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Why locking up leakers makes sense

Jue, 29/01/2015 - 05:22

JAMES RISEN was prepared to go to jail to protect his source. In 2006 the New York Times reporter (pictured) published a book that revealed a covert American plot, in which a former Russian scientist fed flawed nuclear component designs to Iran. It claimed the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) had bungled the operation. The Justice Department promptly began investigating who had leaked the classified information, and identified Jeffrey Sterling, a former CIA employee who was suing the agency for racial discrimination, as the likely culprit. It duly subpoenaed Mr Risen, the only witness to this illegal disclosure. But he refused to name his contact, to whom he had promised anonymity.

The last time prosecutors tried to make a reporter reveal a source, Judith Miller, who also wrote for the Times, spent 85 days in jail in 2005 for keeping mum. Barack Obama’s administration has pursued leakers with unprecedented aggression: the government has charged nine alleged leakers on his watch, compared with three under all previous presidents. Mr Risen challenged the subpoena, claiming that freedom of the press exempted journalists...Continue reading

Unearthing Moscow’s moles

Mar, 27/01/2015 - 21:58

HOW American sanctions might bite on Russian banks is a matter of great interest to the Kremlin. So Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service, the SVR, asked one of its undercover agents in New York to find out, prosecutors claim. Evgeny Buryakov was outwardly an executive at Vnesheconombank, a Russian state-owned financial agency. But in real life he was allegedly “Zhenya”—working closely with two Russian intelligence officers who were working undercover as diplomats, also in New York. 

Mr Buryakov’s mission involved collecting economic intelligence and spotting potential sources. It has ended in disaster. On January 26th news broke of his arrest by the FBI. He faces trial and, if found guilty, up to 15 years in prison. His alleged colleagues have left America.

As always with spy stories, questions outnumber answers. What gave the FBI their first clue? Was it  good surveillance, a cryptographic breakthrough, success in penetrating the Russian spy service or sloppy tradecraft by Vladimir Putin’s snoops? The FBI’s evidence suggests a lengthy period of observation. The three men communicated with brief...Continue reading

Caught in the middle

Mar, 27/01/2015 - 15:49

NEARLY 21 years ago, Justice Harry Blackmun declared he would “no longer tinker with the machinery of death.” In his last few months on the Supreme Court before retiring in the summer of 1994, Justice Blackmun abandoned his previous view that capital punishment was consistent with the Constitution. "The death penalty experiment,” he concluded at the age of 85, “has failed." It is a “delusion” to think otherwise.

Justice Blackmun’s prediction that the court would eventually reach this conclusion has not come to pass. Yet America is marching away from the death penalty. The number of executions rose from 31 in 1994 to a peak of 98 in 1999, then began dropping as more and more states declared death penalty moratoriums or abolished it altogether. In 2014, of the...Continue reading

What's holding women back?

Vie, 23/01/2015 - 17:36

IN 2015 the promise of gender equality seems closer than ever. A new report by the Pew Research Centre shows that the majority of Americans think women are just as capable of being good political and business leaders as men. They are perceived as indistinguishable from their male peers when it comes to leadership qualities such as intelligence and capacity for innovation. On other qualities—honesty, fairness, compassion and willingness to compromise—many Americans actually judge women as superior.

It’s tempting to read the report as a sign of progress. After all, the 114th Congress includes a record number of women (104) serving in the House and Senate. On the corporate front, 26 women now lead as CEOs of Fortune 500 companies; that’s up from zero in 1995. But, in fact, the 104 congresswomen only make up 19% of Congress and the female CEOs are only 5% of all Fortune 500 CEOs. 

In short, the numbers are creeping along, but they’re still staggeringly low. The success of a Hillary Clinton or a Mary Barra is...Continue reading

Nostalgia for Nixon

Jue, 22/01/2015 - 23:02

WHILE watching the pantomime that is the president’s state of the union address, I couldn’t help but feel for John Boehner. As with any bit of political theatre, a lot of the drama is in the choreography: when to clap or look dour, stand up or roll eyes. As the Republican speaker of the House, Mr Boehner had the dubious honour of sitting directly behind the president for this annual address, on an elevated platform alongside Joe Biden, the vice president. For the entirety of Barack Obama’s hour-long speech, Mr Boehner’s job was apparently to wear a Noh theatre mask of disdain, and to take care to not inadvertently clap for something he doesn’t approve of. Playing it safe, he appeared to sit on his hands for most of the address, reluctant to endorse anything that didn’t feature words like “trade”, “veteran” or “9/11”. It is a tricky thing to be first violin when you hate the...Continue reading

Keep calm and gavel on

Jue, 22/01/2015 - 05:35

THE stone-faced marshals call for quiet at the beginning of every Supreme Court hearing, and the audience complies. Same as usual today, until a woman near the back of the courtroom rose to her feet and shouted, “I rise on behalf of democracy; overturn Citizens United!” Two officers immediately pounced on the woman, grabbing her and, apparently (I heard later), throwing her to the ground just outside the courtroom where her head hit the floor with a thud. Then a man arose, holding up a finger and yelling, “One person, one vote!” He too was grabbed. A third declared, “We are the 99%!” This repeated itself four more times, until seven audience members had had their brief say (including one in Spanish) and were roughed up—a little more savagely than you’re imagining—and tossed out of the room. After the shouting and banging and such, order returned to the court.

It was a stunning moment of human whack-a-mole, and an awkward one for the chief justice, John Roberts. “Our second order of business this morning,” he...Continue reading

Behind the pantomime

Mié, 21/01/2015 - 17:52

AS MY colleague wrote yesterday, the fact that there is virtually no chance of any of the priorities outlined in Barack Obama's State of the Union address becoming law during his administration renders the entire affair a sort of pantomime. As predicted, Republican responses to the speech ranged from dismissal to anger—or rather, mock anger; since it has always been clear that Republicans would reject anything Mr Obama were to offer up, their condemnations of his failure to reach out were pantomime too. Mike Lee, a Republican senator from Utah, inadvertently captured the circular logic of the situation: “For him, it’s all 2016 partisan politics now, and Republicans shouldn’t waste time debating the merits of the president’s political talking points.” Of course, if Republicans are unwilling to debate...Continue reading

Of beards and brevity

Mié, 21/01/2015 - 02:33

THE ECONOMIST tries to provide readers with concise, to-the-point prose. It seems we have something to learn from Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, whose concurring opinion today in Holt v Hobbs, a religious liberty case involving a Muslim inmate’s beard, came in at 65 words, including references and parentheticals. The justices held unanimously that there is no compelling reason for Arkansas prisons to deny Gregory Holt’s request to wear a half-inch beard, which he regards as his religious duty. Justice Samuel Alito wrote that under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalised Persons Act, Mr Holt can grow his beard. The state’s justifications for shearing Mr Holt’s face against his will—preventing prisoners from hiding contraband like SIM cards and blades in their whiskers and ensuring that prison guards can readily identify inmates—are, in the court’s view, spurious.

Justice Ginsburg signed on to Justice Alito’s opinion but wrote separately to emphasise that Mr Holt’s demand is fundamentally different from the claim put forward in last year’s controversial Burwell v Hobby...Continue reading

Political pantomime

Mar, 20/01/2015 - 22:28

IN 1999 Bill Clinton gave his seventh state of the union address. America’s economy was not just recovering, but in the middle of a decade-long boom. For the first time since the 1960s (and the only time since), the federal budget was in surplus. Mr Clinton himself was not in as good shape—he had not yet been acquitted under his impeachment for the Monica Lewinsky scandal. But he was fighting back, and he could still try to lay out a plan. “We are on course for budget surpluses for the next 25 years”, said the president. “I propose that we make the historic decision to invest the surplus to save Social Security.”

That is the sort of context through which to see Barack Obama’s own seventh state of the union address, which will take place on Capitol Hill this evening. Read now, Mr Clinton’s speech has an impossibly upbeat air that borders on delusional. Indeed, so do many state of the union addresses, especially those given at the end of a presidency, when few presidents have any ability to push through radical legislation....Continue reading

Live-tweeting the speech

Mar, 20/01/2015 - 20:34

PRESIDENT Barack Obama will be delivering his 6th state of the union speech tonight. Though the address comes just as many new Republican Senators and Congressman decorate their offices on Capitol Hill, having taken control of the Senate and held on to the House in the recent midterm elections, the president appears reluctant to play the lame duck. He has used his executive powers to shield millions of migrants from deportation, has started to dismantle the (remarkably ineffective) embargo against Cuba, and has madeContinue reading

Good God

Mar, 20/01/2015 - 17:10

“EVER wondered what would have happened if Eve would have said ‘You need to talk to my husband?’” If the answer is yes, and you think that Adam would have outsmarted Eden’s serpent, you should probably continue reading “Who Told You That You Were Naked?” The 2013 book, by the former chief of Atlanta’s fire department, Kelvin Cochran, lays out his conservative Christian views, defining “uncleanness,” for example, as “whatever is opposite of purity; including sodomy, homosexuality, lesbianism, pederasty, bestiality and all other forms of sexual perversion.”

The book is full of commentary on the tension between depravity and the divine. But in the eyes of Atlanta’s mayor, Kasim Reed, Mr Cochran’s real sin was handing out copies of his self-published tome at work. Though a fire department report into the matter found that no employee “had been treated unfairly by Chief Cochran on the basis of his religious beliefs," it concluded that the book had “compromised the ability of the chief to provide leadership in the future.” First suspended from the fire department in November, Mr Cochran’s dismissal...Continue reading

Jockeying for position

Dom, 18/01/2015 - 20:52

WHILE covering various races in the run up to the midterm election last year, I kept running into Chris Christie, New Jersey’s governor. One week I spied him in Michigan, the next I saw him in Illinois and then I think it was back in Michigan. We could have car-pooled. As head of the Republican Governors Association (RGA), Mr Christie spent a lot of time and money campaigning for his fellow Republicans. The RGA spent $130m on 2014’s elections, including about $14m in Michigan and a whopping $19m in Florida. He helped defend most of the Republican gubernatorial incumbents and even helped win seats in Massachusetts, Maryland and Illinois, all states with voters that lean Democratic (not unlike his home state). Most everywhere he went he was greeted with loud cheers—sometimes louder than the candidate he was campaigning for. Occasionally he was treated like a rock star. The reception he received even in blue states like Illinois made me realise that Bridge-gate—a year-old scandal over lane...Continue reading

The Supremes take the plunge

Sáb, 17/01/2015 - 15:57

TWO decades ago, hardly anyone imagined that gay couples could wed. This year, America's Supreme Court looks ever more likely to declare same-sex marriage to be a constitutional right. On January 16th the court agreed to consider this explosive question, and also the related one of whether states must recognise same-sex marriages performed in other states.

A Sixth Circuit Court decision upholding four state bans on gay nuptials in November is what nudged the justices to jump in. Four earlier circuit court decisions had gone the other way—knocking down gay marriage bans on the basis of US v Windsor, a 2013 case in which the Supremes invalidated the core of Bill...Continue reading

A thickening herd

Vie, 16/01/2015 - 18:26

THE 2016 Republican primary is nearly a year away, but the ground is already thick with contenders. With a State of the State address that sounded like a national campaign speech, an incipient leadership PAC, and travel plans to the Hawkeye State, Chris Christie, New Jersey's governor, looks set to join the fray. He's entering a crowded field. Mitt Romney (pictured), the GOP's failed 2012 champion, appears to be running again. Then there's Jeb Bush, Florida's erstwhile governor and the 43rd president's little brother. Republican primary-goers certainly won't be left wanting for deep-pocketed, establishment-friendly, big-name moderates from which to choose. Of course, there's only so much chamber-of-commmerce campaign cash to go around, and this would seem to create an opening on the Tea-Party...Continue reading

Where should Mr Obama's library go?

Jue, 15/01/2015 - 20:47

“CAN you imagine plonking the Obama library into the middle of Central Park?” If the prospect seems egregious, then you might sympathise with critics of the University of Chicago’s plan to “confiscate” part of the city’s historic Washington Park for a library dedicated to the current president. “The park is unrivalled in America and we are pretending it is the only available site for the library,” complains Charles Birnbaum, the president of the Cultural Landscape Foundation, a non-profit organisation.  

The University of Chicago is one of four institutions competing to be the site of Barack Obama’s library. The other three are the University of Illinois at Chicago, which posted its full proposal for the library on its website, New York City’s Columbia University and the University of...Continue reading

How to be a God

Mié, 14/01/2015 - 21:07

EGYPTIAN gods and Greek heroes recently crowded into an Atlanta theatre for the World Championships of SMITE, an online game that involves, as its name suggests, a lot of smiting. Players can pretend to “Be a God”—and battle other ancient deities with magic hammers, thunderbolts and so forth.  

Inside the theatre a woolly-booted Freya, a Norse colleague of the valkyries, posed for pictures in the serpentine arms of Scylla, a Greek monster. Hades, master of the underworld, struggled to navigate through a thousand-strong crowd with his glowing plastic eyes. And smartly dressed pundits discussed strategy before the two five-man teams in the contest’s final appeared onstage; after five bouts of fighting America’s “Cognitive Prime” eventually defeated Europe’s “Titan”.

Hi Rez Studios, based in Alpharetta, Georgia, released SMITE less than a year ago. It owes its swift rise to the popularity of electronic sports: 206m people around the world watch others cast spells and swing...Continue reading

Cassandra's Catch-22

Mié, 14/01/2015 - 15:57

THE Connecticut Supreme Court has denied a young woman suffering from Hodgkin Lymphoma the right to refuse chemotherapy on the grounds that the 17-year-old lacks the maturity to make such a grave decision. The woman, identified in court documents as "Cassandra C" (pictured), has sought to avoid treatment due to a belief that the chemotherapy will poison her body and leave her permanently damaged. Doctors familiar with her case say that without chemotherapy Cassandra will likely die within two years. Her lawyers argued that Cassandra's refusal of consent ought to fall under the "mature minor doctrine", a widely recognised legal principle that instructs medical providers to honour the consent, or the withholding of consent, of unemancipated minors bright enough to grasp the consequences of their considered decisions about medical treatment. After all, in Connecticut, 17 is considered old enough to donate blood, acquire birth control, seek...Continue reading

Signs, signs, everywhere a sign

Mar, 13/01/2015 - 20:45

ON MONDAY, one day after as many as 2m people turned out in Paris to rally for the freedom of speech in the wake of the gruesome slaughter of French journalists, America's Supreme Court gathered to consider what may be another threat to free speech. The case of Reed et al v Town of Gilbert, however, is somewhat less dramatic. At issue is whether signage regulations in the town of Gilbert, Arizona run afoul of the US Constitution’s First Amendment free-speech guarantee. But while the complaint is fairly quotidian, the case proved vexing. Near the end of the hour-long hearing, an exasperated Justice Stephen Breyer asked, "What is this about, this argument?" 

The case arose in 2007 as a challenge to Gilbert's rules sharply limiting the use of temporary “directional” signs alongside...Continue reading

#Oops

Mar, 13/01/2015 - 05:24

IT MAY have been a coincidence, but it was still highly embarrassing. On January 12th Barack Obama called for new federal laws that would tighten up how students’ personal data is protected and force companies whose systems have been breached to notify their customers promptly. Yet it seems America’s military needs a reminder to keep its own data safe, too. The same day, hackers calling themselves the “CyberCaliphate” briefly took over the Twitter and YouTube channels of the country’s military command that oversees operations in the Middle East.

American officials scrambled to downplay the severity of the attack, with a Pentagon spokesman describing it “as little more than a prank or as vandalism”. Before the channels were shut down by the Americans, the hackers had time to post a few propaganda messages about their “CyberJihad”, including one telling American troops fighting Islamic State’s advance to “watch your back”. They also posted a number of military documents, such as a list of generals and maps that appeared to show maritime defences along China’s coastline and the location of missile sites and nuclear...Continue reading

Rand Paul's troubled triangulation

Lun, 12/01/2015 - 18:24

RAND PAUL, the junior senator from Kentucky, is probably running for president. In very early polls, Mr Paul is running fourth in a crowded field of potential contenders, lagging behind Jeb Bush, Chris Christie and Paul Ryan. He faces an uphill climb and, as the son of the former libertarian-ish Texas congressman and perennial presidential candidate, Ron Paul, he faces some unique challenges. In order to become a viable candidate for the Republican nomination, Mr Paul needs to draw in a significant portion of his father's unusually enthusiastic supporters, to whom he owes his political existence, while appealing simultaneously to mainline Republican voters, to whom the elder Paul's anti-interventionist foreign policy is anathema. It's a tough trick, and it is doubtful Mr Paul will be able to strike the necessary balance. That said, in Mr Paul's Thursday comments on Sean...Continue reading

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