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Revisiting Obama on the Weakness of American Democracy

It has become fashionable, of late, for pundits to say President Obama failed to respond accordingly to the Russian hack last year. As I showed in this analysis of WaPo’s 8300 word opus making that argument, such claims tend to give the views of the CIA and Democrats most emphasis, obscuring the degree to which even within the Intelligence Community there was less certainty than narrative reconstructions make out. They also tend to ignore some key events — like assassinations and indictments of Russian hackers — in claiming nothing has happened, effectively pretending that sanctions are the necessary and exclusive possible response. Significantly, they also tend to ignore ongoing developments, most notably the Shadow Brokers leaks and the global ransomware launched using it, that may constrain our possible responses for the moment.

In other words, the narrative condemning Obama inaction ignores a lot.

Such analyses also miss another important point, something Obama pointed out in his December speech on the Russian hack. It’s a point I’ve been thinking a lot about recently, especially today.

To the extent the Russian hack was effective, Obama argued, it’s because our own politics have made us vulnerable.

Our vulnerability to Russia or any other foreign power is directly related to how divided, partisan, dysfunctional our political process is. That’s the thing that makes us vulnerable.

If fake news that’s being released by some foreign government is almost identical to reports that are being issued through partisan news venues, then it’s not surprising that that foreign propaganda will have a greater effect, because it doesn’t seem that far-fetched compared to some of the other stuff that folks are hearing from domestic propagandists.

To the extent that our political dialogue is such where everything is under suspicion, everybody is corrupt and everybody is doing things for partisan reasons, and all of our institutions are full of malevolent actors — if that’s the storyline that’s being put out there by whatever party is out of power, then when a foreign government introduces that same argument with facts that are made up, voters who have been listening to that stuff for years, who have been getting that stuff every day from talk radio or other venues, they’re going to believe it.

So if we want to really reduce foreign influence on our elections, then we better think about how to make sure that our political process, our political dialogue is stronger than it’s been.

I’m unsympathetic to Obama’s complaints that people distrust our institutions. His DOJ, after all, failed to prosecute torturers, illegal wiretappers, and most of all, the banksters that crashed our economy. The distrust of our institutions, including the press that got us into the Iraq War, has been earned.

We need to start thinking about what they would need to do to earn trust anew.

But Obama is right about why the hack succeeded, to the extent it did. Almost everything Russia did — create fake scandals, try to tamper with the ability to vote — the Republicans (and occasionally, Democrats too) have been doing for decades. In fact, we now know that a long-time GOP ratfucker, Peter W Smith, was even trolling hacker forums looking for someone who might have hacked Hillary’s private server. So whatever the Russians did, they largely just joined the predictable and persistent GOP wave doing precisely the same.

And for decades, we have tolerated that — explicit voter suppression, fake scandals, cheating to win — from the GOP.

As I said last week, when Democrats were responding to Kris Kobach’s latest attempt to suppress the vote, it’s time for all patriotic Americans to establish and commit to a standard for our democracy, one that doesn’t tolerate the same tactics a foreign government would use to its advantage.

We’re stuck with the Republicans for at least two more years, and they’re determined to do as much damage to our democracy to prevent paying any price for the crap they’re currently pulling, so it may be longer than that. But we need to think of this about restoring our democracy, not just beating the other team.

Happy Fourth of July. May we find a way to keep the Republic.

Democrats Need a Plan for National Voter Protection

Even as three different committees in Congress investigate how Russia tampered with our election last year, the Trump Administration and Congress are taking steps to tamper with the next election themselves.

The House Appropriations Committee just defunded the Election Assistance Commission, which is the only federal entity to help states prevent getting hacked.

The head of Trump’s “Election Integrity” Commission, Kris Kobach — fresh off court sanctions for lying to a court — sent a letter to all the Secretaries of State, asking them for their voting rolls (including party affiliation).

And then Trump named the loathsome Hans Van Spaskovsky, who has a history of suppressing the vote of people of color, to the Commission.

It’s probably no accident all this is happening as Trump and Mitch McConnell try to force through a massively unpopular change to ObamaCare. By making showy plans to cheat on a national scale, the Administration may be reassuring Republicans they can keep their job even by selling out their constituents in favor of a tax cut for the wealthy. They’ll just do it by cheating even more obviously than they have in the past.

Whatever the logic, though, Democrats are thus far responding to this obvious effort to cheat with half measures. While Democratic Secretaries of State are announcing they’re refuse to comply with Kobach’s request, that’s it. No discussion of anything more, not even an organized effort to point out that Pence didn’t mention cybersecurity in his statement the other day on “Election Integrity” even as Congress investigates the effect of hacks on the election last year. [This has been corrected to note it was Pence who didn’t mention cyber; Kobach does actually ask about technology in his letter.]

Just nine months after Democrats pushed for a national effort to protect the vote as it was being hacked by Russians only to have Republicans balk, Republicans are now embracing such a national effort. Yet Democrats are unprepared for what a nation-wide effort to ensure all Americans get to vote would look like.

This is an opportunity to lay out standards, within the framework permitted by federalism, for real election integrity. That might include things like:

  • Cybersecurity standards for both machines and electoral rolls
  • Standards for a paper trail on voting
  • Rules limiting how and when purges may happen
  • Affirmative restrictions on identity requirements that impose financial and time costs

Two noted racists are about to try to rebrand cheating as “integrity.” It’s time for the Democrats to do more than simply resist, but instead to lay out what real election integrity would look like in this country.

That’s all the more true given the investment Democrats have made in the Russian narrative. If Russia tampering with our vote is so important, then why is Republicans doing the same, much more aggressively and effectively, not worth the same effort?

On Solidarity in the Face of Muslim Registry Plans

In this post, I suggest you might donate to CAIR. Please consider a donation for this work, as well

Yesterday, Carl Higbie pointed to the Supreme Court decision in Korematsu in claiming that President Trump could legally establish a registry of Muslims.

A spokesman for a major super PAC backing Donald Trump said Wednesday that the mass internment of Japanese Americans during World War II was a “precedent” for the president-elect’s plans to create a registry for immigrants from Muslim countries.

During an appearance on Megyn Kelly’s Fox News show, Carl Higbie said a registry proposal being discussed by Trump’s immigration advisers would be legal and would “hold constitutional muster.”

This came after Kris Kobach said Trump were considering a formal proposal for such a registry.

Higbie’s remarks came a day after a key member of Trump’s transition team, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, said Trump’s policy advisers were weighing whether to send him a formal proposal for a national registry of immigrants and visitors from Muslim countries.

Kobach, a possible candidate for attorney general, told Reuters that the team was considering a reinstatement of a similar program he helped design after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks while serving in the Justice Department under President George W. Bush.

Kobach was talking about a rule actually imposed during the Bush administration requiring — among other things — that men from Muslim countries (and North Korea) register, practice that led to huge lines outside of immigration facilities during freezing cold weather to dutifully sign up.

Today, a lot of really well-meaning people have promised to also register on any such registry, which would have the intended effect of creating a group far too large to marginalize.

The underlying intent of those promising to sign up is great. But there are a couple of problems in theory.

First, note what the Reuters report cited above says about the registry.

Under NSEERS, people from countries deemed “higher risk” were required to undergo interrogations and fingerprinting on entering the United States. Some non-citizen male U.S. residents over the age of 16 from countries with active militant threats were required to register in person at government offices and periodically check in.

NSEERS was abandoned in 2011 after it was deemed redundant by the Department of Homeland Security and criticized by civil rights groups for unfairly targeting immigrants from Muslim- majority nations.

NSEERS was shut down in 2011 because DHS was already creating the list via other means. That is, the list tracking Muslim already exists. In notable form, it exists in the form of the No Fly and Terrorist Watch Lists. In addition, DHS tracks the movement of international travelers closer than ever. Customs and Border Protection currently collects more metadata from incoming non-citizens — including permanent residents — than INS did of registered men at its inception, and automated CBP kiosks collect some of what they used to collect for people on the registry from everyone, including US citizens.

While in its heyday, NSEERS served to provide suspicion free excuses to stop Muslim-appearing men, it’s not like authorities currently lack that (and I’d say that for Muslims, African Americans, or Latinos). And the rush to include social media registration at immigration will provide another way to prosecute people who inadvertently provide incomplete information at the border to be deported.

But there’s a far bigger hurdle to getting a large group of people to register in solidarity with any Muslim registry. Unless Trump and Kobach dramatically reverse from the perverse logic established under Bush and continued under Obama, these lists are designed to be arbitrary and secret. The current No Fly list includes children. At one point it included Ted Kennedy. Because they are secret, these lists been difficult to challenge them — and before the work of lawyers at ACLU and Center for Constitutional Rights and a few lonely others — impossible.

So long as DHS retains the ability to create such registries in secret, no one will have the affirmative ability to just volunteer to sign up. Maybe Kobach will change that — and undermine the bureaucratic efficacy of the current list. But I’m not yet convinced.

If you want to get yourself on a list of for expressing solidarity with Muslims, a good way to do that may be to donate to the Council on American-Islamic Relations. CAIR is like the ACLU of the Muslim world, one of they key defenders of Muslim civil rights. For that (and discredited allegations of ties to Hezbollah and Hamas) it has been targeted for both surveillance and denormalization (FBI issued guidance prohibiting outreach cooperation with it, for example). But they do absolutely critical work helping Muslims assert their civil rights. And a number of their state offices have already been targeted with hate speech or crimes since the election.

One final point: Just months ago, many Democrats were applauding banning people on the No Fly List from owning guns. I’d like to make gun ownership in this country safer, but using this arbitrary list to do so only encourages the expansion of such lists in the future.