Ted Cruz’s Elusive “Moment”

The old pathways of the Joe Bidens and Robert Byrds are outdated, cast-away like the crooners of yesteryear in favor of digitally remastered voice recordings.

My son is at that age where popularity and coolness have entered his consciousness. As much as I try to instill what’s important, it’s almost impossible to insulate yourself from the desire to be liked by as many of your peers as possible in the third grade. And so I see him trying: his hair is gelled into a perfectly coiffed faux-hawk. He can’t resist jumping on every opportunity to be the funny kid in class. And when a joke lands, he can’t keep from repeating it, until that dead horse is laying on his Air Jordan high-tops. He doesn’t have the life experience or maturity to know that cool happens when you stop trying (so they tell me) and that the more you try to contrive a funny moment, the less it is. To quote the movie Mean Girls, “Stop trying to make [it] happen.”

Our political superstars have risen up through the ranks in reality show-type peaks of popularity, in moments that have caught the public’s attention in just the right way, at the exact moment we were ready for it. Barack Obama’s poignant speech at the DNC in 2004 was a welcome break from the blandness of the candidates who had been presented in front of us, making them look old, boring and unintelligent by comparison. It was the platform from which he would later rise to the highest office in the country. Sarah Palin had her moment at the RNC four years later when she was thrust onto the world’s stage as John McCain’s running mate. Despite the fact that it would later be proven that she had a casual relationship with honesty and intelligence, she was a welcome diversion from the uptight white men who dominated the right. It was so powerful that she still commands huge audiences on speaking tours and on Fox News.

You’ve likely only heard of Wendy Davis of Texas since she famously filibustered the Senate in order to stave off crippling anti-choice laws in Texas. She drew ire from Governor Rick Perry and failed in her effort to stem the tide of anti-abortion legislation in her state, but that doesn’t matter. Because her stand against the vaginal-probe wielding Texas legislature captured the voice of the zeitgeist at the moment women’s rights abuses all over the country, but especially in Texas, were coming to a head. Davis’s filibuster, in her Mizuno Wave rider pink sneakers, was the moment a political star was born. She will likely use this momentum to run for higher office, and will be afforded newspaper column inches and prime time news show minutes for the foreseeable future. The political world is hers to lose.

So it makes sense why ambitious young politicians would attempt to skip the whole put-your-time-in-and-see-how-this-government-thing-works in favor of creating their own political superstar moments and rising to fame. This is a political culture brought to you by American Idol and other reality-show based fame contests. The old pathways of the Joe Bidens and  Robert Byrds are outdated, cast-away like the crooners of yesteryear in favor of digitally remastered voice recordings.

Ted CruzThese freshman politicians keep trying to find shortcuts by having their “moments.” You could see how badly Marco Rubio wants it. You could smell it on Rand Paul.

Case in point: Ted Cruz. Yesterday, Texas Senator Cruz threw his hat into the ring for super-stardom by staging a filibuster to defund the Affordable Care Act. Hey! If it worked for Wendy Davis, why wouldn’t it work for Cruz? Unfortunately for him, he sought to answer this question on the Senate floor, and not in his own head. And not by staying on topic and waging a legitimate filibuster, but by reading Dr. Seuss and his twitter feed in what wasn’t even a real filibuster. He was actually talking to hear himself speak, and to see himself on television screens and in column inches. But he’s become not the newly discovered darling of the Republican party that he’d hoped, but largely a joke who proved that he doesn’t understand how the government works or what a filibuster actually is. Even though he spoke for twenty-one hours, there was no way his “filibuster” could impact the Senate vote on the government funding bill. And so it was an empty grab for attention.

And that’s what I have tried to get across to my kid. You can’t force a moment to happen. You can’t contrive it. You can’t chase it. You have to put your head down and do your work. Because the harder you try, the more desperate you’ll seem.

And desperate never won a popularity contest.

 

 

 

RIP Bradley Manning

We cannot save Bradley. Bradley Manning is dead. Chelsea is the answer to the vultures who feed on the deaths of others. She is the phoenix who rises from the ash.

Bradley Manning is dead.

The confused and conflicted boy who was perhaps naively idealistic and relentlessly patriotic, who believed in the USA with a conviction that brought him to the fire-filed deserts of Iraq – while most of us sat in our houses and read about it in the newspapers – has left this world. We can argue that he was too good for it, or that he wasn’t good enough. We can say that his revelations – famous or infamous, depending on your perspective – were malicious and dangerous at worst, merely stupid at best. Or you can say he was a hero, and hold him up as a martyr, someone who died for a cause bigger than himself, who threw himself at the mercy of the court (martial) and let his act be a message to the rest of us, to the wide-eyed idealists who might still live within our hearts.

That is how I will mourn him.

From his ashes, a woman will named Chelsea will arise. She’s older than Bradley. Most likely, she’s a bit more cynical. She carries with her the scars of captivity, humiliation, and injustice. She’s seen ugly things. Death, destruction, murder, war. She knows what it’s like to live in close proximity to murderers. She knows the deadened horror of an emotionless voice ordering  “Keep shooting, keep shooting,” while children hover in a van ratcheted with bullet holes and voices rise with pride – not shame – declaring, “I think we whacked them all.”

She has a rough road ahead of her, but her conscience is clean.

We can argue about the proper use of pronouns, the timing of Manning’s transgender revelation, or the twenty-five dollars a month it would cost the state for the hormonal therapy she asks for, but what remains clear is that the presence of Chelsea marks the end of the tortured life of Bradley Manning. I don’t know that things will ever be easy for Chelsea, not with what has come before her, not with the uncertainty and the imprisonment of her future. But as she embraces the gender by which she identifies, the relief she feels will free her from the shackles of what was Bradley.

I read Patty Duke’s autobiography, “Call Me Anna,”  when I was a teenager. It told of a childhood interrupted by stardom in her turn as Helen Keller on Broadway and then as identical cousins on the Patty Duke Show. What struck me then and has stayed with me ever since was the trauma she relayed when her managers/guardians changed her name to Patty and told her “Anna is dead.” The person she’d been, identified as, was simply gone. In her place was a manufactured child star. That she struggled to reconcile the two identities for the rest of her life speaks to the importance of identity.

I encountered a similar sentiment in an undergraduate education course on the exceptional child. This course introduced me to every kind of affliction that could befall a child (and eventual student.) During a documentary whose title I don’t recall, the narrator explained that to a parent of a child who is not what that parent expected or imagined, there comes a mourning process, as if the child the parent thought he or she would get was dead. It’s only after this mourning process for what was that there can ever be room for acceptance for what is.

While it takes time and work, this is a transition for us too. The line is drawn in the sand marking who were were and who we are to become. We might not all have been innocent in the before. Some of us might have known of war crimes. Some of us promoted war for either financial or righteous reasons. But what connects us all is that none of us are innocent now. Now we know. We have the knowledge of civilian murder in Iraq on our hands. We know that drones strike beyond their targets. We know about torture and we know that the Constitution is applied arbitrarily. We know that only some of us are entitled to quick and speedy trials and some are at the mercy of military tribunals, facing trumped up charges not seen for almost a hundred years.

What we do about it determines who we will be, what kind of country we will accept, and what kind of humanity we demand of ourselves.

We cannot save Bradley. Bradley Manning is dead. Chelsea is the answer to the vultures who feed on the deaths of others. She is the phoenix who rises from the ash.

 

Chelsea Manning

Now it’s time to save ourselves.

NEW FOX, SAME HENHOUSE

Considering who is about to be in charge of administering LIBOR, the Obama Administration and U.S. regulators might want to pay close attention to how the process unfolds.

How Wall Street Cornered the Market
by Taking Control of the World’s
Most Important Financial Benchmark

Twitter: @jedmorey

There is a scene in the Godfather II when the Hyman Roth character, played by Lee Strasberg, admonishes Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone over the death of the character credited with building Las Vegas out of a “desert stopover for GIs.”

Roth fixes his steely gaze angrily on Corleone and says, “That kid’s name was Moe Greene and the city he invented was Las Vegas. And there isn’t even a plaque or a signpost or a statue of him in that town.”

The same could be said of Thomas Jasper, the architect of the biggest gambling venture ever invented: the swaps market.

In her book The Futures, Forbes writer Emily Lambert describes how in 1981 Salomon Brothers “pulled an investment banker named Thomas Jasper out of a cloistered office and set him up on Salomon’s trading floor with its loud, swearing, cigar-smoking men.” Jasper’s job was to figure out how to turn a new type of banking agreement called an interest rate “swap” into a contract that could be traded on an exchange much like a commodity. By 1987 Salomon’s new product was ready for market, and as Lambert notes, “by that spring, there were $35 billion worth of bond futures contracts open at the Chicago Board of Trade, and there were $1 trillion worth of outstanding swaps transactions.”

For Wall Street this was like graduating instantly from slots to craps.

Twenty years later, unregulated swaps would be at the heart of the global financial meltdown and the very banks responsible for creating them would be considered “too big to fail.” A lethal mixture of deregulation, manipulation and greed would transform swaps—a type of investment known as a “derivative” in which two parties exchange risk with one another in a negotiated agreement—into opaque mega investments that many traded but few understood.

Today, the global derivatives market is estimated to be somewhere around $1.2 quadrillion—more than 14 times larger than the world economy.

After the crash in 2008, the whole world became acquainted with these investments and some of the toxic assets they were based on. Yet since the crash, and despite the best attempts on the part of regulators to get their arms around the world of derivatives, surprisingly little has changed in the way they are packaged, sold and regulated.

By staying one step ahead of regulators, banks have continued to rake in historic profits. Bart Chilton, a commissioner at the Commodity Futures and Trading Commission (CFTC), is one of the U.S. regulators charged with implementing rules that would curb risky speculative behavior on the part of banks and protect American consumers. He expressed his irritation in an interview with the Press, saying, “The financial sector has made more profits every single quarter since the last quarter of 2008 than any sector of the economy by like a hundred billion dollars. So they crash the economy and still make more than anyone else.”

Chilton points to the aggressive bank lobby against regulators as one major impediment to reform. “They have fuel-injected litigation against regulators,” he laments. “There are ten financial sector lobbyists for every single member of the House and Senate.”

Despite this frustration, Chilton believes in the importance of speculators “in determining what the prices of things are, whether it’s a home mortgage or a gallon of milk.” Instead of squarely blaming the banks, he believes the question “is whether or not government has allowed too much leeway so that the markets have simply become a playground for speculators to roam and romp.”

One of the most important determinants in pricing everything from mortgages to the multi-trillion-dollar derivatives market is the London inter-bank offered rate, better known as LIBOR. Barclays, the British banking giant, thrust LIBOR into the headlines last year when it was discovered that it was among a handful of banks found to be manipulating daily rates for its own benefit. The scandal rocked the banking sector and sent European regulators searching for a replacement to LIBOR or, at the very least, a new third-party administrator.

Charting LIBOR’s new path was left to Martin Wheatley, who was head of the Financial Services Authority in the U.K. when the scandal broke. The recommendations, known as the Wheatley Review, included the formation of a panel charged with finding a new host for LIBOR that would restore confidence to the market and ensure transparency in the rate-setting process.

In a twist even Michael Corleone would appreciate, the panel chose Wall Street.

LIBOR: “A huge, hairy, honking deal.”
Beginning in 2008, rumors began to circulate in the financial world that several of the London banks were involved in influencing the daily posted LIBOR rates. During a 2012 House Financial Services Committee investigation into the matter, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner admitted to hearing the rumors while he served as head of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. In his testimony, Geithner said he attempted to warn U.K. and U.S. regulators but assumed they would “take responsibility for fixing this.”

What the British and American governments knew and when they knew it unfortunately matters little at this juncture, as both have since levied financial penalties on the banks involved that amount to a slap on the wrist. What matters now is how rates are set going forward to ensure some degree of integrity. To understand how the Wheatley Review panel merely chose a new fox to guard the world’s financial henhouse, it’s important to understand how LIBOR is calculated and how much is riding on it.

LIBOR rates are determined on a daily basis. According to an Economist article that details the scandal, “The dollar rate is fixed each day by taking estimates from a panel, currently comprising 18 banks, of what they think they would have to pay to borrow if they needed money. The top four and bottom four estimates are then discarded, and LIBOR is the average of those left.”

Rates were submitted to the British Bankers Association (BBA), a nonprofit third-party administrator responsible for gathering and posting the data. In theory, the arms-length distance of a disinterested third party provided enough oversight and assurances to the market that rates were being determined fairly. Only the rates weren’t based upon actual market rates. Rather, they were estimates supplied by traders from Europe’s largest banks and therefore surprisingly susceptible to manipulation and, as it turns out, collusion.

Traders were caught periodically manipulating these estimates in order to gain a trading advantage in the market and maximize profit on recent transactions. Moreover, because LIBOR is an indication of the perceived health of a financial institution, bankers had an added incentive to suppress rates to artificially illustrate confidence among their colleagues. In short, everyone was in on it. Because of the global credit crunch, few banks were actually lending large sums to other banks since both sides had cheap and easy access to government dollars to provide market liquidity. This reality made LIBOR even less realistic.

Former Barclays president Bob Diamond initially responded to the scandal by admitting that while manipulation occurred, it didn’t happen “on the majority of days.” The Economist said Diamond’s response was “rather like an adulterer saying that he was faithful on most days.” Diamond subsequently resigned and so far three U.K. traders, Tom Hayes, Terry Farr and James Gilmour, were swept up in the LIBOR price-fixing scandal. According to the Financial Times, “Mr. Hayes, Mr. Farr and Mr. Gilmour are the only individuals to face U.K. criminal action to date in a global scandal that has seen three banks pay a combined $2.6bn in fines for attempting to manipulate interbank lending rates.”

Many bankers have distanced themselves from the importance of the scandal by calling it a victimless crime. Bart Chilton had a choice expletive for this attitude, and then added, “If it’s a home loan mortgage, or a small business loan or a credit card bill, if you buy an automobile or if you have a student loan, about everything you purchase on credit is impacted by LIBOR. It’s a huge, hairy, honking deal. If somebody says it’s a victimless crime, I bet you it’s a banker.”

Michael Greenberger, a professor at the University of Maryland, has been an outspoken critic of the way derivatives have been regulated for several years. (The Press first spoke with Greenberger for a 2008 cover story on the price manipulation of crude oil.) He weighed in on the Obama Administration’s reaction to the LIBOR price-fixing scandal saying, “This Justice Department is settling these LIBOR cases for what you and I would consider to be traffic tickets.”

Considering who is about to be in charge of administering LIBOR, the Obama Administration and U.S. regulators might want to pay close attention to how the process unfolds.

The Wheatley Review panel chose NYSE Euronext to step into the BBA’s role as administrator of LIBOR. On the surface, choosing the members of the New York Stock Exchange—one of the oldest and most trusted brand names in global finance—to oversee rate-setting seems like sound concept. Only the NYSE isn’t the clubby, self-governed body of individual members it once was. Today the exchange is a publicly traded, for-profit business whose shareholders include none other than the world’s biggest bank-holding companies.

“They’re moving from a disinterested nonprofit that couldn’t do the job,” exclaims Greenberger, “to an interested for-profit. There’ll be less transparency I bet in the way that rates are set.”

Chilton is equally apprehensive at the idea of the transition: “When there’s a profit motive, I think it’s always suspect. That’s why key benchmark rates like LIBOR in my view should be monitored or overseen by either a government entity, a quasi-government entity or a not-for-profit third party that doesn’t have a vested interest in what the rates should be.”

How LIBOR will be determined in the future is still being hashed out. A spokesperson for NYSE Euronext declined to answer the Press’ questions on the record, instead directing us to their standard press release. Most observers agree, however, that the days of aggregating estimates should be a thing of the past.

“These benchmarks need to be based upon actual trades,” says Chilton, “not a poll of what the money movers believe it should be.”
As far as the bankers’ claims that price-fixing was a victimless crime, there are several municipalities that beg to disagree. The cities of Baltimore and Philadelphia, among others, have filed suit against several banks claiming severe financial injury due to LIBOR manipulation. “That’s the hidden story of Detroit,” says Greenberger. “Detroit got clobbered in the swaps market.”

Greenberger also warns that “pensions are still in this market.” That’s a scary proposition considering the underlying risk and leverage that still exists off bank balance sheets.

Eric Sumberg, the spokesman for the New York State Common Retirement Fund—the nation’s third-largest pension—says State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli is watching the LIBOR transition closely.

“There have been some calls for moving from LIBOR’s banker’s poll to a rate-setting process that is more directly based on a broader universe of transactions and on actual market activity,” Sumberg wrote the Press in response to our inquiries. “Such a change over time could have the potential to improve transparency and integrity in rate-setting, but potential details of any such process have not yet emerged. We will continue to monitor developments in this area.”

Yet even when the proposed rules are made public and the administration of LIBOR has fully transitioned, NYSE Euronext will still only be the titular head of LIBOR. The real force behind the market is neither in London nor New York. Atlanta, home of the Intercontinental Exchange (ICE), is the new financial capital of the world.

ICE in his veins
Many of the toxic assets the public became aware of after the 2008 crash have worked their way through the system and been mostly written off by many of the largest financial institutions. Much of the credit for the industry’s stunning recovery belongs to the U.S. Federal Reserve’s low interest rate policy and aggressive liquidity practices known as quantitative easing. Much like the exuberance that preceded both the tech-bubble crash of 2000 and the mortgage-backed securities crash of 2008, a capital bubble established by the Federal Reserve is artificially propping up the market.

Hedge funds and bank holding companies fueled their own recovery by using deposits, borrowed federal funds and leverage to drive the equity market to historic highs and post speculative profits in the derivatives market. And while the financial sector was scrambling to regain its footing, regulators in Washington, D.C., attempted to keep pace by passing reforms to prevent the next global financial crisis should the Federal Reserve change course and remove liquidity from the system while simultaneously allowing interest rates to gradually climb.

In 2010, Congress passed the Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act in an effort to curb speculation and create greater oversight in the financial sector. It was a monumental legislative task that has proven even more difficult to translate into regulatory policy. Regulators at the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission have been working against bank lobbyists and the fact that the markets are global and U.S. regulatory authority only reaches so far.

To complicate matters further, banks have been busy changing the rules of engagement by shifting markets from classic bilateral swaps between parties to futures contracts, which are more standardized agreements traded on exchanges and therefore subject to greater regulatory scrutiny. In theory, exchange-traded derivatives will provide the transparency that regulators seek. In practice, however, this capital shift might simply move risky investments from the frying pan into the fire, as futures exchanges are global, meaning U.S. regulators must rely heavily on the voluntary cooperation of foreign exchanges.

The one person set to benefit from this capital shift is Jeffrey Sprecher, founding chairman of the ICE. Though not a household name outside of investment circles, Sprecher has emerged as the unlikely king of the global trading exchange industry. In little more than a decade, he helped transform the commodities market from a $10 billion market to more than a half a trillion dollars, with the ICE being a huge beneficiary.

The growth of trading on the ICE has been so explosive Sprecher is about to close on a deal to purchase the vaunted NYSE Euronext for $8.2 billion. The deal has already been approved by European regulators and awaits final approval in the U.S. Once completed, Sprecher will not only run the world’s most famous trading exchange; he will also extend his reach into the global derivatives market as the acquisition includes NYSE Liffe, one of the world’s largest derivatives trading desks.

Nathaniel Popper’s front-page story in the business section of The New York Times on Jan. 20, 2013 pulls the veil back on Sprecher, the man, and describes how he grew a little-known Southern exchange into a juggernaut capable of purchasing NYSE. As Popper himself writes, “It sounds preposterous.” Given the inevitable capital shift sparked by U.S. regulators, Popper also notes that “Wall Street firms will have to move trading in many opaque financial products to exchanges, and ICE is in a perfect position to profit.”
Popper’s piece brings forward a story that few people know. Most have no idea that trading exchanges are even for-profit businesses.

And while he does a worthy job demystifying the business of exchanges, he overlooks the planet-sized regulatory loopholes that allowed Sprecher to convert a small energy futures trading exchange into a global exchange that is buying the most famous trading platform on Earth.

To call Sprecher an opportunist would be technically accurate but cheap and intellectually dishonest. He understood the inevitability of electronic trading and the superior potential it held. But there’s a danger in spreading the accepted mythology of Jeff Sprecher and his plucky exchange. Behind his story is the familiar invisible hand of Wall Street.

“The reason Sprecher has been so successful is he’s really representing all the major ‘too big to fail’ banks,” says Greenberger. “And they want him to succeed, and therefore he is succeeding.”

Missing from the brief history of the ICE are the loopholes that gave it life and the ability to flourish beyond imagination. It was the oft-spoken of— but rarely understood—“Enron Loophole” that gave corporations the legal right to trade energy futures on exchanges such as the ICE even if the corporation itself was in the business of energy. The second loophole was a maneuver by the Bush Administration that granted the ICE foreign status as an exchange despite its being based in Atlanta. This initiated a massive shift of trading dollars, and influx of new ones, into the ICE for one reason: This singular move placed the ICE outside the purview of U.S. regulators like Chilton at the Commodities Futures and Trading Commission (CFTC). Essentially, corporations could now trade energy futures electronically through the ICE without oversight or disclosure.

Moreover, the mere fact that the founding investors of the ICE are some of the world’s largest bank-holding companies, Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs in particular, speaks to how little transparency there truly is.

This in no way takes away from Sprecher’s genius as a businessman. It simply illustrates how willfully ignorant we are to the business of Wall Street and therefore how frightfully far away we are from properly regulating it. Everything Sprecher has done is legal and ethical, to the extent there is an ethos on Wall Street. Where all of this hits home for the consumer is at places like the gas pump and the supermarket.

Now it’s easier to place the LIBOR issue in its proper context. Almost every “too big to fail” bank has a significant ownership stake in both the ICE and NYSE Euronext, soon to be one entity. This combined entity will also soon control LIBOR, the world’s largest rate-setting mechanism. In trader’s parlance, this would be considered the perfect “corner.”

But wait, there’s more. In the attempt to rein in speculation and manage risk in the marketplace, Dodd-Frank might have unintentionally become the gift that keeps on giving—to Sprecher.

The Future of Futures
The sheer size and complexity of the derivatives market overwhelm even the most interested parties—including Congress, regulators and bankers themselves—leaving average citizens utterly dumbfounded and sidelined. It’s little wonder. Banks that were too big to fail in 2008 are bigger today in 2013. The vast majority of the much-ballyhooed Dodd-Frank regulations have yet to take effect, and bank leverage is back at pre-crash levels.

A former trader who worked in both New York and London recently told me, “At the end of the day, this market is running on the [Federal Reserve]. Once they pull out it’s all over. Cheap money, loads of people making loads of money, but no lessons learned.”
Derivatives themselves aren’t nearly as difficult to understand as the markets they trade in. They are essentially risk transfer agreements between two parties, a way to hedge investments. The word ‘derivative’ refers to the fact that the agreement derives value from other investments: a bet as to how the original investment would perform. It’s helpful to once again employ the casino analogy.

Ten random players approach the roulette table and lay down $100 worth of chips on various numbers. Each individual gambler is making a bet, or an investment, collectively totaling $1,000.

Now imagine that another gambler watching the action on the roulette table calls his or her bookie and places a bet on the outcome of their total wagers when the wheel stops spinning. Having sized up the situation, the gambler predicts that overall this group will win and walk away with $1,100. But in order for this bet to be placed, someone else has to take the action and bet the group will lose $100, leaving them with $900. Before the ball drops on the number, the bookie connects the two outside gamblers and creates a new bet. This bet functions as the derivative investment because even though they’re not actually playing the game, they have a stake in the outcome.

In the real world of investing, the bookie is a trader and the gambler taking the action from the outside is a speculator. Sounds nefarious, but in reality, these transactions are essential to providing market stability.

“If we didn’t have speculators,” says Chilton, the CFTC commissioner, “consumers would pay disproportionate prices.”
There are three classic types of derivatives, all of which Chilton and the CFTC have been trying to rein in well before the crash introduced the world to this type of investment. All three involve counterparties, which trade these investments either directly or through exchanges.

But the differences between the three types of derivatives are diminishing. The first type of derivative is commonly referred to as a “swap.” This is where two parties exchange risk with one another in a negotiated agreement. In the United States, these have traditionally been deals between banks that fall under the purview of the SEC. The other two types of derivatives, futures and cleared derivatives, are negotiated similarly but must be listed and cleared on exchanges.

The CFTC and other regulators have long argued that these investments are similar in nature and should therefore be consistently regulated with complete transparency. With the exception of swaps, the investment created at Salomon Brothers in the 1980s, this was historically the case. But despite the similarity between swaps and other types of cleared derivatives, regulators allowed swaps to be treated as banking instruments that were held “off balance sheet.” Over the next two decades a flurry of deregulation and the growth of global trading reduced the transparency of derivatives trading and increased the size of the market dramatically.

The Dodd-Frank regulations were designed to put an end to this practice by requiring anyone who deals in large amounts of swaps to register as a swaps dealer and clear their trades through an exchange. Yet CNBC’s John Carney believes the new swaps regulations have already created a “flight to futures” from swaps, an unintended consequence of Dodd-Frank that will end up with a “world with less collateral and less capital, less transparency, less investor protection, more concentration of risk, and a huge unanticipated market transformation.”

In other words, the ICE will likely be the greatest beneficiary of Dodd-Frank.

Nevertheless, Chilton believes that there will still be “trillions, tens of trillions if not hundreds of trillions of swaps that will be traded in the U.S. and worldwide that will be regulated and have the light of day cast upon them.”

For his part, Greenberger agrees U.S. regulators are beginning to get a handle on the markets but thinks inordinate risk is still present in the market. He calls the original Dodd-Frank a “Rube Goldberg system” that was “prospective in nature. There’s still trillions of dollars of swaps that are operating in an unregulated environment.”

The world will have to hold its breath until these unregulated swaps run their course and settle in the global marketplace. Intelligent reforms such as margin and capital requirements, position limits and cross-border coordination with respect to regulation are indeed around the corner. These reforms essentially mandate that everyone involved in trading these agreements has enough money to cover potential losses and plays by the same set of rules.

“Ultimately we will have position limits,” Chilton believes. “I would be surprised if they weren’t in place by the end of the year.”
Greenberger also believes the world will begin to recognize universal standards, saying: “The CFTC has made it clear that for futures the foreign exchanges have to comply with U.S. rules.”

Even still, he worries that “this international guidance is a roadmap for banks to avoid Dodd Frank. Just trade in foreign subsidiaries.”
Chilton takes a more sanguine view on immediate concerns such as transparency, working with his European counterparts and the future of LIBOR, but he worries more about the things he cannot see.

“I feel like we’re going to get things done on capital requirements and on cross-border stuff so that other regulators come to where we are,” says Chilton. “But there’s a bunch of new things that are around the corner that we can’t see.”

He cites high-speed trading computers that he calls “cheetah traders” as an example of the unknown. “The cheetah traders, the high-frequency traders, are proliferating. They’re 30 to 50 percent of markets on average but during feeding frenzy time, cheetahs can be up to 70 or 80 percent of the market. There’s not one single word in the Dodd Frank legislation that deals with high-frequency trading. Not one word.”

Once again, pulling the strings behind this unseen phenomenon is Sprecher, the man responsible for making high-frequency trading what it is today.

Thomas Jasper will likely never get that plaque for inventing the investment world’s biggest game of chance. On a positive note, however, he’s alive, well and wealthy, unlike Moe Greene, who infamously took a bullet through the eye. But there are better-than-even odds that a statue of Jeff Sprecher will someday be erected on Wall Street. Or, at the very least, downtown Atlanta.

Obama Stands His Ground

By speaking forthright about his own experience as a black American, again he raised the level of discourse in the country to one above talking points and pretended offense. He opened himself up to the ridiculous misinterpretations that are plaguing the Internet, those who will take his words out of context, to reshape them into something unworthy of a President. But it wasn’t.

Obama made his first big splash on the national stage at the 2004 DNC. He gave a speech that invoked his white mother and black Kenyan father. He was young, articulate, smart. He sounded like we wanted our representatives to sound like, especially when we had the moronic bumblings of George W. as our face on the world stage.

But I wasn’t paying much attention then. I didn’t think he stood a chance.

It was only after Spitzer’s fall from grace (or whatever her name was, to steal a one-liner  from Colbert) that I tuned in to Barack Obama and started taking note. It was in March of 2008 and my political hero disappointed me, to say the least. Spitzer had been to me the guy to cut through all of the bullshit, to call Wall Street for what it was. I remember thinking, This guy must be squeaky clean. If he has made any missteps in his life, surely they would have gone after it. Spoiler alert: He did. And they did.

The democratic presidential race was still a muddle of candidates then, each tearing the other down, the media fanning the fires of divisiveness. Hillary Clinton was the front-runner. John Edwards was in there. Joe Biden. Kucinich. They were all making the late night talk show rounds, appearing on the Daily Show. I wasn’t too invested at that time. There were debates to come, scandals to be exposed, alliances re-aligned. It seemed pointless really.

Barack Obama was gaining traction and supposed dirty deeds and telling associations were coming out of the woodwork, most infamous among them, Reverend Jeremiah Wright. When Obama stood up and addressed that in March 2008, and made the effort to talk about race the way I’d never seen anyone do before, not anyone with so much to lose just by acknowledging this issue, I effectively replaced Spitzer with a new political hero. His words sought to make one culture and class of Americans understand the other, much like his did on Friday.

 

But for all those who scratched and clawed their way to get a piece of the American Dream, there were many who didn’t make it – those who were ultimately defeated, in one way or another, by discrimination. That legacy of defeat was passed on to future generations – those young men and increasingly young women who we see standing on street corners or languishing in our prisons, without hope or prospects for the future. Even for those blacks who did make it, questions of race, and racism, continue to define their worldview in fundamental ways. For the men and women of Reverend Wright’s generation, the memories of humiliation and doubt and fear have not gone away; nor has the anger and the bitterness of those years. That anger may not get expressed in public, in front of white co-workers or white friends. But it does find voice in the barbershop or around the kitchen table. At times, that anger is exploited by politicians, to gin up votes along racial lines, or to make up for a politician’s own failings.

 

On television, they call it breaking down the fourth wall, the imaginary line that separates the character onscreen from its audience. They sit around a kitchen table, positioned around it to face a camera, but it’s a rule to ignore it, to pretend the audience isn’t there.

A similar rule has come into existence since the inception of Obama’s administration: he  is not to address race. To do so would be to give credence to every racist’s nightmare: admit that we elected a black guy, who sees things from a black perspective, and might dare to speak to that or legislate as such, undermining centuries of white aristocracy.

Obama has joked about it. When he made his entrance to the White House Correspondents Dinner, he swapped out “Hail to the Chief” for rap music. “Rush Limbaugh warned you about this,” he said. “Second term, baby.”

Yet by breaking down that wall we can all exhale and have an actual conversation that isn’t insulated by the pretense we were all participating in. In his impromptu speech regarding Trayvon Martin on Friday, the president had a real, off the cuff moment. It was heartfelt. There was no teleprompter. He spoke to the indisputable disparity between how laws are written and enforced along racial lines. He spoke about the violent history that informs the experience black Americans face. And he spoke about his personal experience.

It has the country up in arms because it was something we rarely see from someone in such high office. In fact, it’s something we haven’t seen Obama himself address since 2008. We see watered-down and contrived rhetoric, designed to offend the least amount of people possible. An impossible task, but a goal so many deem worthy. Yet, in its in-offense, so many words fail to stick. This is why Joe Biden resonates. He might be gaffe-prone, but only because he speaks in real sentences, unlike political robots of the Rubio variety.

By acknowledging that there’s a documented disparity to how our laws are enforced along racial lines, he’s now being accused of anything from fanning the flames of racism and exacerbating an already heated moment to being a blatant racist himself. I’m no Obama apologist. I’ve been equally vocal about how his policies as President have either expanded upon George Bush’s disastrous ones that preceded him or have shown a rampant dismissal of civil liberties. If there’s a lesson here, it’s that there are no political heroes.

Yet, by speaking forthright about his own experience as a black American, again he raised the level of discourse in the country to one above talking points and pretended offense. He opened himself up to the ridiculous misinterpretations that are plaguing the Internet, those who will take his words out of context, to reshape them into something unworthy of a President. But it wasn’t.

Because here’s the deal: the stains of the race issue touch each of us. If we’re not working to fix it, if we’re complacent, we add to it. We fix it by talking about it in real terms. By looking at it without unequal comparisons. By acknowledging our roles. We tackle this in real, unscripted moments.

This is where heroism could be found.

On Spitzer: Can our Leaders be Cheaters?

Do we really need to expose sexual peccadilloes of our politicians – does the immorality of their personal/sexual life translate into their jobs in public service? Or is this an outdated mode of judgement?

You know what I can’t stand? Cheaters. Though I try to keep an open mind about most things, and understand that nobody’s perfect – including and especially me – infidelity riles up something in my insides. It’s brought distance to previously close relationships and prevented some from what might have been. And although I thought I was an equal opportunity judge and jury of character, my husband sees it differently. He notes that I’m more tolerant and forgiving of our female friends’ transgressions than of our male friends.

It pisses me off when he says that.

Because he might be right. I hate when I’m hypocritical.

The thing is, I usually understand women better. Their motivations seem more complex than kicks on a Friday night. But it could just be my bias. I’m working to rectify that.

Here in New York, we are swimming in penis jokes. Between Anthony Weiner’s campaign for mayor and now Eliot Spitzer’s run for city comptroller, it would seem like New York is nothing but a bastion of sexual dysfunction – which makes for a fun coverage if you’re a late night talk show host or a headline writer for The New York Post. And though I can’t speak with authority for all of us, I wonder if maybe every single place in the country might be bastion of sexual dysfunction. Maybe not of the high-priced prostitute variety (which might be limited to the coastal states) – or even like the Twitpic heard ‘round the world that completed the punchline that Weiner’s name serves up on a platter, but of the unfaithful spouse type. Nothing gets the morality police aroused (heh) like an election, where we put our candidates through public scrutiny that isn’t matched in any other profession in the world.

It’s always interesting to watch candidates paint themselves as pillars of virtue while their opponents’ PR people dig up dirt. Eliot Spitzer was the super-smart attorney general from New York, who didn’t mince words and brought toughness and badassery to the democratic party. He ran on moral superiority – taking on the thieves, liars, and criminals that ran Wall Street before anyone ever knew it needed to be Occupied. He flew into the Governor’s mansion and I thought he was a sure shot to be our first Jewish president. And then. He was outed as “Client #9” in a high-end prostitution ring and he prepaid for his next visit. So while the revelations about Spitzer were particularly zing-worthy – uncovering a level of hypocrisy not seen before in recent memory – what does it really mean? 

Taina Bien-Aime, executive director of the Women’s City Club, has taken Spitzer’s misdeed and painted it within the context of the wider sex-trafficking industry.  She makes a terrific point about how prostitution isn’t a victimless crime. And crime it is, since this is New York and not Las Vegas. A crime for which the prosecutor has yet to be prosecuted (unless you count the press.) And though Bien-Aime admits that Spitzer had worked to pass legislation against sex trafficking in the past, she is clear in her view: no forgiveness. NOW has taken a similar stance and is actively protesting both Spitzer and Weiner’s candidacies.

John Dickerson of Slate takes Spitzer to task for asking the forgiveness of the public while being known to never be particularly forgiving himself, as if “forgiveness” is a virtue that we want in our attorneys general. Spitzer is known for his ruthless, take no prisoners style, which is appropriate when you’re actually taking no prisoners. And though Dickerson gives Spitzer props for having the foresight to prosecute Wall Street for its illegal pillaging of American society way back in 2005, his conclusion is unequivocal: no forgiveness.

Forgiveness. It’s a fascinating concept in the political context. Politicians, like celebrities, have their marriages fail on the public stage: John Edwards, Newt Gingrich, Weiner, Spitzer, Mark Sanford. They parade with the cuckold wives, standing beside them to prop up their lost credibility. We tut tut and gossip and judge, then go have one too many and make out with the neighbor’s husband or hook up with old high school girlfriends on Facebook.  It all begs the question: do we want politicians to be philosopher kings, above and away from the public in geography and morality, or should we accept them as a reflection of who we are? Can they serve the public owning their humanness or do we have to hold them to moral perfection (which includes the obligatory church-going?) Might these expectations result in a powder keg of unrealistic expectation? Might the celeb status of our politicians contribute to their spectacular failings?

Am I asking these questions because I’m looking for a way to forgive Spitzer because I admire his tenacity, his mind, and the good that I can still see him achieve in public office? As a woman, am I participating in a paternalistic culture that shames women by doing so?

Or might I be becoming a more equal opportunity forgiver, able to see nuance in not just the infidelity of women, but men as well?

The 4th Amendment, the 4th Estate, and the Slope upon which we Slip

If we’re to welcome truth and transparency as we say we do, why the urge to persecute a truth teller?

In our earliest Politics and Government courses, we learn about how the United States set up a system of checks and balances to keep one particular part of government from becoming too powerful and thus, tyrannical. And so the branches were separated into executive, legislative, and judicial – each with distinct responsibilities and powers that could reel in the other two. We decentralized power from the federal to the state to give more power to the people and then imposed voting restrictions to make sure the people didn’t amass too much direct power themselves.

 

Unwritten into the three branches of government, but included in the Bill of Rights, is a fourth that, when used in the manner in which it was conceived, provides a check to an out of balance government that has merged the three branches into an monster of our own creation. At least, that’s what Edward Snowden is counting on the Fourth Estate to provide. His life, and much more, depends on it.

 

It’s easy to get caught up in the hype of fear, especially when we have the first hand experience of terrorism in our recent memory. Many of us in New York and Washington witnessed the assaults on 9/11 firsthand. I did. In the wake of fear, we forfeited certain rights in the name of safety. And that’s what this debate that the president keeps saying he’s open to having is really all about: how much of our civil liberties are we willing to sacrifice in the name of safety? The Patriot Act was born of a time where we, as a nation, felt vulnerable to violence. We allowed our legislators to loosen its grip on our search and seizure laws to intercept information from terrorists. It was for our safety, and because the image of three thousand corpses lay fresh in our minds, we gave a half-hearted protest. Because we weren’t really protesting it. Because it felt safe.

 

And yet.

 

The great James Madison, in his discussion of what we should include in this radical experiment of a country, considered the checks on government to be tantamount to its lasting success. “In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.”

 

And yet, in giving the powers that be the go ahead to mine personal data, to torture, to assassinate, to use drones, to hold prisoners indefinitely and to persecute those who risk all to tell us about it is exactly a government who has failed to control itself. The checks aren’t working. The balance has tipped. And the last ditch effort of a true government of, by, and for the people is to bring the truth to the people through the press and hope they haven’t become so insulated by streams of information that they can discern what is at stake. And act.

 

The Fourth Estate cuts both ways: it can exonerate, and it can convict in the court of public opinion which wields incredible power. And the smear campaign predictably begins, with journalists combing through Snowden’s teenage web presence to his girlfriend’s salacious job. Much has been made about his GED, which speaks more to elitism than Snowden’s capability.  It’s lazy, it misses the point, and it tarnishes the bad name that some liberals have already earned. It has prompted respected columnists like Rick Unger, political contributor to Forbes Magazine, to fabricate a quote and deride Snowden’s reputation and respectability based on it.

 

“Snowden declared, during a live chat with the Guardian on Monday, that he believes that “all spying is wrong.” And because it is Snowden’s personal judgment that all spying is wrong, he also believes it appropriate that he reveal our covert activities to affected foreign governments without a shed of concern for what the rest of his fellow Americans might think about this.”

 

Except nowhere in the transcript of Snowden’s live chatdid he voice that sentiment. It was a deliberate misquote and an example of shoddy journalism by a respected writer in a respectable publication. Why? The revelations that Snowden disclosed secrets about our spy programs to China and at the G20 summit in 2009 provide a welcome relief to those who only want to vilify. Yet if we’re to welcome truth and transparency as we say we do, why the urge to persecute a truth teller? Might it be because we want no part of the truth that’s coming to light, because it opens up a can of worms which, at its bottom, reveals that our president is not the liberal wet dream we hoped he would be? That even without Republican obstructionism lies a man whose political philosophy is more complex than the Aaron Sorkin screenplay we’ve written for him in our imaginations?

 

If we paint Snowden as a bad guy, does that make Obama good? Is this the dichotomy that we have to choose between? Yeah, I kind of think it is. Are we to vilify Snowden for making an awkward situation for the president at this year’s G8 summit? Or do we celebrate that a citizen is making our president take responsibility? That is the job of the populace, who cannot do so if they are not informed. That is the job of the Fourth Estate. It’s how we keep the powers that be in check.

 

Yet, the media has largely kept up with the hero/traitor narrative, with most concluding the latter. Much has been made of his self-extradition to Hong Kong (and now Russia) as traitorous and cowardly, when it’s really another form of information – it brings to attention the lengths this administration has gone to persecute whistle-blowers. They are not safe in America anymore, as they were when Daniel Ellsberg released the Pentagon Papers. There have even been assertions that Glen Greenwald, Snowden’s (in)famous interviewer (parentheses are depending on the audience reading this), should face persecution himself for the act of journalism.

 

These signify a dramatic change in this country, not only in legislation, but in the mindset of the governed. We have moved from a representative democracy that rests on inalienable rights to secret courts, private subcontractors of the NSA compiling files of our personal digital correspondence and the “people” of the US calling for the head of the person who brought it to light. The big picture here is the loss of the American value system. It’s easy to promote freedom of the press and freedom of speech, due process, and search and seizure protections when you aren’t afraid and there is no direct threat, but it’s much harder when you are. But I think it’s the cornerstone of who we are supposed to be and if we lose that, we lose the identity that people died for, fought for, wrote, argued, and marched for. It’s the last shred of justified exceptionalism.

 

We can question why Snowden’s revelations have prompted outrage because he’s making us confront a truth we’d rather not consider: we like spying. We are okay with unwarranted phone tappings and the blurred lines of the 4th Amendment. Because it  gives us the illusion that we are safer from the bad guys. That illusion is worth its weight in gold – or blood.

Or conscience.

Fetal Position

Republican Michael Burgess who rationalized that by 15 weeks, a fetus could be documented touching its genitals. From that he surmised that it must feel pleasure, concluding that it must also be able to feel pain. I don’t think he’s crazy.

 

Songram

The 20 week abortion ban is creeping its way, state by state, across the country, and gaining momentum. As the conversation inevitably comes around to the debate about conception, contraception, the life of the mother, economics, rape, etc., we listen through the familiar slings and arrows for something definitive to hold onto. Some look in the bible, some in feminist treatises born in the sixties. And in those respectively ancient texts, we find that nothing much has changed in the argument. There are pros, there are cons, there is context, and little variation on a theme that wants to depict one side as evil and the other righteous, or pious, or good. We see it in every debate: the need to paint a good and a bad with little sense of meeting in the middle.

We see it in the talking points about Edward Snowden: hero or traitor? The national narrative is such that we need to choose a  side, with little nuance for facts or context. The story this week that accompanies the newest abortion legislation is that of Republican Michael Burgess who rationalized that by 15 weeks, a fetus could be documented touching its genitals. From that he surmised that it must feel pleasure, concluding that it must also be able to feel pain. “Watch a sonogram of a 15-week baby, and they have movements that are purposeful. They stroke their face. If they’re a male baby, they may have their hand between their legs. If they feel pleasure, why is it so hard to believe that they could feel pain?” he said.

The lefty press has gone systematically batshit over that one, with loud headlines that scream of a bizarre congressman who alleges that fetuses masturbate. The focus is on painting this guy as a crazy nutjob who  cannot speak definitively about fetuses, masturbation, or abortion.

As I’ve discussed before, my views on the abortion debate fit squarely within my liberal social views. I support a woman’s right to choose.

But I can’t subscribe to the narrative on this one. I don’t think the idea that a fifteen week old fetus can feel pain is crazy, nor do I believe that the notion of a fetus feeling pleasure, even from the genitals, is nuts. (Get it? Nuts.) A quick Google search tells me that the spinal cord is clearly defined and the spinal nerves start to stretch out from the spinal cord weeks 11-12 and by week 16 the baby can be seen grasping things, including the umbilical cord. S/he makes it’s presence ‘felt’ with kicking/waving movement. Week 20 has nerve cells making complex connections and sensory perception with the brain and the entire body. I don’t know when nerve endings in the genitals grow, but I do know that they are present way before sexual maturity. Babies touch their junk. Because it feels good. This isn’t sexual. This is normal. Eventually, we tell our kids about privacy and appropriateness, but it’s part of learning about their bodies. Sucking thumbs feel good and comforting to babies. We can see fetuses sucking their thumbs in the womb.

To dismiss Representative Burgess’s statement as asinine and crazy does a disservice to those who want to move beyond the age-old narrative that has never gotten resolved. There are crazy extremists on both sides of this debate. Those who believe in their deepest hearts that killing is so wrong that they kill abortion doctors in service to their own twisted logic are wrong, and bad. Those who dismiss without consideration those who sincerely believe that each conceived being deserves life are also wrong, especially when they look only for a talking point with which to paint someone as off-kilter.

The real culprit here is the deadening of our debate skills, the means by which we hear different viewpoints and consider them. We have been counseled into extremes and absolutes: pro-life or pro-choice, hero or traitor, republican or democrat, good or bad. And with our pre-formed ideas of which is which, we are only looking at confirmation for these values. Thus, when someone in the opposition (because everyone in the South or on the pro-life side or with a capital R in front of their names is ripe for the enemy treatment), his words become fodder for faux admonition.

Upworthy has picked up this gauntlet and is on its way to the Heaven of high click-through rates and shares. (I could just be jealous). People I admire have accepted this baton and are running with the fetal masturbation punchlines and outrage. I am pro-choice. But I’m open to intelligent arguments about time restrictions backed by science. And I believe that the debate needs to go beyond the forty week gestation period and include a rational discussion about the party who will fight for the life of a fetus but abandon a baby born to poor economic circumstance.

But perhaps that makes me the jerk-off.

Extreme Alliance: Finding Common Ground with Manning and Snowden

Where others have failed to shed light on the dark shadow our military casts over the world, Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden have succeeded by demonstrating the courage to reveal our ignominy and speak truth to power

The exclusivity of the axiom that Democrats eat their own has been challenged in recent years by Republican infighting. Libertarians, having fully asserted themselves into the modern conservative movement, have fractured the Republican base and splintered allegiances that have endured for decades. Progressives have all but broken ties with the Democratic Party over a host of issues from single payer healthcare to drone strikes and regularly engage “Obamabots” in Twitter wars. But the blockbuster cases of PFC Bradley Manning and NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden have perhaps delivered the most bizarre ideological twist of all.

Libertarians and progressives have united on the issue of civil liberties, with Manning and Snowden as the source of the gravitational pull. It’s a tepid alliance of strange bedfellows that grows stronger with each passing day. Although lesser-known to consumers of mainstream media, the cases of Barrett Brown, Jeremy Hammond, Aaron Swartz, Jesselyn Radack and Thomas Drake have also helped to galvanize the furthest reaches of the American ideological spectrum.

This alliance of extremes comes from a deep understanding of the current risks that we face as Americans; an understanding of things rarely addressed with any depth or consistency in corporate broadcast and print media. Savvy and literate seekers of information who eschew corporate media know these risks by their legislative acronyms. AUMF. FISA. NDAA. Moreover, they know how they combine to infringe upon our rights as citizens in a manner that is unprecedented in U.S. history.

Some Americans are familiar with the appalling tributaries that stem from them. Drone strikes, rendition, warrantless wiretapping, indefinite detention, domestic communication management units and the overzealous prosecution of whistleblowers. Yet the neoliberal propaganda machine has been in overdrive for decades hammering into us ideas such as American “exceptionalism” (our lives are worth more than all others), corporations are people and money should be protected as speech. The have taught us to believe that our desire for privacy implies that we have something to hide, whereas their need for secrecy implies a sense of noblesse oblige.

Normalizing these absurdities by openly defending them through corporate propaganda channels has dulled our senses as a people. We are the walking dumb. The politically illiterate.

The government relies on its ability to manipulate the public by keeping it in a constant state of fear. Every generation has its Bogeyman beginning with the earliest days of the republic. In school we are taught to embrace the principles of the Declaration of Independence to the extent that they suit the prevailing American narrative. Ignored in school is the racist and imperial dogma found in these words from the same document: “He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavored to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian savages, whose known rule of warfare, is undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.”

For years now I have reported on the relationship between the American government and sovereign Indian territories. Therefore, America’s paternalistic attitude toward the rest of the world is entirely familiar. The U.S. government views the world as one giant reservation system filled with dispensable people who receive handouts directly proportionate to the natural resources they possess. Failure to comply with our demands is to risk sanctions or occupation. The world has witnessed the unbroken wave of devastation the U.S. wrought in Indochina, the Middle East and Northern Africa, South America and Central America. The American war machine is fully autonomous, perpetual and indiscriminate.

Where others have failed to shed light on the dark shadow our military casts over the world, Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden have succeeded by demonstrating the courage to reveal our ignominy and speak truth to power. It’s why the ideological fringes of our nation see the greatness in what they have done. Progressives and Libertarians, regardless of their differences, do not revere authority. They question it. And while the conclusions they draw on several issues differ dramatically, neither easily accepts the official government narrative regarding Manning and Snowden, which is they recognize these men as heroic.

As for the rest of America, the government’s actions, no matter how barbaric or unconstitutional, are cloaked in the flag and sold as necessary tools in the “War on Terror.” To reject this notion as a citizen is to risk being alienated and branded a traitor. We have been brainwashed to believe that to “support the troops” somehow means sacrificing our youth abroad in the pursuit of oil and permanent war. Americans are so far removed from our activist roots that most are unable to see that today’s Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden are yesterday’s Daniel Ellsberg and Anthony Russo. That today’s Glenn Greenwald, Jeremy Scahill and Alexa O’Brien are yesterday’s Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein and Seymour Hersh. That today’s Barrett Brown and Cindy Sheehan are yesterday’s Daniel Berrigan and Martin Luther King, Jr..

As a nation we tend to swallow the wholesale premise that all government actions are for our own good and that they must be employed in secret for our safety. But the secrecy the government defends is not only from the citizens it is accountable to but from the institutions designed to protect us from authoritarianism. To wit, our judicial system no longer has authority over wiretapping. Congress no longer has any oversight over the military. The Fourth Estate no longer enjoys the absolute protection afforded by the First Amendment. And dissidents no longer enjoy the freedom to peaceably assemble without intervention from law enforcement agencies with military arsenals.

Americans suffer from political amnesia. Forgotten are the Indian “removal” policies, Jim Crow laws, Japanese internment camps, the Kent State massacre, McCarthyism and Watergate. Therefore we have also forgotten the protections established to prevent these things from happening again. For those more concerned about whether Edward Snowden visited his mother enough or quibbling over Bradley Manning’s sexual orientation, allow me to demystify the above acronyms and explain what it is they are fighting against.

AUMF: Authorization for Use of Military Force. Immediately following 9/11 Congress granted extraordinary authority to the Bush administration to conduct a global war on terror. It was under this authority that the United States conducted illegal invasions of both Iraq and Afghanistan—nations with no connection to 9/11. It was also under this authority that the Bush administration began employing Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV’s), more commonly known as drones, to hunt members of Al Qaeda in the mountainous regions of Pakistan. Both Presidents Bush and Obama expanded upon this authority to include Yemen and Somalia. These strikes are illegal, unconstitutional and immoral. They are not targeted, discriminate or judicious, despite the assertions of the Obama administration. We are terrorizing, and subsequently radicalizing, citizens of nations that we are not at war with.

FISA: Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Originally enacted as a result of the Nixon administration’s abuse of eavesdropping, FISA was designed to establish a protocol for U.S. surveillance activities that required the government to obtain judicial approval prior to any such operation. The Bush administration broke this protocol and secretly authorized the NSA to eavesdrop without warrants. Even after the New York Times revealed the program, Congress amended the act in 2008 and officially granted the administration the authority to continue warrantless wiretapping with oversight from “secret courts.”

Secret courts. Secret. Fucking. Courts. In America.

Both the Bush administration and the Obama administration have publicly insisted that U.S. citizens have never been targets of any such program. Now we know this was a lie. Snowden’s recent revelations by the Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald have demonstrated that quite the opposite is true and the surveillance state is worse than anyone had predicted.

Spying is big business as evidenced by the fact that there are 1.6 private contractors working for the government in surveillance operations for every one government employee performing the same function. Our information has been outsourced to corporations that are writing and lobbying for the legislation that allows for it. Therefore, even those who defend the actions of the government must then concede that they are defending the actions of private corporations. It’s imperative that we see beyond the argument that if you’ve done nothing wrong then you have nothing to hide. It’s false logic because it falls apart in reverse. If this program was honest and constitutional, there would be no reason to lie about it, cover it up then threaten to silence anyone who attempts to speak out about it.

NDAA: The National Defense Authorization Act. The NDAA is an act that Congress is required to pass at the beginning of each fiscal year to organize funding and codify policies and procedures carried out by the military. Activists refer to NDAA as shorthand for an amendment authored in secret in December of 2011 by Senator John McCain regarding indefinite detention. Renowned journalist Chris Hedges brought suit against the government arguing that the language of this provision was so broad and vague that it theoretically allows for military detention of U.S. citizens, something the government vehemently denies. Nevertheless, instead of amending the language to quell any fear surrounding domestic military intervention against U.S. citizens, the Department of Justice has vigorously defended the inclusion of this provision in federal court.

The indefinite detention provision of the NDAA expands executive authority granted under the AUMF from those suspected of carrying out the terrorist attacks of 9/11 to anyone suspected of supporting terrorists. Nowhere does the government provide the definition of a terrorist or what might be considered “support.”

In May of 2013 the Pentagon introduced yet another wrinkle to this very dangerous equation. The Department of Defense altered a rule in the US Code titled “Defense Support of Civilian Law Enforcement Agencies” that grants the military the ability to quell civil disturbances and temporarily control a situation in the event authorization from the President of the United States is impossible to obtain. Nowhere does the DoD define what constitutes a civil disturbance, how long this temporary authority might last, whether or not civilians can be militarily detained without due process or under what circumstances the president would be “impossible” to reach.

Welcome to the Banana Republic of America.

Tie together the extraordinary authority the government has granted itself under these three provisions and the gravity of our predicament becomes painfully obvious. The government has the authority to listen to our conversations without obtaining a warrant. It is not only tracking every move you make online, it’s storing this information and building a profile from your actions. Any journalist who interviews someone the United States considers a terrorist threat can be seen as supporting this person. The military has the legal authority to quell any gathering it considers a “disturbance.” The military and domestic civilian agencies such as the CIA have the ability to carry out assassinations abroad regardless of whether we are involved in armed conflict in these territories. It can “disappear” anyone inside or outside of the United States for any reason.

These are the real threats to our liberty. To view them as such is to recognize the historical significance of Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden and appreciate the service they have performed for the benefit of our republic.

Big Oil’s Iranian Scare Tactic

On nearly every level, this is a terrible bill. And Senator Inhofe and his co-sponsors likely understand this fact.

Republican bill uses Iran as bogeyman to benefit Big Oil donors and neuter environmental law

By Jed Morey
Twitter: @jedmorey

This column originally appeared onwww.LongIslandPress.com

A couple of weeks ago, Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) put forward a bill (S.965) with the title “Iran Sanctions Implementation Act of 2013.” It’s a ridiculously worded and speciously reasoned piece of legislation that calls for the expansion of domestic oil production in an effort to overtake and choke off Iran’s remaining crude oil supply. According to the bill, “by expanding oil production in the United States by 1,250,000 barrels per day” (the amount Sen. Inhofe estimates to be the current level of Iranian crude oil exports), “the United States will displace all oil exports from Iran on the world market.”

Inhofe accomplishes this in the bill by granting the president of the United States authority to “designate any area of Federal land that the President determines appropriate as an ‘Iranian Oil Replacement Zone,’” and that “Each Zone shall include any area of Federal land necessary for the transportation… of the oil produced in that Zone.” Moreover, Inhofe’s legislation would grant exclusive management of these zones to the individual states, thereby circumventing the federal agencies designated to protect and manage these territories. Finally, as a kicker, he exempts the entire act from both judicial review and environmental oversight under the National Environment Policy Act (NEPA) of 1969.

On nearly every level, this is a terrible bill. And Senator Inhofe and his co-sponsors likely understand this fact. But before we delve into the rationale behind floating a bill with almost no chance of succeeding, let me explain why it is so off-target.

First off, it’s important to know that this is not how the global crude oil market operates. By making the assumption that increased U.S. oil production can displace another country’s production ignores market fundamentals. As Gene Guilford, an expert in the field of energy policy, explains, “The Saudis, Libya and Iraq have already increased their output to some extent for this purpose. The excess crude oil production capacity that exists in the Middle East to take the place of Iranian production for export is already available.”

To most of us, the crude oil and gas market is a complex world. From drilling and transporting and buying and selling, it’s a murky realm of oil barons and commodities traders that speak a different language. But election cycles provide enough of a window inside to inform most Americans of this basic fact: The oil business is booming.

“We’re basically bursting at the seams with supply,” says Michael Masters, president of Masters Capital Management, an Atlanta-based hedge fund that specializes in the commodities sector. When oil prices spiked in 2008 and the derivatives market began to unravel, Masters provided important congressional testimony that gave U.S. lawmakers insight in to the inner workings of the commodities business. U.S. production has been so robust in recent years that Masters says, “I imagine in the second half of this year we won’t import any oil.”

This is a sentiment shared by Guilford, who talked about the remarkable turn of events in the U.S. fossil fuel industry. “In 2007 we were talking about peak oil,” says Guilford; “today we speak of the very real potential of the U.S. being the world’s leading crude oil producer by 2015 and U.S. energy independence.”

When I asked Masters specifically about Inhofe’s notion of displacing Iranian oil, he said, “It’s sort of a ridiculous theory because you’re not going to take it out of the market.”

In fairness, sanctions on Iran have lead to a serious decrease in Iranian crude oil exports. It’s estimated that Iran exported nearly 4 million barrels per day when President Obama took office. Today that figure is estimated to be anywhere between Inhofe’s proposed 1.25 million and 2 million per day. Either way, it’s a precipitous decline. But the decline has less to do with the supply of oil and more to do with pressure the U.S. brought to bear on those who purchase Iranian oil. So the question of whether or not the U.S. has the strength to convince the few remaining Iranian oil customers has less to do with availability and more to do with diplomatic ability.

To the extent that this is possible, the United States doesn’t necessarily hold all of the cards.

Because oil is a commodity that is traded globally it is obviously most responsive to price. According to Guilford, “Iran’s customers may well not care about alternative sources that are more expensive than Iran and that is one very likely reason Iran still has customers.” Knowing that Iran’s customers include nations such as China and South Africa, Guilford naturally questions our ability to drive the final nail in Iran’s coffin through sanctions asking, “Does the U.S. have the diplomatic ability to convince Iran’s buyers to pay more in order to isolate Iran?”

Nevertheless, this opens an important dialogue about the nature of sanctions themselves. There is no question that U.S.-lead sanction policy has been extremely effective in isolating Iran and wreaking havoc on its economy. Kate Gould, a lobbyist for Middle East Policy at the Friends Committee on National Legislation, believes that sanctions sometimes have the opposite of the desired effect by serving to “punish civilians, embolden hardliners and foreclose diplomatic options.” She explains her economic position saying, “We’ve seen huge growth in the black market, which is controlled by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, so Iranians become dependent on going through these channels instead of legal channels.” Gould is quick to point out that despite decades of crippling sanctions against Iraq, “Saddam Hussein never missed a meal.”

Despite the backward logic inherent in Inhofe’s rationale, the bill currently has 11 other cosponsors, all Republican. Most hail from states with large swaths of federal land such as Arizona, Utah, North Dakota, North Carolina, Idaho, Kentucky and Missouri. Not surprisingly, Sen. Inhofe’s top campaign contributors between 2007 and 2012 are from the oil and gas industry, with Koch Industries being his single-largest donor.

Not surprisingly, the idea of manipulating federal regulations regarding drilling rights and ceding these rights to individual states is dangerous territory for the environmental community.

“Senator Inhofe would auction off America’s national parks and public lands to big polluters just so we could mimic Iran’s all-oil energy policy,” blasts Athan Manuel, Director of the Sierra Club’s Lands Protection Program. “We’d be better off embracing job-creating clean energy projects that protect our wild legacy and our future rather than selling off our nation’s crown jewels to the highest bidder.”

Legislative affairs specialists for the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which controls the largest amount of federally protected land, did not respond to my request for an interview as of press time.

But Gould believes Inhofe’s bill is little more than a Trojan horse for U.S. oil and gas companies to gain access to land that is currently difficult to obtain.

“I think it’s a political stunt to try to disguise getting around environmental laws with sanctions,” she says, adding that sanctioning Iran, “generally has broad bipartisan support.”

Guilford sees it this way as well, but takes more of an academic approach to Inhofe’s proposal. He calls the “goal of increased domestic production a sound idea,” but says the “removal of judicial review and NEPA” would have “opposition that is only exceeded by those trying to stop the Keystone pipeline.”

The chances of Inhofe’s bill making it out of committee and eventually becoming law are slim. To put it into perspective, of the 3,716 Senate bills proposed between 2011 and 2013, only 449 (12 percent) made it to the floor. Of those, only 71 were enacted, or less than 2 percent. The fact that this particular bill was referred to the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, led by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), means it will almost assuredly die in committee.

So why go through the machinations of compiling the language and amassing support for a bill that is practically dead on arrival?

The best way to view Inhofe’s bill is as a trial balloon—a way to test the effectiveness of certain angles and particular language.

“Perhaps for some the theory would be that U.S. domestic energy security isn’t reason enough to increase current production,” muses Guilford, “so the issue needs to be recast into a foreign policy and security debate about shutting down the remainder of Iranian production.”

Gould puts it more bluntly, saying it’s, “using the Iran bogeyman to advance an extreme agenda on another issue.”

No matter how you slice it, all roads lead back to Big Oil.

U.S. Military ‘Power Grab’ Goes Into Effect

“It’s quite shocking actually because it violates the long-standing presumption that the military is under civilian control.”

Pentagon Unilaterally Grants Itself Authority Over ‘Civil Disturbances’

By Jed Morey
Twitter: @jedmorey

This column originally appeared on www.LongIslandPress.com

The manhunt for the Boston Marathon bombing suspects offered the nation a window into the stunning military-style capabilities of our local law enforcement agencies. For the past 30 years, police departments throughout the United States have benefitted from the government’s largesse in the form of military weaponry and training, incentives offered in the ongoing “War on Drugs.” For the average citizen watching events such as the intense pursuit of the Tsarnaev brothers on television, it would be difficult to discern between fully outfitted police SWAT teams and the military.

The lines blurred even further Monday as a new dynamic was introduced to the militarization of domestic law enforcement. By making a few subtle changes to a regulation in the U.S. Code titled “Defense Support of Civilian Law Enforcement Agencies” the military has quietly granted itself the ability to police the streets without obtaining prior local or state consent, upending a precedent that has been in place for more than two centuries.

Click here to read the new rule

The most objectionable aspect of the regulatory change is the inclusion of vague language that permits military intervention in the event of “civil disturbances.” According to the rule:

Federal military commanders have the authority, in extraordinary emergency circumstances where prior authorization by the President is impossible and duly constituted local authorities are unable to control the situation, to engage temporarily in activities that are necessary to quell large-scale, unexpected civil disturbances.

Bruce Afran, a civil liberties attorney and constitutional law professor at Rutgers University, calls the rule, “a wanton power grab by the military,” and says, “It’s quite shocking actually because it violates the long-standing presumption that the military is under civilian control.”

A defense official who declined to be named takes a different view of the rule, claiming, “The authorization has been around over 100 years; it’s not a new authority. It’s been there but it hasn’t been exercised. This is a carryover of domestic policy.” Moreover, he insists the Pentagon doesn’t “want to get involved in civilian law enforcement. It’s one of those red lines that the military hasn’t signed up for.” Nevertheless, he says, “every person in the military swears an oath of allegiance to the Constitution of the United States to defend that Constitution against all enemies foreign and domestic.”

One of the more disturbing aspects of the new procedures that govern military command on the ground in the event of a civil disturbance relates to authority. Not only does it fail to define what circumstances would be so severe that the president’s authorization is “impossible,” it grants full presidential authority to “Federal military commanders.” According to the defense official, a commander is defined as follows: “Somebody who’s in the position of command, has the title commander. And most of the time they are centrally selected by a board, they’ve gone through additional schooling to exercise command authority.”

As it is written, this “commander” has the same power to authorize military force as the president in the event the president is somehow unable to access a telephone. (The rule doesn’t address the statutory chain of authority that already exists in the event a sitting president is unavailable.) In doing so, this commander must exercise judgment in determining what constitutes, “wanton destruction of property,” “adequate protection for Federal property,” “domestic violence,” or “conspiracy that hinders the execution of State or Federal law,” as these are the circumstances that might be considered an “emergency.”

“These phrases don’t have any legal meaning,” says Afran. “It’s no different than the emergency powers clause in the Weimar constitution [of the German Reich]. It’s a grant of emergency power to the military to rule over parts of the country at their own discretion.”

Afran also expresses apprehension over the government’s authority “to engage temporarily in activities necessary to quell large-scale disturbances.”

“Governments never like to give up power when they get it,” says Afran. “They still think after twelve years they can get intelligence out of people in Guantanamo. Temporary is in the eye of the beholder. That’s why in statutes we have definitions. All of these statutes have one thing in common and that is that they have no definitions. How long is temporary? There’s none here. The definitions are absurdly broad.”

The U.S. military is prohibited from intervening in domestic affairs except where provided under Article IV of the Constitution in cases of domestic violence that threaten the government of a state or the application of federal law. This provision was further clarified both by the Insurrection Act of 1807 and a post-Reconstruction law known as the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878 (PCA). The Insurrection Act specifies the circumstances under which the president may convene the armed forces to suppress an insurrection against any state or the federal government. Furthermore, where an individual state is concerned, consent of the governor must be obtained prior to the deployment of troops. The PCA—passed in response to federal troops that enforced local laws and oversaw elections during Reconstruction—made unauthorized employment of federal troops a punishable offense, thereby giving teeth to the Insurrection Act.

Together, these laws limit executive authority over domestic military action. Yet Monday’s official regulatory changes issued unilaterally by the Department of Defense is a game-changer.

The stated purpose of the updated rule is “support in Accordance With the Posse Comitatus Act,” but in reality it undermines the Insurrection Act and PCA in significant and alarming ways. The most substantial change is the notion of “civil disturbance” as one of the few “domestic emergencies” that would allow for the deployment of military assets on American soil.

To wit, the relatively few instances that federal troops have been deployed for domestic support have produced a wide range of results. Situations have included responding to natural disasters and protecting demonstrators during the Civil Rights era to, disastrously, the Kent State student massacre and the 1973 occupation of Wounded Knee.

Michael German, senior policy counsel to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), noted in a 2009 Daily Kos article that, “there is no doubt that the military is very good at many things. But recent history shows that restraint in their new-found domestic role is not one of them.”

At the time German was referring to the military’s expanded surveillance techniques and hostile interventions related to border control and the War on Drugs. And in fact, many have argued that these actions have already upended the PCA in a significant way. Even before this most recent rule change, the ACLU was vocal in its opposition to the Department of Defense (DoD) request to expand domestic military authority “in the event of chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, or high yield explosive (CBRNE) incidents.” The ACLU’s position is that civilian agencies are more than equipped to handle such emergencies since 9/11. (ACLU spokespersons in Washington D.C. declined, however, to be interviewed for this story.)

But while outcomes of military interventions have varied, the protocol by which the president works cooperatively with state governments has remained the same. The president is only allowed to deploy troops to a state upon request of its governor. Even then, the military—specifically the National Guard—is there to provide support for local law enforcement and is prohibited from engaging in any activities that are outside of this scope, such as the power to arrest.

Eric Freedman, a constitutional law professor from Hofstra University, also calls the ruling “an unauthorized power grab.” According to Freedman, “The Department of Defense does not have the authority to grant itself by regulation any more authority than Congress has granted it by statute.” Yet that’s precisely what it did. This wasn’t, however, the Pentagon’s first attempt to expand its authority domestically in the last decade.

Déjà vu

During the Bush Administration, Congress passed the 2007 Defense Authorization Bill that included language similar in scope to the current regulatory change. It specifically amended the Insurrection Act to expand the president’s ability to deploy troops domestically under certain conditions including health epidemics, natural disasters and terrorist activities, though it stopped short of including civil disturbances. But the following year this language was repealed under the National Defense Authorization Act of 2008 via a bill authored by Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) who cited the “useful friction” between the Insurrection and Posse Comitatus Acts in limiting executive authority.

According to the DoD, the repeal of this language had more to do with procedure and that it was never supposed to amend the Insurrection Act. “When it was actually passed,” says the defense official, “Congress elected to amend the Insurrection Act and put things in the Insurrection Act that were not insurrection, like the support for disasters and emergencies and endemic influenza. Our intent,” he says, “was to give the president and the secretary access to the reserve components. It includes the National Guard and, rightfully so, the governors were pretty upset because they were not consulted.”

Senator Leahy’s office did not have a statement as of press time, but a spokesperson said the senator had made an inquiry with the DoD in response to our questions. The defense official confirmed that he was indeed being called in to discuss the senator’s concerns in a meeting scheduled for today. But he downplayed any concern, saying, “Congress at any time can say ‘we don’t like your interpretation of that law and how you’ve interpreted it in making policy’—and so they can call us to the Hill and ask us to justify why we’re doing something.”

Last year, Bruce Afran and another civil liberties attorney Carl Mayer filed a lawsuit against the Obama Administration on behalf of a group of journalists and activists lead by former New York Times journalist Chris Hedges. They filed suit over the inclusion of a bill in the NDAA 2012 that, according to the plaintiffs, expanded executive authority over domestic affairs by unilaterally granting the executive branch to indefinitely detain U.S. citizens without due process. The case has garnered international attention and invited vigorous defense from the Obama Administration. Even Afran goes so far as to say this current rule change is, “another NDAA. It’s even worse, to be honest.”

For Hedges and the other plaintiffs, including Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg, the government’s ever-expanding authority over civilian affairs has a “chilling effect” on First Amendment activities such as free speech and the right to assemble. First District Court Judge Katherine Forrest agreed with the plaintiffs and handed Hedges et al a resounding victory prompting the Department of Justice to immediately file an injunction and an appeal. The appellate court is expected to rule on the matter within the next few months.

Another of the plaintiffs in the Hedges suit is Alexa O’Brien, a journalist and organizer who joined the lawsuit after she discovered a Wikileaks cable showing government officials attempting to link her efforts to terrorist activities. For activists such as O’Brien, the new DoD regulatory change is frightening because it creates, “an environment of fear when people cannot associate with one another.” Like Afran and Freedman, she too calls the move, “another grab for power under the rubric of the war on terror, to the detriment of citizens.”

“This is a complete erosion of the rule of law,” says O’Brien. Knowing these sweeping powers were granted under a rule change and not by Congress is even more harrowing to activists. “That anything can be made legal,” says O’Brien, “is fundamentally antithetical to good governance.”

As far as what might qualify as a civil disturbance, Afran notes, “In the Sixties all of the Vietnam protests would meet this description. We saw Kent State. This would legalize Kent State.”

But the focus on the DoD regulatory change obscures the creeping militarization that has already occurred in police departments across the nation. Even prior to the NDAA lawsuit, journalist Chris Hedges was critical of domestic law enforcement agencies saying, “The widening use of militarized police units effectively nullifies the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878.”

This de facto nullification isn’t lost on the DoD.

The DoD official even referred to the Boston bombing suspects manhunt saying, “Like most major police departments, if you didn’t know they were a police department you would think they were the military.” According to this official there has purposely been a “large transfer of technology so that the military doesn’t have to get involved.” Moreover, he says the military has learned from past events, such as the siege at Waco, where ATF officials mishandled military equipment. “We have transferred the technology so we don’t have to loan it,” he states.

But if the transfer of military training and technology has been so thorough, it boggles the imagination as to what kind of disturbance would be so overwhelming that it would require the suspension of centuries-old law and precedent to grant military complete authority on the ground. The DoD official admits not being able to “envision that happening,” adding, “but I’m not a Hollywood screenwriter.”

Afran, for one, isn’t buying the logic. For him, the distinction is simple.

“Remember, the police operate under civilian control,” he says. “They are used to thinking in a civilian way so the comparison that they may have some assault weapons doesn’t change this in any way. And they can be removed from power. You can’t remove the military from power.”

Despite protestations from figures such as Afran and O’Brien and past admonitions from groups like the ACLU, for the first time in our history the military has granted itself authority to quell a civil disturbance. Changing this rule now requires congressional or judicial intervention.

“This is where journalism comes in,” says Freedman. “Calling attention to an unauthorized power grab in the hope that it embarrasses the administration.”

Afran is considering amending his NDAA complaint currently in front of the court to include this regulatory change.

As we witnessed during the Boston bombing manhunt, it’s already difficult to discern between military and police. In the future it might be impossible, because there may be no difference.

 

 

Photo: U.S. Troops in Afghanistan (Photo: Senior Airman Sean Martin, U.S. Air Force)