Saturday, June 22, 2013

The NSA and the NSA


THE UNITED States of America, in the name of its own national security, is now Officially looking for one Edward Joseph Snowden. The former intelligence contractor who slipped his leash while working for the National Security Agency has now been charged in U.S. District Court with willful communication of classified intelligence to an unauthorized person and theft of government property. Some of the offenses come under jurisdiction of the U.S. Espionage Act, and carry penalties of up to 10 years in prison.

And on Saturday, the United States ratcheted up pressure on Hong Kong (where Snowden was last seen) to act on Snowden’s extradition, consistent with a 1998 treaty with the United States.

“If Hong Kong doesn’t act soon, it will complicate our bilateral relations and raise questions about Hong Kong’s commitment to the rule of law,” a senior Obama administration official told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity. No word yet on whether Snowden’s even still in Hong Kong.

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The Snowden affair has generated considerable blowback on the Obama White House specifically, and wreaked havoc on the nation’s trust in government generally, and its faith and confidence in that same White House.

What gives this scandal so much traction, what’s made it so powerful is its potential role in the wider world, the one we try to live in. It’s a given that, in a scandal that’s virally mushroomed since the news of Snowden’s data-collection disclosures, people in various high and midlevel places in Washington would be called to explain, if not called to account. But with the personal information of hundreds of millions of American citizens hanging in the balance, this is bigger than kabuki-on-the-Potomac.

And as noisy as it’s been the last two or three weeks for the NSA, one dimension of this farrago has so far flown under the radar. It’s the timely consideration of how the agency whose mandate is fortifying national security will mesh with the awesome latitude of the president’s next adviser on national security: Susan Rice.

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WHEN U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice blitzed the airwaves on a Sunday last September to deliver to the American people the best information she had available about the Benghazi disaster, it was more than a chance to discover the on-set lighting variables in the studios of ABC, CBS, CNN, NBC and Fox News. Despite the color temperature used by video engineers and the rhetorical temperature of her five questioners, Susan Rice stayed on message.

Problem was, the message she delivered on the Sunday gasbag programs was incorrect; that fact led to her being pilloried by conservatives for months after Sept. 16. Intentionally falling on a sword was never more painful; Rice was called everything by conservatives but a child of God. Congressional Republicans had her in league with Satan; she was an incompetent, she was a deceiver, she was the enabler of a vast Obama conspiracy.

Loyalty and patience have their rewards. Effective on July 1, if the protocol of transfer hasn’t functionally happened already, Rice will replace Thomas Donilon as the president’s national security adviser (a position sometimes shorthanded as “NSA”). From that day, Rice will face what may be her biggest test as a public servant: navigating the bureaucracy of Washington, exchanging the loftier, more public persona of ambassador for a government post whose importance has much to do with saying as little as possible.

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Some analysts have said that Rice may be in the catbird seat vis-à-vis the enunciation of American foreign policy for the next four years. There’s good reason to believe that could happen. The national security adviser is the president’s most reliably adhesive counselor, outside the chief of staff. While the Secretary of State travels the globe shaking hands, doing the native dances and performing a role as much ceremonial as substantive, the national security adviser stays home, by custom and by practice at the president’s elbow.

The legacy of the Eisenhower administration — Robert Cutler was named as the first national security adviser in March 1953 — the position has greatly evolved. Though the job necessarily varies from administration to administration, in our nervous post-9/11 world it’s become an office perceived as that of a secretary of the geopolitical shadows, a Richelieu on steroids. Condoleezza Rice had much to do with this perception, by accident or by design.

But what makes Susan Rice’s appointment as national security adviser so singular now is its arrival at an unprecedented time in the nation’s cultural and technological evolution, a period when — to go by the revelations of the PRISM program; Snowden’s actions opposing that program; and the recent disclosure by the Justice Department that it has surveilled everything from a Fox News reporter’s e-mails to the servers of Facebook and Yahoo — there are, it seems, no secrets. Only revelations we haven't uncovered yet.

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How will Rice, a former UN ambassador (and by definition a believer in the power of human interaction and the potential for consensus), be swayed by the antiseptic efficiencies of drone warfare replacing human intelligence with electronic intel? What’s her take on the U.S. government’s maximalist rationale for surveillance of Americans in pursuit of a subset of a subset of a subset of potential terrorists — the rationale offered by her once and future boss, and defended in his expansive interview with Charlie Rose on PBS?

Much of her previous job as UN Ambassador depended to some degree on transparency, making things clear, pursuing global consensus, staking out America’s stated position in the world forum, announcing her nation’s intention on the global stage.

Much of the job she begins on July 1 depends on her doing the exact opposite — depends on anything but transparency. As the national security adviser, how will she square that circle? What will she advise?

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WE’RE RIGHT to wonder. Rice’s obdurate support for the president, and her own proven ability to stick to administration talking points, suggest a support that may owe as much or more to the man who hired her as to the country on whose behalf she acts.

Susan Rice has been a brilliant career diplomat, and she’s distinguished herself in a variety of positions pivotal to this nation’s well-being. Her bona fides — Stanford, the State Department, Brookings Institution, the UN — couldn’t be more in order. There’s no doubt she’ll change the job.

The question is, in the face of a world that’s exponentially more dangerous than five years ago, and an administration as determined to keep official secrets as it’s determined to reveal the privileged secrets of the people it governs … how will the job change her?

Also published at Medium.com. Image credits: Rice: United Nations. Hillary in Africa: via sodahead.com. Fair-use rationale for use of NSA seal: Agency and its policies figure prominently in a news story of general interest.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

GOP gets its tech on


SINCE the 2012 presidential election, and despite a 5-million-vote drubbing at the polls, there’ve been any number of signs that the Republican Party Just Didn’t Get It — didn’t grasp the gravity and frequency of their missteps in an election that revealed the emergence of a new demographic calculus in America.

We won’t enunciate all of them here; the blessed loyal readers of this blog among you know what they are. But one of the biggest GOP misreadings of the American electorate in 2012 was an inability to appreciate and capitalize on the power of social media and digital technology, and its vast reach into segments of the population the Republican Party needs like a drowning man needs a lifeguard.

This week we got an indicator that that’s about to change.

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Jennifer Van Grove of CNet reported on Wednesday that the Republican National Committee, the organization tasked with taking charge of how the GOP makes itself matter to the American people, has hired a former Facebook manager as its first chief technology officer. The Huffington Post also reported on the hiring on Wednesday.

Andrew Barkett, 32, a former FB engineering manager, assumes the new role “meant to provide the party with much-needed expertise in the digital realm and help it develop relationships in the tech sector,” Van Grove reported.

“It's essential that the Republican Party has the resources to drive voter turnout as we look toward the elections of 2014, 2016 and beyond,” Barkett said in a statement obtained by CNet.

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THIS WAS no lucky hire who dropped out of the sky. The need for the new position was outlined in the party’s Growth & Opportunity Project manifesto and blueprint released months ago. Barkett, apparently, is the point person the GOP needs, someone “whose experience and background sends a strong and immediate signal that we are serious about growing our digital and tech operations ...”

The immediate objective: to “identity, recruit and hire a working group of data scientists, tech and digital advocates to build a structure that can eventually be deployed during the 2014 midterm elections and the 2016 presidential race ...”

With Barkett’s background, this is certainly a mission: possible. The Huffington Post reported that Barkett, earned a political economy degree from University of California-Berkeley, in 2002 and a masters’ in business administration from the University of California-Davis in 2009. He was a manager at Google for two years.

Van Grove reported that Barkett joined Facebook in January 2011 and took charge of engineering teams responsible for scaling FB mobile infrastructure, messaging, and its recently-redesigned News Feed component. Before Facebook, Barkett was senior director of engineering for Livescribe, a company that makes a paper-based computing platform for electronic note-taking.

Clearly, the man’s got the goods. A source with early knowledge of the hiring told HuffPost that “[t]his guy is obviously in a different mold. This guy is actually from the engineering side. If I’m looking at it from the RNC’s perspective, getting somebody who is really an engineer and has been doing this on the tech side makes a lot of sense.”

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IT’S OBVIOUSLY a shot across the bow of the Democratic Party 18 months before the midterms. The deeper question for voters will be: What’s behind it? In 2012, the Republican Party lost the messaging war, but only partly because of the messenger — the avenue of communication. More problematic, then and now, is the message itself.

Still grappling with woeful poll numbers among Latino voters, African Americans, women, younger voters and disaffected independents — the coalition that ushered President Obama to a second term — the Republicans face a problem that improved social and digital skills don’t really address. The memes of inward-looking, mean-spiritedness and 47 percent selfishness have attached to the Republican Party’s persona like barnacles to a boat, and all the digital prowess in the world won’t change that.

And there’s something just as important as outreach to those outside the tent: finding common cause among the true believers, and ending the intraparty punch-ups that have characterized the GOP since before the election. The Republicans can’t hope to reposition themselves for the American people until they reposition themselves for themselves.

Barkett’s bona fides loudly announce themselves, and there’s every good reason to think the Republican Party will mount a more robust, less self-centered strategy in the social and digital realms next year, and in 2016. But the rubber will meet the road sooner rather than later. The only thing worse than not having a solid, full-fledged social and digital strategy is having one that doesn’t send a transformative message to the people that strategy was developed to reach.

Image credits: Barkett: Corrin Rankin for Redwood City City Council/Facebook, via CNet. Facebook logo: © 2013 Facebook. 

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

How the GOP lost young voters in 2012


THE RESULTS of the various post-election autopsies for the Republican Party have been coming in from various quarters since November 7 — the day after the election. Most of them have offered the perspectives of analysts and pundits of every political persuasion. On Monday we got a post-election analysis that really matters — or it should — to the party in question. It’s a view of the recent past according to younger voters, the people in the GOP need to pay attention to, if they hope to have a future.

In a 95-page study that’s stunning in its frankness and willingness to break with the behavioral tics and philosophical pieties of the Grand Old Party, the College Republican National Committee calls out the party of Lincoln for its inclination to act like the party of John Calhoun.

The report, “Grand Old Party for a Brand New Generation,” was culled from a variety of sources including a March survey conducted for the committee. It throws down the gauntlet, saying “the Republican Party has won the youth vote before and absolutely can win it again. But this will not occur without significant work to repair the damage done to the Republican brand among this age group over the last decade.”

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The committee report finds that most post-election postmortems for the GOP fell into three broad categories: “the ‘technology’ camp, the ‘policy’ camp, and the ‘brand’ camp.”

The technology crowd, the report says, “posits that Republican losses had quite a bit to do with the GOP’s failure to keep up with Democrats on key items such as data systems, polling, social media, and advertising. While each of these items is very different from the others, they are frequently lumped together under the umbrella of a GOP technological deficit.”

According to the policy crowd “it was the party’s policies that kept young voters from supporting the GOP. Indeed – and as this report will examine in great detail – there are subjects where the Millennial generation and Republican Party are not in perfect agreement.”

And those in the brand camp hold that it was a messaging problem that victimized the Republican party in November. “House Majority Leader Eric Cantor prominently espoused this position in his statement likening the GOP to a pizza company, saying that the party needs to focus on changing the ‘pizza box’ rather than the ‘pizza.’”

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TO ITS credit, the CRNC addresses the party’s shortcomings from a holistic perspective, looking at the totality of the problem, rather than one facet of the problem. “Neither technology, nor policy, nor branding alone will fully endear the Republican Party to a generation that has now twice broken for a Democratic candidate by historic margins. Indeed, these areas are all quite connected with one another.”

The report finds that (not surprising in this era of informational atomization) younger voters went to a variety of different sources for political news. Even some news sources that wouldn’t be considered “news.” According to the report, “29% of young voters [said] that they get political news from The Daily Show at least once a week, and 26% [said] the same of The Colbert Report.”

“While more traditional communications channels such as local news and the newspaper are not completely obsolete, programs like The Daily Show and the emergence of a variety of popular online news sites offer new ways to reach Millennial voters and underscore the need for Republicans to catch up to the changing media landscape.”

It’s axiomatic in a time of 24/7/365 information: my news isn’t your news isn’t her news isn’t his. But the report, strikingly, found that 58 percent of young people responding to the committee survey reported that the social networking utility Facebook was their leading source of news. The fact that such a viral, bottom-up, grassroots information source is considered news in the first place underscores the need for the GOP to (among other things) break out of the box of its shopworn assumptions, and resist thinking that, just because party elders read and swear by The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Times, all Republicans do too. To go by the survey, it ain’t necessarily so.

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THE REPORT looks at other modern tech phenomena like smartphones, e-mail, tablets and laptops, and how they’re used by young voters together along with more traditional media exponents, like television and newspapers. The takeaway is that younger voters adhere to a “both/and” approach to political news, rather than an “either/or” approach, despite an admitted preference for online information as first among equals.

The report also came to a conclusion that should give Republican obstructionists serious pause. There’s no love feast going on between young voters and the Democratic Party. But Obama and the Democrats last year held the White House and grew their numbers in Congress after capitalizing both on their strength (credibility) and on GOP weakness (the same thing).
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