Archive for the ‘True Crime’ Category

The Courage of Strangers

Sunday, August 24th, 2014

The Book of the Week is “The Courage of Strangers” by Jeri Laber, published in 2002. This autobiography describes the making of a passionate human rights activist.

The author grew up in privileged surroundings in New York City, in the Sunnyside section of Queens, and Jamaica Estates when the wealthy suburban enclave was in its infancy. This was because her Russian father was a multi-skilled home builder with his own business. On the family’s newly-constructed home: “Back in 1936, it was a technological wonder, with central air-conditioning, a built-in room-to-room intercom system, garage doors that opened automatically, and, buried under the steep cobblestone driveway, wires that heated up to melt the snow.”

In the early 1950′s, Laber wanted to study Russian in graduate school, but her father objected partly because it was the McCarthy Era, and because he felt over-education would hurt her chances for marriage. She defied him. In 1954, she got the opportunity to visit Moscow with three other students. Their tour guides tightly restricted their activities, allowing them to visit only tourist sites, and Moscow State University. She recorded her impressions of the people she met, including, “They have replaced God with Lenin and Stalin…These people are healthy and happy, as long as they conform.”

Excuse the cliche, but “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” At that time, there was the “Military-Industrial Complex.” Now there is the “Military-Corporate Complex.” However, world annihilation via nuclear war was the biggest fear in the 1950′s. The continuing increase in global oppression via telecommunications and other underhanded means is the biggest fear in the early 2000′s.

The author was an eyewitness to the different speeds at which different countries threw off their communist yoke, as she visited various countries behind the Iron Curtain in turn. She writes that people in the former Soviet Union had lived under communism for decades longer than their Eastern bloc counterparts. The older ones residing in the latter had known a better quality of life prior to Soviet takeover. “They looked around them and saw corrupt, repressive governments, failing economies, contaminated water, polluted air, alcoholism, and apathy.” The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Read the book to learn of Laber’s career adventures in Eastern Europe, her checkered love life, the difference she made at meetings with top Soviet leaders and others by speaking out against injustice, and Eastern Europe’s radical political and social changes in the 1990′s.

The Snowden Files

Sunday, August 3rd, 2014

The Book of the Week is “The Snowden Files:  The Inside Story of the World’s Most Wanted Man” by Luke Harding, published in 2014. This ebook eloquently describes how Edward Snowden became a whistleblower, and the immediate consequences of his actions.

President Barack Obama vowed to curtail intrusive collection of personal data from and on the American people during 2008. A set of policies passed after 9/11, the Patriot Act, originally allowed certain kinds of spying. The goal was to root out terrorists. Instead of curbing the program, Obama authorized the National Security Agency (NSA) of the United States government to become an all-out global spying operation. By 2009, it was collecting metadata from millions of American and English citizens, as well as numerous global government officials, through phone records and email. It teamed up with GCHQ, the United Kingdom’s governmental branch that handles intelligence, and later, elicited customer data from the major U.S. tech companies Google, Facebook, Apple and Microsoft. The NSA and GCHQ “…secretly attached intercepts to the undersea fibre-optic cables that ringed the world.”

However admirable the intentions of government officials might be– thinking they are seeking out evil and preventing incidents of terrorism, their actions are misguided. They might contend that there have been no terrorist attacks on American soil since 9/11, so therefore, the program is working. This erroneous reasoning is like the stupid joke: A man is sitting outside on a city street waving around an odd contraption. Someone walks by and asks him what it is. The man tells them it’s an elephant repellent. He is asked how he knows it’s working. He says, “It must be working. Do you see any elephants around here?”

This blogger believes that the privacy violations– arguably unconstitutional– are a secondary reason why the nature of the NSA’s actions are so dangerous. One major aspect that makes the spying so dangerous is that comprehensive searches can be done on electronic-records literally at the speed of light.

Excuse the cliche, but “Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Abuse of power is inevitable. For instance, there have been incidents involving the TSA. Throughout history, only bad publicity generated by whistleblowers who have made serious sacrifices– their livelihoods and/or their lives– has stemmed the tide of the evildoing. The same is true with this NSA/GCHQ situation. This ebook likened the spying to the East German Stasi prior to the fall of Communism. This blogger thinks eventually, absent a whistleblower, there would have emerged an individual with the mentality of Stalin or the late U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy. Fortunately, Snowden found a way to act on the conviction of his beliefs in a mature, if illegal, way. He communicated with the right individuals at The Guardian, “… the third largest newspaper website in the world.”

A minor side effect of the collection of massive amounts of data, even if only a fraction of it is looked at– is that mistakes of honest ineptitude will be made. Lives have been greatly inconvenienced at best, due to the erroneous data in credit records, and those whose names have been mistakenly placed on a “no-fly” list, among various other cluster screw-ups of record-keeping entities.

Read the book to learn of the different media cultures in the U.S. and U.K., and the details of this suspenseful saga.

Bonus Post

Friday, June 27th, 2014

This blogger skimmed the ebook, “In the Name of Profit” by multiple co-authors, originally published in 1972. This depressing set of anecdotes on corporate greed simply reminds the reader that there is nothing new under the sun.

One theme is that through the 1950′s and 1960′s, big manufacturers such as Goodrich and General Motors had constructive knowledge that the products they sold were defective. Purchasers had bad experiences, and were seriously injured or were killed by those products. The companies’ attorneys and their employees rationalized that “‘planned obsolescence” meant progress. “But the meaning is clear: ‘Go cheapen the product so we can make more money.” In the case of drug company Richardson-Merrell, the product wasn’t cheapened, but rather, serious side effects were downplayed or hushed up and the results of FDA pre-approval testing were fabricated. Unsurprisingly, the company and its subsidiaries hired top-dollar attorneys skilled at helping businesses weasel out of legal trouble.

Another topic covered was Napalm, whose evolution began at Guadalcanal during WWII. “The Napalm fire bomb was deliberately designed as an indiscriminate terror weapon for mass destruction and death among civilians.” When people in Vietnam were harmed, Dow Chemical’s legal defense was bolstered by the fact that it had received orders by the U.S. Government to make the controversial product.

This ebook also discussed stock manipulation and corporate takeover. SEC laws were shown to be very lax in the 1950′s and 1960′s, as one particular perpetrator did jail time for various securities violations, but after his release, went right back to his old tricks. One Herbert Korholz repeatedly gamed the system with acquisitions. President of the Susquehanna corporation, he was able to bribe directors and officers in taking over another company with a secret tender offer of a share price higher than what was to be offered to the general share-owning public. “Profit-making firms can cut their taxes magnificently by merging with big losers…” One Maurice Schy, an attorney, attempted to make the government aware of Korholz’s unethical, unlawful and disgusting behavior, by filing lawsuits through the years, to no avail. Government officials were mired in conflicts of interest (favorable to Korholz’s interest) and ruled against Schy every time except one; a ruling was pending as this book was being released in 1972. Schy had finally gotten a possible break only because there was another case brought by another party against Korholz’s companies’ illegal activities.

In sum, we human beings are a mixed bag of evolutionary traits; altruism and greed among them. On many occasions, greed wins out, and we never seem to learn from those past occasions.

Bonus Post

Wednesday, June 18th, 2014

This blogger skimmed the ebook, “The Stray Bullet: William S. Burroughs in Mexico” by Jorge Garcia Robles, translated by Daniel C. Schechter, published in 2006.

The author William S. Burroughs was of the “Beat” generation of the 1950′s. Such people engaged in an unconventional lifestyle, as they were artists and writers. Many took drugs and consumed alcohol in large quantities. In 1949, Burroughs and his wife Joan moved to Mexico, where there was lots of vice and corruption. He was a heroin addict and she was an alcoholic. They had a son and a daughter.

Read the book to learn the minutiae of the family’s lifestyle, and the untoward occurrence that engendered much grief for everyone involved.

Fake

Monday, May 5th, 2014

The Book of the Week is “Fake” by Kenneth Walton, published in 2006. This book’s author tells a suspenseful story about his 2003 eBay activities that were deemed a crime.

A friend who was well-versed in the business, sparked Walton’s passion for hunting for paintings at antique shops, thrift stores and flea markets, and reselling those paintings at a profit on the online auction site. However, as Walton honed his entrepreneurial skills, he got greedy and began to collude with his friend, using deception to make more money.

Read the book to learn of what happened when Walton found himself in serious trouble, and how he realized he could make money honestly through a different pursuit for which he had natural ability, and for which he developed a passion.

The Bite of the Mango

Sunday, April 27th, 2014

The Book of the Week is “The Bite of the Mango” by Mariatu Kamara with Susan McClelland, published in 2008. This ebook is the personal account of a victim who survived Sierra Leone’s eleven-year bloody civil war that started in 1991.

Kamara was born sometime in the mid-1980′s– she doesn’t even know exactly when. Her childhood began in a way typical for her culture. She lived in a rural village hut with extended family and several siblings and half-siblings– due to her father’s polygamy. Lacking computers and even TVs, they sang songs and told stories around the fire at night.

WARNING: the story escalates quickly into a gruesome scene in which child-soldiers recruited by anti-government rebels perpetrate extreme evil.

Read the book to learn how the author received a lifeline unlike others similarly situated, in a miracle akin to winning the lottery. Prior to her being singled out for special treatment, however, she had it worse than the others, because in addition to suffering a life-changing disability, she was subjected to an extra ugly act by a different criminal, that sapped her physical and mental well-being for a prolonged period.

This is yet another book that details the suffering of powerless victims of a war-torn country and/or ruthless dictator. The storyteller somehow beat the odds and got the attention of someone who helped publicize her plight. After apprising the world of her experiences, the survivor then returned home to assist her fellow citizens who were not so lucky.

The Billionaire’s Apprentice

Monday, April 14th, 2014

The Book of the Week is “The Billionaire’s Apprentice” by Anita Raghavan, published in 2013. This ebook describes the investigation into the activities of a few Wall Streeters who were accused of insider trading in the past several years. Most of the accused happened to be of South Asian descent–from  Sri Lanka and India.

One concept the book conveys to readers is that it is unknown how many American securities-industry professionals are benefiting from insider trading, but the people in this book just happened to get caught because there was sufficient evidence against them to prompt the SEC, US Attorney’s office and FBI to go after them, rather than other possible offenders. The departments involved included the SEC’s Market Abuse Unit and the Department of Justice’s Securities and Commodities Fraud Task Force in the legal jurisdiction of the Southern District of New York (covering Manhattan and the Bronx, according to the author).

Another concept is that the investigating organizations and the securities industry are staffed with many people who, during their careers, switch allegiances. They might go from being a prosecutor to being a defense attorney, or from brokerage executive to government regulator, or vice versa. In this book the “old boy network” is alive and well. Arguably, conflicts abound.

Read the book to learn, among other extremes, about wiretapping (not the NSA’s), about one of the accused who “had several phones– at least thirteen– and he used them all” and a $30 million legal bill.

Milosevic, Portrait of a Tyrant

Monday, February 24th, 2014

The Book of the Week is “Milosevic, Portrait of a Tyrant” by Dusko Doder and Louise Branson, published in 1999. This lengthy volume contains the history of the six Slav Republics– Montenegro, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Macedonia– from WWII through the late 1990′s, and the biography of a fascist, supremacist, genocidal terrorist– Slobodan Milosevic. His wife, Mira chimed in at specific moments. They had the usual traits of all tyrannical couples– extreme narcissism, hubris syndrome, refusal to face reality and vengefulness. You can see where this is going, if you’ve read your history.”Western leaders were loath to get involved in the Yugoslav mess.” They got involved insofar as to reap economic benefits and public relations kudos for negotiating peace plans.

Milosevic was born in August 1941 in suburban Belgrade, the capital of both Serbia and Yugoslavia. His parents, at different times, died via suicide. During his decade-long reign, he was an undiplomatic megalomanaical micromanager, pursuing his goals through conspiracy, deception and force. He demanded mindless loyalty, discarding those who worked for him when their assignments were done. There was high turnover among his staff.

After the Communist Marshal Josip Broz Tito, leader of Yugoslavia died in 1980, Milosevic stepped into the power vacuum. Tito had tried to foster the unity of different ethnic groups. To keep the peace, he allowed them to freely practice their religions. Serb nationalists didn’t like that. They wanted to be dominant.

In the early 1980′s, Milosevic was appointed Communist Chief of Belgrade by his friend, whose family was party-entrenched into the 1980′s. Then in January 1986, he was promoted to Communist party chief of Serbia. His friend became president of Serbia. Milosevic was largely responsible for installing his cronies to strictly enforce Marxism.

Different ethnic groups hated each other. For instance, the Albanians were sworn enemies of the Serbians and the Turks. Milosevic deviously was able to convince each side that he agreed with them. He used a divide and conquer strategy in addressing them, sowing seeds of hatred among them. He would eventually betray his aforementioned friend. Since he didn’t control the army or the police, all he could do was spread propaganda and incite crowds.

Milosevic had the newspaper Politika secretly launch propaganda attacks on his political enemies. He also secured the support of military and party chiefs. Only two groups opposed his usurping of power: the Communist Albanians and his wife’s father’s old-line Communist politicians. Milosevic’s wife disowned her father for that. His secret enemies also included ethnic Albanians, Bosnians, Muslims and Croats. He pushed for Serb nationalism, regardless of whether different ethnic groups supported Communism.

By the fall of 1989, Milosevic had seized political control of Kosovo and a part of Serbia with a high Hungarian population, and Montenegro too. In 1990, he rigged the presidential election for himself, with 53 parties as candidates for Parliament, most run by his operatives.

In spring 1991, there was serious opposition to Milosevic’s desire to take over all of Yugoslavia. In March, he and the dictator of Croatia met secretly to plan how to carve it up. In June 1991, he had no objection to Slovenia’s secession from Yugoslavia because it had virtually no Serb citizens. Croatia, also mostly Catholic, followed suit with its own secession. The Serb dictator had previously been able to eliminate democratic leaders through arrests, intimidation or corruption. Both he and the Croatian dictator incited violence and hatred against the peoples of other Balkan territories.

The Bosnian leader knew his nation was doomed because he saw how ruthless the Serb and Croat dictators were. Bosnia was 44% Muslim, 31% Serb and 17% Croat. By summer 1991, the Serbs were warring against the Croatians. It was mostly independent military groups and not the Yugoslav army. The Serb men who had been drafted didn’t even want to fight. Men were forced to fight against their will. “The regime vigorously suppressed all news about malcontents and desertions. There were political killings of dissenters by the police and paramilitary members.” 

A rumor had it that there were 83 different armed groups in Bosnia, some mercenaries, in the secret pay of Milosevic. A group would go to a village and do ethnic cleansing of Muslims. The Croatian army did this too, demolishing mosques in Bosnia. The Serb dictator denied the existence of the paramilitary groups. There was lots of looting. He was careful to act as though he delegated authority for people on his staff so it would appear that he had less power than he actually had. He left no paper trail.

In autumn of 1991, Milosevic insisted that the nationalists and not the republics were the legitimate constituent units of the Yugoslav Federation. In January 1992, the Bosnian Serbs proclaimed their own republic, separating themselves from the rest of Bosnia. The different territories voted on whether to go to war. The lands Milosevic had under his thumb voted yes: Serbia, Montenegro, Vojvodina and Kosovo. Croatia, Slovenia and Macedonia voted no.

In spring 1992, the United States finally intervened by extending diplomatic recognition (recognizing a country as a sovereignty (independent nation)) to the Muslim government in Sarajevo in Bosnia. The Saudi Arabians had pushed the Americans to do so.

By summer 1992, villages were on fire; Muslims fled. There were detention camps. The Serbs were like Nazis. There had been torture and executions. Student protesters blamed Milosevic for the Siege of Sarajevo. In November 1994, a show-trial was held to judge war criminals. Milosevic’s government controlled the media. The idea of a Greater Serbia was dead in the face of diplomatic recognition of Croatia and Bosnia by the United States, Germany and other European nations. Disaffected nationals held secret meetings planning to overthrow the Serbian dictator. There was palace intrigue.

In late May 1992, the UN imposed a total economic embargo against Yugoslavia. Milosevic used the sanctions as an excuse to say the Serbs were a victim of worldwide conspiracy. From 1991 to January 1993, the Yugoslav citizen’s average monthly salary fell 97%. In a scheme of appearing to be conciliatory, Milosevic got an American business leader of Slavic origin appointed as prime minister. Against the Serb dictator’s secret wishes, the new prime minister wanted to democratize, Westernize and unite Yugoslavia, give it capitalism, and recognize the different nations’ sovereignties. But he knew he had to remove Milosevic from office first.

Prime Minister Milan Panic proposed that Milosevic resign and take a job as a drug company executive in California. Panic got high praise from Yugoslavians. The Serb dictator was hated. Even the media criticized Milosevic. However, the U.S. State Department did not support Panic because the UN sanctions were a delicate matter that the U.S. said needed to be discussed through the UN. Panic wanted the sanctions lifted. The U.S. didn’t want to get involved in the war in Bosnia. Panic pressured Milosevic to resign but he refused. “Panic was in charge of the federal police and secret police but Milosevic controlled the Serb police.”

In October 1992 the Serb police took over the building of the federal police. Panic, fearing civil war, attempted to get the conflict resolved through political rather than military means. His cowardliness prompted the American government to throw its support behind Milosevic. A little later, Panic was a candidate in the Yugoslav presidential election. He lost because Milosevic rigged the election. Shocking.

The Serb dictator’s wife Mira wrote libelous columns in the newspaper. In summer 1994, desperate to hold onto his power, Milosevic attacked the Bosnian Serbs in a propaganda campaign; he had used them to acquire his power just five years earlier.

By 1995, the Serb economy had recovered from a steep currency devaluation of the dinar and its conversion to the Deutschmark imposed in 1993 by Milosevic. The dictator’s wife had welcomed large financial contributions from the newly rich, corrupt businessmen who manipulated the closed Yugoslav market. The state-run media made her book on economics a best seller in 1994. In 1995, she was elected to Russia’s Academy of Sciences. This was as much of a joke as Yasser Arafat’s winning the Nobel Peace Prize.

Read the book to learn what happened in the rest of the 1990′s. Or this blogger could just tell you: more of same. And a boatload of refugees.