201102

February 2, 2011 9:02AM

We’re All Terrorists Now

The Tennessee ACLU sent a letter to public schools warning them not to celebrate Christmas as a religious holiday. The Tennessee Fusion Center (H/T Uncle) put the communication on its map of “terrorism events and other suspicious activity”:

"ACLU cautions Tennessee schools about observing ‘one religious holiday,’” the website’s explanation reads.

Also among the map’s highlights: “McMinn County Teen Brings Gun to School,” and “Turkish National Salih Acarbulut Indicted in Chattanooga for Alleged $12 million Ponzi Scheme.”

Mike Browning, a spokesman for the Fusion Center, said “that was a mistake” to label the ACLU letter as a suspicious activity. He said the Fusion Center meant to use the icon that means merely general information. The icon was changed after the ACLU sent its news release, he said.

“It’s still on the map,” Browning told The City Paper. “It has been reclassified into the general information category.”

But a look at the website shows there is no icon for general information. Instead, the icon for the ACLU letter now signifies “general terrorism news,” according to the website’s legend.

This follows a long line of fusion center and DHS reports labeling broad swaths of the public as a threat to national security. The North Texas Fusion System labeled Muslim lobbyists as a potential threat; a DHS analyst in Wisconsin thought both pro- and anti-abortion activists were worrisome; a Pennsylvania homeland security contractor watched environmental activists, Tea Party groups, and a Second Amendment rally; the Maryland State Police put anti-death penalty and anti-war activists in a federal terrorism database; a fusion center in Missouri thought that all third-party voters and Ron Paul supporters were a threat; and the Department of Homeland Security described half of the American political spectrum as “right wing extremists.”

The ACLU fusion center report and update lay out some good background on these issues, and the Spyfiles report describes how monitoring lawful dissent has become routine for police departments around the nation. Cato hosted Mike German, a former FBI counterterrorism agent and co-author of the ACLU fusion report at a forum on fusion centers, available here.

February 2, 2011 8:00AM

A Nobel Peace Prize for Julian Assange?

Today POLITICO Arena asks:

Does WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange deserve a Nobel Peace Prize, as Norwegian parliamentarian Snorre Valen urges, calling him “one of the most important contributors to freedom of speech and transparency"?

My response:

A Nobel Peace Prize for Julian Assange? Please! He's a fence for stolen goods. Transparency has its place. But nations, like individuals and private organizations, need to conduct their business with varying degrees of confidence. Look at Egypt at the moment, where American, Egyptian, and other officials are conducting delicate negotiations in the context of a potentially explosive situation. Only the most naive would expect those to be fully transparent. That's why all nations have strict rules about classified materials.

Is classification abused? Of course it is. In my experience in government, far too much was classified, often for the wrong reasons. But that's hardly ground for abandoning classification. And if we have a classification system, it has to be enforced. If the alleged source of the WikiLeaks trove, Pfc. Bradley Manning, is proven guilty, he should be fully punished. It's unclear whether our law can reach Assange, but surely he should not be honored, whatever incidental good may have come here and there from his duplicity. Not only would awarding him the Nobel Peace Prize dishonor the prize and so many who've received it before him, but it would contribute to undermining the very system of confidential communications that is essential to peace. The very idea should be put to rest, in the name of peace.

February 1, 2011 8:02AM

HUD ‘Failing the Taxpayers’

That’s what the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s recently retired inspector general had to say in response to rampant malfeasance and mismanagement at public housing authorities uncovered by a joint investigation by ABC News and The Center for Public Integrity.

From the report:

The problems are widespread, from an executive in New Orleans convicted of embezzling more than $900,000 in housing money around the time he bought a lavish Florida mansion to federal funds wrongly being spent to provide housing for sex offenders or to pay vouchers to residents long since dead.

Despite red flags from its own internal watchdog, HUD has continued to plow fresh federal dollars into these troubled agencies, including $218 million in stimulus funds since 2009, the joint investigation found.

The report singles out Philadelphia’s public housing authority, which HUD reportedly considers to be a “model agency.” The Philadelphia Housing Authority’s outgoing executive director, who was paid $300,000 a year, had “spent lavishly on parties that included belly dancers, and had used more than $500,000 in housing authority funds to secretly settle claims accusing him of inappropriate sexual advances with female employees.”

Here’s the former director of the “model agency” channeling his inner Charlie Sheen on the taxpayer’s dime:

Media Name: philly%20pha.jpg

Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA) doesn’t understand how HUD could have missed the problems:

“We expect that the agency in Washington, D.C. ought to be making sure that every taxpayer dollar is spent in a responsible way. And it seems to me that we have not had that proper oversight,” Grassley said.

Really, Senator? As a Cato essay on HUD scandals illustrates, the agency has been plagued by mismanagement and corruption since its inception. HUD has never made sure every taxpayer dollar was “spent in a responsible way.” And it never will for the simple fact that a government agency has little incentive to ensure that money coerced from taxpayers isn’t wasted. In contrast, a private charity with a record like HUD would see its voluntary donations dry up.

See this Cato for more on public housing subsidies and why they should be abolished.

February 1, 2011 7:47AM

Jeff McKay: Cavalier About Violating Metro Riders’ Liberties, Spending Taxpayer Dollars

In a blog post of righteousness last week, I assailed Fairfax County (Virginia) Supervisor Jeff McKay for his failure to comprehend basic security principles as they pertain to the Metro system.

A Washington Examiner reporter retrieved McKay's response:

[H]e laughed. But he quickly defended his stance, saying that random searches were recommended by the U.S. Transportation Security Association, the D.C. Police, and WMATA management.

"I trust the intelligence agencies when they tell me there's a reason to do this," he said.

McKay admitted that bag searches likely wouldn't stop someone intent on causing mass destruction to the Metrorail, but that they will make passengers much more aware of security concerns.

Supervisor McKay was not flip about these issues at the meeting of the Metro board. He spoke about the bag search policy in terms of his moral duty to make the Metro system safe.

But it turns out he can't defend the validity of bag searches as a security measure. He admits he's just doing what he's told, and he sees it as a way to keep Metro riders on edge. The taxpayer money spent on bag searches is pure waste. Interesting moral universe.

February 1, 2011 7:45AM

Judge Vinson’s Greatest Hits

It's hard to get too excited about a district court decision -- this is one of several, and will be superseded by circuit and eventual Supreme Court decisions -- but this decision in Florida v. U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services is remarkable.  Most notably, the 78-page ruling is well theorized and engaging (Vinson’s opus is a joy to read compared to most stuff I have to wade through to understand what the courts are doing) and sets the stage for the appellate writings to come.  It puts “facts on the ground,” if you will. 

No higher courts are bound but they are influenced.  Judges, like anyone else, don’t want to reinvent the wheel where they don’t have to.  So the circuit courts and even the Supremes will say all this in their own words but don’t for a second think they ain’t payin’ attention.  I can’t cite you statistics about justices being influenced by district (or even circuit) court opinions, but it would be laughable to think that the outcome before the Court would be the same regardless of how the decisions on the merits before several thoughtful district judges went.

Read on for highlights from Judge Vinson's magisterial opinion (to which I initially responded here and whose immediate consequences I analyzed here).  Page numbers are in parentheses after each quote.

Read the rest of this post »
February 1, 2011 7:43AM

Aetna Exits Colorado’s Individual Market

According to the Denver Business Journal:

A spokeswoman for Aetna confirmed Monday that the insurer will no longer sell new individual-market health insurance policies in Colorado and will terminate current policies held by state residents no later than July 31, 2012.

Aetna had already announced that it will no longer sell child-only coverage or small-group coverage in the state.   Colorado is one of 34 states where insurers fled the market for child-only coverage as a result of ObamaCare.  Colorado took steps to try to stabilize its child-only market, and is considering requiring insurers to sell child-only coverage as a condition of selling coverage directly to adults.

Aetna isn't commenting on whether ObamaCare played a role in its decision.   Aetna customers will have to switch plans by July 31, 2012.