Wednesday, June 26, 2013

A Whole Different Class of People Here

I was flabbergasted when the the Congressional Research Service reported on May 17 that the Pentagon didn’t have a clue what the 108,000 contractors the Department of Defense (DOD) has in Afghanistan were actually doing--let alone how well they were doing it.

Fortunately, my Uncle Jimmy, who works at the Pentagon, was in for the weekend, and I got a chance to ask him about it.

“Jimmy,” I said, “is this true?  You guys really don't have any idea what these people are doing?”

He laughed.  “Take it easy, Ace,” he said.  “You know how you media guys blow things out of proportion.”

I felt better already.  “Great.  Could you put it in proportion for me?”  I glanced at my notes.  “According to the report, DOD spent $160 billion with contracts in Afghanistan and Iraq these past six years. That seems like a lot of money to go unaccounted for.”

“Not a bit,” he scoffed.  “We actually save money by eliminating oversight.  We have over 40,000 more contracted employees in the country than we do troops!  Do you know how many people it would take to actually keep track of over a hundred thousand contract employees and monitor their work?”  

“Gee, I don’t know,” I said.  “A thousand?”

“Guess again,” he said.  “More like ten to sixteen thousand.  So we’ve saved, off the top of my head, somewhere in the neighborhood of $15 to $20 billion by eliminating supervision.” 

“That’s a high-priced neighborhood,” I joked.  “But I’d think you’d be worried about theft and corruption and inefficiency and work going undone and people goofing off.  Things like that.”

“You’ve got to be kidding,” he said, shocked.  “Ace, these are U.S. defense contractors you’re talking about.  They’re the biggest and the best.  If you can’t trust KBR, DynCorp, Fluor, Washington Group International, Lockheed Martin, General Dynamics, and corporations like that to give you an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay, who can you trust?”

I was silent for a minute, and he looked at me.  “I know that look, Ace.  You’re actually thinking.  What is it?” he asked.

“I was thinking about ‘corporate welfare,’ and just remembering those news stories back in the 70s when Ronald Reagan and Reader’s Digest hammered the welfare system and ‘welfare queens’” I told him.  “Cities and states have kept an eagle eye out for welfare fraud ever since.  You see governments zeroing in on welfare clients all the time.  Charlottesville cracked down on more than a dozen in April for taking money they allegedly weren’t entitled to.  Most of them were charged with siphoning off a thousand to four thousand dollars.”

“Defrauding the system.  That’s outrageous, isn’t it?” said Jimmy.  “But what’s your point?  I don’t see any connection.  We’re talking about a whole different class of people here.”

© Tony Russell, 2013

Monday, June 10, 2013

Privacy Died, and People Didn’t Even Know It

Author’s note:  The KGB alumni portion of the following, which sounds realistic, is actually fiction;  the NSA portion, which sounds like science fiction, is actual news from the real world.

It’s June again, and around the globe, in the northern hemisphere, alumni groups are gathering.  In Russia, the KGBAA (KGB Alumni Association)--former officials of the Soviet Union’s “Committee for State Security”--held their annual reunion this week at the Black Sea resort city of Sochi, nearly 22 years after the agency’s dissolution in 1991.  

The prevailing mood was surprisingly upbeat, full of nostalgia for “the good old days.”  In their heyday, KGB agents monitored and infiltrated dissident political, artistic, and environmental groups.  Agents not only spied on the members but urged them on to illegal and even violent acts which would justify harsh crackdowns by authorities.  The KGB also tapped phones, opened mail, paid informers, arrested people without charges, held them indefinitely, tortured them, and occasionally killed them.

This year the KGB alumni have watched events unfolding in their old enemy, the U.S., with heightened interest.   

The tone was set a few months prior to the reunion, when documents were released showing that FBI “counterterrorism agents” spied on the Occupy Wall Street movement nationwide.  Not only that, but they shared their information with the very banks, corporations, and Wall Street firms people were protesting against.

“The government’s response was stunningly effective,” marveled Andrei S.  “You had spontaneous nonviolent protests against the corporate stranglehold on government springing up all over the country, with the potential to change everything, and government security forces, coordinating with corporations, municipal governments, and local police, absolutely crushed the movement!”

“It was like old home week!” exclaimed Leonid Z.  “Anyone who objects to something done by the government is an enemy of the state, and thus a potential terrorist.”  

Even more entertaining to the ex-KGB men was breaking news that the U.S.’s National Security Agency (NSA) has been gathering the telephone records of millions of Verizon customers.  This was followed almost immediately by a report that AT&T and Sprint customers had also been spied upon.  And to cap off the week, it was revealed that the NSA has access to e-mails, search histories, websites visited, links followed, and live chats for customers of Microsoft, Apple, Google, Yahoo, and Facebook.

“We thought the breakthroughs were spy cameras in satellites, and drones with surveillance cameras to fly over houses and yards, checking to see who’s coming and going,” said Boris P., “but comprehensive, unfettered access to people’s phones and computers....”  He shook his head in admiration.  

“Technology,” nodded Mikhail B; “it’s wonderful.  Let’s face it: compared to these guys, we were dinosaurs.”

The KGB alumni, to a man, were envious of the NSA’s ability to spy on even the most casual, private, and intimate communications of virtually every citizen in the U.S.  

“Can you imagine the possibilities for blackmail?” chortled Yuri G, who had started in early on the vodka.  “I would have given my eyeteeth--well, not my eyeteeth but somebody’s eyeteeth--for access like that.  Privacy died, and people didn’t even know it!  It’s like being God--if there were a God.  You get to see and hear almost everything a person is saying and thinking, while they’re totally unaware.”

Public reaction in the U.S. to the unfolding stories has been muted--not surprising, perhaps, as members of the public begin to realize that their reactions, public or private, will be monitored by the FBI and immediately collected by the NSA.  

Citizens might also be worrying as they try to recall what they have looked at online, e-mailed, or said on the telephone.  That will require an exhaustive memory.  Vadim M. reminded his colleagues that California senator Diane Feinstein had basically called the revelations a non-story, since the massive domestic spying has been going on for seven years, during both the Obama and Bush administrations.  

Feinstein justified the spying because it is carried out under the authority of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.  It comes under the business records part of the PATRIOT Act; “therefore it is lawful,” she emphasized.  Unspoken was the obvious corollary: that it is unlawful to even reveal the existence of the surveillance.  

By yet another bit of lucky timing, this latter point has been dramatically underlined during the reunion by the showcase trial of whistleblower Bradley Manning, which highlights the unprecedented rate at which the Obama administration is prosecuting whistleblowers in general.

“I wish we’d had a PATRIOT Act,” said Vasily K., somewhat wistfully. “I always felt as if I had to be a little furtive when crossing the line.  But look what you can do when you have a legal blank check!”

P.S.  Here is a link  to a news item in today’s The Guardian about Edward Snowden, the man who is revealing the extent of NSA surveillance.  (Follow it at your own risk, understanding that your act is being monitored.)

© Tony Russell, 2013

Monday, June 03, 2013

We Are Family

This one contains a tongue-in-cheek look at the wealthy "decision makers"  who are deciding to "fix the debt" by cutting services to ordinary people rather than take simple steps like closing tax loopholes designed by and for the benefit of the rich, raising the current cut-off level on the Social Security tax, eliminating offshore tax shelters, going after income tax fraud, and raising corporate income taxes, which have plunged over the past few decades.   My apologies to any political figures I may have inadvertently shamed among their peers by low-balling their net worth.  I will gladly make any needed corrections. 
                                                            - Tony

June 3, Washington -

Administration officials and congressional leaders moved swiftly today to allay rising public fears that top government figures might face hardships in their retirement years because of impending cuts in Social Security and Medicare.  
The most recent polls show a rapidly growing public concern that our nation’s leaders will struggle after leaving office in view of slashes to retirement benefits and health care coverage.

“We have a responsibility to see that the quality of public servants’ lives isn’t jeopardized by worries about their old age or disability,” said Art McGrady, an unemployed factory worker.  “We have a moral obligation to them--simply because they’re fellow human  beings, of course, but also because they’re people who labor tirelessly on behalf of all the rest of us.”  McGrady’s sentiments, according to the polls, are widely shared. 

Chuck Browning is a retired coal miner whose guaranteed health care benefits from Arch Coal disappeared when the company adroitly unloaded the bulk of its pension obligations onto a company it created, then kept a straight face as the new company went bankrupt and all those “guaranteed lifetime benefits” vanished.  Browning said, “I know what it’s like to lose that sense of security.  For me it has felt like falling down a mine shaft.  So I can’t help worrying about our nation’s leaders.  They’re human beings who don’t deserve to be used by the public and then simply discarded and forgotten when they’re sick or old.  We are family, and family members care for one another.  We’re all brothers and sisters in this world.  ”

Members of West Virginia’s Congressional delegation--Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (maximum net worth in 2011 of $2.8 million), Rep. David McKinley (maximum net worth in 2011 of $13.1 million), Rep. Nick Rahall  (maximum net worth in 2011 of $2.97 million), Sen. Joe Manchin (maximum net worth in 2011 of $11.7 million), and Sen Jay Rockefeller (maximum net worth in 2011 of $116.4 million)--issued a joint statement to the Hur Herald expressing their gratitude for the outpouring of support.  “We are moved and humbled by your concern,” the statement read.  “We hope we can continue to deserve your trust.” 

Secretary of State John Kerry (estimated net worth more than $200 million) declared, “We always have the people’s best interests in mind, of course.  I can’t tell you how gratifying it is to know that the good intentions are reciprocal.”

Eric Holder, Mr. Obama’s Attorney General (estimated net worth of $11.5 million), echoed the sentiment.  “As we go about making tough decisions to axe programs, it strengthens our conviction we are doing the right things when we find the public has our back,” he declared.    

Penny Pritzker, Mr. Obama’s nominee for Commerce Secretary (estimated net worth of $1.6 billion), said in a prepared statement released by her press secretary, “We’re just ordinary people, with the same burdens and concerns as everyone else.  It’s touching to know that the public identifies with us and is stepping forward to assure that our needs are met.”

New Treasury Secretary Jacob “Jack” Lew, one of the most vulnerable of Cabinet-level members with a net worth of only $1.7 million, has called the groundswell of good will “heartwarming.”  

Mr. Obama himself (maximum net worth estimated at $11.8 million) and new Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel (maximum net worth of $10.9 million) recently won the hearts of millions of unemployed and underemployed citizens when they announced they are voluntarily surrendering 5% of their government salaries in a show of solidarity with the most vulnerable Americans, who have borne the brunt of recent budget cuts.  

The 5% cut means Mr. Obama will have to manage on an annual salary of just $380,000.  Per capita income for West Virginians in the past 12 months was $22, 010.

In an echo of Bill Clinton’s famous remark, Mr. Obama told a group of disabled and unemployed veterans from the Iraq and Afghan resource wars, “We share your pain.  Thank you for sharing ours.”

© Tony Russell, 2013

Note: The public probably shouldn’t be too worried, as congressional pensions are vested after only five (5) years of service.  Members can collect their full pension at the age of 62 with 5 years of service.   Presidential pensions start immediately after a new president is sworn in.  In 2011 it was $199,700 per year, supplemented by staff and office allowances, travel expenses, Secret Service protection, and other perks, including free medical treatment at military hospitals for themselves, their spouses, their widows, and their minor children.