“Black Sites” of Silence?

Those who follow police misconduct closely know that patterns of abuse can become normalized when tolerated or unchecked by police supervisors. Abuses that went unreported or were unsubstantiated in years past have been exposed by the growing presence of camera phones and other technologies that record police-public interactions. But they can’t catch them all.

The Guardian’s Spencer Ackerman has reported a truly disturbing practice in Chicago. The police have established a “black site” area where Americans are held incommunicado to be interrogated. Prisoners are held without charge and in violation of their constitutional rights and without access to legal counsel:

The facility, a nondescript warehouse on Chicago’s west side known as Homan Square, has long been the scene of secretive work by special police units. Interviews with local attorneys and one protester who spent the better part of a day shackled in Homan Square describe operations that deny access to basic constitutional rights.

Alleged police practices at Homan Square, according to those familiar with the facility who spoke out to the Guardian after its investigation into Chicago police abuse, include:

  • Keeping arrestees out of official booking databases.
  • Beating by police, resulting in head wounds.
  • Shackling for prolonged periods.
  • Denying attorneys access to the “secure” facility.
  • Holding people without legal counsel for between 12 and 24 hours, including people as young as 15.

At least one man was found unresponsive in a Homan Square “interview room” and later pronounced dead.

Unlike a precinct, no one taken to Homan Square is said to be booked. Witnesses, suspects or other Chicagoans who end up inside do not appear to have a public, searchable record entered into a database indicating where they are, as happens when someone is booked at a precinct. Lawyers and relatives insist there is no way of finding their whereabouts. Those lawyers who have attempted to gain access to Homan Square are most often turned away, even as their clients remain in custody inside.

What NSA Director Mike Rogers Doesn’t Get About Encryption

At a  New America Foundation conference on cybersecurity Monday, NSA Director Mike Rogers gave an interview that—despite his best efforts to deal exclusively in uninformative platitudes—did produce a few lively moments. The most interesting of these came when techies in the audience—security guru Bruce Schneier and Yahoo’s chief information security officer Alex Stamos—challenged Rogers’ endorsement of a “legal framework” for requiring device manufacturers and telecommunications service providers to give the government backdoor access to their users’ encrypted communications. (Rogers repeatedly objected to the term “backdoor” on the grounds that it “sounds shady”—but that is quite clearly the correct technical term for what he’s seeking.) Rogers’ exchange with Stamos, transcribed by John Reed of Just Security, is particularly illuminating:

Alex Stamos (AS): “Thank you, Admiral. My name is Alex Stamos, I’m the CISO for Yahoo!. … So it sounds like you agree with Director Comey that we should be building defects into the encryption in our products so that the US government can decrypt…

Mike Rogers (MR): That would be your characterization. [laughing]

AS: No, I think Bruce Schneier and Ed Felton and all of the best public cryptographers in the world would agree that you can’t really build backdoors in crypto. That it’s like drilling a hole in the windshield.

MR: I’ve got a lot of world-class cryptographers at the National Security Agency.

AS: I’ve talked to some of those folks and some of them agree too, but…

MR: Oh, we agree that we don’t accept each others’ premise. [laughing]

AS: We’ll agree to disagree on that. So, if we’re going to build defects/backdoors or golden master keys for the US government, do you believe we should do so — we have about 1.3 billion users around the world — should we do for the Chinese government, the Russian government, the Saudi Arabian government, the Israeli government, the French government? Which of those countries should we give backdoors to?

MR: So, I’m not gonna… I mean, the way you framed the question isn’t designed to elicit a response.

AS: Well, do you believe we should build backdoors for other countries?

MR: My position is — hey look, I think that we’re lying that this isn’t technically feasible. Now, it needs to be done within a framework. I’m the first to acknowledge that. You don’t want the FBI and you don’t want the NSA unilaterally deciding, so, what are we going to access and what are we not going to access? That shouldn’t be for us. I just believe that this is achievable. We’ll have to work our way through it. And I’m the first to acknowledge there are international implications. I think we can work our way through this.

AS: So you do believe then, that we should build those for other countries if they pass laws?

MR: I think we can work our way through this.

AS: I’m sure the Chinese and Russians are going to have the same opinion.

MR: I said I think we can work through this.

I’ve written previously about why backdoor mandates are a horrible, horrible idea—and Stamos hits on some of the reasons I’ve pointed to in his question.   What’s most obviously disturbing here is that the head of the NSA didn’t even seem to have a bad response prepared to such an obvious objection—he has no serious response at all. China and Russia may not be able to force American firms like Google and Apple to redesign their products to be more spy-friendly, but if the American government does their dirty work for them with some form of legal backdoor mandate, those firms will be hard pressed to resist demands from repressive regimes to hand over the keys. Rogers’ unreflective response seems like a symptom of what a senior intelligence official once described to me as the “tyranny of the inbox”: A mindset so myopically focused on solving one’s own immediate practical problems that the bigger picture—the dangerous long-term consequences of the easiest or most obvious quick fix solution—are barely considered.

Clearly Worded Contracts Should Be Enforced

Freedom of contract—the right of individuals to manage and govern their own affairs—is a basic and necessary liberty. The appropriate role of the government in contract-law disputes is to hold parties to their word, not to enforce its own policy preferences.

The New Jersey Supreme Court recently struck a blow against that basic freedom, however, in ruling that clearly worded arbitration provisions—one of the most common parts of consumer contracts—are unenforceable unless the parties comply with multiple superfluous formalities. The case arose when Patricia Atalese retained a law firm, U.S. Legal Services Group, to negotiate with creditors on her behalf. Atalese signed a retainer agreement with a standard arbitration provision: she checked a box that unambiguously indicated that she read and understood that all disputes would be settled via arbitration. Then, after a dispute over legal fees, Atalese disregarded the arbitration agreement and filed a lawsuit in state court.

The trial court dismissed her complaint and compelled arbitration, a ruling that was affirmed by the intermediate appellate court. But instead of letting that decision stand, the New Jersey Supreme Court broke from years of tradition and federal precedent found the arbitration provision unenforceable because it lacked certain magic words stating, in addition to all disputes being resolved by arbitration, that the parties were waiving their right to a civil jury trial.

Cato, joined by the National Federation of Independent Business, has filed an amicus brief urging the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case. We make three key points. First, the New Jersey court’s proposed requirement—that contracts with an arbitration provision include belt-and-suspenders-and-drawstring language regarding jury-trial waiver—is redundant. Agreeing to submit a dispute to an impartial arbitrator instead of going through the expense of litigation is the very essence of an arbitration agreement.

Austerity, A New Weaselword

The financial press has become inundated with the word “austerity.” Since Greece’s left-wing Syriza proclaimed an “anti-austerity revolution,” strong adjectives, like “incredibly savage,” precede that overused word.

What was once a good word has become a weaselword. That, according to the Oxford Dictionary, is “a word that destroys the force of a statement, as a weasel ruins an egg by sucking out its contents.” How could that be?

Well, in the hands of an unscrupulous or uninformed writer, the inversion of a perfectly good word into a weaselword is an easy task. All one has to do is leave the meaning of a word undefined or vague, rendering the word’s meaning so obscure as to make it non-operational. With that, a meaningless weaselword is created.

In its current usage, the word austerity is so obscure as to evoke Fritz Machlup’s paraphrase of Goethe’s line from Faust: To conceal ignorance, Mephistopheles counsels a student to misuse words. Such is the story and fate of austerity.

Does Fed Leverage and Asset Maturity Matter?

Debate over whether to subject the Federal Reserve to a policy audit has occasionally focused on the size and composition of the Fed’s balance sheet. While I don’t see this issue as central to the merits of an audit, it has given rise to a considerable amount of smug posturing. Let’s step beyond the posturing and give these questions some of the attention they deserve.

First the facts. The Fed’s balance sheet has ballooned over the last few years to about $4.5 trillion. And yes, the Fed discloses such. No argument there. The Fed, like most central banks, has traditionally conducted its open-market operations in the “short end” of the market. The various rounds of quantitative easing have changed that. For instance the vast majority of its holdings of Fannie & Freddie mortgage-backed securities ($1.7 trillion) have an average maturity of well over 10 years. Similarly the Fed’s stock of treasuries have long maturities, about a fourth of those holdings in excess of 10 years.

Now the leverage question. We all get that the Fed cannot go “bankrupt” like Lehman. But that’s because “bankrupt” is a legal condition and one from which the Fed has been exempted. Just like Fannie and Freddie cannot go “bankrupt” (they are considered legally outside the bankruptcy code). The eminent economist historian Barry Eichengreen tells us the Fed’s leverage doesn’t matter as “the central bank can simply ask the government to replenish its capital, much like when a government covers the losses of its national post office.” Some of us would say that’s a problem not a solution, just like it is with the Post Office.

Others would suggest the Fed’s leverage doesn’t matter because “the Fed creates money”. Again that misses the point. Any losses could be covered by printing money, but isn’t that inflationary?  And that, of course, is just another form of taxation. So it seems Senator Paul’s primary point, that the Fed’s balance sheet exposes the taxpayer to some risk has actually been supported, not discredited, by these supposed rebuttals.

Let’s get to another issue, the maturity of the Fed’s assets. There’s a good reason central banks generally stay in the short end of the market. It avoids taking on any interest rate risk.  When rates go up, bond values fall. Yes the Fed can avoid recognizing those losses by simply not selling those assets. But that creates problems of its own. If we do see inflation, normally the Fed would sell assets to drain liquidity from the market. But would the Fed be willing to sell assets at a loss? At the very least there would be some reluctance. And yes they could cover those losses by printing money, but that’s hardly helpful if the Fed finds itself in a situation of rising prices.

The point here is that the Fed’s balance sheet does raise tough questions about its exit strategy.  Perhaps the economy will remain soft for years and the Fed can exit gracefully.  Perhaps not.  I raised this possibility before Congress a year ago.  I don’t know anyone with a crystal ball on these issues.  But one thing is certain, this is a debate we should be having.  Its the “nothing to see here, move along” crowd that poses the true risk to our economy.

Why Is the International Environmental Movement Silent about the Nicaragua Canal?

Nicaragua’s plan to build an Interoceanic Canal that would rival the Panama Canal could be a major environmental disaster if it goes forward. That’s the assessment of Axel Meyer and Jorge Huete-Pérez, two scientists familiar with the project, in a recent article in Nature. Disturbingly, the authors point out,

No economic or environmental feasibility studies have yet been revealed to the public. Nicaragua has not solicited its own environmental impact assessment and will rely instead on a study commissioned by the HKND [The Hong Kong-based company that has the concession to build the canal]. The company has no obligation to reveal the results to the Nicaraguan public.

In recent weeks we have seen similar opinions aired in the Washington Post, Wired, The Economist, and other media. In their article, Meyer and Huete-Pérez explain how the $50-billion project (more than four times Nicaragua’s GDP), would require “The excavation of hundreds of kilometres from coast to coast, traversing Lake Nicaragua, the largest drinking-water reservoir in the region, [and] will destroy around 400,000 hectares of rainforests and wetlands.” So far, the Nicaraguan government has remained mum about the environmental impact of the project. Daniel Ortega, the country’s president, only said last year that “some trees have to be removed.”  

Interestingly, despite this potential massive threat to one of the most pristine environmental reservoirs in the Americas, none of the leading international environmental organizations, such as Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth or the Sierra Club, has issued a single statement about the Nicaragua Canal.

We know for a fact that this is not out of lack of interest in Central America. After all, some of these organizations were pretty vocal in their opposition to CAFTA. Why isn’t the Nicaragua Canal proposal commanding the attention of these international environmental groups?

You Ought to Have a Look: Antarctic Ice, Summer Thunderstorms, and Cold Winters

You Ought to Have a Look is a feature from the Center for the Study of Science posted by Patrick J. Michaels and Paul C. (“Chip”) Knappenberger.  While this section will feature all of the areas of interest that we are emphasizing, the prominence of the climate issue is driving a tremendous amount of web traffic.  Here we post a few of the best in recent days, along with our color commentary.

In this week’s You Ought to Have a Look, we’re going to catch up on some new climate science that hasn’t gotten the deserved attention—for reasons soon to be obvious.

First up is a new study comparing climate model projections with observed changes in the sea ice extent around Antarctica.

While everyone seems to talk about the decline in the sea ice in the Northern Hemisphere, considerably less discussion focuses on the increase in sea ice in the Southern Hemisphere. If it is mentioned at all, it is usually quickly followed by something like “but this doesn’t disprove global warming, it is consistent with it.”

But, even the folks delivering these lines probably realize that the latter bit is a stretch.

In fact, the IPCC and others have been trying downplay this inconvenient truth ever since folks first started to note the increase. And the excuses are getting more involved.

A new study pretty much exposes the emperor.