Monday: Buckle up, Buttercup

After my Go-Team-Yay-Space post yesterday, it’s time for a Monday morning reality check. Going to Mars will not be a panacea to our ills, as this darkly humorous animated short, Fired on Mars by Nick and Nate, shows. On the other hand, SpaceX’s Elon Musk offers an upside while acknowledging the inherent risk of space travel and colonization: “If you’re going to choose a place to die, then Mars is probably not a bad choice.”

Certainly beats an undiginified extinction by drowning on earth, eh?

We may not be leaving the planet today, but you’d best buckle up anyhow. This week’s going to be a doozy.

Brexit, Brexit, Brexit
Say that in your best Jan Brady voice — Brexit will suck all the oxygen out of this week’s market news. I’m afraid to look at the stock market at all because of it. Euronews has a roundup on the topic (though I warn you, it’s poorly formatted — keep scrolling down the page and increase print size). I’m not posting any other UK-based links here now because it’s quite obvious each media outlet has a position and their coverage reflects it. Most blatantly obvious are those owned by Rupert Murdoch’s Newsgroup, which has prompted some angry murmurs about an Aussie living in the U.S. telling the UK what to do.

Disturbing: Mexico’s federal police fire on teachers’ protest rally
I say disturbing for two reasons: first, that a democratic government’s federal would fire on protesters supporting the CNTE teachers’ union and actively deny it happened is appalling, and second, that its neighbor’s media would ignore that it happened. Teachers and supporters have been rallying in the state of Oaxaca, protesting the government’s education reform plan, characterized by some as neoliberal. It was clear from the outset that the government was in no mood to listen, given the number of riot police in place. The protests followed the detention/disappearance days earlier by police of CNTE union leaders Francisco Manuel Villalobos Ricardez and Ruben Nuñez. Conditions degraded over the course of the day, with federal police firing upon protesters. Early accounts claimed six were killed, of which one may have been a journalist and two teacher trainees. President Enrique Pena Nieto’s government at first denied there was any violence, and then later claimed the Associated Press’ photos of the violence were false. There were enough social media reports documenting the violence on the ground to neutralize the government’s claim — and thank goodness for social media, or the U.S. would have heard very little if anything about this conflict. Not exactly the fiesta of democracy President Nieto promised when he took office in 2012. For more current information about the conflict, follow hashtags #Nochixtlan (district) and #Oaxaca in Twitter; already the death count is disputed as some claim more than eight died after yesterday’s attack by police on protesters.

It’s extremely important to remember the protesters’ anger and frustration are not merely about the ENP government’s reform plan. The 43 young men who disappeared in 2014 and are believed dead were students at a teachers’ college; the federal police have been implicated in the disappearance of these students. To date, the mass disappearance of these students has not been fully accounted for. Imagine the furor if such a mass disappearance were to happen in the U.S.

Cyber, cyber, cyber
LOL sorry, I’m on a Brady Bunch jag. Forgot to remind you last Tuesday was Patch Tuesday — make sure you’ve updated your Win-based systems if you do so manually. Can’t hurt to check all your other non-Win devices, too.

  • Adobe Flash zero day patch a higher priority than Microsoft’s monthly patch (TechTarget) — Again, if you manually patch, get to this one ASAP. I’m a manual Adobe patcher myself; I don’t automate patching because I want to know exactly how often Adobe must patch their products. It’s annoyingly often.
  • This is your brain on drugs: Too-smart identity thief busted (ABC3340-Birmingham) — Can’t tell if the drugs ate his intelligence, or if they deluded this dude. Read this, it’s like a bad episode of COPS mashed up with Monty Python.
  • SmartTVs not so smart, held ransom by Flocker (TrendLabs) — Leap of ransomware to Android smartTVs perfectly exemplifies the danger of connecting things to the internet. Interesting how this one deactivates based on select country locations. Yet another opportunity to sell protection software, too, as you’ll note in the article.

Your recommended long read: Apple’s Differential Privacy
Crytography expert Matthew Green reviews Apple’s announcement this past week regarding development of “differential privacy,” which Apple defined as:

Starting with iOS 10, Apple is using Differential Privacy technology to help discover the usage patterns of a large number of users without compromising individual privacy. To obscure an individual’s identity, Differential Privacy adds mathematical noise to a small sample of the individual’s usage pattern. As more people share the same pattern, general patterns begin to emerge, which can inform and enhance the user experience. In iOS 10, this technology will help improve QuickType and emoji suggestions, Spotlight deep link suggestions and Lookup Hints in Notes.

This is worth your time to read as differential privacy suggests new approaches to meeting the needs of marketers while preserving the privacy of consumers applying algorithmic solutions. Read it now before this stuff gets really convoluted.

Check your safety harness from time to time. Catch you tomorrow!

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DOJ Thinks Releasing Omar Mateen’s ISIS Allegiance Claims It Released Last Week Will Revictimize the Victims

Yesterday, NPR reported that people investigating the Orlando mass shootings increasingly believe his attack may have had nothing to do with ISIS.

In fact, intelligence officials and investigators say they’re “becoming increasingly convinced that the motive for this attack had very little — or maybe nothing — to do with ISIS.”

Speaking on Weekend Edition Saturday, Dina says that al-Qaida and ISIS-inspired attacks tend to follow a different pattern. She explains:

“We know that during the attack the gunman posted messages on Facebook saying he was doing this on behalf of ISIS. But officials have yet to find any of the precursors usually associated with radicalization. They’ve interviewed dozens of people who either knew him or had contact with Mateen.

“And they say that they’ve yet to find any indication that he became noticeably more religious, which is one of the indicators of radicalization. He still was going to the same mosque. The way he dressed didn’t change. His relationship with his family didn’t change in any way. And these are all typically warning signs that parents and friends and educators are told to look for if they’re worried that someone they’re close to is radicalizing.”

She adds “this isn’t science,” but so far the signs of radicalization aren’t there, which has led investigators to wonder whether the 29-year-old invoked the name of ISIS to garner more publicity for his deadly attack.

I’ve been suggesting not only that Mateen was likely motivated for other reasons — but that FBI likely missed those cues because they were evaluating him for one and only one kind of threat, an Islamic terrorist rather than an angry violent man threat.

[I]t seems that when a Muslim guy invents a terrorist tie explicitly saying he wants the FBI to come after him in response so he can martyr himself protecting a particular image of his life — “He said he hoped that law enforcement would raid his apartment and assault his wife and child so that he could martyr himself” — the Bureau might think a little more critically about what is going on.

Instead, it appears, the FBI assessed Mateen for one and only one thing: whether his bogus claims of ties to terrorist organizations were real. There have been a slew of articles, such as this one or this one, wondering why the FBI didn’t “identify” Mateen as a “real” terrorist in its two investigations of him. But it appears the FBI was assessing only whether he was likely to commit violence because of–and with the support of–an Islamic terrorist group. It appears they weren’t assessing whether he was, like the overwhelming majority of men who commit mass shootings in this country, really screwed up, expressing it in violent ways, and seeking attention with such actions.

It is true that Islamic extremists want to attack this country. It is also true that far, far more Americans die when men carry out mass killings because they’re fucked up and begging for attention. If you’re Muslim, the easiest way to get attention right now is to say that word, “ISIS,” because it’s a guarantee law enforcement and politicians will give that killing more due then they might give the next disturbed mass shooter.

Of course, the apparent fact that investigators have now come to agree with me means that those who started screaming ISIS right away — and, importantly, leaking and officially revealing news that Mateen claimed affiliation with ISIS (and other conflicting terrorist groups) on his 911 call — means the people who rushed out the ISIS explanation in fact did ISIS’ propaganda work for them, giving them credit for a mass killing that was really your garden variety mass killing conducted by an angry man.

Which is why this is so batshit. After blowing off Florida’s open record laws for a week, DOJ will finally release his 911 transcripts. But, according to Loretta Lynch, they’re going to edit out the references to ISIS so as to avoid “revictimizing” the victims.

A week after the worst mass shooting in U.S. history, Attorney General Loretta Lynch said a portion of Orlando shooter Omar Mateen‘s calls with hostage negotiators will be released Monday.

“We’ll be releasing a partial transcript of the calls between the killer and the hostage negotiators so people can, in fact, see the type of interaction that was had there,” Lynch told ABC News’ Jonathan Karl on “This Week” Sunday.

The Attorney General says she’ll travel to Orlando on Tuesday to get an on-the-ground perspective on the investigation.

“I say partial because we’re not going to be, for example, broadcasting his pledges of allegiance. We are trying not to re-victimize those who went through that horror,” she added. “We’re trying to get as much information about this investigation out as possible, and we want people to provide information that they have to us.”

If releasing these claims of affiliation would “revictimize” the victims, then releasing them in the first place served to victimize them. So the much better approach would be to release the full transcripts and admit the Department fucked up, both in its assessment of a potential mass killer, and in rushing to blame ISIS in the first place. Not to mention that this will just feed conspiracy theories.

If DOJ fucked up — and the claim this could revictimize people is tacit admission it seriously fucked up — then admit that and make it right. Pay the political consequences of admitting that our obsessive focus on terrorism has distracted us from the more general, and therefore more lethal, problem with mass killings. Don’t try to pretend there’s a good reason for suppressing the very same claims you made a big deal of a week ago.

If DOJ now believes the claims served to do nothing more than give Mateen’s rampage more attention — and it was a key part of generating that attention — then it needs to come clean.

Update: One more point on this. Releasing the full transcript would reveal how non-credible the ISIS claim was, appearing as it did with a claim of affiliation with al-Nusra, which would make it even clearer that FBI shouldn’t have started telling everyone about the ISIS claim.

Update: Here’s the transcript from Meet the Press.

LORETTA LYNCH:

Yes, I’ll be going to Orlando on Tuesday to continue my briefings in the case. Actually though what we are announcing tomorrow is that the F.B.I. is releasing a partial transcript of the killer’s calls with law enforcement from inside the club. These are the calls with the Orlando P.D. negotiating team who were trying to ascertain who he was, where he was, and why he was doing this, all the while the rescue operations were continuing. That’ll be coming out tomorrow and I’ll be headed to Orlando on Tuesday.

CHUCK TODD:

Including the hostage negotiation part of this?

LORETTA LYNCH:

Yes. It will be primarily a partial transcript of his calls with the hostage negotiators.

CHUCK TODD:

You say partial. What’s being left out?

LORETTA LYNCH:

Well, what we’re not going to do is further proclaim this individual’s pledges of allegiance to terrorist groups and further his propaganda.

CHUCK TODD:

So we’re not going to hear him talk about those things?

LORETTA LYNCH:

We will hear him talk about some of those things, but we’re not going to hear him make his ascertains of allegiance and that. This will not be audio. This will be a printed transcript. But it will begin to capture the back and forth between him and the negotiators. We’re trying to get as much information about this investigation out as possible. As you know, because the killer is dead, we have a bit more leeway there. And so we will be producing that information tomorrow.

 

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Other Priorities: Another Launch Today – Blue Origin Reusable Rocket

Hurry, we’re less than three minutes from launch, all systems go. I’ll add more remarks in a moment.

11:20 a.m. EDT — Wow. What a picture-perfect launch and landing. This is the most excitement out of West Texas since some lousy bird hunter shot his friend in the face a few years back. Today’s mission by Blue Origin, an aerospace company founded by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, had several objectives. The reusable rocket’s fourth mission included testing of backup and safety systems intended for future manned flights as well as multiple scientific project payloads. At least one project required the microgravity conditions (video) this mission would realize as the ship approached, reached, and left apogee at 331,501 feet (roughly shy of 63 miles above earth).

I’ve replaced the live feed of the mission with a video summary of the same New Shepherd rocket’s third flight from April this year. Compare and contrast with Elon Musk’s SpaceX’s recent reusable rocket launches; I am completely in awe of SpaceX’s attempts to stick a landing repeatedly on a puny drone raft at sea. (Video embedded here is from SpaceX launch last Wednesday carrying Eutelsat/ABS telecommunications satellites.)

If we have to endure gross inequality and a siphoning plutocracy, this space race is the kind of crazy oligarchs’ spending I love to see. Granted, Bezos is probably checking out future warehousing for Amazon facilities in space, crewed by robots — there’s no rent in space, right? But the opportunities for aerospace development and accessibility to the public have increased greatly with these two companies working fast and hard on this implicit competition. They also offer opportunities for us to save costs on government-funded missions — SpaceX has already won contracts formerly awarded to companies with an oligopolistic hold on launches.

I still want NASA to do all this and more as well; space shouldn’t be the domain of corporations after all. But if NASA has to work with fewer resources thanks to anti-science GOP-led Congress, at least they have a much larger hiring pool of experts to drawn from when they look for aerospace folks to add to their team, thanks to Blue Origin and SpaceX.

Explaining his refusal to serve in the military, that aforementioned sloppy hunter who shot his friend in the face said he had other priorities. It’s amazing in contrast what other rich guys do with their other priorities.

Jeff Bezos had one helluva Father’s Day already. Hope yours is just as exciting.

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Since Tuesday the Medical Examiner Has Known How Many Orlando Victims Were Killed by Cops

As I noted in another post, on Monday, Orlando’s police chief said that it was possible that some law enforcement officers — that might include the four who initially responded to Omar Mateen or the nine SWAT team members who later did — had (accidentally) shot Pulse patrons.

Monday, Orlando Police Chief John Mina and other law enforcement officers offered new details about the shooting, including the possibility that some victims may have been killed by officers trying to save them.

“I will say this, that’s all part of the investigation,” Mina said. “But I will say when our SWAT officers, about eight or nine officers, opened fire, the backdrop was a concrete wall, and they were being fired upon.”

A law enforcement source close to the investigation who asked not to be named said a crowd of up to 300 people and the complex layout of the dance club may have resulted in some patrons being struck by gunfire from officers.

Mina said his decision to enter the club with such violence was tough. “It was a hard decision to make, but it was the right decision,” he said. “Our No. 1 priority is on saving lives, and it was the right decision to make.”

[snip]

An off-duty police officer working at the club Sunday night was investigating an underage drinker outside when he heard gunshots inside, according to the law enforcement source. The off-duty officer ran inside the club and traded gunfire with Mateen, backed up soon by three other police officers, the source said.

The officers fired at Mateen, who retreated into a bathroom toward the rear of the club.

“Those additional officers made entry while the suspect was shooting,” Mina said. “They forced him to stop shooting and retreat to the bathroom where we believe he had several hostages.”

I just want to clarify the timing of this statement. The medical examiner’s office released a statement Thursday confirming that it had, as planned, completed all the autopsies by Tuesday afternoon. But because of the ongoing investigation, autopsy reports (like Mateen’s 911 calls and all other public records) will not be released at this time.

  • Autopsies are required to be conducted in all cases of homicide. The Medical Examiner (ME) completed all autopsies on Tuesday afternoon, June 14.
  • This is an active criminal investigation, therefore, the autopsy results and any reports generated will not be released at this time. This includes funeral home information.
  • As of June 16 afternoon, all of the 49 victims have been released to a funeral home.

According to the NYT, the office conducted 18 of the autopsies on Tuesday, which happened to be the day the city council confirmed the appointment medical examiner Dr. Joshua Stephany had held in interim form for a year.

Although he had been filling in for about a year, Dr. Stephany was officially made Orange County’s chief medical examiner two days after the slaughter at Pulse. On his first real day on the job, his office completed 18 autopsies. He said he performed at least seven of the 49 autopsies. The exact number he is not certain of.

That would say the remainder — 31 victims — would have been done on Sunday and Monday. Perhaps they weren’t all done by the time Mina made his statement, but a significant portion had to have been.

So when he said that some of the victims might have been killed by the cops, he presumably knew specific numbers to that point. The medical examiner has had a final count of how many victims were killed in the cross-fire since Tuesday.

None of that minimizes Mateen’s guilt for setting off the melee. It just is a data point that the cops know, but aren’t yet revealing, how many people the cross-fire killed.

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Friday: How It Begins

I was half way through a post yesterday when a friend in the UK told me a member of Parliament had been killed by a fascist.

An assassination, I thought at that moment, unable to write another word for my post. How many times has an assassination kicked off a horrible chain of events?

I hoped and prayed as best a lapsed Catholic can that the murder of MP Jo Cox by a man shouting, “Britain First!” was not the beginning of something dreadful. Research says it’s less likely than if an autocratic figure had been killed, but who can really say with certainty?

We won’t know for some time if this was a trigger event for something else, though it did set off a cascade of stomach-turning crap. So many media outlets referred to politician Cox’s death by a political fanatic as something other than an assassination. Really? Would Cox have been targeted had she not been a pro-EU unity supporter? Would the assassin — characterized by so many euphemisms as mentally ill — have killed her had he not been rabidly anti-EU and racist, impelled by ramped-up anti-EU rhetoric in advance of the EU-Brexit referendum?

And the disparity in coverage between [lone white gunman suspected of mental illness] and [armed terrorist—labeled so because they’re not white]? Beyond disgusting. The racism is all the more obvious. The public is conditioned by media’s implicit bias to expect and accept the lone white gunman, but never the dark-skinned person bearing a weapon. The accused must have sympathized with white nationalism, irrespective of country, having bought his firearm components from U.S. neo-Nazis more than a decade ago. The description of his attack on Cox is chilling — it was a cold political execution, not just some wildly insane flailing without care for the outcome.

The world lost someone very special when Jo Cox died yesterday. Someone who lived progressive values out in the open, modeling a better way for us. Don’t kid yourself this was just a crazed man acting alone when white nationalist politicians like Nigel Farage believe “violence is the next step” if angry constituents feel they’ve lost control.

And don’t fool yourself into believing this was an isolated event occurring in a vacuum.

Today’s Friday jazz is a performance of She’s Crying for Me by the Yorkshire Jazz Band, in honor of Jo Cox’s home county.

A note on hacking stories
The breach of the DNC’s computers is one of a number of stories over the last several years following a pattern: the breach is attributed to one entity and then yet another entity, while the story itself has a rather interesting point of origin. Initial reports may say the hackers were affiliated with [nation/state X] and later reports attribute the hacking to [unaligned third party Y] — or a variation on this order — a key characteristic is the story’s immaculate birth.

Try looking for yourself for the earliest story reporting the hacking of the DNC. Who reported it and when? Who were the original sources? Did the story arise from a call to law enforcement or a police report, and a local beat reporter who gathered named eyewitnesses for quotes? Or did the story just pop out of thin air, perhaps simultaneously across multiple outlets all regurgitating the same thing at the same time?

My point: Be more skeptical. There’s an adage in reporting, drummed into journalism students’ heads: If your mother says she loves you, check it out.

Three examples of manipulated opinion
Speaking of being more skeptical, bias manifests itself in all manner of ways and can be easily used for good or ill.

  • U.S. government and military orgs tricked into running ‘imposter code’ (Ars Technica) — Suckers didn’t perform due diligence on packages of code hosted at developer communities before running them. Gee, I wonder if any political parties’ personnel might have done the same thing…
  • GOP-led House waffles on HR 5293 surveillance bill because Orlando (HuffPo) — Ugh. Would this vote have been different this time if a lone crazed white gunman had shot up a bar? Sadly, we can’t tell based on the bill’s approval last year because the vote took place one day before Dylan Roof’s mass shooting in a Charleston church. Nor can we tell from the bill’s 2014 approval by the House because the mass shootings the week of the vote were just plain old run-of-the-mill apolitical/non-racist with too few fatalities.
  • Send manuscripts out under a man’s name = agents and publishers notice (Jezebel) — If you’re a woman you can be a great writer and you won’t get any nibbles on your manuscript — unless you submit it under a male name. Hello, implicit bias, much? This isn’t the only example, either.

Worthwhile long read
This commentary at Tor.com looks at the movie V for Vendetta, saying it’s “more important than ever,” in spite of the adaptation’s rejection by Alan Moore, author of the graphic novel on which this film was based. The essay was published this past Tuesday; read it now in light of Jo Cox’s assassination Thursday. A single event can change perception. This line alone now means something very different to me:

It seems strange that my life should end in such a terrible place. But for three years I had roses, and apologized to no one.

If time permits, I may slap up a post this weekend to make up for yesterday’s writer’s block. Otherwise I’ll catch you on Monday.

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Why Doesn’t Dianne Feinstein Want to Prevent Murders Like those Robert Dear Committed?

In response to Chris Murphy’s 15 hour filibuster, Democrats will get a vote on several gun amendments to an appropriations bill, one mandating background checks for all gun purchases, another doing some kind of check to ensure the purchaser is not a known or suspected terrorist.

The latter amendment is Dianne Feinstein’s (see Greg Sargent’s piece on it here). It started as a straight check against the No Fly list (which would not have stopped Omar Mateen from obtaining a gun), but now has evolved. It now says the Attorney General,

may deny the transfer of a firearm if [she] determines, based on the totality of the circumstances, that the transferee represents a threat to public safety based on a reasonable suspicion that the transferee is engaged, or has been engaged, in conduct constituting, in preparation for, in aid of, or related to terrorism, or providing material support or resources therefor.

[snip]

The Attorney General shall establish, within the amounts appropriated, procedures to ensure that, if an individual who is, or within the previous 5 years has been, under investigation for conduct related to a Federal crime of terrorism, as defined in section 2332b(g)(5) of title 18, United States Code, attempts to purchase a firearm, the Attorney General or a designee of the Attorney General shall be promptly notified of the attempted purchase.

The way it would work is a background check would trigger a review of FBI files; if those files showed any “investigation” into terrorism, the muckety mucks would be notified, and they could discretionarily refuse to approve the gun purchase, which they would almost always do for fear of being responsible if something happened.

The purchaser could appeal through the normal appeals process (which goes first to the AG and then to a District Court), but,

such remedial procedures and judicial review shall be subject to procedures that may be developed by the Attorney General to prevent the unauthorized disclosure of information that reasonably could be expected to result in damage to national security or ongoing law enforcement operations, including but not limited to procedures for submission of information to the court ex parte as appropriate, consistent of due process.

Given that an AG recently deemed secret review of Anwar al-Awlaki’s operational activities to constitute enough due process to execute him, the amendment really should be far more specific about this (including requiring the government to use CIPA). When you give the Executive prerogative to withhold information, they tend to do so, well beyond what is adequate to due process.

But there are two other problems with this amendment, one fairly minor, one very significant.

First, minor, but embarrassing, given that Feinstein is on the Senate Judiciary Committee and Ranking Member Pat Leahy is a cosponsor. This amendment doesn’t define what “investigate” means, which is a term of art for the FBI (which triggers each investigative method to which level of investigation you’re at). Given that it is intended to reach someone like Omar Mateen, it must intend to extend to “Preliminary Investigations,” which “may be opened on the basis of any ‘allegation or information’ indicative of possible criminal activity or threats to national security.” Obviously, the Mateen killing shows that someone can exhibit a whole bunch of troubling behaviors and violence yet not proceed beyond the preliminary stage (though I suspect we’ll find the FBI missed a lot of what they should have found, had they not had a preconceived notion of what terrorism looks like and an over-reliance on informants rather than traditional investigation). But in reality, a preliminary investigation is a very very low level of evidence. Yet it would take a very brave AG to approve a gun purchase for someone who had hit a preliminary stage, because if that person were to go onto kill, she would be held responsible.

Also note, though, that I don’t think Syed Rizwan Farook had been preliminarily investigated before his attack last year, though he had been shown to have communicated with someone of interest (which might trigger an assessment). So probably, someone would try to extend it to “assessment” or “lead” stages, which would be an even crazier level of evidence. By not carefully defining what “investigate” means, then, the amendment invites a slippery slope in the future to include those who communicate with people of interest (which is partly what the Terrorist Watch — not No-Fly — list consists of now).

Here’s the bigger problem. As I’ve noted repeatedly, our definition of terrorism (which is the one used in this amendment) includes a whole bunch of biases, which not only disproportionately affect Muslims, but also leave out some of our most lethal kinds of violence. For example, the law treats bombings as terrorist activities, but not mass shootings (so effectively, this law would seem to force actual terrorists into pursuing bombings, because they’d still be able to get those precursors). It is written such that animal rights activists and some environmentalists get treated as terrorists, but not most right wing hate groups. So for those reasons, the law would not reach a lot of scary people with guns who might pose as big a threat as Mateen or Farook.

Worse, the amendment reaches to material support for terrorism, which in practice (because it is almost always applied only for Muslim terrorist groups) has a significantly disproportionate affect on Muslims. In Holder v Humanitarian Law Project, SCOTUS extended material support to include speech, and Muslims have been prosecuted for translating violent videos and even RTing an ISIS tweet. Speech (and travel) related “material support” don’t even have to extend to formal terrorist organizations, meaning certain kinds of anti-American speech or Middle East travel may get you deemed a terrorist.

In other words, this amendment would deprive Muslims simply investigated (possibly even just off a hostile allegation) for possibly engaging in too much anti-American speech of guns, but would not keep guns away from anti-government or anti-choice activists advocating violence.

Consider the case of anti-choice Robert Dear, the Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood killer. After a long delay (in part because his mass killing in the name of a political cause was not treated as terrorism), we learned that Dear had previously engaged in sabotage of abortion clinics (which might be a violation of FACE but which is not treated as terrorism), and had long admired clinic killer Paul Hill and the Army of God. Not even Army of God’s ties to Eric Rudolph, the 1996 Olympics bomber, gets them treated as a terrorist group that Dear could then have been deemed materially supporting. Indeed, it was current Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates who chose not to add any terrorism enhancement to Rudolph’s prosecution. Dear is a terrorist, but because his terrorism doesn’t get treated as such, he’d still have been able to obtain guns legally under this amendment.

For a whole lot of political reasons, Muslims engaging in anti-American rants can be treated as terrorists but clinic assassins are not, and because of that, bills like this would not even keep guns out of the hands of some of the most dangerous, organizationally networked hate groups.

Now, I actually have no doubt that Feinstein would like to keep guns out of the hands of people like Robert Dear and — especially given her personal tie to Harvey Milk’s assassination — out of the hands of violent homophobes. But this amendment doesn’t do that. Rather, it predominantly targets just one group of known or suspected “terrorists.” And while the instances of Islamic extremists using guns have increased in recent years (as more men attempt ISIS-inspired killings of soft targets), they are still just a minority of the mass killings in this country.

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N. Gregory Mankiw Tries to Discredit Piketty

In this paper, titled Yes, r > g. So What?. N. Gregory Mankiw tries to show that Thomas Piketty is wrong that if r > g wealth will accumulate in the hands of a tiny number of rich people. It’s short and easy on the math, perhaps because it was part of a symposium rather than a stand-alone paper. For comparison, take a look at this by Piketty and Gabriel Zucman, which requires more than a passing familiarity with math. It seems unlikely that Mankiw had read this paper before he cranked out his, because Piketty addresses the issues Mankiw raises.

Mankiw makes three arguments. First, he says we need to have r > g. Second, he claims that the generational changes and taxation will prevent dynastic wealth. Third, he disagrees with Piketty’s solution which is a wealth tax. Let’s take them in turn.

1. The idea that r, the rate of return to capital, is greater than g, the rate of growth of the economy, is common in mainstream economic theory.

If the rate of return is less than the growth rate, the economy has accumulated an excessive amount of capital. In this dynamically inefficient situation, all generations can be made better off by reducing the economy’s saving rate. From this perspective, we should be reassured that we live in a world in which r > g because it means we have not left any dynamic Pareto improvements unexploited.

Mankiw’s standard is whether the economy can produce Pareto Improvements, meaning an improvement in the wealth of one or more people that doesn’t reduce the wealth anyone else. Mankiw simply ignores the fact that fabulous wealth carries with it the ability to influence the political process to extract more wealth, which is what Piketty says. Surely Mankiw isn’t arguing that won’t happen, because it does. Take, for example, the pharmaceutical industry where the business model is to increase prices with no additional benefit to anyone.

Then look at his cure. How exactly will the bottom 60% benefit by saving less? They won’t, because they are barely saving. They cannot come up with $400 to fix a car. Most of the rest wouldn’t be able to save less; they need to save for retirement, and to pay what their kids can’t make in this rotten economy. What Mankiw means is that the very top, the .1%, would have to spend a lot more, But what are they going to buy? Expensive trips on private jets? Van Gogh paintings? That isn’t going to help the economy or make anyone’s life better. The fact is that this argument points directly to the need to hike taxes on the idle money of the rich.

2. Mankiw’s second argument is an effort to show that taxes and generational changes will decrease dynastic wealth. Mankiw doesn’t confront the detailed argument Piketty makes on those very points. I introduce it here, and link to the detailed argument for those interested. Instead, Mankiw offers a simple model that proves his point, and could be understood by anyone who read his introduction to economics textbook; for typographical reasons, subscripts are not used for cw and ck

To oversimplify a bit, let’s just focus on this economy’s steady state. Using mostly conventional notation, it is described by the following equations.

(1) cw = w + τ k

(2) ck = (r − τ − g)nk

(3) r = f ′(k)

(4) w = f(k) − rk

(5) g = σ(r − τ − ρ),

where cw is consumption of each worker, ck is the consumption of each capitalist, w is the wage, r is the (before-tax) rate of return on capital, k is the capital stock per worker, n is the number of workers per capitalist (so nk is the capital stock per capitalist), f(k) is the production function for output (net of depreciation), g is the rate of labor-augmenting technological change and thus the steady-state growth rate, σ is the capitalists’ intertemporal elasticity of substitution, and ρ is the capitalists’ rate of time preference. Equation (1) says that workers consume their wages plus what is transferred by the government. Equation (2) says that capitalists consume the return on their capital after paying taxes and saving enough to maintain the steady-state ratio of capital to effective workers. Equation (3) says that capital earns its marginal product. Equation (4) says that workers are paid what is left after capital is compensated. Equation (5) is derived from the capitalists’ Euler equation; it relates the growth rate of capitalist’s consumption (which is g in steady state) to the after-tax rate of return.

Note that we didn’t get a definition of the symbol τ, which in conventional notation means taxes. As we learn a couple of paragraphs down, Mankiw means not general taxes, but taxes on returns to capital. As he tells us, all the money from taxes is consumed by the workers (equation (1)), that is, the total amount of taxes on capital is transferred directly, in the form of grants or indirectly in the form of services, to wage-earners and none of it is consumed by the capitalists. in the real world, capitalists consume a great deal of the expenditure on taxes, whether the taxes are on capital or income or otherwise. Obviously we need to put a non-trivial number into equation (2) to show that capitalists consume a portion of the taxes, and make an appropriate modification to equation (1) if we want this model to make minimal contact with the real world.

Mankiw says that in this model, there is no steady increase in inequality.

In this economy, even though r > g, there is no “endless inegalitarian spiral.” Instead, there is a steady-state level of inequality. (Optimizing capitalists consume enough to prevent their wealth from growing faster than labor income.)

This outcome was baked into the model with equation (2). If instead, we assume the same equations, but add a non-trivial number to equation (2), then the capitalist accumulates that non-trivial amount each year, and wealth inequality increases naturally even in his steady-state economy.

Also baked into this model is the remarkable idea that “capital earns its marginal product” and the rest of the money is paid out in wages. That’s just so far from reality that it makes the whole exercise pointless. But it enables Mankiw to justify rejecting Piketty’s recommendation of high wealth taxes. Mankiw explains that if the government wants to protect capital, it pushes the tax on capital into negative numbers, and the capitalists will push wages to subsistence level. But,

Taxing capital and transferring the proceeds to workers reduces the steady-state consumption of both workers and capitalists, but it impoverishes the capitalists at a faster rate.

Taxing returns to capital hurts everyone in this model. Of course, if capitalists are taxed at the rate of their actual consumption of tax receipts, the non-trivial amount that should be added to equation (2), then you would get Mankiw’s desired outcome of a non-increasing inequality. Or you could go a bit higher, and start reducing inequality without resort to his suggestion of a consumption tax.

Mankiw’s sterile model doesn’t explain the facts documented by Piketty and his colleagues, but it does demonstrate nicely the state of mainstream economics. Obviously the American Economic Association wanted a paper from Mankiw challenging Piketty, no matter its quality. Mankiw is an established figure, and thus the beneficiary of the social structure of the field described by Marion Fourcade and her colleagues in the section of this paper headed Inequality Within, p. 96,

Second, we document the pronounced hierarchy that exists within the discipline, especially in comparison with other social sciences. The authority exerted by the field’s most powerful players, which fosters both intellectual cohesiveness and the active management of the discipline’s internal affairs, has few equivalents elsewhere.

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Why Was Omar Mateen Researching Specific Law Enforcement Offices before His Attack?

Yesterday, I pointed out that the two informants the FBI apparently used against the Orlando killer, Omar Mateen, had not succeeded in getting him to do something they could arrest him for. Later yesterday, Olivier Knox asked Ranking Member of the House Intelligence Committee Adam Schiff about FBI’s attempted sting, and Schiff confirmed FBI had tried one that “did not result in additional evidence that could be used to either keep the file open or bring charges.”

Knox: The FBI in the past, when they’ve been alerted to people with potentially violent proclivities, potential terrorists, has dug into those cases and using informants has led people to take steps that led to their arrest, whether it’s setting up a sting operation in which they pretend to sell them weapons or explosives or the rest of it. Why didn’t that happen here?

Schiff: Well, it appears that it did happen here. I think the Director has acknowledged publicly that they ran a confidential source against this person to see whether he had any active intent to go beyond these expressions of radicalism, whether he was attempting to find confederates to work with him. And as a result of that nothing materialized. And that would indicate, at least it did seem to have indicated to the Bureau that the comments and the explanation that he gave for the comments may have had validity. So, in fact, sometimes when you run a source against a target, they will make their expressions of criminal intent very clear and they’ll take overt steps to carrying out a plot. Other times, it becomes clear that the person has no intent to commit harm and there’s no basis to continue an investigation. Here, apparently, the use of the confidential source did not result in additional evidence that could be used to either keep the file open or bring charges.

I wish, with this confirmation, Schiff had committed to ask more questions about this. We need to try to understand why FBI’s sting didn’t work here, because if stings don’t work for the actual terrorists FBI shouldn’t be doing them (this is a point that bizarrely did not get raised in this apology for stings from Politico).

Among several potential explanations for why the attempted sting against Mateen did not work, I suggested that, “The process of being investigated — and interviewed 3 times — actually further pissed off Mateen, leading him closer to violence.”

That possibility is one reason I’m very interested in this detail, from a story on Mateen’s Facebook searches in the months leading up to his attack (Fox took it out of the story since last night but it remains in Ron Johnson’s letter to Facebook).

My staff has also learned that Mateen apparently used Facebook to conduct frequent local law enforcement and FBI searches, including searching for specific law enforcement offices.

In addition to pledging allegiance to ISIS the morning of the attack and researching the San Bernardino couple, Mateen was closely tracking local and FBI law enforcement.

Now, maybe he was just doing that because he wanted to get a job as a cop. Maybe he did it because he wanted to know who was tracking him.

But couple it with two more data points. First, FBI and Florida law enforcement are defying Florida’s open records laws and withholding documents they normally would release quickly, including both Mateen’s several 911 calls but also any records of prior investigation of him or his family.

The Tampa Bay Times, for instance, asked the Department of Agriculture for information about Mateen’s security guard license, which he obtained almost a decade ago. A spokeswoman at the agriculture department says the FBI and Florida Department of Law Enforcement must authorize the information’s release.

The Times also reached out to the Fort Pierce Police Department asking for all cases in which Mateen, his relatives and others were named as a suspect, victim or witness. In response to this routine request, the agency refused and said the documents are part of an active criminal investigation.

Two dozen media outlets have asked the Orlando Police Department for 911 calls and radio communications. The city will not release these communications.

Add in the news (which is likely periphery to Mateen’s motivations but possibly not the refusal to share public records) that the cops responding to Mateen’s attack may have killed some of the dead.

Orlando Police Chief John Mina and other law enforcement officers offered new details about the shooting, including the possibility that some victims may have been killed by officers trying to save them.

“I will say this, that’s all part of the investigation,” Mina said. “But I will say when our SWAT officers, about eight or nine officers, opened fire, the backdrop was a concrete wall, and they were being fired upon.”

[snip]

An off-duty police officer working at the club Sunday night was investigating an underage drinker outside when he heard gunshots inside, according to the law enforcement source. The off-duty officer ran inside the club and traded gunfire with Mateen, backed up soon by three other police officers, the source said.

The officers fired at Mateen, who retreated into a bathroom toward the rear of the club.

“Those additional officers made entry while the suspect was shooting,” Mina said. “They forced him to stop shooting and retreat to the bathroom where we believe he had several hostages.”

The SWAT team, at least, was in body armor. Yet even admitting the possibility cops added to the casualties doesn’t explain how so many people got killed.

It is very important we understand what relationship FBI — and other law enforcement — had with Mateen leading up to the attack, partly to learn whether his attack was partly backlash against these serial attacks. Yet, amid a flood of self-serving leaks from the FBI, that’s one thing we’re not getting.

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Now Can We Ditch the Saudis?

Mohammed bin Salman, the third ranking royal Saudi, is in the US — ostensibly to visit John Kerry, Ash Carter, and Barack Obama.

But as FP reports, the latter hasn’t happened, and may not.

It was billed by Riyadh’s state media as a trip for Saudi Arabia’s powerful deputy crown prince to meet with President Barack Obama and other senior U.S. officials. But now that Prince Mohammed bin Salman has arrived in Washington, it’s still unclear if the president or any White House officials will meet with him, a spokeswoman said Tuesday.

“No confirmation at this time for any WH meetings,” White House spokesperson Dew Tiantawach told Foreign Policy.

The absence of any scheduled meetings with even National Security Adviser Susan Rice is fueling speculation among Gulf experts about a diplomatic snub. It comes amid sharp policy differences between Washington and Riyadh, and unease among U.S. officials about overplaying alliances with the 30-year-old prince, who some view as locked in a power struggle with the older Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef.

“Very unusual for the Saudis to come out saying he is meeting with Obama and White House not confirming it,” said David Ottaway, a Saudi expert at the Wilson Center in Washington. “They certainly knew he was coming.”

Meanwhile, Haykal Bafana, a usually reliable commentator on events in Yemen, has suggested that not just the one UAE helicopter reported more broadly, but two more, have been downed in recent days, by Saudi missiles. And the UAE tweeted out yesterday that it was withdrawing from the war in Yemen.

UAE, of course, was supporting (or headlining?) our efforts to continue targeting AQAP even as the Saudi invasion empowered the group, one the US has just added new resources to. If UAE withdraws we’ll be alone fighting AQAP.

Or, alternately, they may go back to benefitting wildly from the Saudi invasion of Yemen.

Are we getting closer to the point where we admit the Saudis are not our friends?

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At Same Time as DNC Hack Released, Funny Alleged Hacks in the Middle East

You’ve probably heard that hackers, probably Russian, hacked the DNC and released a bunch of information, including a really crappy oppo research report on Donald Trump. See this post for some of the materials and this analysis of the materials (including metadata to support the case these are Russians).

Given that development, I’m even more interesting in this development than I already was. Several websites in the Middle East — in this case Jordan’s Petra news service — posted a report that Mohammed bin Salman, the third ranking Saudi royal, had claimed to have provided Hillary 20% of her campaign funding.

On Sunday a report appeared on the Petra News Agency website that included what were described as exclusive comments from Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The comments included a claim that Riyadh has provided 20 percent of the total funding to the prospective Democratic candidate’s campaign.

I’m particularly interested in how that report got disclaimed: with intervention by the Podesta Group, which is both a lobbying arm for the Saudis and the firm of Hillary’s campaign manager.

On Monday a spokesperson for American public relations firm the Podesta Group contacted MEE to say that they work with the Saudi Royal Court and to request a correction to our earlier story that said the Jordanian news agency had deleted the quotes from Prince Mohammed.

Senior global communications specialist Will Bohlen – who, prior to joining Podesta, was chief researcher for a best-selling history of Bill Clinton’s presidency – sent a link to a clarification issued by the Petra News Agency which said it was “totally false and untrue” that they had published then deleted the quotes from Prince Mohammed about funding the Clinton campaign.

“A technical failure on Petra ’s website occurred for a few minutes on Sunday evening, 12 June 2016,” the Jordanian news agency said. “Protection systems at the agency as well as the technical department noticed that and therefore, they suspended the transmission system and the electronic site and moved to the alternative website.

“Later, it became clear that the technical failure that occurred was an attempt to hack the agency’s transmission system and its website. The agency was surprised to see some media outlets as well as the social media publishing false news that were attributed to Petra. They said that Petra transmitted a news item related to the deputy crown prince of Saudi Arabia and later deleted this news item. This is totally false and untrue.”

For now, I will assume this was a hack, which (again) I find to coincide interestingly with the DNC hack. The Clinton Foundation does get far too much money from the Saudis, but we can review Hillary’s actual funding to be sure that Mo bin Salman is not funding her campaign directly.

In entirely unrelated news I’ll put here anyway, the big Saudi investor Alwaleed bin Talal is now Twitter’s second largest investor.

Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Bin Abdulaziz Alsaud, who in 2011 invested $300 million in the social network, now owns 34.9 million shares of Twitter’s common stock, according to a new regulatory filing (pdf).

At nearly 5.2%, his stake in the company is now larger than that of Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s co-founder and newly re-minted CEO, whose 21.86 million shares give him 3.2% of the company, according to FactSet. (The prince previously had a stake of roughly 3%.)

Particularly given that Twitter isn’t exactly a great investment, I find Alwaleed’s interest in it notable.

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