- Associated Press - Saturday, December 19, 2015

Excerpts of recent editorials of statewide and national interest from New England newspapers:

The Bulletin (Conn.), Dec. 17, 2015

The highly anticipated new “Star Wars” film opens today, and if our experience lately in stores and online is any indication, sundry branded merchandise- from sci-fi-themed personal hygiene products to toys and apparel depicting new and old franchise characters -is sure to fill stockings and the spaces beneath Christmas trees as the holiday approaches.

Another hot item this year is high-tech enough to seem as though it came from a galaxy far, far away- and their advanced functionality has led government regulators to issue new rules about their use.

Drones may turn as many as 700,000 neophytes into veritable Han Solos piloting their aircraft through the skies- albeit unmanned, and sans the Wookie co-pilot -according to the Consumer Electronics Association’s estimate of Christmas Season sales.

And the Federal Aviation Administration earlier this week announced new regulations that will require the remote-controlled mini-aircraft to be registered and marked with their registration numbers.

It’s a response to most new operators’ lack of aviation experience, and the FAA’s stance that the hobbyists take on new responsibility when they pick up the remote: “As soon as they start flying, they’re pilots,” FAA Administrator Michael Whitaker said.

That means following the rules, one of which prohibits drones from being flown within five miles of an airport unless the control tower is contacted beforehand. There’s yet to be a confirmed collision between a drone and a manned aircraft, but a recent study found that in an approximately 21-month period ending in mid-September, there were 241 close calls. Most of them occurred within the five-mile exclusion radius and above the 400-foot maximum altitude allowed for drones, and among those incidents were 28 in which pilots had to veer out of the way.

Whitaker told the Associated Press it’s a lack of knowledge about the rules, not a willful violation, that usually creates these dangers. And he said the agency’s goal is “not to be punitive, but to get people into compliance with the operating rules.”

That’s a good posture, and for everyone’s sake, we encourage new and experienced drone pilots to take note and avoid turning prohibited airspace into a treacherous asteroid field the likes of which only Solo himself could navigate.




Portland Press Herald (Maine), Dec. 17, 2015

Facebook is a $245 billion business built on two comforting notions.

One is that the people who see the family pictures, political rants and cat videos that you share on the social networking site are your friends.

The other is that your communications over the “community” of 1.5 billion people can be private.

Both of these ideas turn out to be wrong- at least some of the time -and the nation is replete with stories of “private” messages between “friends” that have gotten the sender divorced, fired or jailed.

Now the notion of social media privacy has become an issue in the aftermath of the San Bernardino mass killing in which one of the shooters was a Pakistani national who may have made statements about her commitment to jihad and the terrorist Islamic State, also known as ISIS.

According to FBI Director James Comey, the woman may have made these statements- which, he said, were private messages, not posts on a timeline -before she was granted a visa to come to the United States to marry the other San Bernardino shooter. But her social media profile had not been reviewed as part of the application process, a fact that was brought up repeatedly in Tuesday’s Republican presidential debate.

Questions of privacy on social media go beyond the war on terror and are being discussed in a variety of law enforcement contexts. On Wednesday the New York Supreme Court agreed to take a case in which Facebook challenged warrants for the profiles of 381 users as part of a disability fraud investigation.

Where do we as a society draw the line between sensible security measures and Orwellian intrusion into private lives? This is the question that has led to vigorous debate about searches, wiretaps and the collection of telephone and email meta-data. Strong arguments can be made on both sides of the privacy-versus-security divide, but when it comes to the privacy of Facebook posts, it should not be a tough call.

Information sent over Facebook and other social media platforms should not be considered private communications- not by the people who use the platforms, and not by law enforcement agencies looking to prevent crimes. Monitoring content and paying attention to who’s talking to whom in a public space is not an erosion of our civil liberties; it’s just common sense.

Facebook, which is one of the world’s most valuable companies, would like you to believe that you can enter its community and it will protect your privacy. But that is not a promise that even Facebook honors.

The company keeps track of your posts and notes when you pushed a thumbs-up button to say you “liked” something. That information is used to build a database of information that helps target advertising, and this is how Facebook makes its money.

If the company can keep track and share with advertisers how often you searched for camping equipment or “liked” a post by your “friend” about a vacation in Colorado, what expectation of privacy should any of us expect to have?

This form of communication is much different from constitutionally protected private interactions inside homes, through the mail or over phone lines, and it shouldn’t be given the same legal protections as those forms of communication.

Participating in social media is an exercise in public speech, and has all the benefits and consequences that come along with it.




The Providence Journal (R.I.), Dec. 18, 2015

Does North Korea have a hydrogen bomb? Kim Jong-un, the communist country’s weird supreme leader, recently claimed it has developed one. Neither South Korea nor China has confirmed this rumor to date. If true, a hydrogen bomb would be a refinement of the nuclear weapons North Korea already possesses- much more lethal and powerful.

Many countries, including the United States, have dismissed the hydrogen bomb claim as another example of Mr. Kim’s typical bluster on the international stage.

Indeed, it’s hard to believe anything the 32-year-old North Korean leader says or does. Like his grandfather, Kim Il-sung, and father, Kim Jong-il, parts of his life are shrouded in mystery. What we do hear about- his strange friendship with the eccentric former NBA star Dennis Rodman, for instance, and the reported execution of his uncle, Jang Sung-taek -only adds another layer to his seemingly bizarre and flippant behavior.

It therefore seems unlikely that North Korea has developed, or owns, a hydrogen bomb.

At the same time, Western democracies cannot take a chance with this lunatic. As the old saying goes, it’s better to be safe than sorry.

So what can be done? History has shown that North Korea doesn’t pay much attention to the West. There’s very little that South Korea, our ally, can do, either.

In fact, there seems to be only one country capable of reining in North Korea’s dangerous antics: China.

About half of China’s foreign aid goes straight to North Korea’s capital, Pyongyang. China is North Korea’s largest trading partner. There is also a long-standing agreement between the two countries when it comes to military matters.

To be sure, China is gradually getting fed up with North Korea’s antics, too. A 2014 BBC World Service poll showed that 20 percent of the Chinese people were supportive of North Korea, while 46 percent had had their fill.

Yet it’s fair to say North Korea, a land of brutal repression and widespread misery and poverty, would be in even worse shape without China’s influential hand. It will listen to China because, in effect, it really has no choice in the matter. And, as China’s recent trade deal with Taiwan showed, it is able to act very rationally in protecting its economic interests.

Let us hope it can keep Kim Jong-un and North Korea from doing something truly foolish with the weapons it has amassed.




Concord Monitor (N.H.), Dec. 15, 2015

This past weekend’s climate change deal was labeled by world leaders as “historic,” ”transformative” and “a victory for the planet.” These may be true. But it really should be framed in terms any good capitalist could appreciate- the agreement represents the biggest business opportunity of a generation.

You’d imagine the vision of dollars up for grabs would speak to Republicans on the campaign trail. Instead, we got a collective, “meh.”

Perhaps that’s not surprising given that the agreement between nearly 200 nations to set a temperature-based cap for our planet is seen as a victory for the Obama administration. But maybe this deal could allow Republicans to shift their perspective. Maybe, just maybe, it could even allow the party to lead on the issue. That is, if they can get past the dogmatic denial of man-made climate change.

The moral argument for curbing greenhouses gases is compelling enough. But that holds little sway with a party that prides itself as the defender of business. Republicans would be wise to see this deal as a clear signal that world sentiment has shifted. The weekend’s agreement is short on details and vague on enforcement. In fact, it still needs to be ratified. What it told us, though, is unambiguous. The world sees its energy future powered by our vast but mostly untapped renewable sources. Fossil fuels, the world is saying, will barely be in the picture over the second half of this century.

If America wants to ensure its global economic dominance, it won’t do so by being a buyer of energy. It’ll do so by leading the effort. Yes, that means transitioning our own power sources to things like solar, wind, hydro and biofuels. It also means a significant increase in government-funded research and development. It requires that our legislators come up with stable, long-term policies that drive innovation and new installations. More than anything, it means the U.S. needs to take the lead in renewable manufacturing by building a network of solar and wind supply chains on our shores, rather than ceding that sector to countries like China. (Those in New Hampshire should allow themselves to envision a local supply chain tied to the massive potential of offshore energy along much of the East Coast.)

The world will eventually shift to renewables, not because it’s the right thing to do, or because climate change threatens our way of life. The world will shift to renewables because they’ll be the cheaper, safer, more sustainable option. When that day comes, America needs to be the industry leader- and not the lone country hanging onto its fossil-fueled past.

Building America’s next great industry will require the type of bipartisanship that’s been invisible in recent years. We didn’t see any hopeful signs this past weekend.

Instead, we heard from Republican ringleaders like Sens. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and James Inhofe of Oklahoma indicating that any deal reached by the United States could be “shredded” by January 2017 if a Republican is elected president.

That’s predictable political posturing as the presidential primaries near. But threatening to dismantle the global deal has far bigger implications at home, too. That approach could stunt renewable energy investment in America, pushing venture capitalists and large corporations to set up shop elsewhere as the global race to become the leader in renewable energy manufacturing intensifies.

Talk about a bad move for business.




The Republican (Mass.), Dec. 18, 2015

With a recent set of prudent moves on taxation, Congress has set the stage for genuine tax reform next year. Trouble is, next year happens to be an election year, when big things seldom get done in Washington.

Still, it’s good to see the set of realistic moves on taxes approved with bipartisan support. For years now, Congress has had the nasty habit of using some none-too-subtle budget gimmickry to paint a picture that was rosier than reality.

Here was the drill: Lawmakers would create a tax break for something they wanted to promote- a specific kind of business, say -but would write the break into law only temporarily. That way, since the law would technically be off the books a few years down the line, it wouldn’t be counted for budgeting purposes.

It’s a little game that has been favored by members of both political parties. And while it won’t end completely, the latest deal will make permanent some of the tax policies that had been renewed year to year.

Not only is this realistic, it also allows businesses and individuals to plan for the future. Since breaks that are built to expire are sometimes not renewed in time, some actually do, at least temporarily, expire. Consequently, those planning for the next year and the one after that have got to act as though what’s here today may not be around tomorrow.

A couple of examples: A tax credit for business research and development that had expired at the end of last year was reinstated and made permanent. So too were faster write-offs for capital equipment, which had also expired at the end of 2014.

But it wasn’t just commerce that benefited. Tax credits for children, low-income families and college students that had been set to expire at the end of 2017 were also made permanent.

Along the way, lawmakers also made a few moves that are anything but ever-lasting.

Because, well, change comes slow on Capitol Hill. One example: The unpopular excise tax on medical devices that is a part of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act will be suspended for 2016 and 2017.

Watch for that one to come up again during broader talks next year.




Brattleboro Reformer (Vt.), Dec. 19, 2015

One of the biggest disappointments for many supporters of President Barack Obama has been his failure to prosecute, or even investigate, war crimes committed by officials of the United States in the lead up to the invasion of Iraq and in the so-called war on terror.

In addition to investigating war crimes, the U.S. government has an obligation under international law to prosecute torture and provide redress to victims. But, as Human Rights Watch notes, it has done neither. “No one with real responsibility for these crimes has been held accountable and the government has actively thwarted attempts on the part of victims to obtain redress and compensation in U.S. courts.”

Among the officials Human Rights Watch recommends be investigated include John Yoo, George Tenet, Alberto Gonzales, Condoleeza Rice, Dick Cheney, John Ashcroft and George W. Bush. Other human rights organizations have also suggested Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, Bill Krystol and David Frum.

“Holding government officials accountable for serious abuses is never easy; when high-level officials are involved, it can be politically divisive. But Human Rights Watch research over the past 25 years in dozens of countries has shown that forgoing criminal accountability carries a high price.”

Even before he was elected president, Obama indicated he would not prosecute anyone for the lies that led up to the Iraq War (and the ongoing chaos as a result) and torture of detainees following Sept. 11, 2001. Obama based his decision on “a belief that we need to look forward as opposed to looking backwards”.

Shortly after he took office, Obama said “This is a time for reflection, not retribution. Nothing will be gained by spending our time and energy laying blame for the past … we must resist the forces that divide us, and instead come together on behalf of our common future.”

As The Guardian notes, “Obama administration aggressively shielded Bush officials even from being held accountable in civil cases brought by torture victims, by invoking radical secrecy powers and immunity doctrines to prevent courts even from hearing those claims.”

The more cynical among us are not surprised that the current administration has failed to hold anyone accountable for the misery and mayhem of those dark years after the World Trade Center was destroyed by terrorists in hijacked jet liners. Those people point to Obama’s questionable use of drone warfare to eliminate America’s enemies from on high and the resulting deaths of innocent men, women and children caught in the shrapnel blasts.

But for those of us who are disappointed there have been no prosecutions by the government, a recent ruling by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals provides some hope that someday, someone might be held accountable.

For years, Turkmen vs. Ashcroft has floundered in legal limbo, since it was filed in 2002 on behalf of a class of Muslim, South Asian, and Arab non-citizens swept up by the INS and FBI in connection with the Sept. 11 investigation. “Based solely on their race, religion, ethnicity, and immigration status, hundreds of men were detained as ‘terrorism suspects’ and held in brutal detention conditions for the many months it took the FBI and CIA to clear them of any connection to terrorism,” notes the Center for Constitutional Rights, which has been representing the plaintiffs. “They were then deported.”

In 2006, a federal judge in the Eastern District of New York dismissed the claims filed by CCR but allowed the conditions of confinement and racial and religious discrimination claims to proceed. However, in 2009, the Second Circuit Court vacated much of the District Court’s decision, remanding it for further review. While the District Court judge allowed the suit to proceed against certain supervisors and staff members, he dismissed the claims against the high-level officials, including former Attorney General John Ashcroft. In June of this year, the Appeals Court overturned that portion of the District Court’s ruling. On Dec. 11, after hearing arguments from both sides, the Appeals Court left the decision standing.

“We simply cannot conclude at this stage that concern for the safety of our nation justified the violation of the constitutional rights on which this nation was built,” wrote the six-member majority. “The question at this stage of the litigation is whether the (eight arrested foreigners) have plausibly pleaded that (the government) exceeded the bounds of the Constitution in the wake of 9/11. We believe they have.”

What does all this mean?

“Recently, The Second Circuit Court of Appeals finally rejected the appeal and ruled that people can, in fact, sue members of the government for enacting policies that result in trauma or injury,” wrote John Vibes for True Activist. “It is likely that this ruling sets a precedent for all members of the government and not just the Bush administration.”

Thom Hartman, writing for TruthOut, pointed out “Like any self-proclaimed democracy, the United States can and should be a moral force for good in the world. But it can’t be one when it lets the biggest war criminals in its history get off scot-free. The decision by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals allowing lawsuits against people like former Attorney General John Ashcroft is a step in the right direction. It opens up a new path for our country, a path that offers us the chance for a national redemption of sorts.”

If the United States government is not going to hold its agents and leaders accountable for war crimes and policies that OK’s torture, then it is up to those who directly suffered from such actions and policies to forge ahead in a court of law. While Turkmen vs. Ashcroft will most likely end up before the Supreme Court, it’s uncertain how a majority might rule, given its current makeup. But it’s gratifying that the Second Circuit is forcing Americans to reconsider the heinous behaviors committed in their names. As a nation that holds itself up as a beacon to the world, it’s only appropriate that we do so.




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