Saturday, June 25, 2016

"If anything, I have big investments over in Europe"

Once again demonstrating difficulty with the question of where Donald Trump ends and the rest of the universe begins, the Presumptive GOP Nominee reacted yesterday to the Brexit vote and the immediate plunge of the British pound by declaring that he stood to make money on it.

The setting was a more-than-bizarre news conference at his golf resort in Turnberry on the west coast of Scotland. Apparently unaware than Scotland had overwhelmingly voted against leaving the European Union, Trump extolled the "great news" of the victory of the "leave" side in the UK-wide referendum:

Look, if the pound goes down, they're going to do more business. You know, when the pound goes down, more people are coming to Turnberry, frankly.

None of the traveling press pool (who had paid $10,000 a head for the ride to Scotland to see Trump promote his "phenomenal" golf properties, which include "greatest course ever built new") apparently thought to ask how a falling pound and Euro were going to be good for American companies and American workers that depend on selling their products to the rest of the world.

But what's good for Donald J. Trump is good for the USA!

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Geoffrey Stone on Snowden

NSA headquarters
Geoffrey Stone, a University of Chicago law professor and well-known champion of civil liberties, was a member of a White House review panel appointed in the wake of the Snowden revelations to examine NSA's communications surveillance programs and offer recommendations on improving oversight.

In a recent published interview, he offered some sharp criticisms of Snowden and described his own surprise in discovering, in the course of the panel's work, that his initial assumption that NSA had "run amok" was "completely wrong":
The more I worked with the NSA, the more respect I had for them as far as staying within the bounds of what they were authorized to do. And they were careful and had a high degree of integrity. My superficial assumption of the NSA being a bad guy was completely wrong.
I think his criticisms of Snowden are well founded and worth reading in full, especially where he scores Snowden for his arrogance in assuming he could singlehandedly confer on himself the right to decide what information should and should not be classified, and for his contention that his actions ought to be above the law since they were in a good cause.  (In Stone's words, "I don't doubt that Snowden was courageous and did what he did for what he thought were good reasons. But I think he was unduly arrogant, didn't understand the limitations of his own knowledge and basically decided to usurp the authority of a democracy.")

And I also agree with Stone that most NSA employees I have met are honest, decent people, acting with integrity, and that NSA did in fact develop and implement comprehensive procedures to try to insure that the masses of data vacuumed up in its bulk collection programs were used only to locate and identify legitimate foreign terrorist targets.

Nonetheless, I think Stone is a bit too easy on the agency in two key respects.

First is that NSA almost certainly violated the law, and probably the Constitution, when it first began collecting masses of telephone and internet data without a warrant, acting on a "presidential authorization" in 2001 that flatly contradicted statutory law.

The President's Surveillance Program directed NSA to intercept without court approval communications when one party was believed to be a member of al-Qaeda, even if the other party was a US citizen or resident.

But that is a situation that the law specifically says requires a warrant: The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, enacted in the wake of the Watergate scandals (which revealed that NSA, among other things, had targeted for surveillance US citizens on Nixon's "enemies list," including newspaper columnists, political opponents, and domestic antiwar activists), in fact makes it an explicit criminal offense for any government official acting under color of law to conduct surveillance on a US person without a warrant from a special court created by the same law, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC). 

Likewise, even after NSA's bulk telephone calling data ("metadata") collection program was (possibly) legalized under section 215 of the 2001 Patriot Act, the FISC (as we now know) repeatedly chastised the agency for "substantial misrepresentations" to the Court of the extent of its data bulk collection programs and for overstepping court-mandated rules to "minimize" the "incidental" collection of US citizens' data.

These are not trivial points or technical hairsplitting. One of the most fundamental protections in the Constitution is the right of privacy embodied in the Fourth Amendment and its rejection of dragnet-like sweeps by government officials. This was a legacy of English common law and the famous John Wilkes case, long celebrated by champions of liberty at the time of America's founding, in which the Lord Chief Justice held that "a general warrant is no warrant": that a search warrant could not authorize officials to go through every house in an area searching for subversive publications, but had to specify the exact place to be searched and the items being sought, and provide at least some grounds for believing that these items were present there. NSA's bulk collection programs stood directly on its head this fundamental protection of the right to privacy.

Wilkes and Liberty, celebrated on a punchbowl from Colonial Williamsburg
The second real problem with NSA's actions in operating the bulk collection programs is one that comes right out of the agency's Cold War history (the subject of my just-published book Code Warriors). Throughout its existence, NSA has always been intensely driven in its mission by its own technological capabilities: if it can do it, it did do it, and it always was trying to increase what it could do. Some of this is human nature; some of it is unique to the bureaucratic forces acting on military and intelligence agencies, which always have an incentive to maximize technical capabilities regardless of mission needs—just as in the Air Force and Navy the imperative to buy newer, bigger, faster, more expensive planes and ships always came first, while the military justifications for them were often almost an afterthought.

But the point is that the capability was there to carry out unprecedented monitoring, tracking, and spying on American citizens by a government agency, a capability that all known bureaucratic forces were working to expand ever further. And NSA's history offered small comfort to the idea that none of this should worry us because the agency's own internal rules and procedures prevented this capability from being abused. The whole reason for the FISA court's establishment was to provide an outside check and legal oversight of NSA by an independent body.

Recent congressional action to end the NSA bulk telephone data program was a small but important step in addressing both these dangers: of too much reliance on internal self-restraint, and too much technological capability in the hands of government. It's a rare case where the lessons of history I think have been heeded.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

"I've run out of adjectives"

Actually this is the third or fourth time in recent months that Republican senator Lindsey Graham has used that line regarding his reaction to the things that one Donald J. Trump has to say.

But it underscores the problem that journalists, too, are having in capturing the utter vileness and recklessness of Trump's most recent statements regarding the Orlando massacre, in which he explicitly accused all Muslims in America — and even the president of the United States — of willful complicity in the attack.

Even the New York Times seemed to be at a loss for the words and means to lay out exactly what Trump actually said, taking refuge in standard journalistic shorthand designed for describing the normal evasions of normal politicians: "implied" "suggested" and the like and ran a story with the very nice journalism school headline "Trump and Clinton Differ on Terror Approach."

It's worth assembling a timeline of Trump's astonishing statements of the last 72 hours to grasp the enormity of what he has brought the country to:

• June 13 early morning, on "Fox and Friends":
We're led by a man who is very -- look, we're led by a man that either is not tough, not smart, or he's got something else in mind. And the something else in mind, you know, people can't believe it.... People cannot believe, they cannot believe that President Obama is acting the way he acts and he can't even mention the words radical Islamic terrorism. There's something going on. It's inconceivable. There's something going on.... He doesn't get it or he gets it better than anybody understands. It's one or the other

• Later that morning, on the "Today" show:
Well there are a lot of people that think maybe he doesn't want to get it 

• Later that day, Trump pulls the Washington Post's press credentials for covering his campaign, accusing the newspaper of being "dishonest" and "phony" and "incredibly inaccurate coverage and reporting," specifically for a story reporting that Trump had connected Obama to the Orlando attack.

• June 13, afternoon, in a "major foreign policy address":

Now, the Muslim communities so importantly, they have to work with us. They have to cooperate with law enforcement and turn in the people who they know are bad. And they know it. And they have to do it and they have to do it forthwith. … They know what is going on. They know that [the Orlando shooter] was bad. They knew the people in San Bernardino were bad. But you know what, they didn't turn them in, and we had death and destruction. … When people know what is going on and they don't tell us and we have an attack and people die, these people have to have consequences. Big consequences.

• June 14, having dismissed as dishonest and phony the Post's report that he had accused Obama of deliberately siding with terrorists, Trump sent the AP a statement accusing Obama of deliberately siding with terrorists:
[Obama] claims to know our enemy, and yet he continues to prioritize our enemy over our allies, and for that matter, the American people
• June 15, 6:38 am, Trump sends out a tweet with a link to a right-wing conspiratorial hoax — which has been circulating for years on the Internet — claiming that a "memo" proves that Obama is siding with ISIS. Completing the circle of illogical denials, Trump simultaneously accuses the media of being inaccurate for claiming that he had "insinuated" the things he did (actually, he didn't insinuate: he asserted), while also claiming  that this "evidence" shows he was "right" all along in claiming the things he is claiming he didn't claim:

Asked how they can continue to support a man who cites conspiracy theories to accuse the president of treachery, who claims that the entire American Muslim community is complicit in terrorism and will face "big consequences," the leaders of the Republican Party have come up with new and even more creative ways of avoiding the subject altogether. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell took a particularly bold moral stance, telling a reporter, "I'm not going to be commenting on the presidential candidates today."

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

 The latest review of my new book, "Code Warriors," from today's Wall Street Journal:


Cracking the Cold War

The NSA knew Brezhnev’s waist size, his wife’s problems, his opinions about U.S. leaders and whether his negotiating positions were ploys.

Well, how would you do it? We all know the theories about intelligence gathering: identify targets clearly, do not be guided by paranoia, ensure that information is analyzed and contextualized so that it can be understood properly, and observe constitutional and legal guidelines, notably in spying on one’s own citizens. It is not, of course, so easy in practice and certainly not in the wake of surprise attacks like those of 1941 and 2001, or when working carefully within legal and political restrictions and conventions that, to put it mildly, do not appear fit for the purpose, given the enormity of the threat.

In “Code Warriors,” Stephen Budiansky, who has already written ably on World War II codebreaking, offers an exciting but also challenging account of the National Security Agency’s efforts to discover the Soviet Union’s secrets—challenging because he does not shun the necessary details in explaining code, codebreaking and how systems in the East and West changed during the years.

In doing so, he provides an intelligence history of the United States during the Cold War, one that ranges from U.S. “ferret flights” in the 1950s, often off the Baltic coast of the Soviet Union—designed to provide information on air defenses—to some of its more serious failures. These included the Cuban Missile Crisis (the NSA failed to warn the Kennedy administration about the arrival of Soviet SS-4 missiles); intelligence analysis prior to the surprisingly vast Tet offensive against South Vietnam in 1968; and the treatment of the Tonkin Gulf incident in 1964. It was believed that North Vietnam twice attacked a U.S. ship, and this led Congress to grant the president enhanced war powers. In fact, bad intelligence made Navy officers think they were under attack a second time. “NSA’s inexperience in intelligence analysis and frantic efforts to supply the White House with information” led to inaccurate conclusions and “guesswork,” Mr. Budiansky concludes.

Much of the tale is unedifying, with many of the leading figures in the intelligence community paying more attention to bureaucratic turf wars than to fighting the Cold War. If the CIA is held up for particular obloquy, it joins the Army, Navy and Air Force, especially the last two. There is praise for the NSA but also much criticism: “a system ripe for intellectual corruption . . . self-justifying assurance . . . reflexive defensiveness . . . hoarding information . . . vast multilayered bureaucracy . . . blunders, scandals and bureaucratic miscalculations.” The NSA is criticized for an extremely cozy relationship with Nixon’s White House, one driven by its attempt to promote its standing in the corridors of Washington power. And so on.

Less emphasis is placed on the NSA’s successes, but they are discussed. The role of the NSA’s global signals-intelligence network in providing reassurance about the contrast between bold Soviet threats and more modest actions is seen as helping limit the danger of nuclear war and thus allowing the strategy of containment to work. Helped by agents in place as well as technology, the NSA repeatedly intercepted Soviet communications, ensuring that, as one NSA director later noted, “in the mid-1970s, NSA had access to just about everything the Russian leadership said to themselves and about one another. . . . We knew Brezhnev’s waist size, his headaches, his wife’s problems, his kids’ problems, his intentions on the Politburo with regard to positions, his opinion on American leadership, his attitude on negotiating positions.” The last, Mr. Budiansky argues, helped Henry Kissinger outmaneuver Soviet negotiations in the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Mr. Budiansky makes no bones about the crimes of communist regimes or, indeed, about the damage done by American press reports on secret operations. But he also claims that “the cryptologic struggle that took place in the shadows behind the shadows was as morally ambiguous as everything about the Cold War.” In fact, the NSA performed admirably pursuing confrontation short of conflict and limited war strategies in the face of the prospect of thermonuclear cataclysm. Much of the American public was unable to accept the serious dangers posed by communist expansionism, and the KGB and the Soviet military had far more influence on Soviet policy-making than the intelligence community did in the U.S.

The faults noted by Mr. Budiansky existed but, alongside the bureaucratic rigidity and mistakes he discusses, there was also a greater willingness to accept internal disagreements than in the Soviet system. In particular, the Soviets proved better at descriptive intelligence gathering than at its analytic intelligence counterpart: They found it difficult to put together the empirical pieces. Although the individual KGB directorates could perform well, they could not integrate the information provided by different sources as well as their American and British counterparts.

Mr. Budiansky notes the tendency of analysis to buttress a priori assumptions, but this was more pronounced in the Soviet system, notably in the case of Yuri Andropov, the KGB head who became Soviet leader from 1982 to 1984. He believed in the inherent mendacity of Western imperialist leaders and society and their willingness to wage war against the Soviet Union. This was, for instance, the reason he misperceived the 1983 NATO military exercise called Able Archer as a cover for a possible attack.

Particularly good on the first half of the Cold War, but weaker and far briefer on the 1970s and, even more, the 1980s, Mr. Budiansky’s engaging study offers contemporary policy markers much to contemplate. The simultaneous hostility of both China and Russia today ensures that the strategic situation is more challenging now than after the successful exploitation by President Nixon of the Sino-Soviet split. European neutralism and weakness does not help. In these circumstances, it is urgent to consider how best to use intelligence operations to defend national interests. It would of course be helpful if the latter were better understood.

Mr. Black’s books include “The Cold War: A Military History” and “Air Power: A Global History.”

"In my world, when people don't treat you fairly . . ."

You take revenge on them, of course! The only trouble with that bit of wisdom offered today by one Donald J. Trump is that if you are a public servant in a democracy, it's your job to be fair to everyone and to enforce the law impartially even when you feel wronged, hurt, misunderstood, or even "misconstrued." That's called placing principle and duty above petty personal vengeance.

There were two points about Trump's appalling statements the other week about the supposed "bias" of the "Mexican" U.S. Federal judge hearing the fraud lawsuit against his fraudulent Trump University that I worry have gotten lost amidst the focus on whether Trump is a "racist" or not.

As Michael Gerson noted last week, who the hell cares if Trump is a racist in his heart, or whatever passes for one in his case: what matters is that he is saying things that legitimize, enable, and foment morally abhorrent views — and actions — that every president in modern times has strived to counter in our pluralistic and democratic society. ("Is Trump himself a racist? Who the bloody hell cares? There is no difference in public influence between a politician who is a racist and one who appeals to racist sentiments with racist arguments. The harm to the country — measured in division and fear — is the same, whatever the inner workings of Trump’s heart.")

As bad as Trump's allegation that Judge Gonzalo Curiel has an "absolute conflict of interest" in hearing a private civil action against Trump — for no other reason than (a) Curiel is "Mexican" (which Trump later revised to define, in the case of the Indiana-born Curiel, as "very pro-Mexican") and (b) Trump has said things that I suppose could be defined as very "anti-Mexican" — what is arguably even worse was his not very veiled threat to use the power of the presidency to punish Curiel if he becomes president. Here's exactly what Trump said:

They ought to look into Judge Curiel because what Judge Curiel is doing is a total disgrace. Ok? But we will come back in November. Wouldn’t that be wild if I am president and come back and do a civil case? Where everybody likes it.
Ok. This is called life, folks. . . .

The other point that should not be lost is what this kind of thinking reveals about Trump's sense of morality and humanity.

Trump automatically believes that it is impossible for a Federal judge, or anyone else, to put aside what he assumes to be their personal feelings. The syllogism he literally presented when challenged about his statements was

A "I'm building a wall"
B The judge is "Mexican"
C The judge has "an inherent conflict of interest"

Only a man utterly devoid of a sense of principle and duty himself — one whose only standard of reference is "winning" and "losing," personal gain, and self-interest — could fail to understand that for decent and civilized people, principles such as truth, duty, an oath of office, the rule of law, and (genuine) patriotism always assume a higher calling on one's conscience than petty vengeance, "what's in it for me," or score-settling.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

The worse angels of our nature

As Abraham Lincoln prepared to take charge of a deeply divided nation in March 1861, he asked several of his closest associates, including his secretary of state to be William Seward, to read his planned inaugural address, and give him their thoughts.

Seward sent Lincoln a new ending that considerably softened Lincoln's original conclusion ("Shall it be peace or sword?"), and which instead poetically invoked "the mystic chords" that bind all Americans together in shared destiny:
The mystic chords which proceeding from so many battle-fields and so many patriot graves pass through all the hearts and all the hearths in this broad continent of ours will yet again harmonize in their ancient music when breathed upon by the guardian angel of the nation.
 Lincoln accepted Seward's new closing paragraph, but made a small, yet extraordinarily significant, change in his words. Crossing out Seward's phrase “the guardian angel of the nation,” Lincoln wrote in the words we now all remember: “the better angels of our nature.”

It was to Lincoln a crucial reminder that America's greatness rested not in predestined divine favor or  any innate virtue, but rather in the constant struggle of us all to rise above our own all-too-human failings. Lincoln never for a moment forgot the frailty of human nature—nor how much the survival of a democracy depended on whether the mass of men, and their chosen leaders, could overcome their worst, yet all too natural, instincts toward hatred, division, selfishness, and exploitation of others.

Combustible rubbish ready to the torch of any one ambitious to illuminate his name. In Dr. Johnson's famous dictionary patriotism is defined as the last resort of a scoundrel. With all due respect to an enlightened but inferior lexicographer I beg to submit that it is the first.—Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary
There is an eerie echo between the narcissistic personal triumphalism of the man chosen to lead the Party of Lincoln this year and his jingoistic nationalistic triumphalism that his supporters so willingly and thoughtlessly embrace. As Lincoln so memorably reminded us, it was a test for every generation of Americans whether they, like the founders, could summon their better angels and keep alive the ideals that our nation—and indeed Lincoln's own Republican party—was founded upon: equality among men, respect for the law, liberty for all.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Here's one

On Sunday I wondered what it would take for any Republican official to put their country ahead of their party and draw a moral line after their candidate asserted that it was "an inherent conflict of interest" for an American citizen to serve as a Federal judge while being Hispanic or Muslim at the same time.

At that point, the major reaction from the GOP establishment, to what struck me as the most despicable thing I had heard in my lifetime from an American politician, had been such ringing words of moral principle and American values as Paul Ryan's "I can't relate to that" when asked about Trump's statements. (Conservative columnist George Will made impressive mincemeat of Ryan's "abject capitulation" to Trump in a fierce article yesterday.)

Yesterday Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina showed that there is at least one Republican leader who has not completely lost his moral compass in this time of moral crisis. Graham, who just a few weeks ago said he had had a "cordial" phone call with Trump and reportedly told a private Republican fundraiser that it was time to get behind the party's nominee, told the New York Times that he had had it:

Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina . . . urged Republicans who have backed Mr. Trump to rescind their endorsements, citing the remarks about Judge Curiel and Mr. Trump’s expression of doubt on Sunday that a Muslim judge could remain neutral in the same lawsuit, given Mr. Trump’s proposed ban on Muslim noncitizens entering the country.
“This is the most un-American thing from a politician since Joe McCarthy,” Mr. Graham said. “If anybody was looking for an off-ramp, this is probably it,” he added. “There’ll come a time when the love of country will trump hatred of Hillary.”

Sunday, June 5, 2016

And now a word about places in Hell, from the expert

"The hottest places in Hell are reserved for those who in time of moral crisis preserve their neutrality."

That line from Dante's "Inferno" was sent to me the other day by my friend Richard Gordon, and it speaks a truth about what is so terribly chilling about the almost unanimous failure of Republican officialdom to take any kind of principled stand on Donald Trump's morally repugnant campaign of reckless conspiracy theory, personal insult, race baiting, and threats to use the power of the presidency to exact personal revenge.

Paul Ryan, John McCain, Mitch McConnell, and almost every other prominent GOP official have been acting as if they can pretend nothing out of the ordinary is happening to their party, express their formulaic Support for the Party's Nominee—and otherwise just lay very low and hope somehow they'll get through it all.

The degree of laying low is truly extraordinary, as Jim Fallows points out at The Atlantic, where he has been blogging on the Trump campaign: not a single GOP official for example uttered a word in reply to Hilary Clinton's full-bore attack on Trump the other day, a silence that is just mind-boggling by any normal political standards.

McCain has been the most extraordinary. Approaching his 80th birthday, facing a tight reelection contest in his heavily Hispanic state of Arizona, McCain, who once gloried in describing himself a "Maverick," has meekly toed the line of endorsing Trump, refusing to challenge any of the candidate's most toxic observations, blandly suggesting that we need not worry Trump will abuse the powers of the presidency since "we're not Romania," yet at the same time vainly hoping to give a wink-wink indication that his endorsement really doesn't mean anything by making little wan wisecracks every now and then, such as starting a speech to a Hispanic business group in Arizona the other day with a little Trumpesque parody ("We're going to make America great again and it's going to be yuge, OK?").

But as Dante observed, moral hedging and timorous acquiescence in the face of evil is even more opprobrious than open support: it palliates the evil, makes it seem ordinary and acceptable to the mass of men always reluctant to rock the boat; it is precisely why good people remain silent until it is too late to do anything.

Perhaps most of the GOP establishment hedgers are banking on Trump's losing the general election, and thus sparing them the difficulty of having to take any real moral stand or commit themselves in public in any way that might hurt their standing in The Party down the road. They clearly are uncomfortable with the open racism of Trump's recent attacks on Judge Curiel, and yet even on an issue that should leave no room for the least moral ambiguity, what we have heard are little more than "I don't condone the comments" (that from Republican Sen. Bob Corker) kinds of tut-tutting.

Interestingly, it was Newt Gingrich, an enthusiastic Trumpista, who was the most firm, calling "inexcusable" Trump's accusation that Curiel has "an inherent conflict of interest" because he's "a Mexican." But then Gingrich immediately undid any moral force behind that indictment by treating Trump's "inexcusable" statement as merely but a little tactical misstep, which he can correct by becoming more polished as he moves into the general election: "He's got to move his game up." (Corker for his part explained that he was not advising Trump to change his views, but merely expressing the hope that the candidate is "talking to the right people" so his campaign can "evolve.")

What will it take for any of the Republican establishment to draw an actual moral line, and say that their nominee is so at odds with the values of the country that they will put their country first, their party second?

Friday, June 3, 2016

Trump vs. Orwell? No contest

Hoping that no one would notice, House Speaker Paul Ryan chose the Janesville (Wisc.) GazetteXtra — a newspaper whose lead story the same day was SHELTER HOLDS FREE CAT ADOPTION DRIVE — to announce his endorsement of Donald J. Trump for president this week.

He thus joins John McCain ("it would be foolish to ignore" the "will of the people"), Mitch McConnell (we shouldn't worry that a President Trump will abuse the power of the presidency and the law because “he’ll have a White House counsel [to] point out there’s certain things you can do and you can’t do”), and the several courageous Republican senators running for re-election in Democratic-leaning states who have boldly declared that they "support, but do not endorse" the party's nominee.

I had actually been holding out a glimmer of hope that a few Republican officials would place principle, patriotism, decency, honor, (true) conservative values, and concern for the survival of the republic ahead of craven political expediency. But then that would have required a microgram of leadership and courage.

In a way even more amusing (if that's the right word) than the excuses given by members of the GOP leadership for their sudden reversal in favor of Trump (the "madman who must be stopped," in the not so former words of recently converted Trump supporter Bobby Jindal), have been the excuses given by members of the GOP leadership for why they just won't be able to be there when Trump receives the nod at the Republican convention in Cleveland next month ("I can watch it on TV," said Lindsey Graham of South Carolina).

It really should not have been that hard to enunciate a few words to explain why they cannot support, for the most important office in the world, a man utterly devoid of moral principle, knowledge, honesty, decency, or respect for democratic values or public service.

Just in case we've forgotten a few of the things the nominee-to-be has done that ought to place him beyond the pale of support by any decent American political leader, he has:

   threatened to use the power of the presidency to punish his critics in the press;

   attacked a federal judge hearing a civil lawsuit brought against him for defrauding students at his now-defunct "Trump University" (Judge Gonzalo Curiel is "a total disgrace," Trump said, adding today that because Curiel is of "Mexican heritage" it is an "absolute conflict of interest" for him to hear the case);

   endorsed and spread fringe, fear-mongering conspiracy theories about government coverups of disease outbreaks and the 9/11 terrorist attacks ("You will find out who really knocked down the World Trade Center" when he is president);

   fomented ethnic, religious, and racial hatred, and refused even to disavow a barrage of truly vile anti-Semitic attacks by his supporters against Jewish journalists ("I don’t have a message to the fans");

    mocked and belittled political opponents and critics for their physical disabilities and personal appearance;

    declared his impatience and contempt for the law and America's treaty obligations;

    expressed admiration for dictators and brutal authoritarianism (on Kim Jong-un: "He goes in, he takes over, and he’s the boss. It’s incredible. He wiped out the uncle. He wiped out this one, that one." And North Korea returned the compliment yesterday, calling Trump "a wise politician" and the right choice for president);

    refused to release his income tax returns and offered a patently false reason for doing so;

    been dishonest and unscrupulous in his business dealings;

    made grotesquely boastful claims about his (nonexistent) military expertise ("I know more about ISIS than the generals do") and (unapparent) Christian faith ("I am a great Christian—and I am. I am.")

Trump's total lack of personal principles is probably part and parcel of a true personality disorder. But the consequences are chilling for a democracy when combined with the power of the presidency. Principle and the rule of law are the only things that stand in the way of authoritarianism in government, and brutality in society. To uphold a principle means that at least once in a while one is required to admit that the right thing to do differs from what is in one's own immediate self-interest. Trump has never done so in his entire lifetime.

He has taken it even one Orwellian step further, though, by invoking the language of principles and values just when he is being his most coarse and crudely self-serving: anyone who criticizes him—such as the journalists the other day who asked him why it took him five months to cough up his promised $6 million donation to veterans' groups, and in fact only made good on his personal $1 million pledge after a Washington Post investigation last month discovered he had not yet done so—is "dishonest" or "disgraceful."

Especially when they are pointing out Trump's own dishonest or disgraceful conduct, of course.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Edward Snowden and Klaus Fuchs

In researching my book about NSA ("Code Warriors," coming to a fine bookstore near you on June 14), I was struck by how many of the Soviet spies in America during and just after World War II convinced themselves they were answering a higher duty in passing along to the Russians secrets of America's atomic bomb and codebreaking programs.

Klaus Fuchs, a refugee from Nazi Germany who had worked on the British and American atomic programs, was furiously insulted when his contact Harry Gold tried to pass on an envelope stuffed with $1,500 in cash: Fuchs insisted he was motivated by the idealistic aim of insuring world peace and aiding a heroic ally of Britain and America in the fight against Hitler.

There was an aspect of Fuchs's psychological makeup that strikes a very familiar chord in considering the case of Edward Snowden: their political naivete (of trusting the Russians, if nothing else), combined with a remarkable moral arrogance in believing that they could place themselves above the law in pursuit of a supposed higher purpose—and yet escape any moral responsibility for their acts at the same time.

Here is what I write in Code Warriors about a pivotal incident in Fuchs's self-justifications:

    Later a Los Alamos physicist colleague and close friend, Rudolf Peierls, with whom Fuchs had lodged while working in England, asked him how, as a scientist, he could have swallowed the doctrinaire orthodoxies of Marxism. Peierls was stunned by the arrogance and naivete of Fuchs’s answer. You must remember what I went through under Nazis, Fuchs replied. Besides, it was my intention, when I had helped the Russians to take over everything, to get up and tell them what is wrong with their system.
   Peierlss wife Genia, who had been something of a mother figure to their young lodger, wrote him a more personal rebuke. Hadnt he at least thought about the betrayal of his friends he had committed, and the harm he had done them? she asked.
   I didnt, and thats the greatest horror I had to face when I looked at myself, Fuchs wrote back from prison. I thought I knew what I was doing, and there was this simple thing, obvious to the simplest decent creature, and I didnt think of it. He told another friend: Some people grow up at fifteen, some at thirty-eight. It is more painful at thirty-eight.

Snowden, however, has yet to show any similar signs of growing up, specifically with regard to his betrayal of some 20 or more co-workers whom he duped into turning over their computer passwords (which he claimed he needed for his duties as a systems administrator), most of whom lost their jobs as a result; nor to the fact that under the Section 798 of the Espionage Act he could have gone to the congressional intelligence committees with his information with absolute immunity from any legal repercussions to himself. Instead, he reacted yesterday on Twitter with his usual immature flipness even to former Attorney General Eric Holder's acknowledgement that some of Snowden's disclosures had indeed performed a public service, even as he had nonetheless clearly violated the law (and his own personal oath to uphold it).