products and services in more than 170 countries and to 45 of the world’s 50 largest telecom operators. One third of the world’s population uses its networks.

Trump isn’t just cutting Huawei out of the US. He’s also cutting American companies out of lucrative relationships with Huawei.

Huawei will soon lose access to Google’s Android operating system. It’s already been working on its own in-house replacement for some time. It probably also has contingency plans for replacing the Intel, Qualcomm, and Arm chips in its phones with chips produced in China — perhaps by Huawei itself.

Nothing Trump does can likely put Huawei out of business. He can temporarily hurt it, but he can’t permanently kill it. The most momentous effect of his order is to put Huawei  on notice that it must not, under any circumstances, ever again find itself at the mercy of US suppliers and of the US government’s good will.

If Trump “wins” his trade wars, will Huawei go back to using the US suppliers it was just cut off from? That’s very unlikely.  Once bitten, twice shy.

Other global tech companies and other governments are watching, and unless they’re stupid they’re drawing the same conclusions.  If it can happen to Huawei, it can happen to them. No matter the immediate outcome, Trump’s stunt has done irreparable long-term damage to global trust in America’s tech giants.

As for those American companies, if they’re smart they’re already looking into what it will take to move their executive functions, and as much of their operations as possible, offshore, for the same reasons. They’re in business to make money, not to serve the whims of economically illiterates like Donald Trump.

The Trump trade bubble is bursting. The fallout isn’t pretty. And it’s going to get worse.

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War Crimes Pardons: A Terrible Memorial Day Idea

On May 16, 2008, near the town of Baiji in Iraq, 1st Lieutenant Michael Behenna, US Army, murdered a prisoner.  That was the verdict of the jury in his 2009 court martial, anyway. He was sentenced to 25 years in prison, but paroled in less than five. On May 6, 2019, US president Donald Trump pardoned Behenna.

As I write this, news reports indicate that Trump intends to celebrate Memorial Day by pardoning several other Americans convicted of (or accused of and not yet tried for) war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan. That’s a horrible idea for several reasons.

One reason is that it’s morally repugnant to excuse the commission of crimes, especially violent crimes, for no other reason than that the criminal is a government employee.

A second reason is that it is detrimental to the good order and and discipline of the US armed forces to excuse violations of law by American soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines.

That phrasing is not random: “[D]isorders and neglects to the prejudice of good order and discipline in the armed forces” are themselves crimes under Article 134 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Yes, Trump has absolute power to pardon under the US Constitution, but this would be an abuse of that power that conflicts with his duties as commander in chief.

A third reason is that pardons of this type essentially beg other governments to take matters into their own hands where allegations of war crimes by US military personnel arise.

Among the US government’s excuses for refusing to join the International Criminal Court, and for forcing agreements by other governments to exempt American troops from prosecution under their own laws, is that the United States cleans up after itself and holds its troops to at least as high a standard as would those other governments. These pardons would give lie to that claim and expose US troops to greater risk of future arrest and prosecution abroad.

Don’t just take my word for these claims. Here’s General Charles Krulak, former Commandant of the US Marine Corps:

“If President Trump issues indiscriminate pardons of individuals accused — or convicted by their fellow servicemembers — of war crimes, he relinquishes the United States’ moral high ground and undermines the good order and discipline critical to winning on the battlefield.”

And here’s General Martin Dempsey, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff:

“Absent evidence of innocence or injustice the wholesale pardon of US servicemembers accused of war crimes signals our troops and allies that we don’t take the Law of Armed Conflict seriously. Bad message. Bad precedent. Abdication of moral responsibility. Risk to us.”

After World War Two, the US and other governments which participated in victorious alliance versus the Third Reich and the Empire of Japan tried and punished — up to and including execution — German and Japanese soldiers accused of war crimes and the political leaders who ordered, encouraged, or excused those crimes.

If the US doesn’t hold itself to at least as high a standard, eventually someone else will.

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A US War on Iran would be Evil, Stupid, and Self-Damaging

“If Iran wants to fight,” US president Donald Trump tweeted on May 19, “that will be the official end of Iran. Never threaten the United States again.”

The “threat” Trump appears to be responding to is a statement from Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif that “[w]e are certain … there will not be a war since neither we want a war nor does anyone have the illusion that they can confront Iran in the region.”

Some “threat,” huh? Let’s seek a little clarity as to just who’s threatening whom here:

In 1953, US and British intelligence operatives orchestrated a coup d’etat, overthrowing Iran’s democratically elected government and promoting Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi from constitutional monarch to (increasingly absolutist) dictator.

Twenty-six years later, the Iranian people rose up and toppled the Shah. Over the next few years, Islamists led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini defeated rival factions and consolidated their power over the country, replacing the monarchy with an “Islamic Republic” — more of a democracy than western propagandists acknowledge, with a representative parliament, but with extensive power residing in a Shiite “Supreme Leader” and associated clerical councils.

The US government never forgave the Iranian people for overthrowing its puppet regime. For decades, US foreign policy toward Iran consisted entirely of demonization, sanctions, and calls for “regime change.”  US atrocities of the period include the murder of 290 Iranians (including 66 children) aboard Iran Air flight 655, shot down by the USS Vincennes in 1988.

It wasn’t until 2015 that US president Barack Obama began slightly warming relations between the two countries, offering to lift the worst sanctions and return some frozen Iranian funds in return for Iran ending a nuclear weapons program that, according to the Iranians, the International Atomic Energy Agency, US intelligence, and Israel intelligence, didn’t even exist.

Enter Trump, claiming during his 2016 presidential campaign that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action was a “bad deal,” and as president ultimately deciding to violate it (not “withdraw” from it — it’s codified as UN Security Council Resolution, so the only way to “withdraw” from it is to withdraw from the United Nations). Now Trump is escalating yet again because the Iranians finally said “okay, if you’re not going to abide by the deal, we won’t either.”

Perhaps the most serious fiction at play here is the claim that the US seeks “regime change” in Iran because Iran is a brutal Islamic theocracy. If that was the point, the US would also seek “regime change” in, for example, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which is at least as brutal, just as Islamic, and more of a theocracy.

The US seeks “regime change” in Iran because Iran goes its own way and refuses to take marching orders from the US.

Iran is three times as populous and has a more modern and motivated military than Iraq and Afghanistan, neither of which the US has successfully brought to heel.

A US war on Iran would take top prize in the “evil,” “stupid,” and “self-damaging” categories when it comes to recent American wars.

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Donald Trump, Socialist

“Tonight, we renew our resolve that America will never be a socialist country,” US president Donald Trump announced in his State of the Union address in February.  His base, as he had hoped, cheered him on in setting himself up as foil to Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

In the three months since, though, Trump has doubled down on his own socialist policy proposals. On trade and immigration, he’s 21st-century America’s most strident — or most empowered, anyway — advocate of an indispensable tenet of state socialism: Central planning of the economy by the government.

Trump wants the government to control what you buy and who you buy it from. Thus, his “trade wars” with Canada, Mexico, the European Union, and China, powered by tariffs intended to advantage “Made in America” goods (and their politically connected makers) over others.

Now he’s announced a plan for “merit-based” government control of immigration under which bureaucrats in Washington decide how many, and which, immigrants the American economy “needs,” instead of leaving such decisions to markets and individuals.

In the past I’ve bemoaned the fact that “socialism” has come to mean such different things to so many different people. From its 19th century definition of  “worker ownership of the means of production,” it’s been continually re-defined to characterize everything from Marxist-Leninist totalitarianism to a more all-embracing “democratic socialist” welfare state powered by heavy taxation on “the rich.”

That’s a pretty broad net. But except among anarchist socialists, state control of the economy is the axis on which all versions of socialism turn, and Trump is clearly all-in on the idea.

He even lends a socialist cast to the  excuses he makes for his economic policies. He continually positions himself as protecting workers from the “dog-eat-dog” competition of capitalism (while avoiding using that word negatively). By adding an emphasis on political borders to those excuses, he changes the discussion from “labor versus capital” to “American labor versus foreign capital.”

That approach is nothing new. See Stalin’s “socialism in one country,” for example, or the marriage between central economic planning and nationalism characterizing the fascism of Mussolini and Hitler.

America’s Republican president campaigns against socialism while attempting to implement it. Meanwhile, America’s progressives  campaign for socialism while attempting to thwart actual worker ownership of the means of production (e.g. the “gig economy”). Talk about cognitive dissonance!

Notice what’s missing from the discussion on both major “sides”: Freedom.

Freedom to move within and across political borders.

Freedom to trade within and across political borders.

Freedom to plan our own lives and live them instead of turning that power, and that responsibility, over to the state.

Neither major political party even convincingly pretends to care about those fundamental human rights anymore.

The entire public discussion revolves around what the politicians should “allow” or “forbid” the rest of us to do next, based on an unquestioning assumption of their moral authority to make such decisions for us.

Unless we break that cycle, we’re on our way into the next Dark Age.

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Facebook Isn’t a “Monopoly” — Let’s Not Make it Into One

Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes, adding his voice to calls to “break up” the social media giant,  calls it a “powerful monopoly, eclipsing all of its rivals and erasing competition.” In recent years, we’ve seen similar claims, and heard demands for similar remedies, aimed at Google, Amazon, and other large companies.

Are these claims true? Are the large “dot-coms” monopolies in any real sense? The short answer is no. Using the “m-word” is a way of avoiding the necessity of making a sound argument for a desired policy outcome.

Whether that avoidance strategy is due to laziness, or to not having a sound argument to make, or some other reason, falls outside the scope of a short op-ed column. But the first step in forcing better arguments is quashing bad ones, so let’s look at what “monopoly” actually means.

According to Oxford Living Dictionaries “monopoly,” as the term is used by the Facebook-breaker-uppers, is “[a] company or group having exclusive control over a commodity or service.”

What commodity or service is Facebook a “monopoly” in?

Certainly not social media. You’ve probably heard of Twitter. You may have also heard of Diaspora, Minds, MeWe, Mastodon, Gab, and a number of other companies, sites, and apps offering the ability to post updates to friends and followers and discuss those updates.

Advertising? Not even close. Does the name Google ring any bells? How about Microsoft? There are plenty of smaller web advertising networks you probably haven’t heard of as well.

Then there’s messaging and chat. Yes, Facebook owns Messenger and WhatsApp. But it doesn’t own Discord or Slack or Signal or Skype or Telegram or any of hundreds of other messaging/chat apps.

Facebook has lots of users. Facebook makes lots of money. But Facebook isn’t a “monopoly” in any of the services it offers. It has loads of competitors, many of them doing quite well, and its users and customers have the option of using those competitors instead of, or in addition to, Facebook any time they like.

More importantly, Facebook has no ability to prevent new competitors from entering the markets it serves. And therein lies a political paradox.

While so far resisting the “breakup” talk, Facebook and its CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, have recently become increasingly receptive to government regulation.

Why? Because Facebook is big enough and rich enough to cheerfully comply with whatever regulations its detractors can come up with, and to hire armies of lobbyists to “capture” and shape that regulation. It can probably even survive and profit from a supposed “breaking up.”

Your brother-in-law’s basement social media or advertising or messaging start-up, on the other hand, probably isn’t well-financed enough to navigate a substantial federal regulatory regime or to successfully fight for its life if the regulators come down on its head even once.

Facebook isn’t a monopoly.

Facebook isn’t close to becoming a monopoly.

But if the people incorrectly calling it a monopoly get their way, they’ll have taken the first giant step toward making it into one.

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