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There are no bones about it: In trading five Taliban detainees at Guantanamo Bay for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, President Obama willfully broke a law. And this wasn't an old law, or a law that was passed before he became president. It was his law — or more accurately, successive versions of the military budget bill called the National Defense Authorization Act.

Now, Obama did not like the provision that required him to give Congress 30 days of notice before transferring detainees out of Guantanamo. And in a signing statement, he said as much: The executive branch's ability to defend the country shouldn't be constrained by the notification period....  More»

 

If Afghanistan's president asked the United States to keep a contingent of counter-terrorism forces in the country after 2016, what, Christiane Amanpour wanted to know, would Hillary Clinton do? Would she say yes? Would she say no?

Some of you might be able to answer the question without qualification. It's a gut call.

Not for Clinton.

It would depend, she said, on what was happening in 2016: Whether the president of Afghanistan was doing as much as he could to build enduring political institutions and whether the government was effectively training and professionalizing Afghan's security forces....  More»

 

Amongst the new trove of classified documents released by Der Speigel is a rather academic discussion, in the NSA's own foreign affairs journal, about the differences between American signals intelligence collection and German signals intelligence collection.

One passage in particular stands out, as it highlights how the Germans give far more weight to privacy than the NSA does.

For the Germans, "...spam filters are used to process large data volumes. Selected traffic is passed through an automated privacy protection system, ensuring analysts cannot view German protected traffic....  More»

 

The world, President Obama and other presidents have noted, is a very complicated place. And Congress tends to see things in black and white. This is one reason why the administration really doesn't need Congress to mess around with sanctions against Iran when they're trying to forge a nuclear agreement, one that will inevitably come together, if it ever does, after fits and starts. Aside from the budget and treaties, Congress has little power to influence the direction of United States foreign policy.

So when they try to, it's often an occasion to take a closer look....  More»

 

I don't think Sen. Thad Cochran's astounding demographic coalition in Mississippi will prove a once-in-a-red-moon phenomenon for Republicans. I also don't think it suddenly represents a turning point for the monochromatic elephants on a national scale. Instead, it's an election that follows an axiom: If you give people a real reason to vote for you, if the stars align, they might actually vote for you.

Thad Cochran's campaign knew, from polling and from, well, the air outside, that Chris McDaniel seemed like a good ol' boy. Kind of a reconstructed racist who is proud of himself for insisting he is not racist....  More»

 

Lost in the commotion over ISIS's invasion of Sunni territories in Iraq: the other theater of war, Afghanistan, has seen an upsurge of violence against NATO troops. It is the summer now, but the annual Taliban "spring offensive" continues, with fierce fighting in the Helmand province.

Yesterday, a NATO soldier died in an as-yet-unspecified combat incident.

On June 20, three Marines from Camp LeJeune — one just 19 years old — died in combat in Helmand province.

A week before, five special operations forces soldiers operating in Zabul province died during a friendly fire incident; air support they ordered to help them escape misidentified...  More»

 

Here is the most popular argument for why the U.S. should stay out of Iraq, once and for all:

What in the world are we doing over there in the first place? ISIS's advance is the fault of a weak Prime Minister, and the war they're fighting is really a war about religion, resource control, and respect, the same wars that festered for centuries, with little bearing on the safety of Americans in the region and posing no threat to the homeland. The most vital American interest: Iraq's oil supply. The second most vital: assuaging guilt, because we're kind of at fault for igniting the war in the first place, having invaded a sovereign country because the ...  More»

 

I like soccer plenty, but it took me a while to get diving: Why it works so well, why it's so tolerated, and why even when the best players in the world, like Ronaldo, are famous floppers.

There are floppers in every sport. But flopping in soccer has reached pro-wrestling proportions.

So: a player wants to work the ref. Refs will give free kicks to players who have been tripped, or otherwise physically fouled. There's only one ref. It makes sense, if diving is tolerated, for players to dive in just about every circumstance imaginable. No instant replay....  More»

 

Contradicting just about every other intelligence official known to man, the new head of the National Security Agency, Michael S. Rogers, assesses the damage caused by the Edward Snowden leaks as "manageable."

He told The New York Times' David Sanger that while he had seen evidence that terrorists had discussed the NSA methods revealed by Snowden, "You have not heard me as the director say, 'Oh my God, the sky is falling.' I am trying to be very specific and very measured in my characterization."

This is a good thing to hear from the head of the NSA. It suggests to me that he is less enamored by the power of secrecy than many others in the intelligence...  More»

 

Hong Kong residents are up in arms about China. And in the past few days, they've staged the biggest pro-democracy demonstrations Asia has seen since the end of the British handover of Hong Kong to China in 1997. Almost 800,000 people have joined the protests.

Things have long been uneasy since China took over Hong Kong from the British. China had promised a "one country, two systems" approach to Hong Kong — but it has never been that simple.

The pro-democracy protest group Occupy Central staged an unofficial referendum last month. The questions: Should the chief executive of Hong Kong be elected directly?...  More»

 
July 2, 2014, at 6:08 AM

The 2018 and 2022 FIFA World Cups will be broadcast domestically by Fox, leaving ESPN more room to cover the organization more skeptically. Like the International Olympic Committee, FIFA is a cartel, a nonprofit entity that profits handsomely from the games, that exempts itself from tax laws, and that is fiercely resistant to change. It is run (mostly) by old white men with messianic tendencies whose response to criticism is to make messianic gestures.

Here's a quick rundown of why FIFA is fairly abominable.

1. FIFA is very slow to allow the use of technology to help referees adjudicate close calls, even those that would allow the flow of the game...  More»

 

The mountain in Richard Dawkins' Climbing Mount Improbable refers to the gravitational pull of human doubt that something so stunningly complex as the human eye could be produced by a combination of random genetic mutations, natural selection, basic math, and eons of time. If you stick with it, you'll have reached the peak by the end of the book.

Ed Klein, author of Blood Feud: The Clintons vs The Obamas, however, starts somewhere on a mountain ridge, and by the end, is lost in the foothills of Mount Improbable. A lot of Blood Feud is highly improbable....  More»

 

While the world awaits Glenn Greenwald's long-promised final scoop, in which actual targets of the National Security Agency's post-9/11 surveillance programs might be identified, The Washington Post pushed out a dramatic story of their own on Sunday. Based on 160,000 transcripts of intercepted conversations, The Post found that "nine of 10 account holders found in a large cache of intercepted communications ... were not the intended surveillance target but were caught up in a net that the agency had cast for someone else."

And here's the piece's jaw-dropper:...  More»

 
July 8, 2014, at 11:03 AM

I've become what's known in the business as an NSA defender or, if you please, a tool of the surveillance empire. I think the body of my writing would suggest something different, but hey — people read what they want to anyway. As I was re-reading a bunch of critical commentary about the latest story by The Washington Post, several points made by the NSA's detractors are worth highlighting because they are reasonable and quite legitimate.

1. The NSA wants to store everything it collects for a long time just in case it needs to go back and re-analyze something it missed....  More»

 

UMBRA.

In the annals of intelligence, no word is more associated with secret government intelligence reports, especially those produced for policy-makers based on raw intelligence. UFO reports in the 1950s. The most brittle reporting on Soviet leadership intentions. Intercepted phone calls between Chinese and Pakistani nuclear officials.

Way back when — at least since middle of the 1950s — the intelligence community used the UMBRA code word to inform the reader of a certain report that the original source for the intelligence was of the most sensitive category....  More»

 

During crises, American politics are sometimes capable of showing us their best. In the case of the near complete implosion of the housing market and collapse of financial institutions, Washington figured out a way to intervene, directly, and set the nation on a long road to recovery. Imperfect and incomplete as it was, the crucible of this crisis seemed to clarify minds, clearing out parochial concerns.

The humanitarian crisis on our southern border, where a wave of thousands of Latino children are pouring into America's Southwest, will not be one of those times....  More»

 

Over the past several days, The Washington Post and The Intercept have published two major stories about the National Security Agency's surveillance programs. Both were months in the making. Both have been touted as the last of the major scoops that Edward Snowden's archive offered up. I wrote here about the Post story.

The Intercept's article is the more explosive of the two, by far. If you've read it, you know now that the NSA spied on at least five American citizens who had no discernable ties to terrorism, and only incidental or professional and functional ties to foreign powers or entities....  More»

 
July 14, 2014, at 10:35 AM

In a long post this weekend at The Washington Post, Barton Gellman added some protein to his big story on the NSA. He also directly addressed my and others' criticism, writing:...  More»

 

Here in car-favoring Los Angeles, it's hard to find a mass transit project that was easily birthed. Convincing taxpayers who rely on cars to fund projects they won't use — projects for people who don't have cars and can't afford them — is not easy.

And this being California, environmental regulations, enforced by the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), are fairly rigorous. Working through the reviews has kept the employment rate high for civil engineers and lawyers. Before construction can begin, the state must certify that the project does not significantly and negatively impact more than a dozen separate quality of life measures....  More»

 
July 16, 2014, at 9:49 AM

Incheon, the big industrial port near Seoul, in South Korea, is going bankrupt.

But you wouldn't know it from the press and hype.

Construction cranes are everywhere. BMW just built a high-tech test-drive center there, at a cost of $75 million. The Asian Games kicks off there later this year. More than 10 new stadiums have been erected in the city since it was awarded the games, the crown jewel being a brand new 20,000-person soccer field.

The city and national government are paying a lot to spruce up the city before the games. The city, epicenter of March's Sewol ferry disaster, needs a morale boost....  More»

 

Imagine a quiet, unassuming, rather short man who:

-- was already considered a legendary standup in the 1960s;

-- was responsible for getting the Smothers Brothers kicked off the air at CBS;

-- made Richard Nixon's enemies list, becoming the only comedian to do so ("In America, anyone can become President. I think we bend over backwards to prove it.");

-- logged more Tonight Show appearances than any other entertainer, save for Bob Hope;

-- hosted the Tonight Show when he was 26;

-- had a mobster for a best friend;

-- directed hundreds of television commercials;

-- whose imprint on TV comedies ranging from Bob Newhart's shows to Mad About You to Seinfeld...  More»

 

It's impossible to observe the world react to the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 over Ukraine without thinking of the day the Russians shot down Korean Air Lines Flight 007 over the Sahakin Islands on Sept., 1, 1983. Then, as now, the area was saturated with intelligence sensors, and the two superpowers had a very good idea about what exactly had happened within hours. But the battle to gain geopolitical leverage from the tragedy poisoned the public's understanding.

But thanks to the signals intelligence collected by the actual RC-135 surveillance plane that the Russian fighter pilot thought he was aiming at the United States knew almost...  More»

 

Ben Gurion International Airport is adjacent to a war zone, and so, when a rocket fired by Hamas or its proxies landed in its vicinity on Tuesday, U.S. carriers decided to stop flying there. That's obviously smart and prudent.

Since the mid-1970s, almost a dozen commercial jets have been shot down by missiles. As shoulder-fired missile launchers proliferated, it become easier to envision a scenario in which jets taking off and landing could become prime targets for terrorists. Thriller fiction has beaten that scenario to death since the 1980s.

Counter-measure technology, like heat flares and laser diversion, hasn't been available for jets these large...  More»

 
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