Opinion

Stories I’d like to see

How the Guardian protects state secrets, and weak reporting at Ad Age

Steven Brill
Aug 6, 2013 12:31 UTC

1. How the Guardian protects America’s national security:

Last week, the Guardian released another Edward Snowden-procured red-hot document – a “top secret,” 32-page National Security Agency training manual for a program initiated in 2008 called XKeyscore that purportedly allowed NSA analysts to vacuum up data on Internet browsing activity around the world.

“The NSA boasts in training materials that the program…is its ‘widest-reaching’ system for developing intelligence from the internet,” wrote the Guardian’s Glen Greenwald.

That was quite a scoop, though I suppose I’m not alone in no longer being surprised at anything the NSA is snatching up. But what did surprise me was that as I scrolled through the electronic version of the document, four of the 32 pages were blacked out, because, according to the Guardian’s explanation: “This slide has been redacted as it reveals specific NSA operations.”

Really? How exactly are Greenwald and his editors making these decisions about what threatens and doesn’t threaten national security? The Washington Post, New York Times and other news outlets that have published security secrets have explained in the past that they typically go to White House or security officials in advance, and listen to — and sometimes act on — concerns that some of what they plan to publish will pose a threat that far outweighs their news value. It’s an awkward conversation because the officials start with the premise that all of the material falls into that category, but it often results in material being withheld or delayed.

But the Guardian and Greenwald in particular have assumed a far more adversarial stance than those in the more mainstream media, whom Greenwald routinely dismisses as lackeys of the national security state.

The cushy world of academia, surveillance 2.0 and $200 million to tear down a building

Steven Brill
Jul 30, 2013 11:36 UTC

1. Is higher ed the capital of featherbedding?

This sentence in an LA Times editorial two weeks ago about Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano becoming the president of the University of California caught my eye: “Half of the regents haven’t even had a chance to talk to her about how she would approach the job — a job that involves 10 campuses, 170,000 faculty and staff members and more than 220,000 students.”

Does it really take 170,000 faculty and staff to serve 220,000 students? Actually, not quite. According to the university’s website, there are 121,000 faculty and staff, not 170,000. But that still means 1.8 students for every faculty and staff member* faculty and staff members for every student — which doesn’t seem like much of a workload.

So I checked three other universities at random. New York University’s website says it has about 51,000 students and 16,000 employees, or about one employee for every three students. Harvard lists 16,500 faculty and staff for about 21,000 students, or 1.27 students for every employee. Florida State University says it has a faculty and staff of about 8,200 serving 41,000 students, or five students for every staff member.

TV’s campaign ad addiction, Obamacare outsourced to Canada, and a Romney aide’s new role

Steven Brill
Jul 23, 2013 11:44 UTC

1.  TV’s campaign addiction:

This report from the New York Times’ Brian Stelter two weeks ago explains how campaign cash spent in hotly contested presidential election swing states and in close primary and general election congressional races has helped to drive two recent multibillion dollar purchases of television station groups by Gannett and Tribune Company, both of which already own large collections of local television outlets.

As Stelter explains:

“The increasingly expensive elections that play out across the country every two years are making stations look like a smart investment….Despite an array of digital alternatives and a rapidly transforming television business, 30-second commercials remain one of the most valuable tools of campaigns and political action committees. As Leslie Moonves, the chief executive of the CBS Corporation, which owns 29 stations, memorably said last year, ‘Super PACs may be bad for America, but they’re very good for CBS.’”

In fact, Stelter may have understated the impact of the changed legal landscape that now allows unlimited personal and corporate contributions to PACs, Super PACs, and “social welfare” nonprofits, all of which have been buying hundreds of millions of dollars in political ads.

Teflon Tim Geithner, and profiling the Center for Responsive Politics

Steven Brill
Jul 9, 2013 13:06 UTC

1.  Teflon Tim and the Obama Keystone Cops:

Did the First Amendment get amended when I wasn’t watching so that freedom of the press is guaranteed except when it comes to writing about Timothy Geithner?

What else could explain how the former Treasury Secretary’s name could not be found in any of the stories last week about the Obama administration’s decision to postpone for a year the Obamacare requirement that employers with 50 or more employees must provide health insurance or pay a penalty of $2,000 per employee?

The explanation for the postponement was that the rules, instructions, and reporting forms necessary to implement the requirement could not be written in time. The Treasury Department has responsibility for that paperwork and has had three years and three months to get it done. Geithner was in charge of Treasury for all but five of those 39 months.

Selling artificial knees, analyzing the Trayvon Martin trial, and Random House cancels Paula Deen’s cookbook

Steven Brill
Jul 1, 2013 21:41 UTC

 

When Madison Avenue pitches artificial knees, do we all pay?

Americans — personally, or through private insurance or Medicare — spend more than $12 billion a year on artificial knees and hips. That’s more than Hollywood takes in at the box office.

A TV ad I’ve seen recently for artificial knees and hips made by Smith & Nephew, a British medical technology company, may help explain why we spend so much on these implants. It is not the kind of ho-hum ad we now see so regularly, urging us to seek relief from a disease we’ve never heard of by taking a pill with so many side effects it takes the pitchman half the air time to recite them. Instead, Smith & Nephew’s ads look more like a pitch for Nike.

Here’s how the ads are described in an article I found on the website of a trade publication, Pharmaceutical Executive:

The mysterious farm bill, sequestration’s virtues, and the death of airport newsstands

Steven Brill
Jun 25, 2013 10:31 UTC

1.  Can someone please explain the farm bill fight?

I’m a news junkie. But I am completely clueless about one policy issue that is hugely important (it affects what we eat and how much we pay for it), involves hundreds of billions of dollars in government programs and subsidies, and was splashed all over the front pages last week as the latest example of congressional dysfunction.

I’m referring, of course, to America’s farm policy (that’s farm, not foreign) and what last week’s headlines called “the farm bill.”

What is the farm bill? I know it has to do with paying subsidies to farmers for something, enforcing price supports (whatever that means) on some crops or commodities, funding food stamps, and implementing a bunch of other programs supposedly to help the farming economy. But that’s all I know, and I bet that’s all a lot of you know.

Vetting the Syrian rebels, stock gyrations, and A-Rod’s return

Steven Brill
Jun 18, 2013 11:47 UTC

1.  Vetting the Syrian rebels:

Most of those pushing for providing arms and other aid to the Syrian rebels — which the Obama administration announced last week it will now do — have promised that the rebels could be “vetted” so that weapons and other assistance don’t end up in the hands of jihadists and other bad actors.

I wish I could see a story explaining how that’s going to be done. We seem to have a hard enough time vetting Americans, like Edward Snowden, before giving them top secret security clearances. What’s the plan to separate the good rebels from the bad ones in Syria before letting them lock and load?

2. A gene-screening company’s stock gyrations:

Two weeks ago, I suggested a story  about how hedge funds must be using lawyers to handicap an imminent make-or-break Supreme Court decision concerning Myriad Genetics. That’s the company whose claimed patent of a gene has allowed it to charge more than $3,000 for the kind of test used by actress Angelina Jolie to determine whether she was likely to become a breast cancer victim.

Booz Allen’s liability, Europe and the NSA, and Obamacare as stimulus

Steven Brill
Jun 10, 2013 16:07 UTC

1. Booz Allen’s liability in the government snooping leaks:

We now know that the source of last week’s leaks revealing various U.S. government data collection and surveillance activities is a low-level employee of the giant consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton, which the New York Times reported on Monday was paid $1.3 billion last year by various American intelligence agencies under multiple contracts related to data collection and analysis. (The firm’s website  has a whole section under “Intelligence Community” about how Booz turns “Big Data Into Big Insights.”)

So, the obvious question is what do those contracts say about the firm’s liability if one of its employees spills its client’s secrets resulting in what Director of National Intelligence James Clapper calls “gut=wrenching” losses? Can we at least get some or all of our money back? (The company’s stock was down in Monday morning trading, perhaps in anticipation of such problems.) If not, why not?

2. Greenwald’s conflict?

Revealing Snowden’s identity was Guardian reporter Glenn Greenwald’s latest in his series of scoops on U.S. government snooping. Greenwald posted a video interview with Snowden in which the Booz Allen employee says he revealed the government’s intelligence programs to Greenwald to expose abuses of what he called “a surveillance state.”

More questions for Bloomberg and Angelina Jolie

Steven Brill
Jun 4, 2013 20:58 UTC

Actor Brad Pitt and his fiance Angelina Jolie arrive for the premiere of his film World War Z in Berlin June 4, 2013. REUTERS/Tobias Schwarz

Paging Bloomberg’s Winkler and Pearlstine

This story that ran in Saturday’s New York Times is the best one yet on the abuse of Bloomberg’s customers’ private information by Bloomberg, the financial information powerhouse founded by New York City’s mayor. As first reported in the New York Post last month, reporters at the Bloomberg news service made a practice of checking the customer service files of bankers and others subscribing to Bloomberg’s ubiquitous and extremely expensive – about $20,000 a year each – financial data information services.

For example, they reportedly figured out that the “London Whale,” who was involved in losing billions for JPMorgan Chase, had been fired by seeing that he had not been logging on to his Bloomberg account. (Bloomberg is a competitor of Thomson Reuters, which owns Reuters – where this column appears.)

Justice Department overreach, and a rudderless IRS

Steven Brill
May 28, 2013 16:05 UTC

1.    Who called Fox News reporter a “co-conspirator”?

On the Sunday before last, the Washington Post broke a story providing details of the Obama Justice Department’s investigation into how Fox News reporter James Rosen obtained classified information about American intelligence gathering in North Korea. Coming on the heels of the news that the Justice Department had secretly conducted a massive sweep of the phone records of the Associated Press as part of another leak investigation, the Post’s scoop was big news and ignited complaints from the press and others that the Obama administration was engaged in an unprecedented dragnet that would chill basic reporting.

For many, including me, the most disturbing aspect of the Post’s story was that in an affidavit filed seeking a search warrant for the Fox reporter Rosen’s email records, the Justice Department told a federal judge that “there is probable cause to believe that the reporter has committed or is committing a violation of section 793(d) as an aider or abettor and/or co-conspirator.” In other words, the government was saying that Rosen’s act of seeking the classified information the way journalists do every day (there are no allegations that he bribed someone for it or stole it) made him guilty of a crime because he was aiding or abetting or conspiring in the leak.

That characterization, which presumably would generate multiple life sentences for Bob Woodward, was unprecedented and seemed, even to many Obama supporters, over the top.

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