Archives for March 2018

Did the U.S. miss its chance to stop North Korea’s nuclear programme?

Julian Borger writes:

Pyongyang International is one of the world’s quieter airports. The country’s chronic isolation means that there are not many places to fly, and few foreigners keen on visiting. At least until a new terminal was built in 2012, many of the flights on the departure boards were just for show, giving the appearance of connection with the outside world. They never actually took off.

Against this melancholy backdrop, one day in late May 1999, something quite extraordinary happened. An official plane bearing the blue-and-white livery of the US government and emblazoned with the stars and stripes landed and taxied along the runway. The plane was carrying a former defence secretary, William Perry, who had been brought back from retirement by President Bill Clinton to try to end the frozen conflict between the US and North Korea. With a small group of aides, Perry was embarking on a mission that he hoped would avert a return to the armed stand-off that had brought the two countries to the brink of war five years earlier.

The flightpath followed by Perry’s plane, which had taken off in Japan, had not been used since the Korean war. As it approached North Korean territory, Perry and his aides cracked dark jokes about whether anyone had remembered to tell the vigilant air-defence missile crews a few thousand feet below that they had an official invitation.

Perry was arriving at a moment of high tension. The previous year, the regime in Pyongyang had shown off its proficiency in missile technology with a series of tests, including the launch of the long-range Taepodong-1, which sailed over Japan before splashing into the Pacific. Officially, the Taepodong-1 was intended to launch a satellite, but it relied on the same technology and rocket power as an intercontinental ballistic missile. And the only way such a missile is of real military use is when it has a nuclear warhead in its nose cone.

By the time the US delegation arrived in Pyongyang, a 1994 agreement between Washington and Pyongyang, intended to prevent North Korea from ever becoming a nuclear weapons state, was fraying. Both sides were failing to deliver on their earlier promises. As part of the deal, known as the Agreed Framework, the US had undertaken to supply 500,000 tonnes of fuel oil a year to the famine-ridden state, but the shipments had begun to arrive late, as the Republican-controlled Congress tried to block every fuel purchase. Meanwhile, the Americans, Japanese and South Koreans were behind schedule on their agreement to develop light-water reactors for civilian energy generation inside North Korea. For their part, the North Koreans appeared to be involved in furtive activities, which – along with the missile launch – convinced US intelligence agencies that they were seeking to continue making fissile material for a bomb.

Perry was carrying a letter from Bill Clinton to the North Korean dictator, Kim Jong-il, who had inherited power in 1994 after the death of his father, Kim Il-sung, the the founder of the nation and the ruling dynasty. Along with Clinton’s letter to Kim expressing hope for better relations, Perry carried an explicit mandate from Japanese and South Korean leaders, authorising him to speak on their behalf, and the outline of a peace plan. In return for a broad renunciation of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles, North Korea would get more than oil and reactors – it would get a ticket back into the international community, including diplomatic ties and trade with the US.

And potatoes. In the run-up to the Perry mission, North Korean officials had signalled that Kim Jong-il was convinced that potatoes were the way out of famine. In return for allowing US weapons inspectors to visit a suspicious underground site shortly before Perry’s visit, Pyongyang had initially demanded $300m, but eventually settled for 100,000 tonnes of potatoes. [Continue reading…]

The Bosworth memo: The ugly truth about Facebook’s addiction to growth

BuzzFeed reports:

On June 18, 2016, one of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s most trusted lieutenants circulated an extraordinary memo weighing the costs of the company’s relentless quest for growth.

“We connect people. Period. That’s why all the work we do in growth is justified. All the questionable contact importing practices. All the subtle language that helps people stay searchable by friends. All of the work we do to bring more communication in. The work we will likely have to do in China some day. All of it,” VP Andrew “Boz” Bosworth wrote.

“So we connect more people,” he wrote in another section of the memo. “That can be bad if they make it negative. Maybe it costs someone a life by exposing someone to bullies.

“Maybe someone dies in a terrorist attack coordinated on our tools.”

The explosive internal memo is titled “The Ugly,” and has not been previously circulated outside the Silicon Valley social media giant. [Continue reading…]

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Can social media be saved?

Kevin Roose writes:

I don’t need to tell you that something is wrong with social media.

You’ve probably experienced it yourself. Maybe it’s the way you feel while scrolling through your Twitter feed — anxious, twitchy, a little world weary — or your unease when you see a child watching YouTube videos, knowing she’s just a few algorithmic nudges away from a rabbit hole filled with lunatic conspiracies and gore. Or maybe it was this month’s Facebook privacy scandal, which reminded you that you’ve entrusted the most intimate parts of your digital life to a profit-maximizing surveillance machine.

Our growing discomfort with our largest social platforms is reflected in polls. One recently conducted by Axios and SurveyMonkey found that all three of the major social media companies — Facebook, Twitter and Google, which shares a parent company with YouTube — are significantly less popular with Americans than they were five months ago. (And Americans might be the lucky ones. Outside the United States, social media is fueling real-world violence and empowering autocrats, often with much less oversight.)

But it would be a mistake to throw up our hands and assume that it has to be this way. The original dream of social media — producing healthy discussions, unlocking new forms of creativity, connecting people to others with similar interests — shouldn’t be discarded because of the failures of the current market leaders. And lots of important things still happen on even the most flawed networks. The West Virginia teachers’ strike and last weekend’s March for Our Lives, for example, were largely organized on Facebook and Twitter.

The primary problem with today’s social networks is that they’re already too big, and are trapped inside a market-based system that forces them to keep growing. Facebook can’t stop monetizing our personal data for the same reason that Starbucks can’t stop selling coffee — it’s the heart of the enterprise. [Continue reading…]

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The policing of opinion has become established practice in societies that call themselves free

John Gray writes:

For liberals the recent transformation of universities into institutions devoted to the eradication of thought crime must seem paradoxical. In the past higher education was avowedly shaped by an ideal of unfettered inquiry. Varieties of social democrats and conservatives, liberals and Marxists taught and researched alongside scholars with no strong political views. Academic disciplines cherished their orthodoxies, and dissenters could face difficulties in being heard. But visiting lecturers were rarely dis­invited because their views were deemed unspeakable, course readings were not routinely screened in case they contained material that students might find discomforting, and faculty members who departed from the prevailing consensus did not face attempts to silence them or terminate their careers. An inquisitorial culture had not yet taken over.

It would be easy to say that liberalism has now been abandoned. Practices of toleration that used to be seen as essential to freedom are being deconstructed and dismissed as structures of repression, and any ideas or beliefs that stand in the way of this process banned from public discourse. Judged by old-fashioned standards, this is the opposite of what liberals have stood for. But what has happened in higher education is not that liberalism has been supplanted by some other ruling philos­ophy. Instead, a hyper-liberal ideology has developed that aims to purge society of any trace of other views of the world. If a regime of censorship prevails in universities, it is because they have become vehicles for this project. When students from China study in Western countries one of the lessons they learn is that the enforcement of intellectual orthodoxy does not require an authoritarian gov­ernment. In institutions that proclaim their commitment to critical inquiry, censorship is most effective when it is self-imposed. A defining feature of tyranny, the policing of opinion is now established practice in societies that believe themselves to be freer than they have ever been. [Continue reading…]

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John Bolton to Kim Jong Un: Give up your nukes like Gaddafi did — before we killed him

Jeffrey Lewis writes:

So, President Trump’s has tapped John Bolton to be his next national security adviser.

Most readers will be familiar with the broad outlines of the Bolton story—he is famously awful as a boss and his hawkish tendencies border on the absurd. A Republican Senate refused to confirm his nomination, by George W. Bush, as ambassador to the United Nations. The thought of Bolton in New York literally moved Sen. George Voinovich, a Republican, to tears.

Bolton has, of course, been on his very best behavior. He recently made news by appearing to support the idea of negotiations with North Korea, comparing it to the deal that the Bush administration struck with Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi in 2003.

Don’t fall for it. The agreement with Libya, and how its relates to North Korea, is actually one of the least-understood episodes in recent diplomacy. But it is important, because it demonstrates how Bolton plies his trade, and the danger he poses.

After the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Bush administration faced a delicate situation: There were no weapons of mass destruction! Saddam had, in fact, abandoned his programs and the United States had invaded Iraq anyway. This looked, well, bad. How could Bush convince other world leaders, including North Korea’s Kim Jong Il, to give up their nuclear weapons aspirations if it looked like the U.S. would just turn around and topple them, just as it had Saddam?

Bush’s national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, hit on an ingenuous solution. The United States had also struck a disarmament deal with Libya. Why not have Gaddafi vouch for Bush?

“North Korea will be surprised to see how much will be possible (if it abandons its nuclear programs),” she reportedly told the South Korean foreign minister in 2004. “I wish Kim Jong-Il would talk to Gaddafi.” [Continue reading…]

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Why did Kim Jong Un just visit China?

Ankit Panda writes:

For months, China seemed to be a side player as relations improved between North Korea and South Korea. Kim Jong Un, the leader of North Korea, kicked off the year with an address celebrating the completion of his nuclear deterrent after months of boasting about his increasing nuclear capability. In his speech, he also expressed interest in North Korea’s participation in the Winter Olympics. That, in turn, provided Moon Jae In, the president of South Korea, with the diplomatic opening he sought. What followed: an exchange of conciliatory gestures at the Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, which set the stage for a meeting in Pyongyang between Kim and a team of South Korean envoys. Those same envoys then presented an invitation from Kim to meet with President Donald Trump, who had threatened North Korea’s total destruction; Trump immediately accepted. Seoul, it seemed, was in control of the fate of the Korean Peninsula.

Then, on Monday, speculative reports observed that an armored train from North Korea was en route to Beijing. Eventually, state media in China and North Korea confirmed that the visitor aboard the armored mystery train from North Korea to Beijing was none other than Kim Jong Un. For the first time in his six-year reign, Kim had finally left North Korean soil to meet the leader of his country’s oldest benefactor, China. During the visit, Kim reportedly told Xi Jinping, the president of China, what he had told South Korea’s presidential envoys: that he was ready to talk to the United States about his nuclear weapons. “It is our consistent stand to be committed to denuclearization on the peninsula, in accordance with the will of late President Kim Il Sung and late General Secretary Kim Jong Il,” Kim was quoted as having said, according to Xinhua.

The Beijing meeting showed that whatever may come of the upcoming inter-Korean and North Korea-U.S. summits, China will not be a peripheral player. Xi Jinping, fresh out of the National People’s Congress with an open-ended mandate as president of the People’s Republic, has flung himself into international diplomacy with gusto. [Continue reading…]

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The deeply underdeveloped worldview of John Bolton

Peter Beinart writes:

Survey the history of American national-security advisors going back to the position’s creation in the mid-twentieth century, and two things about John Bolton stand out. The first is his militancy: his incessant, almost casual, advocacy of war. The second—which has gotten less attention but is deeply intertwined with the first—is the parochialism of his life experience.

Many national-security advisors, including Robert McFarlane, John Poindexter, Colin Powell, James Jones, Michael Flynn, and H.R. McMaster, have come from the professional military. Even many of those who made their careers in academia, law, or government, like McGeorge Bundy, Henry Kissinger, Frank Carlucci, Brent Scowcroft, and Stephen Hadley, served in the military for a time. Walt Rostow, Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Scowcroft, Anthony Lake, Condoleezza Rice, Susan Rice, and McMaster, earned doctorates. In different ways, these experiences offered Bolton’s predecessors some critical distance on the foreign-policy debate in Washington.

To differing degrees, those who served in the military saw the consequences of those foreign-policy debates on the ground. Some were more hawkish than others. But many could relate to the experience of Colin Powell who, as a major in Vietnam, saw “recently healthy young American boys, now stacked like cordwood” on the floor of helicopters. Those who served in academia had an opportunity to put U.S. foreign policy in broader historical perspective. Kissinger, who wrote his dissertation on Klemens Von Metternich, the foreign minister of the Austro-Hungarian empire who tried to manage Europe’s balance of power in the face of a challenge from revolutionary France, saw America as facing an analogous challenge from a revolutionary Soviet Union.

Of course, neither military nor academic experience could prevent some national-security advisors from making terrible mistakes. But if Kissinger is right that “[high] office teaches decision-making, not substance” and that it “consumes intellectual capital; it does not create it,” then the narrow professional experience through which Bolton has amassed his intellectual capital matters a great deal. He has never served in the military. He has never studied another region of the world, or another period of history, at the graduate level. He has spent his entire adult life in the interlocking world of hawkish think tanks, Washington law firms, Republican politics, and the right-wing media. And he manifests that narrowness in the smugly insular worldview he brings to his new job. [Continue reading…]

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FBI looked into Trump plans to build hotel in Latvia with Putin supporter

The Guardian reports:

They wanted to build the Las Vegas of the Baltics.

In 2010, a small group of businessmen including a wealthy Russian supporter of Vladimir Putin began working on plans to build a glitzy hotel and entertainment complex with Donald Trump in Riga, the capital of Latvia.

A senior Trump executive visited the city to scout for locations. Trump and his daughter Ivanka spent hours at Trump Tower with the Russian, Igor Krutoy, who also knows compatriots involved in arranging a fateful meeting at the same building during the 2016 US election campaign.

Then the Latvian government’s anti-corruption bureau began asking questions.

The Guardian has learned that talks with Trump’s company were abandoned after Krutoy and another of the businessmen were questioned by Latvian authorities as part of a major criminal inquiry there – and that the FBI later looked into Trump’s interactions with them at Latvia’s request.

Those involved deny that the inquiry was to blame for the deal’s collapse.

Latvia asked the US for assistance in 2014 and received a response from the FBI the following year, according to a source familiar with the process. Latvian investigators also examined secret recordings in which Trump was mentioned by a suspect.

This means the FBI looked into Trump’s efforts to do business deals in the former Soviet Union earlier than was widely known. [Continue reading…]

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Music: Jon Hassell — ‘Last Night The Moon Came’

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How Trump is rigging the census

Mother Jones reports:

The census is America’s largest civic event, the only one that involves everyone in the country, young and old, citizen and noncitizen, rich and poor—or at least it’s supposed to. It’s been conducted every 10 years since 1790, when US Marshals first swore an oath to undertake “a just and perfect enumeration” of the population. The census determines how $675 billion in federal funding is allocated to states and localities each year for things like health care, schools, public housing, and roads; how many congressional seats and electoral votes each state receives; and how states will redraw local and federal voting districts. Virtually every major institution in America relies on census data, from businesses looking for new markets to the US military tracking the needs of veterans. The census lays the groundwork for the core infrastructure of our democracy, bringing a measure of transparency and fairness to how representation and resources are allocated across the country.

But with the Trump administration in charge, voting rights advocates fear the undercount could be amplified, shifting economic resources and political power toward rural, white, and Republican communities. The census is scheduled to begin on April 1, 2020, in the middle of the presidential election season. Of all the ways democracy is threatened under President Donald Trump—a blind eye to Russian meddling in elections, a rollback of voting rights, a disregard for checks and balances—an unfair and inaccurate census could have the most dramatic long-term impact. “It’s one of those issues that’s often the least sexy, least discussed in certain corners, and yet the ramifications for communities of color and vulnerable communities are so high in terms of what’s at stake for economic power and political power,” says Vanita Gupta, who led the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division under President Barack Obama and now directs the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

A “perfect storm” is threatening the 2020 census, says Terri Ann Lowenthal, a former staff director for the House Subcommittee on Census and Population. Budget cuts enacted by the Trump administration and the Republican Congress forced the bureau to cancel crucial field tests in 2017 and 2018. The bureau’s director resigned last June, and the administration has yet to name a full-time director or deputy director. The next census will also be the first to rely on the internet. The Census Bureau will mail households a postcard with instructions on how to fill out the form online; if they don’t respond, it will send field-workers, known as enumerators, to knock on their doors. But in an effort to save money, there will be 200,000 fewer enumerators than in 2010, increasing the likelihood that households without reliable internet access will go uncounted. Enumerators will carry tablets instead of paper forms, and the reliance on technology raises cybersecurity fears in the wake of high-profile hacks and foreign election interference.

“They’re putting together the census under a pall of uncertainty,” says Kenneth Prewitt, who directed the 2000 census. “How much money, who’s going to be in charge, what are we going to do on the core questionnaire itself? To do that under such a level of uncertainty is literally unprecedented.”

And then, on Monday night, the Trump administration dropped the biggest bombshell of all. The Commerce Department, which oversees the Census Bureau, announced that it would include a question about US citizenship on the census for the first time since 1950. Civil rights groups say the move will cause immigrants, particularly undocumented ones, to avoid responding to the census for fear of being reported to immigration authorities. The result will be a massive undercount of the Latino population, leading to reduced political power and federal resources for places like Fresno. The state of California, which has the country’s largest immigrant population, quickly filed a lawsuit against the administration over the question. [Continue reading…]

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