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Current Topic: Politics and Law

Going to Extremes: How Like Minds Unite and Divide
Topic: Politics and Law 7:51 am EDT, May 11, 2009

Cass Sunstein has a new book.

Why do people become extremists? What makes people become so dismissive of opposing views? Why is political and cultural polarization so pervasive in America? Why do groups of teenagers, investors, and corporations take unnecessary risks? What leads groups to engage in such destructive acts as terrorism and ethic cleansing?

In Going to Extremes, renowned legal scholar and best-selling author Cass Sunstein offers startling insights into why and when people gravitate toward extremism.

From the archive:

I wonder, when was the last time a talk show changed a mind?

Going to Extremes: How Like Minds Unite and Divide

Slow Roll Time at Langley
Topic: Politics and Law 7:00 am EDT, Apr 24, 2009

David Ignatius:

President Obama promised CIA officers that they won't be prosecuted for carrying out lawful orders, but the people on the firing line don't believe him. They think the memos have opened a new season of investigation and retribution.

The lesson for younger officers is obvious: Keep your head down. Duck the assignments that carry political risk. Stay away from a counterterrorism program that has become a career hazard.

Would you care for a little hogwash with that?

The job of the interrogator is to safely help the terrorist do his duty to Allah, so he then feels liberated to speak freely.

This is the secret to the program's success.

Apparently waterboarding is about catharsis for the captive.

You may also be interested in George Friedman's perspective:

While Sept. 11 was frightening enough, there were ample fears that al Qaeda had secured a “suitcase bomb” and that a nuclear attack on a major U.S. city could come at any moment. For individuals, such an attack was simply another possibility. For the government, however, the problem was having scraps of intelligence indicating that al Qaeda might have a nuclear weapon, but not having any way of telling whether those scraps had any value.

This lack of intelligence led directly to the most extreme fears, which in turn led to extreme measures. A lack of knowledge forces people to think of worst-case scenarios.

Collecting intelligence rapidly became the highest national priority. Given the genuine and reasonable fears, no action in pursuit of intelligence was out of the question, so long as it promised quick answers. This led to the authorization of torture, among other things. Torture offered a rapid means to accumulate intelligence, or at least — given the time lag on other means — it was something that had to be tried.

See also, from 2006, also in WaPo:

It should surprise no one that Human Rights Watch can write a persuasive anti-torture op-ed. However, as is often the case, there is more news in what's not in the papers than in what does appear. And what I don't see right now are op-eds from DNI Negroponte and DCI Hayden and the DDO telling us in no uncertain terms how essential these abusive practices are to their operational success.

Slow Roll Time at Langley

Topic: Politics and Law 7:00 am EDT, Apr 24, 2009

Offered for your consideration ...

See also, from a few days ago:

What is new is that Harman is said to have been picked up on a court-approved NSA tap directed at alleged Israel covert action operations in Washington.

From the archive:

How does our government eavesdrop? Whom do they eavesdrop on? And is the interception of communication an effective means of predicting and preventing future attacks?

Noam Cohen's friend:

Privacy is serious. It is serious the moment the data gets collected, not the moment it is released.


New Guinea Tribe Sues The 'New Yorker' For $10 Million
Topic: Politics and Law 7:00 am EDT, Apr 24, 2009

In an April 21, 2008, New Yorker story, "Vengeance Is Ours," Pulitzer Prize-winning geography scholar Jared Diamond describes blood feuds that rage for decades among tribes in the Highlands of New Guinea. Diamond tells the story using a central protagonist: Daniel Wemp, member of the Handa clan, a blood-thirsty warrior bent on avenging his uncle's death. That quest, writes Diamond, touched off six years of warfare leading to the slaughter of 47 people and the theft of 300 pigs.

Now Diamond's protagonist is fighting Diamond. A two-page complaint filed in New York State Supreme Court on April 20 seeks $10 million from the New Yorker's publisher, Advance Publications, claiming Diamond's story falsely accused Wemp and fellow tribesman Isum Mandigo of "serious criminal activity" and "murder."

From the archive:

In the Highlands of New Guinea, rival clans have often fought wars lasting decades, in which each killing provokes another.

New Guinea Tribe Sues The 'New Yorker' For $10 Million

Why the Economic Crisis Was Not Anticipated
Topic: Politics and Law 7:29 am EDT, Apr 15, 2009

Richard Posner:

It is tempting, indeed irresistible under conditions of uncertainty, to base policy to a degree on theoretical preconceptions, on a worldview, an ideology. But shaped as they are by past experiences, preconceptions can impede reactions to novel challenges.

One can't expect to receive praise, or even to avoid criticism, for preventing a bad thing from happening unless people are sure the bad thing would have occurred had it not been for the preventive effort. If something unlikely to happen doesn't happen (and, by definition of "unlikely," it usually will not happen), no one is impressed. But people are impressed — unfavorably — by the costs incurred in having prevented the thing that probably wouldn't have happened anyway.

Most people, even most experts, were especially unlikely to be persuaded by prophets of doom in the absence of a machinery for aggregating and analyzing information bearing on large-scale economic risk. There was no financial counterpart to the CIA to assemble an intelligible mosaic from the scattered pieces.

A focus of reform, therefore, should be the creation of a centralized, unitary financial-intelligence apparatus in government that would have complete and continuous access to the books of all financial institutions.

He is talking his book, which comes out in a month.

Richard Posner presents a concise and non-technical examination of this mother of all financial disasters and of the, as yet, stumbling efforts to cope with it.

David Kilcullen:

People don’t get pushed into rebellion by their ideology. They get pulled in by their social networks.

Why the Economic Crisis Was Not Anticipated

The Financial Crisis: An Inside View
Topic: Politics and Law 7:38 am EDT, Apr  7, 2009

Phillip Swagel:

This paper reviews the events associated with the credit market disruption that began in August 2007 and developed into a full-blown crisis in the fall of 2008. This is necessarily an incomplete history: the paper is being written in the months immediately after I left Treasury, where I served as Assistant Secretary for Economic Policy from December 2006 to the end of the Bush administration on January 20, 2009.

The focus here is on key decisions made at Treasury with respect to housing and financial markets policies, and on the constraints faced by decision makers at Treasury and other agencies over this period. I will focus on broad policy matters and economic decisions and not go into the financial details of transactions such as with the GSEs and AIG. A key point of emphasis is to explain constraints on the policy process -- legal, political, and otherwise -- that were perhaps not readily apparent to outsiders such as academic economists or financial market participants.

Some steps that are attractive in principle turn out to be impractical in reality -- with two key examples being the notion of forcing debt-for-equity swaps to address debt overhangs and forcing banks to accept government capital. These both run hard afoul of the constraint that there is no legal mechanism to make them happen. A lesson for academics is that any time the word "force" is used as a verb ("the policy should be to force banks to do X or Y"), the next sentence should set forth the section of the U.S. legal code that allows such a course of action -- otherwise, the policy suggestion is of theoretical but not practical interest.

From the archive, Niall Ferguson:

This hunt for scapegoats is futile. To understand the downfall of Planet Finance, you need to take several steps back and locate this crisis in the long run of financial history. Only then will you see that we have all played a part.

From Decius, last November:

If we have a bunch of people waltzing into the whitehouse who do not appreciate the full implications of the use of the word "require" by a policy maker, we are in very serious trouble.

The Financial Crisis: An Inside View

MySpace a Bulletin Board, Not Private Room, Says California Court
Topic: Politics and Law 7:38 am EDT, Apr  7, 2009

Ashby Jones:

How do social-networking sites like Facebook and MySpace fit within the world of privacy law? Are such sites private rooms in which one can pen his or her internal thoughts without fear of others misappropriating such thoughts? Or are such sites really just bulletin boards for the world?

An appellate court in California weighed in on the issue on Friday, and basically sided with the bulletin-board position.

This case seems pretty cut-and-dry, so the verdict is unsurprising. A more interesting test case would involve the public redistribution of content that the author/creator did not make generally available.

From the archive, Decius:

In my view the combined effect of the third-party doctrine, which states that what you tell Google you've told the government, and the notion that machines cannot violate your privacy, will enable the rise of a total surveillance society in which everyone is watched by law enforcement all the time.

MySpace a Bulletin Board, Not Private Room, Says California Court

Get the Feeling You're Being Watched? If You're Driving, You Just Might Be
Topic: Politics and Law 7:42 am EDT, Mar 30, 2009

Once a rarity, traffic cameras are filming away across the country. And they're not just focusing their sights on red-light runners.

Drivers -- many accusing law enforcement of using spy tactics to trap unsuspecting citizens -- are fighting back with everything from pick axes to camera-blocking Santa Clauses. They're moving beyond radar detectors and CB radios to wage their own tech war against detection, using sprays that promise to blur license numbers and Web sites that plot the cameras' locations and offer tips to beat them.

Municipalities are establishing ever-more-clever snares. New Haven, CT has put license-plate readers on tow trucks. They roam the streets searching for cars owned by people who haven't paid their parking tickets or car-property taxes.

Bruce Schneier:

This is wholesale surveillance; not "follow that car," but "follow every car."

More is coming.


Unless there is some detail that I'm missing, this sounds positively Orwellian.

Get the Feeling You're Being Watched? If You're Driving, You Just Might Be

Geospatial Revolution Project
Topic: Politics and Law 7:42 am EDT, Mar 30, 2009

We live in the Global Location Age. “Where am I?” is being replaced by, “Where am I in relation to everything else?”

Penn State Public Broadcasting is developing the Geospatial Revolution Project, an integrated public service media and outreach initiative on the brave new world of digital mapping.

The project will include a 60-minute public television broadcast program, a structured outreach initiative with educational partners, a chaptered program DVD including educational toolkit components, and a Web site with information and additional resources.

Geospatial information influences nearly everything. Seamless layers of satellites, surveillance, and location-based technologies create a worldwide geographic knowledge base vital to solving myriad social and environmental problems in the interconnected global community. The sweeping application of these technologies also ushers in a future with many potential dangers. The public needs to become more aware of the inherent privacy and security challenges posed by this new, location-aware society.

Bruce Schneier:

This is wholesale surveillance; not "follow that car," but "follow every car."

More is coming.


Unless there is some detail that I'm missing, this sounds positively Orwellian.

Geospatial Revolution Project

It's Time to Drop the 'Expectation of Privacy' Test
Topic: Politics and Law 7:42 am EDT, Mar 30, 2009

Bruce Schneier offers a recap of earlier MemeStreams privacy threads:

The problem is, in today's information society, the "expectation of privacy" definition test will rapidly leave us with no privacy at all.

Even if society still has some small expectation of digital privacy, that will change as these and other technologies become ubiquitous. In short, the problem with a normative expectation of privacy is that it changes with perceived threats, technology and large-scale abuses.

The trick here is to realize that a normative definition of the expectation of privacy doesn't need to depend on threats or technology, but rather on what we -- as society -- decide it should be. Sure, today's technology make it easier than ever to violate privacy. But it doesn't necessarily follow that we have to violate privacy.

Adam Shostack on Daniel Solove's book:

If you work in privacy or data protection either from a technology or policy perspective, you need to read this book and understand Solove's approach.

Decius on Jed Rubenfeld's essay:

We are very close to the point where the 4th amendment will be an anachronism - a technicality that has very little impact on everyday life - and a radical reconsideration will be necessary in order to re-establish it.

Orin Kerr:

The government could go to your Internet service provider and say, 'Copy all of your e-mail, but make the copy a millisecond after the email arrives,' and it would not be a wiretap.

Thomas Powers:

Is more what we really need?

It's Time to Drop the 'Expectation of Privacy' Test

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