The Snowden Files

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

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

This blogger skimmed the ebook, “A Death in the Lucky Holiday Hotel” by Pin Ho and Wenguang Huang, published in 2013. This is a story whose details get tiresome after a while, about the downfall of two powerful politicians in China in 2012.

One politician was Wang Lijun. To compensate for his lack of a college education, he added laughable lies to his resume, such as the entry for “a master’s degree in business administration through a one-year correspondence education program at something called ‘California University.” This blogger recalls that that was the fictional school attended by the characters on the late 1980’s American TV show, “90210.”

Wang Lijun also purchased an eMBA from the diploma mill of China Northeastern Finance University. During a ceremony, the president of Beijing University of Post and Telecommunications publicly announced that Wang held a PhD in law. He was frequently called professor, and certain media disseminated propaganda that he was a researcher, author, inventor and fashion designer. His real job was police officer and later, police chief.

In addition to his making myths about himself, Wang used the usual techniques of dictators to amass a tremendous amount of power. Unsurprisingly, “…Wang had gone through fifty-one assistants during his two-year tenure in Chongqing…” He wrongly accused businesses of engaging in organized crime, used illegal surveillance techniques, denied suspects due process in the extreme, and embezzled public funds. You get the picture. Bo Xilai was Wang Lijun’s rival. According to Bo’s intimates, as of March 2012, Bo’s family had larcenously obtained 100 million yuan; in April 2012, that figure was 1 billion yuan.

“Suicide from depression is common among leaders at all levels of the Chinese government” especially when they are “…under investigation on corruption related charges.” Read the book to learn: whether Wang Lijun used this way out, and about the international incident that he staged; what prompted Bo Xilai to act similarly to Richard Nixon in delivering a “Checkers speech;” about the governmental infrastructure in China that provided the means for Wang’s and Bo’s outrageous conduct; and here and there, about Chinese history– such as Mao Tse Tung’s anti-intellectual campaign of May 1966.

Bonus Post

This blogger skimmed the ebook, “This Is NPR: The First Forty Years” by Cokie Roberts, Susan Stamberg, Noah Adams, John Yostie, Renee Montagne, Ari Shapiro, David Folkenflik and numerous contributors; publishing date unstated; published by Chronicle Books, San Francisco.

The publisher of this literary work appears to have simply converted a physical book (or possibly, a compilation of magazine articles) to an electronic file and never edited it again. For, there was a “pull quote” at the beginning of every chapter that was repeated in the body text. This blogger was a bit annoyed at the redundancy. In addition, there were words broken by a hyphen in the middles of lines instead of at the ends of lines– the word-spacing had changed in the transition to ebook. There were also two or three typos that would have been corrected had even an unpaid intern proofread the book before it was distributed in ebook form.

Nevertheless, NPR (National Public Radio) has been a respectable broadcasting outlet of news and intellectual programming since 1971.Various shows, such as All Things Considered and Morning Edition have enlightened its politically liberal listeners on all major historical events through the decades, including the wars and crises of the 1970’s and thereafter.

NPR covered the Iran Hostage Crisis (which it called the “Iranian Hostage Crisis” but the hostages were American). This book says that originally, sixty-six hostages were seized, but a later chapter says, in an unexplained discrepancy, that fifty-three hostages were released.

Anyway, read the book to learn of NPR’s own funding crises and how in 2003 it received the most generous donation ever made to a cultural organization, and learn why it has been able to stay in existence all these years, notwithstanding this book’s sloppy editing.

Milosevic, Portrait of a Tyrant

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.

American Radical

The Book of the Week is “American Radical, The Life and Times of I.F. Stone” by D.D. Guttenplan, published in 2009. This is the biography of a muckraking journalist, who wrote of “good, honest graft” and the “…human wreckage piling up around me.”

He was born Isadore Feinstein on Christmas Eve, 1907 in Philadelphia. He spoke Yiddish as a second language. In 1924, because his grades were below Harvard standards and there was open enrollment for local residents, “Izzy” as he was affectionately known, began attending the University of Pennsylvania. He changed his name to I.F. Stone at the tail end of his twenties.

The year 1955 saw Congressional surveillance of Stone’s weekly publication “Weekly.” Stone launched lawsuits against his oppressors, arguing that public moneys should not be used to violate his 1st Amendment rights to privacy and freedom of the press. He would have lost his lawsuits but for a curious situation.

James Eastland, chief counsel and chairman of the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, included the New York Times as one of many newspapers and magazines he was surveilling. Stone had embarrassed the Times for pointing out inconsistent behavior: the newspaper’s firing of its employees who were accused of Communist leanings. Yet the Times had published articles arguing for civil rights, anti-segregation, condemning McCarthyism and immigration restrictions. The Times was indignant because it thought it was being singled out for investigation by Eastland. Eastland dropped his investigation.

Other organizations accused of harboring Communists included the Boy Scouts, Voice of America, the USO and YMCA. The Justice Department‘s whole roster of professional informers was finally discredited…” when an ex-Communist admitted to fabricating the allegations against the organizations. In fall 1955, finally, there was vindication of Stone and other activists who were under threat of arrest or deportation or subpoena.

This blogger believes the author’s historical accounts are misleading in spots; he implies that in 1948, when the Israelis had achieved military victory over the Arabs in their war for an independent homeland, the Arabs fled. Historical accounts other than this book say that the Israelis subjected the Arabs to a forced evacuation from their homes where they had been residing for generations.

The result of the Hungarian uprising of 1956, according to the author, was cause for celebration for Stone, because a new government was installed that would impose socialism, and Stone was all for socialism. The author neglects to mention that the Soviets crushed the revolt in an orgy of bloodshed. Then the author goes on to say that Stone misread the Suez Canal Crisis.

Nevertheless, read the book to learn modern history through the eyes of a smartass reporter who called a spade a spade most of the time.

In the Garden of the Beasts

The Book of the Week is “In the Garden of the Beasts” by Erik Larson, published in 2011. This ebook describes the ill-fated German ambassadorship of William E. Dodd, who was appointed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

A history professor at the University of Chicago for more than two decades, Dodd possessed no public-service experience. As a D-list candidate for other reasons too, he reluctantly accepted the post anyway. Nevertheless, he believed in speaking out against injustice, and in the past when he became embroiled in a controversial situation, he said, “…to remain silent is out of the question for a strong and honest man.” He moved his wife, teenage son and grown daughter to Berlin in the summer of 1933.

Part of Dodd’s job as ambassador at the time was to get the German government to pay its reparations to the United States from WWI. Germany owed more than $100 million in bonds through National City Bank of New York (now Citibank) and Chase National Bank. Dodd failed to do so.

Dodd was also ill-suited for other aspects of the position. Foreign Service officers were an independently wealthy lot– golf-club members with fancy cars and mansions– who threw lavish parties at their own expense, unconcerned with the cost. The German ambassador lived frugally.

As well, Dodd’s daughter caused diplomatic embarrassment, as she became romantically involved with a series of men of political intrigue through the years. These included the chief of the Gestapo, a Soviet political operative, and Fritz Haber, who first formulated the poison chlorine gas that was used at Ypres in WWI. He proved that cumulative exposure to small quantities of gas in the long run was just as lethal as large amounts of a short duration.

Sadly, Dodd and a colleague, George S. Messersmith, America’s consul general, were two of only a very few prescient government officials who understood that Germany posed a serious and growing threat to world peace. The U.S. government was more concerned with Germany’s war reparations.

In the mid-1930’s, lurid stories of extremely uncivil behavior of Germany’s law enforcement apparatus were leaked to the international press. People rationalized that the violent acts (mostly against Jews) were just isolated incidents because they did not want to believe that an evolved society such as Germany’s could be so evil.

Read the book to learn the details of how Dodd became the prophetic, tragic figure in an existentialist drama that set the stage for WWII.

With Patience and Fortitude

The Book of the Week is “With Patience and Fortitude” by Christine Quinn, published in 2013.  This blogger thinks this wordy, repetitive ebook should have been called “Vote For Me” as it was released just months before the New York City mayoral primary election, in which Quinn was a candidate. Quinn tells the reader more than once that she was nicknamed “The Mayor of Libby Drive” because she was so good at organizing the kids on her block when she was growing up.

Nevertheless, she does reveal some intensely personal information, such as her struggles with the loss of her mother when she was sixteen, her bulimia and her sexual orientation. She makes known her views on certain political issues, including her pro-union stance.  Her father was a union manager.

Read the book to learn of the circumstances that shaped her life and career, and everything you ever wanted to know about her wedding.