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And We’re Off!

Thursday March 26, 2015

Countdown Vol. 13, No. 8

 

Ted Cruz-ing for a Bruising

Tea Party luminary Ted Cruz charismatically launched his bid for the presidency this week. And boy, the champion Princeton debater raised the bar high for those who will follow, even if he did immediately hit his head on that very same bar upon resuming his Senatorial duties. From the pulpit preaching (with no teleprompter!), to the promise making, and the questionable technology using – Ted Cruz put together quite a show for the 10,000 Liberty University students who were required to attend. And the show didn’t lack in style, substance, pandering, or country music. Somehow, Cruz even got the crowd to cheer for policies they probably don’t even support – like shutting down our immigration system. But Cruz also played to the obvious. With 3 years of experience in elected office and no prior experience in foreign policy, Cruz boldly said what all Republicans say in one way or another, “imagine a President who unapologetically stands with Israel.” This line, more than any other, received an extended applause from the evangelical student body. Because even though the Republican party might be poised to tear itself apart on the road to their primary, Israel has solidified as the one issue that unequivocally unites the Tea Party rebels and the GOP stalwarts. And there is no room for dissent or nuance on that front – just ask Jim Baker.

I Want Your Help But…

Former Secretary of State James Baker drew ire from the likes of Bill Kristol and others over his keynote address to the J Street gala this week. Sec. Baker, one of the foreign policy advisers on Jeb Bush's potential 2016 campaign team, said he has been "disappointed with the lack of progress regarding a lasting peace" and following Benjamin Netanyahu's reelection and reversals "the chance of a two-state solution seems even slimmer." Sec. Baker also expressed support for the Obama administration's negotiations with Iran. Earlier, during the J Street Conference, White House Chief of Staff Dennis McDonough said the 50-year occupation "must end," and "the Palestinian people must have the right to live in and govern themselves in their own sovereign state." Hoping to distance themselves from Baker's remarks and any perceived association with J Street, a spokesperson said Jeb Bush respects Baker but "disagrees with the sentiments expressed" and "opposes J Street's advocacy." Bush wrote in the National Journal yesterday, hoping to express his ironclad support for the Jewish State. He called Israeli settlement construction in Arab East Jerusalem "new apartment buildings," and faulted President Obama for not sufficiently congratulating foreign leader Benjamin Netanyahu on his election win. He then inexplicably criticized President Obama for insisting that "Israel make concessions just to get the Palestinian leaders to the negotiating table." Jeb doesn't seem to understand how negotiations work. Palestinians have been conceding their land—against their will—to illegal Israeli settlement expansion for half a century. The U.S. as the not-quite-so-honest-broker, asking their no-light-between-us Israeli ally to make "concessions" is a very small ask in terms of the potential of getting serious negotiations under way that would greatly stabilize both Israel and the Palestinian State amidst a very turbulent Middle East.

Nowhere to Go

With the Syrian civil war entering its fifth year and no foreseeable end in sight, Syria’s four million refugees continue to languish in limbo in formal and informal camps. In her testimony last week before the House Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Anne Patterson reiterated continued support for moderate opposition forces within the country and Syria’s beleaguered neighbors—but spoke nothing of plans for the resettlement of Syrian refugees. Since the start of the conflict in 2011, the U.S. has accepted only 584 Syrian refugees. The international community’s response remains inadequate and the situation continues to get worse with 49 percent of Syrian refugee children out of school, thousands risking their lives attempting to cross the Mediterranean to reach European shores, and four decades of development undone in four years. When the State Department announced an increase in the amount of Syrians that would be resettled within the U.S., some expressed security concerns. It is disconcerting that some policy makers suddenly do not have confidence in the very system of vetting that they have funded and helped construct. For a nation that has in its long history welcomed thousands of the world’s tired, poor, and huddled masses, our hesitancy and inaction speaks volumes.

SPOTting Deficiencies

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA)’s Screening Passengers by Observation Technique (SPOT) program may be one the best examples of bureaucratic wastefulness and inefficacy from a government agency. The SPOT program is an inadequate, outmoded, and discriminatory Israeli counter-terrorism practice that uses behavior detection officers to identify travelers who exhibit suspicious behaviors. For years, the uselessness of the SPOT program has been public knowledge; the federal government’s principle oversight branch, the Government Accountability Office, found that there is no evidence that suggests that the SPOT program works and recommended that it be undone. Since the program’s inception in 2007, the TSA has invested more than $1 billion dollars into a program that has largely been an ineffective use of resources. Plus, in its 8 years of existence the SPOT program has normalized the use of profiling by TSA agents. Thankfully, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) recently filed a lawsuit against the TSA to compellingly demonstrate that the TSA cannot defend its investment in and continued use of the SPOT program. The SPOT program, along with the Department of Justice’s revised Guidance on the Use of Race by Federal Law Enforcement Agencies, reveals that the federal government continues to institutionalize the use of discriminatory practices to defend our national security. In reality, these programs do not bolster our national security; they reveal the critical need to address the status of civil rights in the U.S.  

‘If you solve something, say something’

“Samir’s an Iranian and a Muslim, so our work is already half done.” That’s how your target is introduced to you in the iPhone app TouchTone. In the game you take on the role of an NSA Analyst, solving puzzles to get to intercepted emails and making assessments as to whether their contents hint at a threat to national security.  The more messages you read, the more uneasy you become, forcing players to confront some of the most problematic aspects of the NSA’s practices – including the targeting of Arab Americans and American Muslims. The release of the game coincided with the unveiling of a new effort for NSA reform on the Hill. Tuesday, Reps. Mark Pocan (D-WI) and Thomas Massie (R-KY) introduced the Surveillance State Repeal Act (SSRA). The SSRA represents the most aggressive NSA reform proposal to date. It seeks to repeal the Patriot Act, the FISA Amendments Act, and widely reform the way our government collects and uses data. It would also extend protections for whistleblowers and prevent the practice of forcing tech companies to create “backdoors” in their devices. You know our take on this, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise to hear that we’re supporters of the SSRA. But you shouldn’t get your hopes up yet. The bill’s sponsors are mainly hoping to help shape debate ahead of the June 1 expiration date for the provision of the Patriot Act that allows for mass phone metadata collection. The White House stated yesterday that they would not pursue a continuation of the program should the provision expire, so while we might not get a full repeal of the Patriot Act, we can at least hope to chip away at a portion of the practices that threaten our civil liberties.

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