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Tuesday, April 25, 2017

It Is Hard to Figure Out North Korea

John Schindler at Observer:
In fairness to IC analysts trying to make sense of what’s going on in the DPRK, most of their usual sources of information work poorly if at all when it comes to this hard target. We have no embassy in Pyongyang, which means the CIA’s usual practice of employing spies masquerading as diplomats to gain access to the host country’s secrets doesn’t apply. Neither do American firms do business in North Korea, so the CIA’s other option, of employing case officers under non-official cover—called NOCs in the spy trade—posing as businesspeople, doesn’t apply either.
Even if Americans somehow could get into North Korea, the 24/7 monitoring given to suspect foreigners in the country means they’d be hard-pressed to get any spying accomplished. Pyongyang, trusting no one, watches even its friends closely. A senior KGB official who did a tour in North Korea in the waning days of the Cold War admitted that he was under tighter surveillance by his “allies” in Pyongyang than he had experienced in his long espionage career. He told me that he was watched more invasively by North Korean counterspies than he ever had been by the FBI during a previous KGB tour in America.
Even the NSA, which supplies the lion’s share of intelligence in our IC, can’t get much access to North Korea. Pyongyang has buried most of its communications underground, making them immune to conventional interception, while cell phones are almost unknown there. Neither can NSA tap into the country’s computer networks easily, since North Korea barely has Internet access. Being all but sealed off from the world in IT terms means that the DPRK represents a very hard target for NSA, as well as a denied area overall for American spies.
Our spy satellites offer some indications of what’s going on north of the DMZ, but without corroborating HUMINT or SIGINT, that secret imagery is a lot less useful than it could be. The only way to get fresh intelligence about what’s happening in North Korea is by recruiting Pyongyang’s diplomats serving abroad (many of whom are really spies). They’re a pretty unsavory bunch, since DPRK embassies are outposts for crime—counterfeiting, drug-dealing, and various frauds—more than diplomacy, and any spies recruited will be impossible to maintain contact with once they return home.

Monday, April 24, 2017

The Swamp Is Getting Bigger

Fredreka Schouten and Maureen Groppe report at USA Today:
Former campaign aides, fundraisers and others with ties to President Trump and Vice President Pence have attracted dozens of new lobbying clients in Washington, raking in more than $2.2 million in lobbying fees in the first months of the administration, a USA TODAY analysis shows.
Brian Ballard, a longtime Florida lobbyist and a fundraiser for both Trump’s campaign and inaugural committee, appears to lead the pack, signing up 20 federal clients since opening his Washington lobbying operation this year. His company, Ballard Partners, has earned more than $1.1 million in a three-month period, new lobbying reports show.
Ballard is one of more than a dozen White House allies launching new firms, taking new jobs in lobbying firms or signing up new clients this year as companies and other interests look for ways to shape policy in the Trump administration. During the campaign, Trump repeatedly promised to drain the special-interest swamp in Washington.
AP reports:
Contribution records from Trump's inaugural committee, released Wednesday by the Federal Election Commission, show the president who railed as a candidate against the corrupting influence of big-money donors was only too willing to accept top-dollar checks for his swearing-in festivities.
Trump's total take was about double the previous record set by Barack Obama, who collected $53 million in contributions in 2009, and had money left over to spend on the annual Easter egg roll and other White House events.
Trump's top inaugural donor was Las Vegas gambling billionaire Sheldon Adelson, who gave $5 million. He and his wife came away with prime seats for Trump's swearing-in ceremony on Jan. 20 and gained access to a private lunch with the new president and lawmakers at the Capitol. Phil Ruffin, another casino mogul and close friend of Trump, was among dozens of donors who gave $1 million each.
At least eight NFL team owners kicked in big money for the inauguration. Seven of them, including Patriots owner Bob Kraft, whose team won the Super Bowl and visited the White House on Wednesday, gave $1 million apiece. Kraft's donation came via his limited liability company.
Mary Papenfuss reports at the Huffington Post:
The New York Times and ProPublica have highlighted some especially worrisome hires in the executive branch, including White House energy adviser Michael Catanzaro, a former oil and gas company lobbyist, and Geoff Burr, a former construction industry lobbyist now working at the Department of Labor.

A lobbyist may “de-register on Monday and enter the Trump Administration on Tuesday,” Craig Holman of the watchdog group Public Citizen told ProPublica — and could also quickly return to the private sector.

Just last week, Bloomberg revealed that Marcus Peacock, a top Trump aide who worked briefly in the Office of Management and Budget, will join the lobbying group the Business Roundtable. Peacock has recused himself from lobbying the OMB for just six months — even though he agreed not to lobby his former agency for five years, according to Bloomberg.

Trump may also be issuing other ethics waivers, but that’s difficult to determine because granted waivers are generally kept secret, the Times reports. The president is also keeping White House visitor logs secret, making it difficult to track corporate representatives’ meetings with federal officials as they create new policy.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Trump v. House GOP on Entitlement Reform

Dudes, you might want to check Trump's tweets on this subject:

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Scientists and Politics

At FiveThirtyEight, Ben Wieder writes about the political activity of scientists, noting that Rep. Bill Foster (D-IL) is a physicist.
On Saturday, Foster plans to join the thousands of scientists and supporters of science who will take to the National Mall in Washington and to the streets in more than 400 communities across the world to assert the importance of science and protest American policies they see as detrimental to the field and to society. The march, organized in the wake of communication restrictions imposed by President Trump’s administration on government scientists and proposed federal budget cuts to scientific funding, has been described as an unprecedented moment of political engagement by the scientific community.
But scientists, such as those who donated to Foster, don’t necessarily keep politics at arm’s length to begin with. Over the past 10 years, FEC data shows, scientists and engineers have given more than $140 million to federal candidates and parties, with nearly 60 percent of that going to Democratic candidates and party committees.
This analysis considered donations to candidate committees and political parties by individual donors whose self-identified occupation fell within the disciplines of science, mathematics and engineering1 as identified by the National Science Foundation. Social scientists were excluded for the purpose of this analysis. The analysis also excluded donations to candidate-affiliated leadership and joint-fundraising committees as well as independent political groups, which often aren’t affiliated with a particular party. Donation amounts were adjusted for inflation to 2016 dollars. You can find the data on GitHub here.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Behesting: A Database

Previous posts have described how interest groups use charity to win favor with politicians and potential allies

Patrick McGreevy reports at the Los Angeles Times:
Elected state officials in California ask special interests to donate millions of dollars annually to their favorite charities. Now residents can get a clearer picture of who is asking, who is giving and who is getting the money.
The state Fair Political Practices Commission launched a new database search site on its website Thursday that makes it easier to see who the players are and compare them to determine who is raising the most money.
The database shows that state elected officials asked businesses, unions and other special interests to donate more than $5 million last year to dozens of their favored charities.
Gov. Jerry Brown raised the most — $2.8 million — with money going to the Oakland Military Institute charter school, the Oakland School for the Arts and the State Protocol Foundation, which pays for some of his travel and events.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Incompetence Update

President-elect Donald Trump was very clear: “I will appoint a team to give me a plan within 90 days of taking office,” he said in January, after getting a U.S. intelligence assessment of Russian interference in last year’s elections and promising to address cybersecurity.
 Thursday, Trump hits his 90-day mark. There is no team, there is no plan, and there is no clear answer from the White House on who would even be working on what.
It’s the latest deadline Trump’s set and missed — from the press conference he said his wife would hold last fall to answer questions about her original immigration process to the plan to defeat ISIS that he’d said would come within his first 30 days in office.
US President Donald Trump said he was sending "an armada" to Korean waters to potentially deal with threats from Pyongyang.
But its no-show has caused some South Koreans to question his leadership and strategy regarding their unpredictable neighbor in the north.
And as the country prepares to vote for a new president on May 9, the claim could have far-reaching implications for the two countries' relations.

"What Mr. Trump said was very important for the national security of South Korea," Presidential candidate Hong Joon-pyo told the Wall Street Journal.
"If that was a lie, then during Trump's term, South Korea will not trust whatever Trump says," said Hong, who is currently trailing in the polls.
South Korean media also seized on the conflicting reports on Trump's "armada" -- led by the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson.
Washington Post:
As he nears his 100th day in office, President Trump’s efforts to appear decisive and unequivocal in his responses to fast-moving global crises have been undercut by confusing and conflicting messages from within his administration.
Over the past two weeks, policy pronouncements from senior Trump aides have often been at odds with one another — such as whether Syrian President Bashar al-Assad must leave power as part of a negotiated resolution to end that nation’s civil war.
In other cases, formal White House written statements have conflicted with those from government agencies, even on the same day. For example, Monday brought disparate U.S. reactions — supportive from Trump, chiding from the State Department — to the Turkish referendum this week that strengthened President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s authoritarian rule.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017


Liz Stinson reports at Wired:
Government data is available, but it’s not exactly accessible. A new project from former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer and Seattle design studio Artefact aims to change that. Called USAFacts, it’s an ambitious, $10 million effort to present government data in a way that’s open, non-partisan, and stupidly easy to understand. The website, launching today, organizes 30 years of data from more than 70 local, state, and federal government agencies into a well-designed, centralized hub that its creators hope will give people a clearer picture of how the government makes and spends money.
USAFacts shares the intent of previous open data efforts—the government launched in 2009 to centralize its stats, and President Obama passed the DATA Act in 2014 to get record-keeping standards up to snuff)—but adds much-needed vitality. The platform looks nothing like its bureaucratic counterparts or startups like OpenGov, which also tries to organize and parse government data. Its typeface is pleasingly legible. The site navigation is intuitive. But most importantly, Artefact has made dry facts and figures actually feel engaging. Ballmer’s team spent two years combing through government websites, manually pulling data from PDFs, spreadsheets, websites, and reports, and entering them into hundreds of Excel spreadsheets and data tables. Artefact’s designers took that mountain of raw information and translated it into a series of infographics that help make the slog of data not just accessible, but comprehensible.