Saturday, March 29, 2014

Is American democracy headed to extinction? WaPo editorial

Behind dysfunctional government, is democracy itself in decay?

It took only 250 years for democracy to disintegrate in ancient Athens. A wholly new form of government was invented there in which the people ruled themselves. That constitution proved marvelously effective. Athens grew in wealth and capacity, saw off the Persian challenge, established itself as the leading power in the known world and produced treasures of architecture, philosophy and art that bedazzle to this day. But when privilege, corruption and mismanagement took hold, the lights went out.
It would be 2,000 years before democracy was reinvented in the U.S. Constitution, now as representative democracy. Again, government by popular consent proved ingenious. The United States grew into the world’s leading power — economically, culturally and militarily. In Europe, democracies overtook authoritarian monarchies and fascist and communist dictatorships. In recent decades, democracy’s spread has made the remaining autocracies a minority.
The second democratic experiment is approaching 250 years. It has been as successful as the first. But the lesson from Athens is that success does not breed success. Democracy is not the default. It is a form of government that must be created with determination and that will disintegrate unless nurtured. In the United States and Britain, democracy is disintegrating when it should be nurtured by leadership. If the lights go out in the model democracies, they will not stay on elsewhere.
It’s not enough for governments to simply be democratic; they must deliver or decay. In Britain, government is increasingly ineffectual. The constitutional scholar Anthony King has described it as declining from “order” to “mess” in less than 30 years. During 10 years of New Labor rule, that proposition was tested and confirmed. In 1997 a new government was voted in with a mandate and determination to turn the tide on Thatcherite inequality. It was given all the parliamentary power a democratic government could dream of and benefited from 10 years of steady economic growth. But a strong government was defeated by a weak system of governance. It delivered nothing of what it intended and left Britain more unequal than where the previous regime had left off.
The next government, a center-right coalition, has proved itself equally unable. It was supposed to repair damage from the economic crisis but has responded with inaction on the causes of crisis, in a monopolistic financial-services sector, and with a brand of austerity that protects the privileged at the expense of the poor. Again, what has transpired is inability rather than ill will. Both these governments came up against concentrations of economic power that have become politically unmanageable.
Meanwhile, the health of the U.S. system is even worse than it looks. The three branches of government are designed to deliver through checks and balances. But balance has become gridlock, and the United States is not getting the governance it needs. Here, the link between inequality and inability is on sharp display. Power has been sucked out of the constitutional system and usurped by actors such as PACs, think tanks, media and lobbying organizations.
In the age of mega-expensive politics, candidates depend on sponsors to fund permanent campaigns. When money is allowed to transgress from markets, where it belongs, to politics, where it has no business, those who control it gain power to decide who the successful candidates will be — those they wish to fund — and what they can decide once they are in office. Rich supporters get two swings at influencing politics, one as voters and one as donors. Others have only the vote, a power that diminishes as political inflation deflates its value. It is a misunderstanding to think that candidates chase money. It is money that chases candidates.
In Athens, democracy disintegrated when the rich grew super-rich, refused to play by the rules and undermined the established system of government. That is the point that the United States and Britain have reached.
Nearly a century ago, when capitalist democracy was in a crisis not unlike the present one, Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis warned: “We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.” Democracy weathered that storm for two reasons: It is not inequality as such that destroys democracy but the more recent combination of inequality and transgression. Furthermore, democracy was then able to learn from crisis. The New Deal tempered economic free-for-all, primarily through the 1933 Banking Act, and gave the smallfolk new social securities.
The lesson from Athens is that success breeds complacency. People, notably those in privilege, stopped caring and democracy was neglected. Six years after the global economic crisis, the signs from the model democracies are that those in privilege are unable to care and that our systems are unable to learn. The crisis started in out-of-control financial services industries in the United States and Britain, but control has not been reasserted. Economic inequality has followed through to political inequality, and democratic government is bereft of power and capacity. Brandeis was not wrong; he was ahead of his time.

Friday, March 28, 2014

5 years after H1N1 Swine Flu was discovered, what do we know about Pandemrix and Narcolepsy?

1.  How widely was Pandemrix vaccine used?

Virtually all the narcolepsy data comes from Europe, where the GlaxoSmithKline Pandemrix swine flu vaccine was given to about 31 million Europeans and was used in 47 countries.  It was used in Canada (12 million doses) and a number of developing countries, but little is known about increased cases of narcolepsy outside Europe.  Increased narcolepsy cases have been confirmed post-vaccination in (at least) Finland, Sweden, England, Ireland, France, and Norway. 

2.  Did the US use Pandemrix?

No. The US purchased novel adjuvants as it prepared to deal with the swine flu epidemic, including Pandemrix's ASO3, but then chose not use Pandemrix, instead using other brands of H1N1 vaccines (without novel adjuvants) for swine flu.  This was almost certainly in response to extensive public discourse on the subject. I wrote a number of pieces on the potential risks of novel adjuvants in 2009-10, including those herehere, here and here.

3.  How many people developed narcolepsy as a result of Pandemrix?

800 European children are reported to have developed this condition after Pandemrix vaccine in about 6 European countries.  The number in other countries and excess cases in adults are not known.

Several studies, but not all, found maximum rates of narcolepsy (attributable risk from the vaccine) of 6/100,000 in vaccinated children aged about 4-19.  According to Ireland's Health Protection Surveillance Center, the increased rate of developing narcolepsy after receiving a Pandemrix inoculation, compared to the unvaccinated baseline rate, ranged from 4-5 fold in Sweden and France, up to 16 fold in the UK.  The increase was 13 fold in Finland and Ireland, and 15 fold in Norway.

In addition to kids being more susceptible to narcolepsy following Pandemrix, there were also relatively more children than adults vaccinated.  In Ireland, 42% of all children were vaccinated, but only 14% of adults over 20. Therefore almost exactly the same number of Irish children as adults received the vaccine, even though 3/4 of Ireland's people are adults.  In other European countries as well, higher percentages of children were vaccinated than adults.

Although the greatest risk for narcolepsy occurred in children aged 4-19, there is also a mildly increased risk of narcolepsy in vaccinated adults (2-3 times the baseline rate) and younger children.

4. Who is responsible to pay damages for narcolepsy?

Because all countries that purchased or were given the vaccine were required to give a liability waiver to GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) (and to the other manufacturers of different brands of swine flu vaccines), GSK is not responsible to compensate families for illnesses related to the vaccine.

Instead, the taxpayers of each country are responsible for paying families for serious illnesses caused by the vaccine, because this was the agreement made by their governments.  Each country is evaluating and compensating affected families its own way. In countries where no studies were done to look at whether Pandemrix caused narcolepsy, there may be no method for affected individuals to receive compensation.

There is a financial conflict of interest when a government that is responsible for damages is the same government that determines whether Pandemrix caused narcolepsy cases.

5.  What was WHO's role regarding liability?

It was the World Health Organization (WHO) that facilitated this vaccine "tort reform," transferring the liability for vaccine injuries from manufacturers to taxpayers, as noted in this 2012 WHO report:
     "To facilitate the acceptance of vaccines by the large number of recipient countries involved, WHO developed a Letter of Agreement that was signed by each recipient-country government as a condition of receiving vaccines. This Letter of Agreement acknowledged and incorporated clauses from the donation agreement outlined above. All agreements with countries therefore included the same required terms, including those relating to limitations of liability, that were included in the agreements between WHO and donors.
     Because the initial urgency of the pandemic response required an unprecedented number of doses of a new vaccine to be deployed globally in a period of only a few months, vaccine manufacturers required that all customers (primarily developed-country governments) indemnify them (or otherwise discharge them from liability) for any adverse events arising from the use of the pandemic H1N1 vaccine, except to the extent that such adverse events were caused by a failure to comply with cGMP or to meet agreed specifications..."
WHO in 2012 also downplayed the significance of Pandemrix to narcolepsy, despite a report by Canada's Globe and Mail in 2011 that WHO acknowledged increased narcolepsy cases in 12 of 47 countries that used Pandemrix:
Although the preliminary information was not conclusive, subsequent data indicated an increased incidence of narcolepsy in children between the ages of 4 and 19 years who had been immunized against pandemic H1N1 influenza. These increased incidences were observed only in Finland, Iceland and Sweden (where higher rates of narcolepsy normally occur)...  
6.  How did Pandemrix cause narcolepsy?

There is some evidence that a portion of the hemagglutinin of the 2009 swine flu virus (and vaccine) resembles hypocretin (which is the hormone produced in the hypothalamus that induces wakefulness, and is in short supply or absent in narcolepsy patients), and therefore may stimulate an immune response via "molecular mimicry" against cells producing hypocretin.  But against this hypothesis is the fact that getting the swine flu illness did not increase cases of narcolepsy (here and here); only the vaccine did that. So the answer is we don't know yet.

7.  Did Pandemrix cause other medical problems?

Were other neurological conditions caused by Pandemrix?  This question should have been asked by many international enhanced surveillance projects put in place in 2009.  It has been answered for Sweden as "no"--only narcolepsy cases increased.  There may be slightly increased risks for other conditions, such as paresthesias and inflammatory bowel disease.  I await more studies on this subject.

Monday, March 24, 2014

U.S. Scurries to Shore Up Spying on Russia In Crimea: Russia May Have Gotten a Jump on West by Evading U.S. Eavesdropping/ WSJ

Here we go again.   Twenty-five years ago, the US intelligence community did not know that the USSR was about to fall.  Since then, many hundreds of billions of dollars have been spent by the intelligence agencies, but they still missed the boat on the invasion of Crimea--a subject that should have been of utmost importance.

According to the Wall Street Journal, our spies did not know that Russia was about to invade Crimea. Even when they saw troops positioning, they failed to overhear phone calls that discussed the invasion.  They had no clue the Russians were communicating using methods we hadn't tapped.  They had no idea they were missing something.

Can NSA stop wasting money and talent on the easy targets (like you and me) and actually do what is supposedly (for no one without a very high clearance has ever seen NSA's charter) the job for which NSA was created:  to protect the US from foreign enemies? 

"No statute establishes the NSA," former Senate intelligence committee chairman Frank Church reported, "or defines the permissible scope of its responsibilities." That is not very comforting.  And whatever happened to HUMINT? Why did we have no spies on the ground in Crimea?

From the WSJ
U.S. military satellites spied Russian troops amassing within striking distance of Crimea last month. But intelligence analysts were surprised because they hadn't intercepted any telltale communications where Russian leaders, military commanders or soldiers discussed plans to invade. 
America's vaunted global surveillance is a vital tool for U.S. intelligence services, especially as an early-warning system and as a way to corroborate other evidence. In Crimea, though, U.S. intelligence officials are concluding that Russian planners might have gotten a jump on the West by evading U.S. eavesdropping. 
"Even though there was a warning, we didn't have the information to be able to say exactly what was going to happen," a senior U.S. official says...
U.S. officials haven't determined how Russia hid its military plans from U.S. eavesdropping equipment that picks up digital and electronic communications... 
Inside Crimea, Russian troops exercised what U.S. officials describe as extraordinary discipline in their radio and cellphone communications. Remarks that were intercepted by U.S. spy agencies revealed no hint of the plans...
European Command officials again asked for more intelligence-collection resources. The military increased satellite coverage of Ukraine and Russia but couldn't steer too many resources away from Afghanistan, North Korea, Iran and other hot spots, U.S. officials say. (With hundreds of orbiting satellites we couldn't do better?--Nass)
 There were no Americans on the ground in Crimea to check reports of Russian military movements, U.S. officials say. The U.S. also didn't have drones overhead to gather real-time intelligence, officials say. That increased the U.S.'s reliance on satellite imagery and information gleaned from an analysis of social media, which was muddled by Russian disinformation. State Department officials declined to discuss any technical-intelligence activities.
If Mr. Putin decided to launch a takeover, many U.S. intelligence analysts thought he would use troops participating in the military exercises. Officials now say they underestimated the quality of Russian forces inside Crimea...

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

NSA warrantless spying on Americans (and probably blackmailing) goes back decades

Thanks to DS Wright at FireDogLake for this article with useful links.  Don't miss Scott Shane's Baltimore Sun piece of how intelligence agency trainees listened in to phone conversations by tapping microwave towers, as part of their training--in 1995!
During the drama over the so-called Amash Amendment General Keith Alexander, head of the NSA, went to Capitol Hill to lobby against the law. During the course of his lobbying members of Congress responded to his presentations with a reasonable question – can we see our own files? Alexander said no. According to David Sirota of NSFW Corp (paywalled) these exchanges are quite revealing as to how the NSA’s power works in Washington.
"Consider the deep messaging of the NSA’s brand. Only forty years removed from the blackmail-tinged reign of J. Edgar Hoover, the NSA has developed an image which implies the agency is vacuuming up more than enough incriminating phone records, emails and text/sext messages to politically torpedo any rank-and-file congressman, should that congressman step out of line.
And here’s the thing: for all the agita intelligence officials express about new disclosures, those disclosures illustrate the sheer size and scope of governement surveillance. That doesn’t weaken the NSA – on the contrary, it serves to politically strengthen the agency by constantly reminding lawmakers that the NSA 1) probably has absolutely everything on them and 2) could use that stuff against them." 
Sirota also spoke with Rep. Alan Grayson who told him that in the course of the conversation about the NSA and files they might have on members of Congress said “one of my colleagues asked the NSA point blank will you give me a copy of my own record and the NSA said no, we won’t. They didn’t say no we don’t have one. They said no we won’t.” Dare anyone accuse the NSA of being cryptic?
Of course we already know that it was Nancy Pelosi that killed the Amash Amendment. What we don’t know is whether she did so out of fear of an NSA file, party interests or both. We also know she was involved in insider trading while in Congress. What more does the NSA know about her?
There was also a report by a former intelligence analyst and whistleblower Russell Tice that the NSA wiretapped Barack Obama in 2004. Is there some massive archive of politicians’ dirty secrets somewhere at the NSA? Surely the NSA at least has their metadata – they have everyone’s. It is hard to imagine when push comes to shove and its budget time that the NSA doesn’t take a peek at who they are doing business with in Congress. Intelligence is all about having as much information as possible, that’s the training and that’s the game. Old habits probably die hard.
It was a troubling thought, but I had no smoking gun evidence to support it, until I heard Mark Ames discussing Sirota’s story with Sirota yesterday. Ames referenced a blockbuster story broken by New York Times reporter Scott Shane. Published by the Baltimore Sun, the story Listening in: Though the National Security Agency can’t target Americans, it can — and does — listen to everyone from senators to lovers, provides smoking gun evidence that the NSA has been spying on members of Congress andallowing the information to be used for leverage since at least the Reagan Administration.
“We listened to all the calls in and out of Washington,” says one former NSA linguist, recalling a class at the Warrenton Training Center, a CIA communications school on a Virginia hilltop. “We’d listen to senators, representatives, government agencies, housewives talking to their lovers.”

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

"NSA surveillance program reaches ‘into the past’ to retrieve, replay 100% of phone calls"/ Washington Post

And now from the Snowden cache is the story of how it ain't only the metadata that is vacuumed up by NSA and saved for posterity.

No, it is the complete audio recording of calls that is being obtained and stored.  The program allegedly began in 2009, but according to the WaPo, calls are only being stored for a month. However, with the cheapness of digital storage and a huge electronic vault already established in Bluffdale, Utah, why bother ever pressing the delete button?

The story is confusing.  Where is this taking place?  Are all domestic calls being recorded? In which countries is NSA collecting all the calls? The WaPo is coy on this:
"... At the request of U.S. officials, The Washington Post is withholding details that could be used to identify the country where the system is being employed or other countries where its use was envisioned."
Here is the meat (a very small portion) revealed by the Post:

The National Security Agency has built a surveillance system capable of recording “100 percent” of a foreign country’s telephone calls, enabling the agency to rewind and review conversations as long as a month after they take place, according to people with direct knowledge of the effort and documents supplied by former contractor Edward Snowden.
A senior manager for the program compares it to a time machine — one that can replay the voices from any call without requiring that a person be identified in advance for surveillance...
No other NSA program disclosed to date has swallowed a nation’s telephone network whole. Outside experts have sometimes described that prospect as disquieting but remote, with notable implications for a growing debate over the NSA’s practice of “bulk collection” abroad.
Bulk methods capture massive data flows “without the use of discriminants,” as President Obama put it in January. By design, they vacuum up all the data they touch — meaning that most of the conversations collected by RETRO would be irrelevant to U.S. national security interests." 

Sunday, March 16, 2014

European Parliament votes for consequences if NSA Mass Surveillance Does Not Cease/ European Parliament
Parliament's consent to the EU-US trade deal "could be endangered" if blanket mass surveillance by the US National Security Agency (NSA) does not stop, MEPs said on Wednesday, in a resolution wrapping up their six-month inquiry into US mass surveillance schemes. The text also calls on the EU to suspend its bank data deal with the US and the “Safe Harbour agreement” on data privacy. The fight against terrorism can never justify secret and illegal mass surveillance, it adds.
The resolution, in which MEPs set out their findings and recommendations to boost EU citizens' privacy, was backed by 544 votes to 78, with 60 abstentions. "The Snowden revelations gave us a chance to react. I hope we will turn those reactions into something positive and lasting into the next mandate of this Parliament, a data protection bill of rights that we can all be proud of", said Civil Liberties inquiry rapporteur Claude Moraes (S&D, UK). "This is the only international inquiry into mass surveillance. (...) Even Congress in the United States has not had an inquiry", he added.
Parliament's should withhold its consent to the final Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) deal with the US unless it fully respects EU fundamental rights, stresses the resolution, adding that data protection should be ruled out of the trade talks. This consent “could be endangered as long as blanket mass surveillance activities and the interception of communications in EU institutions and diplomatic representations are not fully stopped”, notes the text.
MEPs also call for the "immediate suspension" of the Safe Harbour privacy principles (voluntary data protection standards for non-EU companies transferring EU citizens’ personal data to the US). These principles “do not provide adequate protection for EU citizens” say MEPs, urging the US to propose new personal data transfer rules that meet EU data protection requirements.
The Terrorist Finance Tracking Programme (TFTP) deal should also be suspended until allegations that US authorities have access to EU citizens’ bank data outside the agreement are clarified, insist MEPs.
European whistle-blower protection and EU cloudThe text also calls for a "European whistle-blower protection programme", which should pay particular attention to the "complexity of whistleblowing in the field of intelligence". EU countries are also asked to consider granting whistleblowers international protection from prosecution.
Furthermore, Europe should develop its own clouds and IT solutions, including cybersecurity and encryption technologies, to ensure a high level of data protection, adds the text.
The UK, France, Germany, Sweden, the Netherlands and Poland should clarify the allegations of mass surveillance - including potential agreements between intelligence services and telecoms firms on access to and exchange of personal data and access to transatlantic cables - and their compatibility with EU laws, the resolution says. 
Other EU countries, in particular those participating in the "9-eyes" (UK, Denmark, France and the Netherlands) and "14-eyes" arrangements (those countries plus Germany, Belgium, Italy, Spain and Sweden) are also urged to review their national laws to ensure that their intelligence services are subject to parliamentary and judicial oversight and that they comply with fundamental rights obligations. 
BackgroundThe Civil Liberties Committee inquiry into mass surveillance of EU citizens began in September 2013. A total of 16 hearings have been held since then.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

My Op-Ed: Maine senators should abide by Constitution, OK release of torture report/ Portland Press Herald

By Meryl Nass 
Special to the Press Herald
ELLSWORTH — On one historic day 225 years ago, on March 4, 1789, the first U.S. Congress met and the Constitution came into force. The Bill of Rights was ratified nearly three years later.


Dr. Meryl Nass of Ellsworth is a Maine physician and an expert on bioterrorism. She has served as chair of the state Commission to Protect the Lives and Health of Members of the Maine National Guard.
Massachusetts, which in those days included Maine, had opposed the original Constitution, until a Bill of Rights was added as the first amendments to the Constitution. The Bill of Rights has been part of the Constitution ever since, guaranteeing inviolable rights to all citizens. It led the United States to become the world’s beacon of human rights.
But since Sept. 11, 2001, the U.S. government has trampled at least four of the Bill of Rights’ amendments: disregarding the prohibitions against search and seizure without cause, the right to due process, the right to a prompt, public trial and the prohibition of torture (“cruel and unusual punishment”). Thus, on this 225th anniversary of the start of constitutional law in the United States, there is no cause for celebration.
But we now have an opportunity to help restore the primacy of the Constitution in our republic. Because of a happy coincidence, Maine can lead the way, because Maine is the only state both of whose senators are members of the Senate Select Intelligence Committee.
The U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence spent three years and $40 million investigating the covert U.S. government program to kidnap, detain, interrogate and torture designated “enemy combatants.”
After reviewing millions of pages of documents, the committee issued the most comprehensive report on this subject to date, in December 2012. However, the 6,300-page report has yet to see the light of day: It was immediately classified. Ten years after we first learned about the abuses at Abu Ghraib, the scope of what was done has yet to be made public.
The contents of the report are critical to gaining an understanding of what happened, and learning how to prevent a repeat.
How important is the report? Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Dianne Feinstein saidthat the report “uncovers startling details about the CIA detention and interrogation program and raises critical questions about intelligence operations and oversight ... The creation of long-term, clandestine ‘black sites’ and the use of so-called ‘enhanced-interrogation techniques’ were terrible mistakes.”
She further said that the committee report “will settle the debate once and for all over whether our nation should ever employ coercive interrogation techniques such as those detailed in this report.”
But without a public airing of the report, there will never be accountability; without access to the report, the necessary national discussion on torture will be spun and controlled by those with vested interests – those who have lied repeatedly about this subject, with impunity.
For example, former administration officials linked the Navy SEAL raid in which Osama bin Laden was killed to the “enhanced interrogation” program. However, both Sens. Feinstein, D-Calif., and Carl Levin, D-Mich., who chairs the Armed Services Committee, called this claim “misguided and misinformed.”
The Senate Intelligence Committee can vote to declassify its report. Declassifying the Senate report on U.S.-instigated torture is the first, necessary step to prevent similar violations of human rights in the future. It should also be understood that the U.S. program of torture, rendition and detention depended on infringing on the Fourth, Fifth, Sixth and Eighth Amendments to the Constitution. As we begin the conversation on torture, it should be grounded in a new commitment to the preeminent role of the Constitution and its Bill of Rights in the affairs of the United States.
Agreement by Maine U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King will likely be pivotal to achieving declassification of the torture report and a national discussion of the report’s contents. Maine’s senators should not only vote to release the report, but also place the full force of their offices behind a return to constitutional government.
We must learn how the United States came to ignore its laws and Constitution and adopt medieval torture, extraordinary rendition and other illegal practices as policy. To end torture, and return to the rule of law, Americans need to know what was done in our name and with our dollars. Then we must say, “Never again.”