The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

Pile-up on the Link Highway

I was busy today, and apparently so was everyone else:

I'm sure there was other news today. But this is what I have open in my browser for reading later on.

The Fifth Risk

"You'll never guess where I am," he said archly.

As I mentioned yesterday, I'm here to see the last team on my list play a home game. More on that tomorrow, as I probably won't blog about it after the game tonight.

I'm killing time and not wandering the streets of a city I don't really like in 33°C heat. Downtown St Louis has very little life that I can see. As I walked from the train to the hotel, I kept thinking it was Saturday afternoon, explaining why no one was around. Nope; no one was around because the city ripped itself apart after World War II and flung all its people into the suburbs.

On the train from Chicago I read all but the last two pages of Michael Lewis's most recent book, The Fifth Risk. The book examines what happens when the people in charge of the largest organization in the world have no idea how it works, starting with the 2016 election and going through last summer. To do that, Lewis explains what that organization actually does, from predicting the weather to making sure we don't all die of smallpox.

From the lack of any transition planning to an all-out effort to obscure the missions of vital government departments for profit, Lewis describes details of the Trump Administration's fleecing of American taxpayers that have probably eluded most people. By putting AccuWeather CEO Barry Myers in control of the National Weather Service, for example, Trump gave the keys to petabytes of data collected at taxpayer expense and available for free to everyone on earth to the guy who wants you to pay for it. Along the way, Lewis introduces us to people like DJ Patil, the United States' first Chief Data Scientist and the guy who found and put online for everyone those petabytes of weather data:

"The NOAA webpage used to have a link to weather forecasts," [Patil] said. "It was highly, highly popular. I saw it had been buried. And I asked: Now, why would they bury that?" Then he realized: the man Trump nominated to run NOAA thought that people who wanted a weather forecast should pay him for it. There was a rift in American life that was now coursing through American government. It wasn't between Democrats and Republicans. It was between the people who were in it for the mission, and the people who were in it for the money. (190-191)

I recommend this book almost as much as I recommend not coming to St Louis when it's this hot. Go buy it.

Loose lips sink ships

Remember back in May 2017, barely a couple of months in office, when the president bragged to the Russian Foreign Secretary about some intelligence we'd developed on ISIS in Syria? That disclosure resulted in a dangerous and expensive mission to exfiltrate one of our highest-level assets within the Russian government:

The decision to carry out the extraction occurred soon after a May 2017 meeting in the Oval Office in which Trump discussed highly classified intelligence with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and then-Russian Ambassador to the US Sergey Kislyak. The intelligence, concerning ISIS in Syria, had been provided by Israel.

The disclosure to the Russians by the President, though not about the Russian spy specifically, prompted intelligence officials to renew earlier discussions about the potential risk of exposure, according to the source directly involved in the matter.

At the time, then-CIA Director Mike Pompeo told other senior Trump administration officials that too much information was coming out regarding the covert source, known as an asset. An extraction, or "exfiltration" as such an operation is referred to by intelligence officials, is an extraordinary remedy when US intelligence believes an asset is in immediate danger.

Weeks after the decision to extract the spy, in July 2017, Trump met privately with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G20 summit in Hamburg and took the unusual step of confiscating the interpreter's notes. Afterward, intelligence officials again expressed concern that the President may have improperly discussed classified intelligence with Russia, according to an intelligence source with knowledge of the intelligence community's response to the Trump-Putin meeting.

Knowledge of the Russian covert source's existence was highly restricted within the US government and intelligence agencies. According to one source, there was "no equal alternative" inside the Russian government, providing both insight and information on Putin.

So is he a Russian asset or just a useful idiot? What difference does that make, anyway?

Second look at the federal electors story

In the articles I linked earlier today, one noted at 10th Circuit decision about so-called "faithless electors:"

The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Tuesday that the Colorado secretary of state violated the Constitution in 2016 when he removed an elector and nullified his vote because the elector refused to cast his ballot for Democrat Hillary Clinton, who won the popular vote.

The Electoral College system is established in the Constitution. When voters cast a ballot for president, they are actually choosing members of the Electoral College, called electors, who are pledged to that presidential candidate. The electors then choose the president.

Electors almost always vote for the popular vote winner, and some states have laws requiring them to do so.

But the split decision by a three-judge panel on the Denver appeals court said the Constitution allows electors to cast their votes at their own discretion. "The state does not possess countervailing authority to remove an elector and to cancel his vote in response to the exercise of that Constitutional right," the ruling said.

Colorado's current secretary of state, Jena Griswold, decried the ruling Tuesday in Colorado but did not immediately say if she would appeal.

"This court decision takes power from Colorado voters and sets a dangerous precedent," she said. "Our nation stands on the principle of one person, one vote."

Except that the Constitution doesn't. Instead, it says that the states choose their electors, and the electors vote for president. The entire point of that system is to remove the people from the equation entirely. To have the people choose the president would require a Constitutional amendment, which will never happen, for the simple reason that the states who would lose their disproportionate power in selecting the president would have to vote for the amendment.

What we can say, however, is that the American Left hates the Electoral College right now. This has more to do with the rightward shift of small states than any actual policy differences, of course. But twice in the last 20 years, the winner of the popular vote lost the electoral vote. In both cases the popular winner was a Democrat, and the electoral winner a hard-right Republican.

Unfortunately, the system is working as designed. It's supposed to give disproportionate power to smaller, more-agricultural states. In one of history's ironies, New Jersey proposed having each state get one vote in Congress. Today, New Jersey is 100% urban, according to the Census Bureau, and Wyoming has the most power per person in the country. (Let me tell you how happy I am that a bunch of old, white ranchers has almost 8 times my voting power per person in the Senate and about double my power in the Electoral College.)

I also found it interesting that the dissenting judge in the case would have held that the electors simply had no standing to sue, because the court could grant them no relief. I'm glad the other two let the case go forward. And I'm interested to see if it makes a difference in 2020.

Law professor explains how Mueller proved a conspiracy

Fordham Law School professor Jed Handelsman Shugerman says Attorney General Robert Barr got it exactly backwards:

The Mueller report, holding itself to the higher standard, concluded that it did not find proof beyond a reasonable doubt of criminal conspiracy with Russia. It also offered an explanation: Lies by individuals associated with the Trump campaign “materially impaired the investigation of Russian election interference.” Witnesses deleted emails and used applications with encryption or deletion functions, which also thwarted fact-finding. Part II of the report on obstruction explains why Part I may have fallen short of such a high burden.

Mr. Barr had the analysis backward in his summary letter. The failure to prove an underlying crime does not mean there was no obstruction. The obstruction meant that it became impossible to know whether there was a conspiracy beyond a reasonable doubt — and it impeded the Russian investigation. Mr. Barr then used that doubt to question whether there was the corrupt intent required by obstruction statutes. To the contrary, the preponderance of conspiracy evidence confirms the corrupt intent.

This conduct by President Trump, his son and his campaign manager and deputy campaign manager are probably civil violations of coordination for enforcement by the F.E.C. Presidents should not be impeached for civil election violations, but one should still be able to conclude that Mr. Mueller established coordination with the Russian government as a factual matter. And it may have been so egregious that it was a “high misdemeanor,” and the obstruction was not faithful execution of the law, especially in light of new historical evidence of its meaning.

Meanwhile, the machinery of congressional investigation churns along...

Oops, pardon me!

This morning two bad things happened to convicted felon and all-around slimy guy Paul Manafort. First, he got sentenced to another 47 months in jail as a result of his second conviction:

In [Federal] court Wednesday, Judge Amy Berman Jackson criticized Manafort and his defense attorneys for repeatedly blaming his hard fall from power on his decision to work for Trump, which attracted the attention of the special counsel investigating Russian interference in that campaign.

“This defendant is not public enemy number one, but he’s also not a victim either,” Jackson said. “There’s no question this defendant knew better, and he knew exactly what he was doing.”

The question of whether anyone in Donald Trump’s campaign “conspired or colluded with” the Russian government “was not presented in this case,” she said, so for Manafort’s attorneys to emphasize that no such collusion was proved, she said, is “a non-sequitur.”

Just minutes later, a state grand jury in New York indicted Manafort on 16 felony counts that could keep him in prison for the rest of his life:

The new state charges against Mr. Manafort are contained in a 16-count indictment that alleges a yearlong scheme in which he falsified business records to obtain millions of dollars in loans, [Manhattan district attorney Cyrus] Vance said in a news release after the federal sentencing.

“No one is beyond the law in New York,” he said, adding that the investigation by the prosecutors in his office had “yielded serious criminal charges for which the defendant has not been held accountable.”

The indictment grew out of an investigation that began in 2017, when the Manhattan prosecutors began examining loans Mr. Manafort received from two banks.

Remember, whatever clemency Manafort could get under the President's pardon power, that power does not extend to state crimes. The same goes with related state-level investigations into the Trump Organization and the president himself that appear to have started within multiple New York law-enforcement agencies.

Josh Marshall has written often that the Trump Organization's business "would never survive first contact with law enforcement." As anyone who has followed Donald Trump's career over the year knows, this is axiom. And it is happening.

Mapping the 2016 election

The New York Times has published an interactive map showing the 2016 presidential election results at the precinct level. Generally, precincts are the smallest unit of reporting electoral data, often with just a few hundred people in them. My precinct, for example, has just over 1,000 residents and occupies less than 6 hectares.

A companion article breaks down how most of the precincts overwhelmingly went to one or the other candidate. Mine, for example, had 613 votes for Hillary Clinton and just 40 for Donald Trump. (And I'm wondering who the 40 could possibly be.)

The map we published also offers two bits of additional context to help you think about the 2016 vote.

First, we give you a measure of how the area around a precinct compares with other areas. That measure is based on the choices of the nearest 100,000 voters, as well as those within a 10-mile radius.

Second, we tell you how long it would take you to drive, without traffic, to the nearest precinct that voted for the other candidate of a major party. By these measures, for example, the area around the Times headquarters in Manhattan had a higher share of Clinton voters than 96 percent of the country, and the nearest Trump precinct, in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, is a 36-minute drive away.

It's total Daily Parker bait, of course.

Plain old paper can make our elections more secure

Via Bruce Schneier, Michael Chertoff and Grover Norquist (of all people) explain in the Washington Post how we can make our elections more secure:

It should also be no surprise that hackers have U.S. voting systems in their sights. They’re a relatively easy target. Researchers have studied a range of electronic voting infrastructure — including touch screens, optical scanner systems and registration databases — and found serious vulnerabilities that could allow even moderately sophisticated attackers to pose threats to voting integrity. This year, about 40 states are set to use electronic voting or tabulation systems that are more than a decade old — many of which run on software that’s too old to be serviced with vendor security patches. A survey of nearly 300 election officials in 28 states found that a clear majority report needing new voting systems.

We believe there is a framework to secure our elections that can win bipartisan support, minimize costs to taxpayers and respect the constitutional balance between state and federal authorities in managing elections. In September, Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), who chairs the conservative House Freedom Caucus, introduced legislation that would help solve the problem with an elegantly simple fix: paper ballots. Meadows’s Paper Act would authorize cost-sharing with states for the replacement of insecure electronic systems with those that produce a voter-verified physical record. The bill also lays the groundwork for states to regularly implement risk-limiting audits — procedures that check a small random sample of paper records to quickly and affordably provide high assurance that an election outcome was correct.

Of course, the Trump administration has no interest in returning people's faith in the elections process. Like authoritarians everywhere, they benefit from FUD. So it's interesting seeing Chertoff and Norquist taking a position I completely agree with.

Travel day; link round-up

I'm heading back to the East Coast tonight to continue research for my current project, so my time today is very constrained. I hope I remember to keep these browser windows open for the plane:

So much to do today...and then a short, relaxing, upgraded flight to BWI.

How to destroy democracy through bad software

Via Bruce Schneier, last week the hacker convention DefCon hosted an event at which every single electronic voting machine tested got pwned within minutes:

Also, organizers revealed that many of these machines arrived with their voter records intact, sold on by county voting authorities who hadn't wiped them first.

While many people at the Voter Hacking Village zeroed in on the weak mechanical lock covering access to the machine's USB port, Synack worked on two open USB ports right on the back. No lock picking was necessary.

The team plugged in a mouse and a keyboard -- which didn't require authentication -- and got out of the voting software to standard Windows XP just by pressing "control-alt-delete." The same thing you do to force close a program can be used to hack an election.

Remember, Russian interference in the 2016 election wasn't designed to throw the election to Trump (though that was a "nice to have" for them), it was designed to reduce the public's faith in the entire Democratic system. I'm glad American voting machine manufacturers are helping them.