Saturday, June 29, 2013

Egypt's March toward Self-government

Organizers of a mass protest against Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi said Saturday that more than 22 million people have signed their petition demanding the Islamist leader step down, saying that the number of signatures, double the number who voted for Morsi in the presidential election, was a reflection of how much the public has turned against his rule. But many fear that the mass demonstrations could turn deadly and spin out of control, dragging the country into a dangerous round of political violence. The mass protest reflects the growing polarization of the nation since Morsi took power, with the president and his Islamist allies in one camp and seculars, liberals, moderate Moslems and Christians on the other. Mahmoud Salem, a prominent blogger known by his blog's name Sandmonkey and a vocal critic of the Moslem Brotherhood, said, "They have alienated everybody." Even if no violence breaks out, Salem said civil disobedience is expected in a movement designed now to "save the country." Morsi's supporters, on the other hand, question the validity of the petitions, saying his opponents are led by members of the ousted regime of Hosni Mubarak who are trying to orchestrate a comeback and are instigating violence," said Hani Salaheddin, a presenter on the Moslem Brotherhood-affiliated TV station Misr 25, predicting that Sunday will bring an end to the questioning of Morsi's mandate. "Tomorrow is the end of every corrupt person," he said, as the slogan "legitimacy (of the ballot box) is a red line," appeared on the TV screen during his program. Riots in cities north of Cairo over the past week have left eight people dead, including an American and a 14-year old, as well as hundreds injured. Clashes broke out outside offices of the Moslem Brotherhood and its party in at least five different governorates, and rival protests turned into violent confrontations. In a reflection of the seriousness of the situation, President Barack Obama said the US is working to ensure its embassy and diplomats in Egypt are safe after the 21-year old American was killed in Alexandria. He urged all parties to refrain from violence and the police and military to show appropriate restraint. One of Morsi's legal advisors offered his resignation late Saturday in protest of what he said was Morsi's insult of judges in his latest speech. Egyptian Defense Minister Fattah el-Sissi last Sunday gave the president and his opponents a week to reach a compromise and warned that the military would intervene to prevent the nation from entering a "dark tunnel." Morsi had called for national reconciliation talks but offered no specifics. Opposition leaders dismissed the call as cosmetics. The opposition's petition is evidence of what it says is widespread dissatisfaction with Morsi's administration, and has used the signature drive as the focal point of its call for millions of people to take to the streets to demand the president's ouster. The opposition movement appealed to supporters to gather in every street in their hometowns instead of converging to the main rallies planned in Tahrir square and outside Morsi's palace. The opposition wants to deal a symbolic blow to Morsi's mandate and put in stark terms the popular frustrations with an administration that critics say has failed to effectively deal with the country's pressing problems, including tenuous security, inflation, power cuts and high unemployment. "We gave (Morsi) a driving license but he couldn't drive the car. We all feel the country is collapsing, not because the president is from the Brotherhood ... But because the ruling system has failed completely." Many Egyptians fear the new round of unrest could trigger a collapse in law and order similar to the one that occurred during the 2011 revolt. Already, some residents have increased the security around their homes, erecting metal fences and installing barbed wire. Residents in neighborhoods to the west of Cairo have reported gunmen showing up to demand protection money. The army is advertising hotlines for civilians to call if they run into trouble. ~~~~~ Dear readers, these are troubling times for the Egyptian people. Mass street protests always hold out the possibility of violence. Egyptians are right to be worried and to try to protect themselves. But, when the Egyptian march to democratic self-government began more than two years ago, I wrote about the need for the world to help - and the need to be patient. What we are now witnessing is the continuation of Egypt's democratic birth pains. We should take comfort in the fact that the citizens of Egypt are not content to replace one dictatorship with another one. They want real, responsive government, working public services, jobs and a functioning econony. Morsi has not provided these basic components of an operating government. Egyptians are now demanding the chance to find leaders who can provide what is needed. Again, it requires all of us to help where we can, offer moral support and be patient. Above all - be patient. Rome wasn't built in a day. Neither was London or Tokyo or Paris or Washington. Cairo is no different. But we can take heart from the courage of the Egyptian people in pushing on toward their goal.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Justice Scalia's Discussion of the Majority Opinion on DOMA and Same Sex Marriage

Dear readers, tonight let's look at the dissenting opinion of Justice Scalia concerning the subject matter of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) case, in which Justice Kennedy, writing the Majority Opinion, concluded that, while the decision was applicable only to the facts in the case being decided, it was clear that DOMA violates the equal protection clause of the Constitution and that DOMA was passed by Congress and signed by President Clinton with the express intention of harming and humilating gay people. Justice Scalia had scathing disdain for Justice Anthony Kennedy's 5-4 Majority Opinion, saying it opened the door for a federal law allowing same-sex marriages and provided the appropriately targeted Supreme Court quotations to aid in the effort to legalize same sex marriage in every state. “It takes real cheek for today’s majority to assure us, as it is going out the door, that a constitutional requirement to give formal recognition to same-sex marriage is not at issue here — when what has preceded that assurance is a lecture on how superior the Majority’s moral judgment in favor of same-sex marriage is to the Congress’s hateful moral judgment against it,” Scalia wrote. "To defend traditional marriage is not to condemn, demean, or humiliate those who would prefer other arrangements, any more than to defend the Constitution of the United States is to condemn, demean, or humiliate other constitutions. To hurl such accusations so casually demeans this institution. In the Majority’s judgment, any resistance to its holding is beyond the pale of reasoned disagreement. To question its high-handed invalidation of a presumptively valid statute is to act (the Majority is sure) with the purpose to 'disparage,' 'injure,' 'degrade,' 'demean,' and 'humiliate' our fellow human beings, our fellow citizens, who are homosexual. All that, simply for supporting an Act that did no more than codify an aspect of marriage that had been unquestioned in our society for most of its existence — indeed, had been unquestioned in virtually all societies for virtually all of human history." Justice Scalia said that the Court’s decision takes issue especially with Section 3 of DOMA, which defined marriage on a federal basis as "only a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife" and the word "spouse" referring "only to a person of the opposite sex who is a husband or a wife." Scalia attacked the Majority's infringement into the definition of marriage, a matter always left to the states : "DOMA rejects this long-established precept" of states themselves determining the definition of marriage, and he said, however, that the Court’s Majority Opinion, written by Kennedy, goes well beyond merely rejecting a federal definition of marriage : "By formally declaring anyone opposed to same-sex marriage an enemy of human decency, the Majority arms well every challenger to a state law restricting marriage to its traditional definition. Henceforth those challengers will lead with this Court’s declaration that there is 'no legitimate purpose' served by such a law and will claim that the traditional definition has the purpose and effect to disparage and to injure the 'personhood and dignity' of same-sex couples. The result will be a judicial distortion of our society's debate over marriage — a debate that can seem in need of our clumsy 'help' only to a member of this Majority." The decision, Scalia wrote, was not clear cut. "Some will rejoice in today’s decision, and some will despair at it; that is the nature of a controversy that matters so much to so many. But the Court has cheated both sides, robbing the winners of an honest victory, and the losers of the peace that comes from a fair defeat. We owed both of them better." Perhaps the most cutting comment of all came when Scalia explained the Majority's animosity toward DOMA because they favor same sex marriage and want to assist its promulgation everywhere. Scalia described the Majority as attempting to maintain the illusion that the supporters of DOMA are "...unhinged members of a wild-eyed lynch mob..." when in fact, DOMA was simply an Act passed by Congress and signed by President Clinton to provide stability and uniformity in the definition of marriage at the federal level when dealing with a great variety of state statutes regulating marriage during a period when the citizens of the United States were beginning to debate that very definition. Justice Scalia concluded that this citizen debate should have been allowed to continue without the Supreme Court cutting it short by deciding what the debate's conclusion "should" be.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Justice Scalia's Impassioned Defense of the Constitution

Justice Antonin Scalia's Dissent in the DOMA case was a fundamental rebuke of the Supreme Court decision to overturn the Defense of Marriage Act and we will discuss this aspect of his Dissent tomorrow. But the Scalia Dissent was also a gut-wrenching plea for constitutional government - and for the preservation of the Constitution itself. Justice Scalia made the case that the self-governing power of the people has been eroded. "Today's opinion aggrandizes the power of the court to pronounce the law," Scalia wrote. The weakening of the people's constitutional power and right and obligation to govern the United States will have the predictable consequence of diminishing the "power of our people to govern themselves," wrote Scalia, who was joined in his dissent by Justices Clarence Thomas and Chief Justice John Roberts, while Justice Samuel Alito wrote a separate dissenting opinion. Scalia described the "assertion of judicial supremacy over the people’s representatives in Congress and the executive" as "jaw-dropping." "It envisions a Supreme Court standing (or rather enthroned) at the apex of government, empowered to decide all constitutional questions, always and everywhere 'primary' in its role," said Scalia. "This image of the court would have been unrecognizable to those who wrote and ratified our national charter." In simple terms, Justice Scalia points out that it is Congress, not the judiciary, that is entrusted with lawmaking power under the Constitution. The role of the judiciary is to resolve disputes, in specific factual situations and not in the abstract, when the government and a party or two private parties have differing views about what a law means and whether the law, applied to those specific facts, is constitutional. Applying his analysis to the facts in the DOMA case, Scalia concludes that the Supreme Court should never have taken the case because the lower courts had already ruled in favor of tbe widow whose rights were violated by DOMA, so there were no facts to analyze in relation to the law under DOMA. Therefore, Justice Scalia concludes that everything written by the Majority in DOMA was self-aggrandizing over-reaching of the Supreme Court beyond its constitutional powers in order to make itself another lawmaker under an imaginary constitution that the Court says it is following. And by doing that, Scalia says that the Court has weakened the Constitution and the right of the American people to govern themselves. The scope and comprehensiveness of Justice Scalia's argument for the Constitution and against the creation of law by the judiciary outside the scope granted to it by the Constitution is such that it will be studied, quoted and argued in support of that sacred document for as long as the United States exists.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Pope Francis Begins His Reform Effort

We now have an idea why Pope Francis did not attend a concert where he was to have been the guest of honor last Saturday evening. The gala classical concert was scheduled before his election in March. But the white papal armchair reserved for the Pope was conspicuously empty. Just before the concert, an archbishop told the crowd of cardinals and Italian dignitaries that an "urgent commitment that cannot be postponed" would prevent Francis from attending. The immediate reaction in the Vatican and Rome was that Francis was sending a stark signal that he is going to do things his way and does not like the Vatican social pomp and circumstance. The picture of the empty chair was used in many Italian papers on Monday. The Corriere della Sera newspaper called his decision "a show of force" to illustrate the simple style he wants Church officials to embrace. Vatican insiders were at first puzzled, but one unnamed source said that the message the Pope wanted to send was that, with the Church in crisis, he - and perhaps they - had too much pastoral work to do to attend social events : "It took us by surprise....We are still in a period of growing pains. He is still learning how to be pope and we are still learning how he wants to do it....In Argentina, they probably knew not to arrange social events like concerts for him because he probably wouldn't go," said the source. The day before the concert, Francis said bishops should be "close to the people" and not have "the mentality of a prince." On Saturday, during the concert, Francis was believed to be working on new appointments for the Curia, the Vatican's troubled senior administration, which has been held responsible for some of the mishaps and scandals that plagued the eight-year reign of Pope Benedict before he resigned in February. Francis inherited a Church struggling to deal with priests' sexual abuse of children, alleged corruption and infighting in the Curia, and conflict over the running of the Vatican's scandal-ridden bank. Benedict left a secret report for Francis on the problems in the administration, which came to light when sensitive documents were stolen from Pope Benedict's desk and leaked by his butler in what became known as the "Vatileaks" scandal. ~~~~~ However, dear readers, it could be that the Vatican cardinals are exaggerating the Pope's message. Perhaps the new Pope, who has such an enormous reform agenda on his desk, was simply concentrating on far more important matters. For example, two days ago Francis named a commission of inquiry to look into the activities of the troubled Vatican Bank in the midst a new money-laundering investigation and continued questions about the secretive institution that have plagued the Institute for Religious Works for decades. Prosecutors from the southern city of Salerno have placed a senior Vatican official under investigation for alleged money-laundering. The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, confirmed Wednesday that Monsignor Nunzio Scarano had been suspended temporarily from his position in one of the Vatican's key finance offices, the Administration for the Patrimony of the Apostolic See. Scarano has said he did nothing wrong. The Vatican Bank was created n 1942 by Pope Pius XII to manage assets set aside for religious or charitable works. The Vatican Bank also manages the pension system for the Vatican's thousands of employees. On June 15, Pope Francis filled a key vacancy in the bank's governing structure, naming a trusted friend to be his person inside the bank with access to documentation, board meetings and management. Francis has asked the commission to carry out a harmonization of bank activities with the universal mission of the Apostolic See, according to the legal document that created it. He named five people to the commission, including two Americans : Monsignor Peter Wells, a top official in the Vatican secretariat of state, and Mary Ann Glendon, a Harvard law professor, former US ambassador to the Holy See and current president of a pontifical academy. US cardinals were among the most vocal in demanding a wholesale reform of the Vatican bureaucracy - and the Vatican Bank - in the meetings running up to the March conclave that elected Francis pope. The demands were raised following revelations in leaked documents last year that told of dysfunction, petty turf wars and allegations of corruption in the Holy See's governance. The commission is already working and its members have the authority to gather documents, data and information about the bank, even surpassing normal secrecy rules. The bank's administration continues to function as normal, as does the Vatican's new financial watchdog agency which has supervisory control over it. ~~~~~ It is indeniable that Francis is attempting to lead by example - trying to live simply and asking cardinals and Vatican Curia members to forget about the trappings of power and preference in order to lead the Church back into the hearts of the people it serves. Since his election on March 13, Francis has not spent a single night in the opulent and spacious papal apartments. He has lived in a small suite in a busy Vatican guest house, where he takes most meals in a communal dining room and says Mass every morning in the house chapel rather than the private chapel in the Apostolic Palace. Whether Pope Francis can succeed to change the centuries-old Vatican culture by sheer force of example will be seen. But he clearly has the Church laity on his side and he is now putting in place the specific change agents he needs if his larger reform vision is to succeed.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

IRS Harrassment Calls into Question 2012 Election Results

Stan Veuger, an economist at the American Enterprise Institute, recently wrote on Real Clear Markets that the Internal Revenue Service's targeting of tea party groups prevented the movement from producing more votes for Republicans in the 2012 presidential election. Veuger's calculations suggest that those "lost" votes could have made the difference in allowing Mitt Romney to defeat President Barack Obama. According to Veuger, "Some conservatives suspect . . . the levers of government were used to attack an existential threat to the president's 2012 reelection,...The president and his party dismiss this as a paranoid fantasy. The evidence, however, is enough to make one believe that targeting tea party groups would have been an effective campaign strategy going into the 2012 election cycle." Veuger then analyzes the tea party history. In 2010, the tea party provided 3 million to 6 million additional votes for the GOP in House races : "That is an astonishing boost, given that all Republican House candidates combined received fewer than 45 million votes,...It demonstrates conclusively how important the GOP's newly energized base was to its landslide victory in the 2010 elections, and how worried Democratic strategists must have been about the conservative movement's momentum." Veuger then uses the 2010 voting data to suggest the impact the tea party could have had in the 2012 presidential race : "The data show that had the tea party groups continued to grow at the pace seen in 2009 and 2010, and had their effect on the 2012 vote been similar to that seen in 2010, they would have brought the Republican Party as many as 5 million to 8.5 million votes compared to Obama's victory margin of 5 million." What that means is that the tea party could have brought a Romney victory. Veuger cites Florida as an example. Obama won the state by only 75,000 votes. "That is less than 25% of our estimate of what the tea party's impact in Florida was in 2010." ~~~~~ In other words, dear readers, if the tea party had not been harassed by the IRS, it could have provided an additional 300,000 votes for Romney in Florida - more than enough to beat Obama in that state and therefore in the overall race. Romney could well have been elected President except for the unconstitutional harrassment tactics of the IRS. But, according to Veuger : "Unfortunately for Republicans, the IRS slowed tea party growth before the 2012 election." Veuger writes that starting in March 2010, the IRS gave extra scrutiny to applications for tax-exempt status from tea party groups : "For the next two years, the IRS approved the applications of only four such groups, delaying all others while subjecting the applicants to highly intrusive, intimidating requests for information regarding their activities, membership, contacts, Facebook posts, and private thoughts....As a consequence, the founders, members, and donors of new tea party groups found themselves incapable of exercising their constitutional rights, and the tea party's impact was muted in the 2012 election cycle." Veuger goes on, stating that while the targeting of the tea party groups may have started in the agency's Cincinnati office, IRS officials in Washington failed to stop the harrassment, allowing it to continue throughout the 2012 election cycle. Conveniently, what is being characterized by the IRS, Treasury Department Inspectors General, and the Obama White House as IRS senior management incompetence just happened to make it possible for Barack Obama to win re-election - even though almost all political analysts thought he would be defeated. If it was incompetence, it had a remarkably positive effect on Barack Obama's political future. It could almost remind one of another Chicago Democrat machine that stole the 1960 presidential election.

Monday, June 24, 2013

The IRS Targeting Was Worse Than We Were Told

The Internal Revenue Service has released an 83-page report revealing that screening of groups seeking tax-exempt status was broader in scope and lasted longer than the IRS had previously disclosed. The new head of the agency, Danny Werfel, said that after becoming acting IRS chief last month, he found wide-ranging, improper terms on the lists that screeners were still using to select groups for careful examination. He said he suspended the use of all such lists immediately. The lists were targeting groups other than tea party and other conservative organizations, including the terms "Israel," ''Progressive" and "Occupy." The report indicates that an investigation into why specific terms were included is ongoing. A report last month by a Treasury Department inspector general apparently mis-spoke in saying agency officials abolished targeting of conservative groups with those lists in May 2012. Werfel said he believes there was "insufficient action" by IRS managers to prevent and disclose the problem involving the screening of certain groups, but has discovered no specific clues of misconduct or intentional wrongdoing by anyone in the IRS or involvement in these matters by anyone outside the IRS," he told reporters. The report released Monday outlines procedures the agency is installing to prevent unfair treatment of taxpayers in the future. They include a fast-track process for groups seeking tax-exempt status that have yet to get a response from the IRS within 120 days of applying, as well as holding individuals accountable as appropriate and establishing new controls to reduce potential future problems. The report drew negative reviews from one of the IRS's chief critics in Congress, Representative Darrell Issa, the California Republican who is chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. Issa said the report fails to meaningfully answer the largest outstanding questions about inappropriate inquiries and indefensible delays. Issa also noted that since investigations by Congress and the Justice Department are still ongoing, Werfel's assertion that he has found no evidence that anyone at the IRS intentionally did anything wrong can only be premature. ~~~~~ Dear readers, what we have learned today is that there are now two internal IRS investigations, each followed by a report that whitewashes over the entire constitutionally improper IRS policy of targeting American conservative groups whose only goal was to receive the tax-exempt status they were entitled to. We have also learned that not only conservative Americans but also Israel and Progressives (whatever that term encompasses) were targeted. And, we still do not have the full list of terms used to indicate that unconstitutional harrassment would follow any group foolish enough to so describe itself. And we are also expected to take confort in the IRS' own finding that no one inside or outside the IRS was involved in the targeting. What a relief, dear readers - the IRS, the White House and the President are innocent babes in the Washington woods. Do I hear you laughing? Me, too.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

The 21st Century Needs a Visionary Leader

Dear readers, this week has been filled with major events - riots in Turkey and Brazil, Syrian rebels receiving a nod from Barack Obama with his decision that the US will supply them with weapons, the Taliban and America fumbling their effort to get reconciliation talks started, a G8 meeting which saw Russia and the US in an arm wrestling contest over how to handle the future of al-Assad, and a major step in the long American debate about how to deal with the 10 million illegal immigrants already in the US and how to stop the inflow. When I consider all that's going on in our world right now, I keep coming back to basic questions - how to help people who are used to some form of democratic self-government govern themselves with civility and decorum, how to adapt people's natural but never-experienced desire for freedom into a government organized to respect both freedom and democratic desires while at the same time respecting culture and religion. I believe if we could answer these two fundamental questions, we would make the world a more peaceful and people-friendy place for everyone. But, I find very little being done to establish a framework for addressing them. There should be university chairs devoted to these issues and think tank units bringing experienced experts into the discussion. One of the problems with finding answers is that the world seems to have fallen into the habit of dividing people and countries along what I would call "We - They" lines. Some examples of this are : democracies vs all other forms of government, Christians and Jews vs Moslems, legal immigrants vs illegal immigrants, the world vs China, industrially developed countries vs non-industrially developed countries, rich nations vs poor nations. What seems to me to be wrong with looking at our world this way is that we suppress natural diversity of experience and thought processes. We thus encourage the dangerous "we - they" mentality that leads us to exclude everyone not exactly like us from the councils that make decisions for all of us. And the result is before our eyes, if we think about it - riots of poor people left out of the life they see on TV but cannot possibly achieve, "Arab Spring" insurrections when there is no other way to make political change, Tibetans immolating themselves as the only means they have to protest against the systematic destruction of their culture by foreign Chinese invaders, Americans calling for fences and mass evictions of illegal immigrants instead of trying to absorb them into a society that has always welcomed immigrants, small and less industrialized European countries being forced to create a culture and lifestyle that suits northern Germans but not Mediterranean Greeks or Spaniards. The examples seem endless. The results are always the same -- resentment on both sides of the we-they divide, suppressed anger that eventually spills out onto the streets, religious intolerance, a sense of frustration in world leaders because they don't know how to step across the unseen divide and so nothing seems to work. I am not a supporter of the 20th century's attempt to expand government so that people lose their sense of self-responsibility. People are responsible for their actions and for their lives. Government cannot and should not replace indivdual initiative. But - Athens had its Plato and Pericles, Europe had its Charlemagne, England had its Locke and Burke, America had its Jefferson and Lincoln. The 21st century desperately needs a visionary leader to guide the debate, hold out hope, find practical ways forward, love the people...all the people...of the world. Edmund Burke put it clearly 240 years ago : "I have no idea of a liberty unconnected with honesty and justice. Nor do I believe that any good constitutions of government, or of freedom, can find it necessary for their security to doom any part of the people to a permanent slavery."

Friday, June 21, 2013

America Inches toward Questionable Immigration Reform

The US Senate is close to an agreement to vastly increase fencing, patrols and high-tech monitoring along the US-Mexico border. The detailed amendment formally unveiled in the Senate makes it likely that a sweeping immigration bill, with the inclusion of the amendment, is headed for passage next week with substantial bipartisan support. President Obama also supports the bill. The new amendment adds thousands of patrol agents, hundreds of miles of fencing, and a budget of billions of dollars to be spent on everything from helicopters to drones to watchtowers. Republican Senators John Hoeven of North Dakota and Bob Corker of Tennessee were instrumental in drafting the amendment and getting GOP support lined up. "We really are trying to secure the border in a way that we hope can get bipartisan support and that Americans want," Senator Hoeven told the AP in a phone interview Friday. "We're hopeful to have a good bipartisan majority." Arizona Republican Senator John McCain said that "if there's anyone who still will argue that the border is not secure after this, then border security is not their reason for opposing a path to citizenship for the people who are in this country illegally." Hoeven developed the amendment along with Republican Senator Corker, in consultation with McCain, Senators Lindsey Graham, Chuck Schumer, and other members of the so-called Gang of Eight senators who wrote the immigration bill. It prevents immigrants now here illegally from attaining permanent resident status until a series of steps has been taken to secure the border. In addition to the border guards, the new amendment calls for unmanned surveillance drones, 350 miles of new pedestrian fencing to add to 350 miles already in place and an array of fixed and mobile devices to maintain vigilance, including high-tech tools such as infrared ground sensors and airborne radar. The timetable for implementation is 10 years, which matches the 10-year path to a permanent resident green card that the bill sets out for immigrants here illegally. During that time, the immigrants could live and work legally in a provisional status. Senator Hoeven said the 10-year cost of the border security amendment included $25 billion for the additional Border Patrol agents, $3 billion for fencing and $3.2 billion for other measures. Senators who had been uncommitted on the immigration bill are now prepared to support it, assuming the amendment is adopted. Senators Dean Heller and Mark Kirk announced their support for the deal Thursday. Republicans have insisted that green cards be made conditional on catching or turning back 90% of would-be border crossers. Schumer, other Democrats and Obama himself rejected this trigger, which they feared could delay the path to citizenship for years. The Democrat-Republican cooperation was made possible by a Congressional Budget Office report Tuesday concluding that the bill would cut billions of dollars from the deficit. Schumer's top immigration aide, Leon Fresco, had the idea of devoting some of those billions to a dramatic border buildup. With the budget office finding in place, Fresco met with Schumer and Corker and said, "OK, let's go big." The idea immediately appealed to the left and the right. For Republicans, it provided concrete assurances of seriously heightened border security. For Democrats, it offered achievable and measurable goals. ~~~~~ But, dear readers, there is no light at the end of the immigration tunnel just yet. Leading Republican opponents of the bill held a news conference to denounce the deal as little more than an empty promise. And the US House of Representatives, Republican-controlled and more conservative than the Senate, still has to pass its own immigration reform bill. When both the Senate and House bills have been passed, a joint House-Senate committee will try ro reconcile them. The one positive sign in all this is that everyone agrees that "something" has to be done. The choices range from a general 'amnesty' granting green card status to all illegal immigrants to forcng all illegals to go back to their country of origin and apply for admission under the current US visa program. The worrisome aspect of the Senate's beefed up border control program is that it has not worked to date and simply building a few hundred additional miles of fence and adding more border patrol capability looks to me like a game of mirrors and whistles to cover over the insurmountable problem of sealing a 2,000-mile land border when thousands of Mexicans and other Latin Americans are determined to get to America, whatever it takes.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Afghan Taliban 3 - Obama/Kerry 0

Well, dear readers - another day and another twist in the bizarre efforts of the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, and his boss, President Obama, to get talks started with the Taliban as the first step in a reconciliation process for Afghanistan. Today it's about a prisoner exchange. The Afghan Taliban are ready to free a US soldier, US Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, 27, held captive since 2009, in exchange for five senior Taliban operatives held at Guantanamo Bay. It would be a conciliatory gesture, a senior Taluban spokesman said on Thursday. The Taliban have consistently requested the release of Khairullah Khairkhwa, a former Taliban governor of Herat, and Mullah Mohammed Fazl, a former top Taliban military commander, both of whom have been held for more than a decade, as well as three others. We learned today that the prisoner exchange is the first item on the Taliban agenda and would be required before any opening peace talks could begin, according to a top Taliban leader, who said the prisoner exchange would build bridges of confidence to go forward. But, US Secretary of State John Kerry is expected to be in Qatar ahead of Saturday's conference on the Syrian civil war, and although he will not meet with the Taliban, it may be that lower level meetings will take place. On Wednesday in Washington, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the US had "never confirmed" any specific meeting schedule with Taliban representatives in Doha, the Qatar capital. Such prisoner exchanges have been controversial. Afghan President Karzai once scuttled a similar deal because he felt the Americans were usurping his authority. The current prisoner exchange possibility was raised by senior Taliban spokesman Shaheen Suhail in response to a question during a phone interview with the AP from the militants' newly opened political office in Doha. The US State Department is noncommittal about the proposal, which it said it had expected the Taliban to make. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said. "We have not made a decision to ... transfer any Taliban detainees from Guantanamo Bay, but we anticipate, as I've said, that the Taliban will all raise this issue." The American captive, Bergdahl, of Hailey, Idaho, is the only known American soldier held captive from the Afghan war. He disappeared from his base in southeastern Afghanistan on June 30, 2009, and is believed to be held in Pakistan. Suhail said Bergdahl "is, as far as I know, in good condition." ~~~~~ So, let's try to summarize. The US wants to start talks with the enemy Afghan Taliban...but if they do, the American ally in Afghanistan, the government of President Karzai, will not participate. And, Karzai has already halted negotiztions with the US concerning US troop withdrawals and American advisors to continue in the country. But, in a move that seemed unknown to Obama's team, the Taliban went to Qatar and opened an office using their official name during the period when they ruled Afghanistan. So Qatar had to convince them to take dowm their sign and replace it because America and Karzai and the Afghan people were offended. The Taliban complied. But the next day they told AP - not the US, their erstwhile negotiating partner - that before negotiations could begin, a prisoner exchange would be required as an act of good faith. This was unknown to the Americans but the US State Department said it was not unexpected. ~~~~~ Items still to be worked out in the glare of the international media : the color of the team uniforms and the shape of the negotiating table. Do you suppose, dear readers, that a pause is in order - to give the Kerry-Obama side time to brush up on "Negotiating 101" ? Otherwise, America may wake up one morning to find that the Afghan Taliban now own the Washington Monument.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Obama's Unprecedented Afghanistan Faux Pas

Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai said Wednesday he will not enter into peace talks with the Taliban unless the United States steps out of the negotiations. He also insisted the Taliban stop its violent attacks on the ground after it claimed responsibility for a rocket attack that killed four Americans. The Taliban said on Wednesday it was responsible for the attack on the Bagram Air Base in which four American troops were killed. American officials confirmed the base had come under attack by indirect fire - mortar or rocket - and that four US troops were killed. Karzai's strong response and the Taliban attack undercut hopes for the start of talks to end 12 years of war in Afghanistan. All this occurred just one day after the US and the Taliban said they would begin initial meetings in Qatar. Karzai had said Tuesday that he would send his High Peace Council to Qatar for talks but aides said he changed his mind after objecting to the way the announcement was handled, in particular the Taliban's use of its formal name "Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan" in opening an office in Doha. President Barack Obama had cautioned Tuesday that the peace talks with the Taliban would be neither quick nor easy but that their opening a political office in Doha was an "important first step toward reconciliation" between the Islamic militants and the government of Afghanistan. Karzai's High Peace Council had been expected to follow up with its own talks with the Taliban a few days later but it is now unclear whether that will happen. Shafiullah Nooristani, a member of the High Peace Council, told the AP that the use of the name violated agreements Karzai's government had made with the US and caused diplomatic issues for Afghanistan. He said negotiations with the Taliban should not make it seem as if they are a political entity like a parallel institution to the Afghan Embassy which is already there. "The agreement was that the office should open only - and only - for negotiations, not as a political entity," Nooristan said. But as of now, it is not clear that the Taliban will be forced to change the name they are using in Qatar. President Karzai also suspended on Wednesday - to protest the way his government was being left out of initial peace negotiations with the Taliban - talks with the US on a new security deal meant to find ways to end the war. Karzai said negotiations with the US on which American and coalition security forces will remain in the country after 2014 have been put on hold. The two Afghan announcements were issued while Obama was trying to appease Karzai, with Obama telling reporters during a visit to Berlin that "ultimately we're going to need to see Afghans talking to Afghans." "But they've been fighting there for a long time" and mistrust is rampant, Obama said, explaining why he thinks it is important to pursue a parallel track toward reconciliation even as the fighting continues, and it would be up to the Afghan people whether that effort ultimately bears fruit. ~~~~~ It is one thing, dear readers, to lose a war by negotiating away the rights of the side you have been supporting. But it is quite another thing - and perhaps unprecedented - to actually forget to keep in place the public facade of pretending to fight for their rights even as you negotiate them away. It is the latest faux pas in the incompetent foreign affairs record of the Obama administration. It leaves yet another gaping hole in the already-riddled Middle East non-policy of President Obama. One has to wonder how many Obama follies the unstable and agitated region can take before it explodes into a thousand wars in the realization that nobody cares about saving it.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Losing the War in Afghanistan

Losing a war can take many forms - formal surrender, freezing territorial positions to create a stalemate, agreeing to negotiate while the other party takes de facto control on the ground. Today the United States announced that it will hold peace talks with the Taliban aimed at finding a political solution to ending nearly 12 years of war in Afghanistan, as the international coalition formally handed over control of the country's security to the Afghan army and police. The US announcement came after the Taliban pledged not to use Afghanistan as a base to threaten other countries, although the Americans said they must also denounce al-Qaida. President Barack Obama cautioned that the process won't be easy, describing the opening of a Taliban political office in the Gulf nation of Qatar as an "important first step toward reconciliation" between the Islamic militants and the government of Afghanistan, and predicted there will be bumps along the way. Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, said the only way to end the war was through a political solution and reconciliation, and so he said, "I frankly would be supportive of any positive movement in terms of reconciliation, particularly an Afghan-led and an Afghan-owned process that would bring reconciliation between the Afghan people and the Taliban in the context of the Afghan constitution." Dunford added that he was no longer responsible for the security of the country now that Afghan forces had taken the lead. The transition to Afghan-led security means US and other foreign combat troops will not be directly taking the fight to the insurgency, but will advise and back up as needed with air support and medical evacuations. The coalition force numbers about 100,000 troops from 48 countries, including 66,000 Americans. By the end of the year, the NATO force will be halved. At the end of 2014, all combat troops will have left and will replaced, if approved by the Afghan government, by a much smaller force that will only train and advise. The Obama administration officials said the US and Taliban representatives will hold bilateral meetings, reflecting the Taliban's refusal to recognize or negotiate with Karzai's government or his High Peace Council. Karzai's High Peace Council is expected to follow up with its own talks with the Taliban a few days later. But in making their announcement in Doha, the Taliban did not specifically mention talks with Karzai or his representatives. The talks will be with the Americans only in Doha under the patronage of Qatar," he said. "We represent the people of Afghanistan. We don't represent the Karzai government." The Taliban office is in one of the diplomatic areas in Doha. Its sign reads: "The Political Bureau of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan in Doha." Despite Karzai's stated hope that the process will move almost immediately to Afghanistan, US officials do not expect that to be possible in the near future. The Taliban have refused to negotiate with the Afghan government's High Peace Council, set up by Karzai three years ago, because they considered them to be US "puppets." ~~~~~ So dear readers, the United States, like the British and Russians before them, has lost a ground war in Afghanistan. The goal now is to salvage what they can from the resurgent Taliban, which will surely become the "governing" force in Adghanistan when the talks are over and the West goes home once again. What will become of Afghan women and children we can only guess, hoping against hope, and without a shred of tangible evidence, that the Taliban have become civilized in the years since the last time they had a stint at governing the country.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Was Obama's Syrian Arms Decision Meaningless?

One of the trite truisms current in international politics is that America and Russia do not agree about Syria. But today at the G8 meeting in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland, the two countries met at the chief executive level to try to find common ground. Russia continues to supply arms to the al-Assad regime and Russian President Vladimir Putin told President Barack Obama on Monday that the United States and Russian positions on Syria do not "coincide." But the two leaders said during the G-8 summit that they have a shared interest in stopping the violence that has ravaged the Middle Eastern country during a two-year-old civil war. Putin also said that both leaders wanted to address the fighting and wanted to secure chemical weapons in the country. The US president said both sides would work to develop talks in Geneva aimed at ending the country's bloody civil war. "We do have differing perspectives on the problem but we share an interest in reducing the violence, securing chemical weapons and ensuring that they're neither used nor are they subject to proliferation," Obama said. "We want to try to resolve the issue through political means if possible." Putin said "of course our opinions do not coincide, but all of us have the intention to stop the violence in Syria and to stop the growth of victims and to solve the situation peacefully, including by bringing the parties to the negotiations table in Geneva. We agreed to push the parties to the negotiations table." Putin said he has not urged Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to leave power, and he remains one of Assad's strongest political and military allies. The White House did not expect any breakthrough with Putin on Syria during the meeting of the G8 Summit at an Irish lakeside golf resort and the meeting further highlighted the rift between the two countries on how to address the fighting in the country. Britain and France feared that any additional introduction of firepower might end up helping anti-democratic extremists linked to Iran and Lebanon's Hezbollah militia. Putin has defended Russia's continuing supply of weapons to al-Assad's military. In an interview with the German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Runschau published Monday, al-Assad dismissed the Obama administration's contention that the Syrian army used chemical weapons against the rebels. British Prime Minister David Cameron met with Putin on Sunday and later said that the West needs to unite behind a diplomatic push that transitions al-Assad from power. ~~~~~ Dear readers, it appears that we have traded the end of indecision by President Obama about supplying arms to the rebels for another round of international ruminations over the disagreement between Russia and America about the legitimacy of the al-Assad regime. Obama and the West are still not focused on the fundamental problem in Syria - millions of Syrians are being forced into refugee status and almost 100,000 Syrians have been killed in a vicious civil war. Will anyone take the lead in forcefully and rapidly ending this completely unacceptable situation???

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Chris Christie's Dangerous Game

The Republican governor of New Jersey, Chris Christie, continues to favor the Democrat side of the American political spectrum - this time sharing center stage in Chicago with Bill Clinton. Christie and Clinton joined forces to headline the former president's two-day conference. "Now we're going to have a little fun," Clinton said in introducing Christie at the Clinton Global Initiative America event. While Clinton started by joking about the two men's love of college basketball and heartbreak over the collapse of the Big East conference -- "Even as effective as you are and as I once was, we couldn't stop the Big East from dissolving," he quipped -- the tone of their conversation was serious, focusing on Superstorm Sandy and Christie's leadership during and after the storm. "I can't tell you how many people just came up to me, grabbing at me, and saying, 'Thank you for giving us the shore back.' There's an emotional connection," Christie said. "I think as a leader you have to recognize that part of it -- that it's not just going to be a calculation that's arithmetic. It's an emotional connection. And you have to do things to try to give people that emotional connection to the place they grew up, where they took their children, and now those children are taking their children there." In a disaster such as Sandy, he noted, people turn to government for help."When this kind of thing happens -- Republican, Independent, Democrat -- no matter who you are, what you are, you turn to government," he said. But the majority of Republicans may see Christie's courting of Democratic leaders - Obama and now Bill Clinton - differently. Friday evening's appearance was only the latest in a string of bipartisan gestures by Christie, who opted to attend the Chicago event instead of the Faith & Freedom Coalition's conference in Washington, DC. In the aftermath of Sandy, Christie tried to form a relationship with President Obama -- preserved in footage of a late-May tour of the shore by the two men -- that alienated some of his fellow Republicans. Christie should be praised, not blamed, for that, Clinton said. "The enduring image most Americans have of you is standing there in your jacket grieving with your people, working with them, and working with the president -- and you got both praise and damnation for ignoring the political differences that you had then and still have with the president and all of us who are in the other party -- to do something that was really important," Clinton said. ~~~~ But, dear readers, while it seems that the two leaders from opposite sides of the political divide agreed vis-a-vis Sandy, we may legitimately ask why Christie is so open to being seen with Democrat leaders. Of course, there is the need to be re-elected governor of New Jersey if he is to keep his place among the top contenders for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination. But Christie is playing a dangerous game. First, he is not one of the "anointed" GOP standard bearers. Second, he comes from a heavily Democratic state that rarely produces Republican presidents. Third, he has chosen to ignore the GOP position on core issues, going off on tangents in an effort to "rise above" politics as usual. Why? That is the looming unanswered question about Chris Christie. Does he really prefer the Democrat ideology of tax and spend? Does he really want to be the Democrat presidential candidate in 2016? Fine - join the Democrat Party. But beware the ghost of Arlen Specter, the longtime GOP Pennsylvania Senator who opted to become a Democrat under Obama's banner - only to be abandoned by both Republicans and Democrats, losing his coveted Senatorial seat to a relatively unknown Democrat. Bipartisanship works - on specific pieces of universally supported legislation and in matters relating to foreign wars. Bipartisanship does not work inside the American electoral process. A candidate must carry his party's flag. He must be able to explain its world view because it is his world view. He must believe fundamentally that his party will provide government far above the other party's capacity. He is not a creature of bipartisanship but rather the embodiment of the essence of the Party he represents. Chris Christie must learn this lesson quickly if he does not want to be consigned to the garbage heap of forgotten wannabes. And a last thought for Governor Christie - do not rule out the possibility that Obama and Clinton actually saw you as a potential 2016 winner against Hillary and set out to kill you with the kindness of a damning Democrat kiss. E tu, Brute?...You, too, Brutus? as Caesar pleaded dying at the hands of assassins he had thought of as friends.

Friday, June 14, 2013

FINALLY Obama Is on the Side of the Angels

At a decisive moment in the battle between Sherlock Holmes and his evil nemesis Moriarty, Moriarty turns to Holmes and says, "Oh, you are ordinary, you are on the side of the angels." Holmes responds, "I may be on the side of the angels but don't think for one second that I am one of them." A classic battle between Good and Evil. God and Satan. Beelzebub and Jesus. Luke Skywalker and Darth Vadar. Harry Potter and Voldemort. And we have seen in the past 24 hours that Barack Obama, and America with him, has come down on the side of the angels - the Syrian rebels - even though there may be no real angels on either side of this bitter civil war. What is President Obama's reasoning? Perhaps it is in part the following : (1). US-supplied weapons could fall into the hands of al-Qaida-linked militants fighting alongside the rebels, but this may be a small price to pay for saving millions of Syrians from slaughter and flight into refugee camps. (2). Obama's decision may have more to do with saving what's left of American credibility in the region and the world after Obama's ill-thought out "red line" statement than it has to do with saving Syria from total destruction. And saving US credibility on the red line by supplying weapons to the rebels, with its concurrent possibility of being drawn into yet another Middle East war, nevertheless fits into the humanitarian goal of saving Syrian women and children from death and torture, something Barack Obama seems to respond to if one considers his reasoning for gun control as a means of saving "beautiful little" children's lives. (3). America's conclusive evidence that al-Assad used chemical weapons against rebel fighters matches the conclusions of France and Britain, but some experts say the rebels may have used some type of chemical weapon, too, so there are no angels in this argument, but being involved on the side of the less-suspect rebels puts the US in a position to better control what happens to al-Assad's chemical weapon stockpile if his regime crumbles, and it gives support to Israel's urgent need to keep chemical weapons out of the hands of Hezbollah. (4). Obama's team could give the rebels a range of weapons, including small arms, assault rifles, shoulder-fired rocket-propelled grenades and other anti-tank missiles, but rebel commanders say they need anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles to counter the regime's superior firepower, delivered from warplanes and armored vehicles. American concern about high-powered weapons ending up in the hands of terrorist groups makes it very unlikely the US will provide sophisticated arms that would require large-scale training but supplying weapons to the rebels makes it likely that American military will have some control over what weaponry actually passes to jihadist groups in the rebel ranks. ~~~~~ So, dear readers, there may be no real angels in the Syrian civil war - but the balance, if one thinks in terms of good and evil, is on the side of the rebels. And that is where Barack Obama has chosen to be. FINALLY.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Syria - the World's Blind Spot

The UN Human Rights Commission reported today that it has confirmed at least 93,000 deaths in the Syrian civil war. But the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said it was impossible to provide an exact number, which could be far higher. The latest report adds more confirmed killings to the previous time period and an additional 27,000 between December and April. And the outrageous truth buried in these numbers is that 6,500 children have been killed - 1,600 of them under the age of 10. Also this week, US officials had hoped to reach a decision on arming Syria's rebels but they are still uncertain whether that's the best way to reshape a war that now includes Lebanon's Hezbollah and Iranian fighters supporting Assad's armed forces, and al-Qaida-linked extremists backing the opposition. AP reports that President Barack Obama and his national security team are "greatly concerned" by the worsening situation in Syria, according to White House spokesman Jay Carney. Obama continues to review and consider additional options for US involvement, Carney said, adding that he expects Syria will be discussed at the Group of Eight summit next week in Northern Ireland. ~~~~~ Dear readers, let's review again the surreal state of affairs in Syria. The rebel forces were chased from a stronghold, Qusair, last week - the last defenders fleeing through fields as al-Assad forces pursued. More than 100 were killed, and some died despite doctors and nurses in the fleeing contingent, because they lacked the ordinary medical equipment and medicines that could easily have saved lives. The loss of Qusair leaves al-Assad and Hezbollah in command of one of two vital rebel supply lines linking southern Syria and Lebanon. It also leaves Hezbollah in a position of strength in both Syria and along the borders with Israel, which is once again facing the very real prospect of Hezbollah attack with Iranian supplied weapons. The Iranian weapons could soon include nuclear bombs, if the West continues to confront the possibility of a nuclear Iran the way it is now confronting the Syrian disaster. Meanwhile the disheartened rebels are preparing to defend the routes northward toward Aleppo, their other stronghold and supply route. Al-Assad forces are already in the region around Homs, although the rebel force took a military installation after a pitched battle this week. The rebel command also hit the Damascus airport today, a first. But, it would appear that the Syrian rebels have abandoned hope of western arms and they say they are looking to jihadist groups for these gravely needed weapons without which they cannot win..~~~~~ The American, European and UN handling of the Syria civil war may be the worst example ever of the inability of the international community to decide what it believes or how to act on the few core beliefs that actually remain as the fiber binding them together as human beings. Words fail me.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Barack Obama, Pope Francis and the Will to Lead

Apparently there really is a "gay lobby" in the Vatican, as La Reppublica newspaper in Rome has reported and a Vatican spokesman has denied, characterizing the reports as defamatory, "unverified, unverifiable or completely false." It may be time for the Vatican to reconsider its commentary because no less a perspn than Pope Francis recently lamented that a "gay lobby" was at work at the Vatican. He made the comment in private remarks to the leadership of a key Latin American church group - a stunning revelation that appears to confirm the earlier reports about corruption and dysfunction in the Holy See. The group, known by its Spanish acronym CLAR, said it was greatly distressed that a document it had prepared to summarize the encounter with Pope Francis had been published and apologized to the Pope. The CLAR report appeared Tuesday in Spanish on the progressive Chilean-based website "Reflection and Liberation" and was picked up and translated by the blog Rorate Caeli, which is read in Vatican circles. In the report, Pope Francis is quoted as being remarkably forthcoming about his administrative shortcomings, saying he was relying on the group of eight cardinals he appointed to lead a reform of the Vatican bureaucracy. Earlier, the gay lobby had been accused of something that sounds a lot like blackmail - that is, using information it has about gay Vatican bureaucrats to influence papal decision-making. It has been suggested to be one of the reasons Benedict decided to resign. Italian journalists have also said details of the scandal were laid out in the secret dossier prepared for Benedict by three trusted cardinals who investigated the leaks of papal documents last year. Benedict left the dossier for Francis. The Vatican spokesman said he could make no comment about rhe Pope's remarks because it was a private meeting and as a result he had nothing to say. The members of CLAR said no recording had been made of Francis' remarks but that the members of its leadership team - a half-dozen men and women from religious orders - together wrote a synthesis of the points he had made for their own personal use. ~~~~~ Dear readers, if we combine the Pope's gay lobby remarks with his recent comment that he did not want to be Pope, and his statement that he is relying on a committee to reform the Vatican - a picture is emerging of a priest who is as much an outsider at the Vatican as Barack Obama is an outsider in Washington. That comparison may seem odd, but it points to a real similarity in the problem the Vatican and the American federal government face. They are both the titular headquarters of a far-flung political system. The Catholic Church. The United States. Both headquarters are run by consummate insiders who pretty much do as they please because their constituencies have no evident mechanism to stay current with their policies and actions - and their oversight institutions, the Pope and the US Congress, are usually insiders, too. The last Pope, Benedict XVI, was an outsider who finally resigned, undoubtedly because the gay lobby was just one of many insider groups who made it impossible for him to function because he didn't understand the insider "codes." President Obama has only one major success in five years. Obamacare. And he largely left it to the Democrat Congress to achieve it. Just as Francis is leaving the badly needed Vatican reform, a major reason for his election to the papacy, to insiders. These are two leaders who have their noses pressed to the candyshop window, watching others eat the candy that ought to belong to them. It is too late for President Obama to do anything but survive - if he can avoid the darker scenarios related to the deluge of scandals washing over his administration. But Pope Francis is new on the job and he should stop talking about how he doesn't want to be Pope. He should move into the papal apartments, if for no other reason than as a show of authority. He should take personal control of the Vatican bureaucracy and bend it to his will - his immense popularity should make this possible. And he should understand that he has been called to a vitally important mission - preserving Christianity by making it relevant to the 21st century. Francis can do this. The question is - does he have the will and the force of character to bring it off. I truly hope he does.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Our World, Plato and Mandela

I feel sure, dear readers, that you must have the same thoughts I have - the world is a violent mess. People seem to gave forgotten how to live in peace, showing tolerance and love for their neighbors, their fellow countrymen and the wider world. Perhaps it was never quite as peaceful as we remember, but there were fewer violent confrontations surely. But I do not place blame on entirely either on people or on governments. More than two thousand years ago Plato said : "Excess generally causes reaction, and produces a change in the opposite direction whether it be in the seasons, or in individuals, or in governments." He could be describing 2013. For today, we are witnesses to a great chasm between governed and governors, between conservatives and socialists, between Christians and Moslems, between rich and poor, between young and old, between democrats and tyrants. Plato also observed that "The people have always some champion whom they set over them and nurse into greatness… This and no other is the root from which a tyrant springs, when he first appears he is a protector." This is perhaps the common thread in all of the opposing forces of the 21st century. Every society, every popular cause, every nation and every religion raises someone to icon status - this is not new but it is exaggerated today because of the instant communication in our Internet world. I cannot imagine that we are being led by men and women who are seriously inferior to those of ancient Rome, or who are more violent than the rulers of the Middle Ages or Renaissance. Our leaders are, for the most part, less violent and more toletant of oppositions. But they age fast because they are constantly in the eye of the media and dissected on the Internet. Again Plato -- "Good people do not need laws to tell them to act responsibly, while bad people will find way around the laws." And are we not also subject daily to the evil deeds of bad people because of the same media and Internet? Our reaction as 'normal' citizens is to demand absolute perfection in our leaders and to turn violently on those whose violence we detest. This can only make matters worse because perfection does not exist in human beings - so every leader will fail - and violence begets violence - until everyone is mired in the same sub-human mud and the formerly non-violent no longer recognize themselves. But through it all, we clamor for liberty, for complete freedpm of action and for government to become our nanny at the same time that we demand that it disappear from our daily lives. Not an easy puzzle to solve, is it? Two hundred years ago, Edmund Burke addressed these issues : "Liberty, too, must be limited in order to be possessed. The degree of restraint it is impossible in any case to settle precisely. But it ought to be the constant aim of every wise public council to find out by cautious experiments, and rational cool endeavours, with how little, not how much, of this restraint the community can subsist; for liberty is a good to be improved, and not an evil to be lessened. It is not only a private blessing of the first order, but the vital spring and energy of the state itself, which has just so much life and vigour as there is liberty in it. But whether liberty be advantageous or not (for I know it is a fashion to decry the very principle), none will dispute that peace is a blessing; and peace must, in the course of human affairs, be frequently bought by some indulgence and toleration at least to liberty for as the sabbath (though of divine institution) was made for man, not man for the sabbath, government, which can claim no higher origin or authority, in its exercise at least, ought to conform to the exigencies of the time, and the temper and character of the people with whom it is concerned, and not always to attempt violently to bend the people to their theories of subjection. The bulk of mankind on their part, are not excessively curious concerning any theories whilst they are really happy; and one sure symptom of an ill-conducted state is the propensity of the people to resort to them." Burke wrote this in a letter to British sheriffs. ~~~~~ Dear readers, these thoughts come to me from two very different fronts -- there is the uproar over the US government's Internet sweeps that certainly violate personal liberty, but at least in part as a response to the demand of its citizens to be protected from terrorists. And there is Nelson Mandela, struggling to hold on to life in a battle every bit as fierce as the battle he waged on Robben Island against fear and maltreatment and despair. He is in a sense the embodiment of our own struggles against violence and dehumanization at the hands of evil. We will lose Madiba one day. But we should hold fast to his spirit of love for his fellow human beings, to his sense that reconciliatipn is the only way to overcome violent opposing forces, to his belief that talking to your enemy is the only way forward. In this he echoes Lincoln, who tried always to persuade Americans North and South to be friends and brothers and not to be enemies. As Plato said, "Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle."

Monday, June 10, 2013

US Government Internet Spying

WHAT WE HAVE BEEN TOLD ABOUT U.S. INTERNET SPYING : Details about the US government's secret phone call and email sweep continue to be revealed, while President Obama, anxious to calm American outrage over the US spying on them, as they see it, defended the counterterrorism methods on Friday and said Americans need to "make some choices" in balancing privacy and security. Meanwhile, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper took the rare step of declassifying details of the programs to respond to media reports about counterterrorism techniques employed by the government. He stressed Saturday that the previously undisclosed program for tapping into Internet usage is authorized by Congress, falls under strict supervision of a secret court and cannot intentionally target a US citizen. Clapper was obviously angered by the revelation of the intelligence-gathering program, calling it reckless. "Disclosing information about the specific methods the government uses to collect communications can obviously give our enemies a 'playbook' of how to avoid detection," he said in a prepared statement. But the President's response and Clapper's public disclosures are a response to the national malaise, as well as Obama's sensitivity to any suggestion that he is trampling on the civil liberties of Americans. Clapper declassified some details of the NSA phone records collection program that obtains from phone companies on an "ongoing, daily basis" the records of its customers' calls. Clapper said that under the court-supervised program, only a small fraction of the records collected are ever examined because most are unrelated to any possible terrorism activity. His statement and declassification Saturday also addressed the Internet retrieval program, code-named PRISM, that allows NSA and the FBI to tap directly into the servers of major US Internet companies, such as Google, Apple, Microsoft, Facebook and AOL. Unlike the phone call sweep program, PRISM allows the government to seize actual conversations: emails, video chats, instant messages and more. Clapper said the program, engaged in under the USA Patriot Act, has been in place since 2008, under the George W. Bush administration, and "has proven vital to keeping the nation and our allies safe. They are important tools for the protection of the nation's security," he said. Clapper revealed that PRISM activity requires approval from a FISA Court judge and is conducted with the knowledge of the provider that supplies information when legally required to do so. PRISM seeks foreign intelligence information concerning foreign targets reasonably believed to be located outside the United States. It cannot intentionally target any US citizen or any person known to be in the US. Using data related to a US person is prohibited unless it is "necessary to understand foreign intelligence or assess its importance, is evidence of a crime, or indicates a threat of death or serious bodily harm." The Washington Post and Guardian citation of classified slides and other PRISM documents in their published reports that named major companies whose data has been obtained has thus been corroborated by Clapper. The newspaper reports also indicate that PRISM has opened a door for NSA to tap directly on the companies' data centers whenever the government chooses. The Guardian obtained top-secret documents detailing an NSA tool, called Boundless Informant, that maps the information it collects from computer and telephone networks by country. The paper said the documents show that NSA collected almost 3 billion pieces of intelligence from US computer networks over a 30-day period ending in March, which the paper says raises questions about the truth of NSA statements that it cannot determine how many Americans may be accidentally included in its computer surveillance. NSA spokesperson Judith Emmel said Saturday that "current technology simply does not permit us to positively identify all of the persons or locations associated with a given communication." She said it may be possible to determine that a communication "traversed a particular path within the Internet," but added that "it is harder to know the ultimate source or destination, or more particularly the identity of the person represented by the TO:, FROM: or CC: field of an e-mail address or the abstraction of an IP address." Emmel said communications are filtered both by automated processes and NSA staff to make sure Americans' privacy is respected. "This is not just our judgment, but that of the relevant inspectors general, who have also reported this," she said. The revelations have divided Congress and led civil liberties advocates and some constitutional scholars to accuse Obama of crossing a constitutionally-prohibited line in the name of rooting out terror threats. Experts both inside and outside the government predict that potential attackers will find other ways to communicate now that they know that their phone and Internet records may be targeted. An al-Qaida affiliated website warned its readers on Saturday not to send through the Internet details of militant activities in three long articles on what it called "America's greatest and unprecedented scandal" of spying on its own citizens and people in other countries. Former Representative Pete Hoekstra, who served on the House Intelligence Committee for a decade, said "the bad folks' antennas go back up and they become more cautious for a period of time." And he added that the government will develop more sophisticated ways to dig into these data. It becomes a techies game, and we will try to come up with new tools to cut through the clutter," he said. Hoekstra said he approved the phone surveillance program but did not know about PRISM online spying. ~~~~~ Dear readers, this is a lot to absorb. Think about it. If you are an American citizen, you may want to consider whether your government has created an Orwellian 1984 mechanism that could watch you and perhaps control your life. Of all the information to sift through in today's blog, the hardest to believe is the statement of Judith Emmel, NSA spojespetson, who said : " may be possible to determine that a communication 'traversed a particular path within the Internet, is harder to know the ultimate source or destination, or more particularly the identity of the person represented by the TO:, FROM: or CC: field of an e-mail address or the abstraction of an IP address.' " If this statement is accurate, why is the government risking its credibility to trawl the Internet? We will consider this and other personal liberty questions another day.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Pray for Nelson Mandela

Dear readers, just a word...pray for Nelson Mandela. He needs us now just as we needed him "then."

Cyberspace-led Terrorism and Personal Liberties

The difference between Star Trek and the real cyberworld is that Trekkies and their creator believe true evil is visible, easily identified and so susceptible to being destroyed by massive frontal attack. The real cyberworld is not like that. It is hidden, not easily identified and cannot be attacked and destroyed with massed military power. Cyber criminals seem to have three profiles. There are the traditional con men who lie to innocent or poorly protected Internet users in order to steal money. There are cyber spies who fish the Net for commercial secrets and patented technology and steal it in order to give their less inventive clients the illegally gained level commercial playing field they would not otherwise have. And there is the third type of cybercriminal. These are the terrorists, the jihadists, the radical islamists, the al-Qaida cells - call them what you choose - who want to destroy personal liberty and democratic government by terrorizing, killing, mass bombing, and brainwashing vulnerable youth to do their dirty work for them. As we might expect - and even demand - the US govenment is going after these terrorist cybercriminals, and has been for some time under the umbrella of the Patriot Act adopted after 9/11. But recent reports that first appeared in Britain's Guardian newspaper and The Washington Post indicate that the National Security Agency retrieves phone and email records, but not their actual content, from its secret warrants allowing it to collect data from major telecom companies. The program is aimed at detecting the calling patterns of terrorist suspects. A separate government program also collects massive amounts of data from at least nine Internet and electronic firms, retrieving everything from emails to photographs. Back in 2006, Vice President, Dick Cheney, was direct during a radio appearance, denying that the government was engaging in domestic surveillance. Cheney told radio host Hugh Hewitt that "what we're interested in are intercepting communications, one end of which are outside the United States and one end of which we have reason to believe is al-Qaida-related." Cheney's description of the program was accurate, even though several top Bush administration officials adamantly insisted that the government was not engaged in mass data-trawling as part of its secret NSA programs. Michael Hayden, the then CIA head of national intelligence, told a National Press Club audience in January 2006 that there was no effort to cast a wide net over communications data. "This is not about intercepting conversations between people in the United States. This is hot pursuit of communications entering or leaving America involving someone we believe is associated with al-Qaida." Bush's attorney general, Alberto Gonzales, also minimized the reach of the NSA data-gathering, telling a Senate Judiciary hearing in February 2006 that the surveillance "is narrowly focused and fully consistent with the traditional forms of enemy surveillance found to be necessary in all previous armed conflicts." But in May 2011, when the Patriot Act faced reauthorization, the NSA's secret programs began to receive carefully-couched attention from two Democratic Senators, Ron Wyden of Oregon and Mark Udall of Colorado. Constrained by requirements for speaking about classified secret programs, the two Senators offered only guarded warnings about how the government secretly interpreted the Patriot Act, saying that the American people would be "stunned and they will be angry" if they knew the facts. Wyden said during a floor speech in May 2011 : "Many members of Congress have no idea how the law is being secretly interpreted by the executive branch, because that interpretation is classified." But on Friday, President Barack Obama himself acknowledged the existence of such programs, giving the government's standard rationale to ease fears that Americans' privacy rights are being violated. Obama said that the electronic data-mining is not aimed at American citizens or inside the US. He said they sift through the metadata and they might "identify potential leads of people who might engage in terrorism,...Nobody is listening to your telephone calls," Obama assured the nation. What the government is doing, he said, is digesting phone numbers and the durations of calls, seeking links that might "identify potential leads with respect to folks who might engage in terrorism." If the intelligence community then actually wants to listen to a phone call, they've got to go back to a federal judge, just like they would in a criminal investigation." These programs are meant to make America safe, he said, but he offered no specifics about how the surveillance programs have done that. Some members of Obama's own Democrat Party are now attacking him for overreaching, and civil liberties groups are comparing him unfavorably to President George W. Bush. Obama said that the program was tightened under his administration but did not explain how. "In rooting out terror threats. understand that there are some trade-offs involved," Obama said. The President said that Americans cannot be 100% safe while maintaining 100% privacy. ~~~~~ Dear readers, we will surely return to this setious question - the trade-offs between security in the face of cyber-led terrorism and the fundamental human right to personal privacy. It is not an easy matter to balance the two. But that does not mean giving the government unmonitored carte blanche to play fast and loose with constitutional rights to personal liberty. Once again, citizens must be informed and involved before the government acts. Afterward, it will be too late to take back liberties given away because of fear generated by the heat of terrorist attacks.

Friday, June 7, 2013

The 45th Anniversary of Robert Kennedy's Assassination

Yesterday was D-Day. It was also the 45th anniversary of the assassination of Senator Robert F. Kennedy...Bobby as we remember him. Robert Kennedy scored a major victory in winning the California presidential primary in1968. It pushed his presidential candidacy into high gear, making him the man to beat. He addressed his supporters shortly after midnight on June 5, 1968, in a ballroom at The Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, California. Leaving the ballroom, he went through the hotel kitchen after being told it was a shortcut, despite being advised to avoid the kitchen by his bodyguard, FBI agent Bill Barry. In a crowded kitchen passageway Sirhan Sirhan, a 24-year-old Palestinian, opened fire with a .22-caliber revolver. Kennedy was hit three times and five other people also were wounded. George Plimpton, former decathlete Rafer Johnson, and George Plimpton, former decathlete Rafer Johnson, and former professional football player Rosey Grier are credited with wrestling Sirhan Sirhan to the ground after Sirhan shot the Senator. Following the shooting, Kennedy was first rushed to Los Angeles's Centra Receiving Hospital and then to the city's Good Samaritan Hospital where he died early the next morning. Sirhan said that he felt betrayed by Kennedy's support for Israel in the June 1967 Six-Day War, which had begun exactly one year before the assassination. His body was returned to New York City, where it lay in repose at Saint Patrick's Cathedral from 10 pm until 10 am on June 8. A high requiem mass attended by members of the extended Kennedy family, President Lyndon B. Johnson and his wife Lady Bird Johnson, and members of the Johnson Cabinet was held at St. Patrick's Cathedral at 10 am on June 8. Robert Kennedy was the last great icon of modern American liberalism. His older brother, President John F. Kennedy defined a liberal as follows : "...someone who looks ahead and not behind, someone who welcomes new deas without rigid reactions, someone who cares about the welfare of the people — their health, their housing, their schools, their jobs, their civil rights, and their civi iberties — someone who believes we can break through the stalemate and suspicions that grip us in our policies abroad, if that is what they mean by a 'Liberal', then I’m proud to say I’m a 'Liberal'." American liberalism has included Republicans who promote economic growth and high state and federal spending, while accepting high taxes and much liberal legislation, with the proviso they can administer it more efficiently. They welcome support from labor unions and big business alike. Religion and social issues are not high on their agenda. In foreign policy they are internationalists who encourage American leadership in the wider world. They are often called the "Eastern Establishment." ~~~~~ Dear readers, the political landscape in America has changed drastically since 1968. The Kennedy and Johnson Great Sociery is gone. The liberal wing of the Republican Party is non-existent except in the northeast, wiped away by the Goldwater inter-regnun and then Ronald Reagan's conservative GOP-Reagan Democrat coalition. One might argue that Jon Huntsman, who describes himself as a moderate conservative, has liberal views on social issues. Senator John McCain is probably a liberal but his expertize and focus on military affairs blurs his political viewpoint. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a liberal, left the GOP to become an Independent. I often wonder if New Jersey GOP Governor Chris Christie will not end up an Independent or a Democrat because his future in politics depends on the liberal vote he must cater to. But, how voters identify themselves has been fairly stable over the last two decades. As of August 2011, 19% of American voters identified themselves as liberals, 38% as moderates and 41% as conservatives. In 1992, 18% identified as liberal, 40% as moderate and 35% as conservative. Turnout to vote, however, fluctuates. Liberals comprised 20% of the voters in 2006, 22% in 2008, 20% in 2010, and 25% in 2012, which was the highest rate in decades. Despite this, the largest block of Americans are conservative, not liberal. In his eulogy at his brother's funeral, Ted Kennedy may have given the best explanation ever of Bobby Kennedy's special brand of liberalism : “My brother need not be idealized, or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life; to be remembered simply as a good and decent man, who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it. Those of us who loved him and who take him to his rest today, pray that what he was to us and what he wished for others will some day come to pass for all the world. As he said many times, in many parts of this nation, to those he touched and who sought to touch him: 'Some men see things as they are and say why. I dream things that never were and say why not.' "

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Churchill's D-Day Speech in the House of Commons

On 6 june 1944, the great D-Day invasion of German-controlled northern Europe began during the night. Winston Churchill addressed Parliament late in the day to report on events. Here is his D-Day Speech...lest we forget the enormity of the sacrifice that saved the world. ~~~~~~~~ "I have also to announce to the House that during the night and the early hours of this morning the first of the series of landings in force upon the European Continent has taken place. In this case the liberating assault fell upon the coast of France. An immense armada of upwards of 4,000 ships, together with several thousand smaller craft, crossed the Channel. Massed airborne landings have been successfully effected behind the enemy lines, and landings on the beaches are proceeding at various points at the present time. The fire of the shore batteries has been largely quelled. The obstacles that were constructed in the sea have not proved so difficult as was apprehended. The Anglo-American Allies are sustained by about 11,000 firstline aircraft, which can be drawn upon as may be needed for the purposes of the battle. I cannot, of course, commit myself to any particular details. Reports are coming in in rapid succession. So far the Commanders who are engaged report that everything is proceeding according to plan. And what a plan! This vast operation is undoubtedly the most complicated and difficult that has ever taken place. It involves tides, wind, waves, visibility, both from the air and the sea standpoint, and the combined employment of land, air and sea forces in the highest degree of intimacy and in contact with conditions which could not and cannot be fully foreseen. There are already hopes that actual tactical surprise has been attained, and we hope to furnish the enemy with a succession of surprises during the course of the fighting. The battle that has now begun will grow constantly in scale and in intensity for many weeks to come, and I shall not attempt to speculate upon its course. This I may say, however. Complete unity prevails throughout the Allied Armies. There is a brotherhood in arms between us and our friends of the United States. There is complete confidence in the supreme commander, General Eisenhower, and his lieutenants, and also in the commander of the Expeditionary Force, General Montgomery. The ardour and spirit of the troops, as I saw myself, embarking in these last few days was splendid to witness. Nothing that equipment, science or forethought could do has been neglected, and the whole process of opening this great new front will be pursued with the utmost resolution both by the commanders and by the United States and British Governments whom they serve. I have been at the centres where the latest information is received, and I can state to the House that this operation is proceeding in a thoroughly satisfactory manner. Many dangers and difficulties which at this time last night appeared extremely formidable are behind us. The passage of the sea has been made with far less loss than we apprehended. The resistance of the batteries has been greatly weakened by the bombing of the Air Force, and the superior bombardment of our ships quickly reduced their fire to dimensions which did not affect the problem. The landings of the troops on a broad front, both British and American- -Allied troops, I will not give lists of all the different nationalities they represent-but the landings along the whole front have been effective, and our troops have penetrated, in some cases, several miles inland. Lodgments exist on a broad front. The outstanding feature has been the landing of the airborne troops, which were on a scale far larger than anything that has been seen so far in the world. These landings took place with extremely little loss and with great accuracy. Particular anxiety attached to them, because the conditions of light prevailing in the very limited period of the dawn-just before the dawn-the conditions of visibility made all the difference. Indeed, there might have been something happening at the last minute which would have prevented airborne troops from playing their part. A very great degree of risk had to be taken in respect of the weather. But General Eisenhower's courage is equal to all the necessary decisions that have to be taken in these extremely difficult and uncontrollable matters. The airborne troops are well established, and the landings and the follow-ups are all proceeding with much less loss-very much less-than we expected. Fighting is in progress at various points. We captured various bridges which were of importance, and which were not blown up. There is even fighting proceeding in the town of Caen, inland. But all this, although a very valuable first step-a vital and essential first step-gives no indication of what may be the course of the battle in the next days and weeks, because the enemy will now probably endeavour to concentrate on this area, and in that event heavy fighting will soon begin and will continue without end, as we can push troops in and he can bring other troops up. It is, therefore, a most serious time that we enter upon. Thank God, we enter upon it with our great Allies all in good heart and all in good friendship." TRULY THE GREATEST GENERATION.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Qusair Falls - a Black Day for Obama's Middle East Non-policy

The town of Qusair has fallen to al-Assad forces. It is deserted, pocked with mortar holes and downed buildings. Al-Assad's army is bulldosing the rubble. The rebels are dead, captured or fled with the Syria Free Army. They didn't have enough ammunition to withstand Tuesday's final regime assault. The al-Assad camp is celebrating but it seems clear that they would not have retaken Qusair without the help of the Lebanese Hezbollah. And the Syria Free Army is vowing to retaliate for its defeat in Qusair against Hezbollah in Lebanon. ~~~~~ So, dear readers, as has consistently been the case in Syria, the timidity of the West and the refusal of President Obama to agree to arming the rebels, has led to more, not less, bloodshed. The Syria Free Army will pursue Hezbollah beyond Syrian borders. Extremist Islamists will strengthen their place in the rebel forces. Al-Assad will be more sure of his position and go after other rebel strongholds with full force. France and Britain have proved to their satisfaction that he is using sarin nerve gas and are ready to act. Obama wants more proof. The US Senate is ready to act. President Obama's reaction is to accept the resignation of Tom Donilon, his national security advisor, to be replaced by that bastion of Obama non-policy, UN Ambassador Susan Rice. Shuffling the deck chairs will not hide the lack of a policy or the will to form one. Listen to the world, Mr. Obama, and act now to save what is left of the Syrian people. Do not depend on Israel to hold off a sectarian Middle East war alone. Israel's job is to defend herself, to be America's ally (these roles are being well carried out) and to support US Middle East policy - but it is difficult to support what does not exist.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

The Chinese Industrial Fire and the State of the Chinese Communist Party Today

The tragic fire in the Chinese chicken processing plant has made headlines worldwide. The news stories focus on the poor or non-existent safety standards in the plant - and all over China. But for me, that is not the news. The news is that there is real news coming out of China in the wake of the fire that killed more than 100 workers. We have seen a live Chinese 'news conference' where leaders in the region tried to explain what happened. We have seen live TV reports on site showing the charred building and Chinese firefighters still working to keep the smoldering ruin under control. We have had eyewitness reports of the panic when the fire broke out. Roll back 10 - even 5 - years. There would have been a carefully controlled Beijing report on the 'accident,' with no live coverage, no eyewitnesses - just a carefully orchestrated Chinese Communust Party story with only the barest of facts disclosed. ~~~~~ Dear readers, we need to think about this. The Chinese Communist Party is still in full control. The Party is the only political group allowed in China. There are still human rights abuses about which we have only the merest information - even though the Party has permitted the famous painter WeiWei to talk to the world through the internet while preventing him from attending the Venice Biennial where his works are being highlighted. All these repressive measures reflect a Communist elite in full control and able to suppress civil liberties at will. But consider the fire with news coverage opened to the world. It is another indication of the Chinese Communist Party's split personality. They must open up their society because they want to be a major world power. But they do not want social and economic freedom to spill over into politics. It is a highwire act of significant prowess. But Chinese Communist leaders surely know that they will eventually fall off the tightrope. Perhaps - and I say this with a very quiet voice - perhaps it is time to treat China as one of us. After all, diplomatic efforts to bring the Chinese Communists into compliance with world norms on currencies, personal liberties and trade fair-play can and should continue. But public chastening of their leaders probably only serves to drive otherwise freedom-searching Chinese citizens to defend their leaders out of a sense of national pride. Why not treat China as a 'normal' world player and by doing so, hasten the day when the Communist highwire snaps under the weight of TV cameras and the healing presence of western human values in the midst of the Chinese people, who are wise with the wisdom of their five thousand years of seeing all sorts of "isms" arrive, flourish and die.

Monday, June 3, 2013

President Obama, the Constitution Does Not Have an Opt-Out Clause

You may have thought that all the political skeletons were already out of the Obama closet. It isn't so. Republican Senators Rob Portman and Orrin Hatch are demanding answers about Health And Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius' private fundraising to augment finances for Obamacare, saying her actions were legally and ethically wrong. In interviews with Newsmax, both Senators said that Sebelius' activities were ethically borderline and probably illegal. Since March, Sebelius has solicited donations on behalf of Enroll America, an entity which is made up of Obama campaign loyalists seeking to boost insurance exchange enrollments. Secretary Sebelius asked for donations, for example, from H&R Block and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which supports anti-obesity and other health outreach campaigns. H&R Block hasn't donated yet, but the Foundation donated a total of $14 million. Republicans say the fundraising drive violates the federal "anti-deficiency" act, which prohibits government agencies from accepting voluntary services or donations. However, HHS officials say a section of the Public Service Act allows its secretary to seek donations to support health programs. Hatch, who is the ranking Republican member of the Senate Finance Committee and two other senior GOP Senators have sent a letter to HHS Inspector General Daniel R. Levinson, seeking an investigation of Sebelius' activities, which ethics specialists have termed as being anywhere from a stretch legally to a shakedown of cash from companies the HHS oversees. “These activities call into question whether appropriations and ethics laws are being followed,” said the letter, which The Washington Times reports was also signed by Senator Lamar Alexander, ranking Republican member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee; and Senator Tom Coburn, ranking GOP member of the Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee. Hatch told Newsmax that Sebelius’ actions were “ethically suspect” and maybe even illegal.“If the secretary of any part of our government can call individual companies that do business with that part of our government and ask for money, that’s a tremendous amount of pressure they’ve put on in an inappropriate way,” the Utah Republican said. “Those companies or foundations may feel like: ‘Well, we’ve got to give, even though we find it outrageous, or we’ll suffer the consequences - or they’ll give us a rough time in the future....That’s why we shouldn’t do things this way,” Hatch said. “It may be a total violation of laws that are extremely important here.” Ohio Republican Senator Rob Portman also said that if it's proven Sebelius is raising money privately, she's breaking the law. Portman told Newsmax that the Constitution stipulates that Congress has the sole authority to determine the level of appropriations for federal programs. He argued any efforts by Sebelius to raise additional funds for Obamacare would violate one of the fundamental tenets of the Constitution. "I am very concerned about this HHS issue which is also one we need to get to the bottom of because, in essence, it is the Secretary of Health and Human Services refusing to accept the constitutional role of Congress which is the power of the purse, meaning that the federal agencies are not supposed to spend money that Congress does not appropriate," he said. "That's the way our Founding Fathers set it up and they did it on purpose. They wanted the people's house - the House of Representatives - and the Senate to be able to approve spending. So Congress chose not to allow HHS to spend money on some of the efforts related to Obamacare and she, instead, has said, okay, well, I'm going to do it privately." Portman added that if Sebelius is raising private funds for a governmental activity, and circumventing Congress to source the additional funds, she would also be violating the "anti-deficiency law." "The anti-deficiency law was put in place to avoid just this sort of thing. I am concerned about it. It hasn't gotten as much notice maybe because these other things are swirling around, the AP and Fox News issues and the Benghazi issue and the IRS issue, but it is one that we do need to get to the bottom of..." ~~~~~ So, dear readers, we can add to Obama's problems the possible HHS "fleecing" of private companies that do, or seek to do, contractual business with HHS to pay for government activities that Congress has specifically refused to fund. This may seem like small fish compared to the assassination of an abandoned US ambassador or the attempt to fetter free speech of political opponents through the harrassment of charitable organizations or journalists. But Secretary Sebelius' disregard for constitutional constraints is characteristic of President Obama's administration. Either the United States is a constitutional republic - or it is not. There is no constitutional clause that says the President and his Executive branch can opt out when the Constitution becomes inconvenient.