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Transparent Dishonesty

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Immediately after assuming office, President Obama promised to provide a greater degree of transparency from his administration:

Transparency and the rule of law will be the touchstones of this presidency.

Since that moment, an enormous list of broken campaign promises has buried those false assurances of transparency.  Pondering over the heap of Obama’s discarded “bait and switch” enticements can cause a person to wonder how this man expects to get re-elected  … until the Republican aspirants come into view.

A recent gimmick of the current administration has been the “We the People” initiative.  This project resulted in the creation of a platform on the White House website, allowing for citizens to create petitions requesting government action on certain issues:

The We the People platform on WhiteHouse.gov gives Americans a new way to create, share, and sign petitions that communicate your views about your government’s actions and policies.

A signature threshold was established, requiring 5,000 on-line “signatures” within a 30-day period.  The threshold has subsequently been increased to 25,000 signatures in a month:

If a petition meets the signature threshold, it will be reviewed by the Administration and an official response will be issued.  And we’ll make sure that the petition is sent to the appropriate policy makers in the Administration.

The White House began responding to those petitions on October 26.  On November 5, Nancy Atkinson reported for Universe Today that We the People are interested in UFOs and space aliens:

The White House has responded to two petitions asking the US government to formally acknowledge that aliens have visited Earth and to disclose to any intentional withholding of government interactions with extraterrestrial beings.  “The U.S. government has no evidence that any life exists outside our planet, or that an extraterrestrial presence has contacted or engaged any member of the human race,” said Phil Larson from the White House Office of Science & Technology Policy, on the WhiteHouse.gov website.  “In addition, there is no credible information to suggest that any evidence is being hidden from the public’s eye.”

5,387 people had signed the petition for immediately disclosing the government’s knowledge of and communications with extraterrestrial beings, and 12,078 signed the request for a formal acknowledgement from the White House that extraterrestrials have been engaging the human race.

The denials made by Phil Larson are as false now as they were many years ago, when a 15-year-old high school student named John Greenwald, Jr. began sending Freedom of Information Act requests to the Pentagon, Air Force and numerous government agencies to ascertain what our officials had learned about those Unidentified Flying Objects, which have aroused so much curiosity since the advent of the Internet.  Over the years, John Greenwald has amassed a collection of over 600,000 pages of documents, which are available for free on his website, The Black Vault.

I was amused by John Greenwald’s lecture, recounting how – as a teenager – he made fools of the bureaucrats, who were charged with the responsibility of stonewalling any inquiries concerning the UFO phenomenon.  At his website, Greenwald recounted some of the highlights of this experience:

When I started researching this phenomenon fifteen years ago, you quickly learn that the government and military alike dismiss the entire topic, deny any involvement or interest in it, and they claim they could explain the mystery after their official investigation back in 1969 – and haven’t collected anything since.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

John Greenwald hit paydirt when he came across a document entitled “Air Force Instruction 10-206” or “AFI 10-206” (a 2008 edition can be seen here).  Here is Greenwald’s explanation (in the third person) of where this lead took him:

In the regulation entitled, “Operational Reporting,” chapter 5 outlines procedures for cataloguing different types of sightings, including the third on the list, “Unidentified Flying Objects” or UFOs.  Although this reference to UFOs is not a reference to alien spacecraft, the fact remains that this publication shows that the military does have an interest in the phenomena, whatever it might be.

*   *   *

Upon further investigation, Greenewald uncovered that the reports made under this Air Force document were called CIRVIS, or Communication Instructions for Reporting Vital Intelligence Sightings, reports.  He noted that they are filed and sent to the NORAD installation –which he then found out when he filed a FOIA request for the records – that NORAD was not subject to the FOIA.  This was due to the fact that it was under control by both Canadian and U.S. forces – therefore excluding it from U.S. law.

But “in good faith” the request was processed under a special NORAD instruction allowing access to their documents, but they claim they found “no records.”

Pushing forward, a simple phone call by Greenewald to the Department of National Defence (DND) in Canada yielded more than 100 pages of UFO / CIRVIS reports. According to NORAD – there was nothing.  According to Canada – there was a pile of records.

On September 2, 2011 Lee Speigel of The Huffington Post interviewed John Greenwald about the extent of UFO information obtained for The Black Vault by way of the Freedom of Information Act.  Lee Speigel provided this account of what happened after that interview:

On Sept. 2, The Huffington Post made inquiries to the Air Force about the UFO directives.  A spokesman said he’d arrange an interview with an appropriate officer.  But before the interview was set up, the 111-page instruction manual was revised on Sept. 6, and the UFO instructions were deleted, as were other portions of the document, now shortened to 40 pages.

*   *   *

For several weeks, military officials failed to respond to HuffPost inquiries about the rewritten manual, which included changes to areas unrelated to UFOs.

Finally, on Oct. 5, after several follow-up calls, an Air Force major emailed a response, informing HuffPost that UFO reporting is not a duty of the armed forces branch.  He denied any cover-up, and instead said it was a coincidence that the document was updated after this news organization asked for an explanation.

The Huffington Post piece included the reaction from John Greenwald:

“They’ve had many opportunities to take [the UFO reference] off of this publication and now look at what happens,” said Greenewald.  “All of a sudden, when a major news outlet like Huffington Post starts asking questions about why UFOs are still on the books — to have that media outlet not get a fast response, number one; and number two, the military completely re-writes the regulation, changes it and UFOs are nowhere to be found — that’s a fascinating coincidence.”

Obama’s promised “transparency” seems to have befallen the same fate as “hope” and “change”.  President Clinton’s former Chief of Staff, John Podesta, is now a Visiting Professor of Law at the Georgetown University Law Center.  Here is a video clip of John Podesta, making the case for disclosure of data compiled by the United States government on the subject of UFOs.  In a speech before the National Press Club on November 14, 2007, Mr. Podesta said this:

“I think it’s time to open the books” (on government investigations of UFOs).    .  .  .  “We ought to do it because it’s right.  We ought to do it because the American people, quite frankly, CAN handle the truth and we ought to do it because it’s the law.”

Yes, Mr. Podesta  . . .  but it’s so much easier for our officials to just lie.  They lie about everything else.  Why should this subject be treated any differently?


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Damage Control

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December 17, 2009

Matt Taibbi hit another grand slam with his recent Rolling Stone article: “Obama’s Big Sellout”.  It was another classic work in his unique style.  The ugly truth it drove home was that Barack Obama used a “bait and switch” tactic in his Presidential campaign:  promising to reform Wall Street — until the day after he got elected — at which time he immediately jumped into bed with the culprits of the financial crisis.  The reaction of the Obama apologists to the Rolling Stone piece involved the usual tactic of attacking the messenger (in this case:  Taibbi himself).  It didn’t work.  The best way to see how this played out should begin with a reading of  Taibbi’s retort to a critique appearing in The American Prospect — a feeble attempt to demonstrate that Taibbi got his facts wrong.  A neutral judge, Felix Salmon of Reuters, then stepped in and ruled in favor of Taibbi.  The online responses to Felix Salmon’s essay are a great read.  At the Open Left website, David Sirota upbraided Taibbi’s critics, who spanned the political spectrum — many of whom expressed condescension at the “naïve” decision of an outside-the-beltway reporter to expose the breach of a campaign promise:

It’s certainly true that a lot of politicians’ words mean nothing – but if reporters start treating that as a non-newsworthy assumption in their coverage, then the whole journalistic system becomes a joke – a miasma of personality profiles and puff pieces that assumes that the only thing that must be valued in politics is personal intangibles like “charisma” and “charm” and “toughness” and all those other incessant cliches. And what a joke that makes of our democracy.  In a republic where we only get to vote our politicians in or out every few years, all we have to go on are their promises.  If we now must assume their promises aren’t true, and attack people for being “naïve” for daring to try to hold them to their promises, then we’ve made a joke of our whole political system.

Matt Taibbi’s article immediately forced the White House into a damage control mode.  Another softball interview was immediately set up with Steve Croft of 60 Minutes, wherein Obama attempted to redeem his false image as an adversary of the Wall Street investment banks.  The President took advantage of that opportunity to present himself as an antagonist of those he described as “fat cats”.  On the following day, Obama held a meeting in the White House cabinet room with some banking representatives who found the event important enough to attend.  Immediately afterward, Charlie Gasparino revealed the backstory behind Obama’s meeting with the bankers.  After informing us that the administration provided the bankers with Obama’s “talking points” in advance of the meeting, Gasparino disclosed this:

.  .  . people with first-hand knowledge of the sitdown said, it was a heavily scripted affair — with none of the fireworks Obama displays in public.

*   *   *

Said one CEO who attended:  “I expected to be taken to the woodshed, but the tone was quite the opposite.”

Said another senior exec with knowledge of the meeting: “The whole thing was so telegraphed that not much was accomplished, other than giving Obama a PR stunt.   . . .  He might have sounded mean on ‘60 Minutes,’ but during the meeting he was a hell of a lot nicer.”

Many commentators were quick to point out that by the time Obama started talking tough about “fat cats”, he had already given them all they wanted by allowing them to pay back their TARP loans on an expedited basis.  As Henry Blodget explained for The Business Insider:

And in case you missed what is really going on here, the banks that repaid TARP are now getting all the benefits of government help with none of the drawbacks.  They just ditched the bad stuff — namely, pay caps — and kept the good stuff (implicit bond guarantees, subsidized super-low interest rates, no obligation to do anything for anyone).  Obama can jawbone all he wants about “fat cats,” but that’s all he can do.

At The Washington Post, Steven Pearlstein bemoaned the fact that the TARP beneficiaries had been “let off their leash”.  Pearlstein expressed concern that this move created the potential for more problems in the future:

By rushing to cash in their chips, however, the administration not only gave up political leverage and additional profit, but took the risk that one or more of the banks may find that it can’t make it on its own.  While the financial system has rebounded faster than anyone could have imagined, potential threats still loom — a further collapse of commercial real estate, for example, or a string of sovereign debt defaults.  And bank profits, while having rebounded, remain significantly dependent on the availability of cheap funding from the Federal Reserve and other central banks that cannot be expected to last indefinitely.

The administration’s damage control effort turned out to be worthless.  With his centerpiece healthcare reform effort floundering in the Senate, Obama the President is appearing to be significantly less effective than Obama the candidate.  The President’s critics have been quick to pounce.  George Will noted that Obama has “seen his job approval vary inversely with his ubiquity”.  The New York Post’s Michael Goodwin alleged that Obama “doesn’t look like he cares that big chunks of the country, left, right and center, are giving up on him.”  However, the best analysis of the confidence crisis afflicting the Obama Presidency came from Dan Gerstein of Forbes.com.  Gerstein observed that the new Preisdent’s leadership style was to blame — something Gerstein described as “the Reverse Roosevelt:  Talk boldly and carry a toothpick.”  While debunking the administration’s claim that it had lost the leverage it had over Wall Street with the TARP paybacks, Gerstein argued that such an excuse “doesn’t pass the laugh test” because the banking industry is the most regulated industry in the country.  The task Obama faces is to cultivate a leadership style that will be useful in confronting the challenges he undertook when he assumed office:

For those center dwellers, the issue is not that Obama is too liberal or too pragmatic (the chief complaints of the noisemakers on the left and right), but that he is not effective enough.  They question whether he has what it takes to get results:  to find the right balance on health care, to admit and fix the inadequacies of the stimulus, to begin taming the deficit without impeding growth.  It is a crisis of confidence that at its heart is, as Brookings scholar and former Clinton adviser Bill Galston points out, a crisis of competence.

*   *   *

But regardless of the reasons, Obama signed up for these missions, and his ability to succeed in them will largely hinge on whether he can grow as a leader.  Can he overcome his inhibitions, whatever their cause, and learn from the legacies of our most effective presidents about how to wield the full power of his office?  He clearly knows how to don the velvet glove (often with substantial impact) — will he come to understand when to unleash the iron fist?

Obama’s pattern so far is far from encouraging.  But I would not give up hope for growth.

It appears as though we are back to the themes of “hope” and “change”.  This time we’re hoping that Obama will change.



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Bait And Switch

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October 19, 2009

On Friday, October 16, Aaron Task interviewed Elizabeth Warren for his online TV show, Tech Ticker.  In case you don’t remember, Ms. Warren is the Harvard law professor, appointed to chair the Congressional Oversight Panel which has attempted to trace the money thrown into the infamous slush fund known as TARP — the Troubled Assets Relief Program.  Mr. Task questioned Professor Warren as to whether, after all this time, we can expect a full accounting as to where the TARP money went.  Professor Warren responded:  “No.  I think there is no chance that we will get a full accounting of it.”  She explained the reason for this is because former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson never asked for an explanation “on the front end” (when the TARP bailout program began) concerning what the recipients planned to do with this money, nor was any documentation of expenditures requested.  As an aside, the folks at The New York Times were kind enough to put together this TARP scorecard, for keeping track of which institutions pay back the money they received.  Of course, these amounts do not include all the loans, “backstopping” and other largesse provided to Wall Street by the Federal Reserve, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) and the Treasury.  For that information, we can look to this Bailout Tally Report, prepared by Nomi Prins for her book:  It Takes a Pillage: Behind the Bailouts, Bonuses,and Backroom Deals from Washington to Wall Street.

During the interview with Aaron Task, Elizabeth Warren expressed particular concern over the fact that former Treasury Secretary Paulson failed to put any restrictions on the use of the TARP bailout funds prior to their dispersal, despite the explanation to the taxpayers that this money would be used to remove the “toxic assets” from the banks’ balance sheets.  Worse yet, as she explained:  “The toxic assets are still there, by and large” because the TARP money was used by the Wall Street banks to “make bets”.  The bait-and-switch tactic used by Secretary Paulson was exposed by Professor Warren when she criticized how the banks used that money:

My biggest complaint would be:  That was not how Secretary Paulsen described what was going to happen with American taxpayer dollars.   . . . He said we are going to put money into the banks to increase lending —  specifically to increase small business lending because that is the engine of our economy . . .  I have a real problem when we describe to taxpayers their money will be taken and used one way and in fact it’s used another way.

Professor Warren also noted that nothing had been done to contain “systemic risk” after the financial crisis because those institutions requiring bailouts as they were considered “too big to fail” have grown even larger.  This subject was addressed by Rolfe Winkler of Reuters, who questioned whether these institutions, such as Goldman Sachs, are really indispensable:

Many of us didn’t like it — we thought banks like Goldman should have been recapitalized the right way, by wiping out shareholders and forcing subordinated creditors to eat their share of losses.  But that ship has sailed.  We socialized the risk while privatizing the profit because we were told we had no other choice:  The government had to guarantee the biggest banks’ liabilities because they were too unstable to survive bankruptcy or FDIC receivership.

If that’s true, why haven’t we seen any substantial reforms to reduce systemic risk?  Congress is kicking around new resolution authority to help resolve failed systemically-important banks.  But the goal should be reducing systemic risk to begin with.  Yet serious reform of the derivatives market — something that would reduce its size significantly — is nowhere on the radar.

Indeed, Goldman’s trading results suggest that market is coming back with a vengeance.  It’s playing in very risky markets with a capital structure that remains vulnerable yet is guaranteed by taxpayers.

*   *   *

Wall Street and its protectors at the Fed and Treasury tell us the bailout was necessary to protect the financial system, to protect Main Street.  That may be.  But Main Street still owns much of the risk while Wall Street gets all of the profit.

Elizabeth Warren’s reaction to the issue of what has been done with those profits — the huge, record-breaking bonuses paid to the people at Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan, was to describe the situation as so inappropriate as to leave her “speechless”.  Fortunately this sentiment is shared by a number of people who are already taking action in the absence of any responsible government activity.  The Gawker website has announced its initiation of what it calls the “Goldman Project” as a way of pushing back against this atrocity:

But what makes it eye-stabbingly, brain-searingly blood-boiling is the fact that Goldman’s employees are personally reaping the benefits of these subsidies to the tune of an average of $700,000 per staffer.  Being unjustifiably wealthy in boom times is not enough — when market forces of their own creation brought their company low, they turned to the taxpayers both to rescue the firm and prop up their obscenely acquisitive lifestyles.

*   *   *

.  .  .  we’re launching the Goldman Project, an ongoing attempt to track and publicize the multi-million second homes, $50,000 cars, $500 bottles of wine, and ostentatious living that we are subsidizing.  And we need your help: Are you Facebook friends with a Goldmanite who just posted photos of his lavish bachelor party?  Post them to our fancy new tag page, #GoldmanProject, or e-mail them to us.  Are you a realtor who just sold a $4 million duplex a Goldman banker?  Is your ex-boyfriend Goldman banker planning a year-end trip to Cabo to blow his bonus wad?  Shoot us an e-mail.  Likewise, if you catch any references to Goldman employees living large in the media, post them to #GoldmanProject to keep a running clipfile.

The folks at Gawker aren’t the only ones taking action.  When the American Bankers Association holds its annual meeting in Chicago on October 25-26, it will be confronted with a (hopefully) large protest led by a coalition of labor, community and consumer groups, called the “Showdown in Chicago”.  Visit their website and do whatever you can to help make this event a success.  The arrogant influence peddlers in Washington need to get the message:  Clean things up or get thrown out.



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