Wednesday, June 25, 2014

A Birthday Remembrance

To mark the birthday of novelist and essayist George Orwell, I will share with the reader a few news items which I feel honor his memory and his aspirations. His life's aim was to shock the reader to awareness of subtle encroachments on liberty, the brutal consequences that are felt once liberty has been supplanted, and the mischief that can occur if we are heedless to the meanings of words.
President Obama once declared, “My Administration is committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in Government.  We will work together to ensure the public trust and establish a system of transparency, public participation, and collaboration. Openness will strengthen our democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness in Government.”

News Brief: National intelligence personnel cannot comment to journalists on security matters, even if asked to give an opinion on a specific security issue that has been made public. 

The Obama administration has barred officials at 17 agencies from speaking to journalists about unclassified intelligence-related topics without permission, according to a newly disclosed directive.
The directive, issued by James R. Clapper Jr., the director of national intelligence, also requires the agencies’ employees to report any unplanned contact with journalists. Officials who violate the directive may be disciplined or fired, the directive says.
The directive prohibits unauthorized ‘contact with the media about intelligence-related information, including intelligence sources, methods, activities and judgments,’ without regard to whether it is classified. It says that employees who violate the policy “may be subject to administrative actions that may include revocation of security clearances or termination of employment.
… any violation of the policy “will be handled in the same manner as a security violation (source).”
This does not bode well for whistleblowers. 

News Brief: Federal officials tell local law enforcement to lie to judges
“At the request of the Marshals Service, the officers using so-called stingrays have been routinely telling judges, in applications for warrants, that they obtained knowledge of a suspect’s location from a ‘confidential source’ rather than disclosing that the information was gleaned using a stingray (source).”

A stingray is an electronic device that is used to mimic a cellphone tower, thereby collecting data on the location of a cellphone user and the identity of the persons he or she is calling. Because this information is collected without a warrant, the Marshals Service recognized that such information is inadmissible as evidence in a legal proceeding. Rather than remaining within the bounds of Constitutional due process guarantees, the Marshals Service opted in favor of wholesale subversion of due process. 

News Brief: the United States vs. Daoud

Mr. Daoud’s attorneys have strong reason to suspect that their client was investigated on the basis of illegally obtained evidence. Usually, when there is concern about the legality of evidence, a Franks motion is requested so that the lawyers and the judge may study the matter. At the same time, FISA allows government agents to keep the means by which they obtain evidence secret. 

In order to make the case that the evidence is illegally obtained, the attorney must know how the evidence was obtained. However, the attorney is not allowed to see any information about how the evidence was obtained (source).

News Brief: A New rule restricting NSA 

 “House-approved legislation would prohibit the NSA and the CIA from foisting surveillance-facilitating product redesigns on tech companies and require a warrant for access to American Internet records collected under Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (source).” However, this is only a modest improvement in terms of the restoration of Constitutional Liberties. The legislation simply bans one of the most blatantly egregious violations of the Constitution, namely, the previously accepted practice of intercepting computers as they roll off the assembly line to install hardware to permit spying on the activities of the computer user, down to capturing all of the user’s communications, writings, and whatever appears on the computer screen. 

U.S. Representative Thomas Mackie explained how it is that this modest reform was allowed to pass: “It was to our benefit that [the legislation] moved quickly without a lot of advance notice, because [opponents] didn’t have time to mount a disinformation campaign … We had just enough time to rally the outside groups and constituents, and they lacked just enough time to counteract that (source).” This is a very telling statement. 

Representative Mackie is in essence saying, “This legislation, which moves against the usurpation of the liberties of the American people, only passed because a vast machinery of private interests did not have sufficient time to mobilize.” This brings us to the final news brief of the day:

News Brief: McCutcheon v. FEC

Chief Justice [sic] Roberts declared in this decision that the only permissible construction of “corruption” exists when a private party hands a sum of money to a member of Congress with an explicit directive to vote a certain way on an issue, and the member of Congress votes as he or she has been directed. This construction of what is meant by “corruption” obviously excludes consideration of the aforementioned vast machinery of private interests. Said machinery can apparently launch nationwide disinformation campaigns and place pressure on members of Congress.

Hence, the word “corruption” has been given a new meaning that is inimical to the public interest. If corruption only occurs when the person tendering the bribe and the recipient of the bribe decide to conduct their business in broad daylight, we shouldn’t expect to see too many instances of this prosecuted in court.  

Roberts has also struck a blow to the very meaning of the First Amendment. He wrote, “In assessing … First Amendment interests … the proper focus is on an individual’s right to engage in political speech, not a collective conception of the public good.” Now, if free speech is a right which adheres only to an individual, then an individual can be secure in his or her right to free speech provided that he or she is allowed to utter words aloud in a small, sound-proof cell. And Chief Justice Roberts has clearly chosen to ignore the preamble of the Bill of Rights, which plainly states that their purpose is to extend “public confidence in the Government” and best ensure the “beneficent aims” of Government.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Bayesian Reasoning and Whig Political Philosophy

It is customary in the United States to imagine two ideological camps, the Republican / Conservative camp on one side, and the Democrat / liberal camp on the other. These camps are represented by two party organizations. However, there are a great many right-leaning Americans who are disappointed by the leaders of the Republican Party, and a great many left-leaning Americans who are disappointed by the leaders of the Democratic Party. One can only hope that one day, the disappointed multitudes will realize that they've been living on nostalgia for the days of Roosevelt and Eisenhower, and that the two party organizations that share control of this country are merely two brands of the same toxic product. Til that realization, expect more repetition of the "tastes great" vs "less filling" argument or the "chocolate in my peanut butter" vs "peanut butter in my chocolate" argument, along the lines of "more government" vs "less government" and "we are taxed too much" vs "tax us more please."

I won't expand on this point today, beyond expressing gratitude that I am no longer suffering under the delusion that one brand is any less likely to bring this country to ruin than the other. Instead, I am writing to express my gratitude for discovering Whig political philosophy, and will attempt to explain concisely what sets Whig political philosophy apart.

The political left and the political right each adheres to certain absolutes. One ideology, for example, is always distrustful of government and the other is always hopeful that government will redress certain social ills. In place of this absolutism, the proper Whig remains an empiricist. That is, the Whig uses the evidence of his or her eyes and ears and decides, "is the current government doing everything in its power to serve the public interest?" and "does the government provide an unyielding bulwark against any encroachment on our Constitutional Rights?" If the answer to these two questions is "yea," the Whig will then say, "More government and greater taxation, if need be!" If the answer to these two questions is "nay," the Whig will then say, "The less of the current government the better!" and "I only pay taxes under duress."

Now, I am making these characterizations about Whig political philosophy advisedly. It began when a question occurred to me whilst I sat in my garret with my customary snuff box and glass of claret near at hand. The question was this: "Richard Price, that estimable friend to Ben Franklin and his club of Honest Whigs, was a personal friend of Thomas Bayes and even helped finish the Reverend Bayes' last work. I wonder then if there is some connection between Whig political philosophy and Bayesian reasoning?"

Now, if you do not know what Bayesian reasoning is, or know only enough of it to keep your distance from it, I will say only this: in the simplest terms, Bayesian reasoning is a logical extension of John Locke's Principle of Proportionality, which states, "Adopt a level of confidence in the proposition which is proportioned to its probability on one's satisfactory evidence." Or, in other words, "make use of whatever reliable facts are at your disposal when deciding whether or not a thing is true."

Bearing this principle in mind, John Locke's idea of the Social Contract may be viewed from a unique angle. The Social Contract may be read thus, "If government fulfills its obligations to the people, the people ought to fulfill their obligations to the government." And when the Founders discussed the weighty question of whether to bear continued oppression at the hands of the British Empire or to boldly declare independence, the question was decided thus: the King of Britain and his ministers were not upholding the proper obligations of government. The King had been disloyal to the people, and hence, the colonists could not be disloyal for seeking separation.

The Whigs believed that all governments exhibit a life-cycle. When new, governments provide their people with greater liberty than they had known before. In time, self-interested factions arise, vying for their separate advantage, and weaken the government. And once the government has been sufficiently weakened, it creates an opening for powerful individuals to exploit the situation for personal gain.

Surveying the current government, one may ask, "Whom does the government serve?" There are three potential answers. The government may serve the public. Or, the government may serve private interests. Or, the government may serve a small clique of powerful individuals. If the government serves the public, then we ought to do all we can to preserve it against corruption. If the government serves private interests, then we ought to do all we can to move it in a better direction. If the government serves only the powerful few, then we must change it fundamentally.