Category Archives: Politics and Politicians Gone Awry

Do Government Leaders Think We Are All Terrorists?

The recent national security debate in Congress over renewal of the Patriot Act was more about the constitution and individual freedom (not to mention presidential politics) than it was about the threat of terrorism.

One of the more interesting – if not convoluted – congressional debates in recent history dominated the Senate last week. At stake was the expiration of key parts of the USA Patriot Act. Driven by the heat and passion of the time, the Act was written, debated, passed by Congress and signed into law by President George W. Bush, less than six weeks after the 911 attack.

The stated purpose of the law was to give government the tools necessary to provide security against future terrorist acts. But this hastily drafted and complicated legislation patriot-actcontains over 1,000 different sections, making it doubtful that many Congressmen or Senators and even fewer constituents read or understood the scope of the law and the broad powers granted to the government. Moreover, even if you didn’t know all the legislative minutia the law entailed, how could anyone be against fighting terrorism or against any flag-waving legislation labeled a “patriot” act?

The seeds for last week’s debate were planted when the law was passed. At that time, enough members of Congress were concerned about the potentially abusive powers this precedent-setting act vested in the executive branch of the government and wisely enacted a provision that it would expire after 10 years. But in 2011 President Obama signed a new law extending the key provisions of the Patriot Act for another four years. It was the imminent expiration (June 1) of these key sections of the act that embroiled Congress in the current debate.

Despite the concerns of some, what most in government expected (wanted) was an unquestioning part-and-parcel rubber-stamp renewal of the Patriot Act; what it got instead was a rancorous party-splitting debate. After six years of spiteful acrimony it was surreal to witness President Obama and Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell joined at the hip, pushing the legislation along. Maybe even more bizarre was to see liberal Democrats coming together with Tea Party Republicans in Congress to support extension of the Patriot Act.

The threat of an imminent catastrophic terrorist attack – maybe even greater than 911 – was used by those in favor of the Patriot Act renewal to cloak the debate in a discussion of national security and in an effort to intimidate those who opposed the most intrusive elements of the security law. The arguments of those who favored renewal were simple: They were interested only in protecting the safety and security of Americans against terrorist attack. On the other hand, those who wanted to reign in the most intrusive sections of the Patriot Act, such as the unrestrained NSA collection of “bulk data” on every American, argued that this activity was an unwarranted invasion of privacy and a fundamental violation of the fourth amendment (a guarantee of privacy and unreasonable search and seizure) to the Constitution.

By far the most interesting irony in the debate was the position taken by so many Republicans. Those in the Republican Party position themselves as great stalwarts against the evils of big government and any infringement on individual freedoms. Yet here was the vast majority of Republicans pushing for bigger government and increased government involvement in the lives of all Americans. And it was surprising how vociferous was their condemnation of the few fellow Republicans who were against renewal of the Patriot Act. Correct me if my logic fails, but I just don’t see how the Republican call for adding thousands of government workers to spy on Americans, significantly increasing military spending and becoming militarily involved in new wars around the world is the recipe for a smaller government.

Is It Abuse Of Power If The Law Grants The Power To Abuse Power?

Legality aside, it was the release of millions of secret government documents by WikiLeaks and Edward Snowden that complicated the rubberstamp renewal of the Patriot Act. When these previously secret documents reached the light of day they offered clear evidence that under the guise of national security the government abused the powers granted in the Patriot Act to commit illegal acts and violate the constitutional rights of all Americans. (This raises an interesting philosophical question: Is it a crime to expose a crime?)

The debate over the renewal of certain sections of the Patriot Act became rancorous because, after 14 years of living under its provisions, people had become aware of, and concerned about, the government’s rampant and secret abuse of the powers granted by the act and the resultant threat to basic individual rights and privacy. Although few citizens are knowledgeable about Section 215 of the law, they chafed at its result that allowed the government to collect and store any and all private electronic communications of all Americans, with no probable cause or transparent court authority.

Let’s Understand What We Are Talking About Here

The real debate – or at least it should be – is not about elements of the Patriot Act, but about the conflicting choice between a desire for freedom and a need for security. Which 911_attacksis more important – freedom or security? Freedom and security are both positive elements, but like the positive poles of magnets, they repel each other. The more freedom desired the less security that must be accepted. The more security that is desired the more freedom that must be sacrificed.

Those who wholeheartedly support the Patriot Act argue that some loss of privacy, individual freedom and unconstitutional acts are justified in the name of increased security needed to prevent a terrorist attack. Others argue that any acts that erode – even in the slightest way – privacy, individual freedoms and the rights granted in the Constitution begin a journey down a path that would ultimately do more damage to America than any terrorist attack.

There can be some reasoned and responsible balance between freedom and security, but it is a discussion that must be open and transparent. The fundamental problem with the Patriot Act is that it grants to the government, rather than the people and the constitution, the power to decide the balance between freedom and security—and to do so in secret.

What Are We – Frogs?

What is most disconcerting about the Patriot Act debate over freedom vs. security is that once we accept the premise that giving up even a small bit of our privacy, individual rights and Constitutional protections in the name of national security, we start down a road that goes only one way.

You know the story of boiling frogs. It is said that if you put a frog in a pot of boiling Frog-in-Boiling-Waterwater, it will jump out. But if you place the frog in warm water and then gradually bring the water to a boil, the frog will contentedly accept its fate. Our current government leaders may be well-intended in their focus on protecting Americans from the terrorist threat. But when the price to be paid for this security is the gradual erosion of privacy and Constitutional rights, we have to ask ourselves and our leaders whether it is worth the risk of what could happen in the future. Today’s leaders may be good, honest people, but what if the leaders of tomorrow are not?

Giving any government the power to be abusive is an invitation for that government to be abusive. It all comes down to asking: Is security against the possibility of terrorist attacks worth the risk of gradually giving up freedoms that could lead to tyranny (and loss of all freedoms) in the future? And if you don’t think that could happen, just ask the frog.

Why Do They Call it the “Silent Primary”?

Because there is a lot they don’t want you to know or hear.

You may not realize it, but even though the next national election is still more than a year and a half away, a virtual gaggle of candidates is already attempting to get made-up, made-over and primped (some even pimping) for the next scheduled beauty pageant we call a presidential election.

Just look at the lineup: Scott Walker, Jeb Bush, Mike Huckabee, Rand Paul, Chris Christie, Ted Cruz, Ben Carson, Lindsey Graham, Rick Super PacsPerry, Marco Rubio, Rick Santorum, Bobby Jindal, George Pataki, Sam Brownback, Carly Fiorina and Donald Trump. And what do they all have in common? They have all declared that they are “exploring” a campaign for the Republican nomination for president. So far, the list of potential Democratic presidential candidates is a bit shorter, with only Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden and maybe Elizabeth Warren in the discussion. (As I have written before, the Republicans are always more fun.)

The story we are supposed to believe is that all these potential candidates – especially the ones bearing Republican credentials – are focused on the much-ballyhooed primary season that starts with the Iowa caucuses next January. In this string of primaries from January to June, voters of both the Republican and Democratic parties are supposedly able to select their candidate for president. But it is a sham. It is stagecraft made-up to look like Jeffersonian democracy at work.

The reality is that the real primary election is already underway. It’s happening right now. And it is called the “silent primary” for good reason: It is a primary to which we are not invited to participate. It is a primary in which only huge corporations and the mightiest of the mighty wealthy are allowed to vote.

Unlike millions who will traipse to the polls for next year’s primaries, there may be less than 50 voters in this “silent primary.” But these elite voters will determine among themselves who the rest of us will be allowed to vote for next year. The ballots in this silent primary are paper, paper money, which is counted in multiple millions of dollars. The only “exploring” these 16 would-be candidates will do is to identify how many millions of dollars are pledged to them by corporations and the super-wealthy.

This so-called “silent primary” is the residue of the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision that declared corporations and the uber-wealthy were free to contribute unlimited amounts of money to a candidate. The general issue in the Citizens United case was the corrupting power of money in politics. The Supreme Court took the narrow position that money itself is not corrupting. The Court ruled that for corruption to be present there must be a quid pro quo such as specific promise to do something, i.e. a bribe. This opened the door for corporations and the wealthy to give as much money as they desired. And this created the “Super PAC” so donors could avoid the appearance of a bribe, by giving the money to a group that, in theory, the candidate does not control.

As a result, all these would-be candidates for president are scurrying around the country trying to curry the favor of these obscenely wealthy contributors. The meetings are held in secret, so who knows what is being said or promised?

Who Are These Super PAC Donors?

It has been estimated that there are about 50 billionaires and near-billionaires that organize and “vote” in this “silent primary.” Among them and the Super PACs they support, it is projected that well over one billion dollars will be raised and spent to support the winner of their own personal private primary. You can get a glimpse of which organizations and individuals donate to the Super PAC honey pot here.

For any candidate the “silent primary” is the first and most important primary of all; all the other “real primaries” are simply window dressing. If you as a candidate don’t find favor in the private “silent primary” of Super PAC donors, then for all intents and purposes your campaign is over before the big show — the public primary —  even begins.

As evidence of this, it has been reported by the media that Chris Christie, who was the early odds-on favorite for the Republican presidential nomination is losing the “silent primary” and his star is fading. Mitt Romney considered another run for president, but when an early survey of the “silent primary” voters was taken, finding little support, he abandoned his effort. We may agree or disagree with either Christie or Romney, but we will never be allowed to freely express our viewpoint because those controlling the “silent primary” have already spoken for us.

The Supreme Court may have been well intended, but the justices were just plain wrong. By defining corruption as only existing in the case of a specific bribe agreement, the Court effectively fertilized the real corruption in politics, the influence of virtually unlimited amounts of money.

The consequence of this new world of post-Citizens United politics, is that fewer than 50 people can decide who millions of voters can or cannot vote for in an election. All these wealthy donors and their Super PACs use their money and influence to determine (in secret) just who the rest of us will have the opportunity to actually vote for; as if we had a real choice.

The reality is that unless a candidate does well in the “silent primary” (it should be called the “pecuniary primary”) they will lack the funds necessary for a campaign in the modern world of politics. And this robs the rest of us of the real chance to participate in democracy. Thanks to the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United a new type of democracy is emerging in this country; what we could call a “silent democracy.” It is a system that is silent, because much like the “democracy” in Russia and China, everyone gets to vote, but who they get to vote for is determined by the power of a few that is far beyond the average person’s power to control.

If we continue to accept a democracy that condones decisions made in a “silent primary,” we will soon find our rights to a true democracy silenced.

E-Mails, Hillary and You

A lesson for all leaders: Sometimes doing the right thing can be undone by doing it the wrong way. 

For the past couple of weeks the circus spotlight of politics has been played on Hillary Clinton’s use of a private e-mail system while she served as Secretary of State. Apparently she didn’t want to use the free one at work, so she and Bill just got one of their own and commingled yoga appointments with affairs of state. Of course the Republicans went ballistic, viewing this private e-mail system as some type of nefarious secret plot on the part of Hillary.

gty_hillary_clinton_jc_150311_16x9_992Did it surprise you at all that some of the Republican senators who were the most vociferous in their attacks on the Clinton e-mail system admitted they didn’t know what e-mail is and had never sent one? On a related front, maybe the 47 Republican senators would have been better off using a private e-mail for their letter to the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei; rather than releasing it to FOX News.

But I digress. The public exposure of Hillary’s private e-mail system does raise some legitimate issues and questions. (It should be noted that the Republicans in Congress were apprised of this private e-mail system over two years ago, when Hillary turned over e-mails dealing with the Benghazi attack.) Since Clinton was conducting sensitive government activity, it is appropriate to question the security of her e-mail system. Were there communications that should have been disclosed or at least properly cataloged and preserved? Was it even legal for a high government official to use this type of private e-mail system?

In addition, the idea of a secret e-mail system resurrects and reinforces the 20-year pattern of the Clintons being less than transparent in their personal and public activities. Going back to the 1992 Whitewater scandal, all the way up to current questions about the Clinton Foundation, the Clintons seem to have had a phobia about transparency; they have released information only when forced to do so. In fairness, no wrongdoing by the Clintons (except for one minor indiscretion by Bill) has ever been shown, but this lack of openness has created the perception of shady or even illegal activity.

The same can be said regarding the current Hillary e-mail brouhaha. Hilary’s response to “e-mailgate” was late in coming and her rationale (“it was more convenient than having two phones”) has been a bit muddled and weak. Equally telling was Clinton’s comment that if she had to do it over again, she would have taken a different approach. What emerges from that confession is that Hillary may have been guilty of poor judgment, but not of violating the law. No matter how she responds though, she is still vulnerable to the accusation that she must be hiding something.

A Lesson To Learn

There is an important lesson to learn here for anyone in leadership. The reality is that people – especially critics – respond less to what a leader does than how they do it. A leader can be more successful when the focus is on what they are doing, rather than how they are doing it. But for that to happen, leaders must be transparent and willing to accept candid advice from others.

Individuals rise above others to become leaders by exhibiting commitment, talent and effort. Unfortunately, as the position and power of the leader increases, there are fewer and fewer brave souls who are willing to question or challenge their ideas and actions. This unwillingness to question the leader may be good for their ego, but it strips them of the protection they need against doing what should not be done or doing what should be done the wrong way.

It is telling to note that in referring to the private e-mail issue, Clinton said, “It would have been better if I had simply used a second e-mail account … but at the time, this didn’t seem like an issue.” This means that Clinton did not think the issue through; not surprising considering all the other responsibilities she had at the time. It means she did not ask, “What will this action look like when it becomes public.” It also showed that she was either not seeking or not listening to advice from others. This is a trap the individuals in positions of leadership and power often fall prey to.

There is a progression in leadership that if not forcefully resisted, can result in the failure of even the strongest leaders. Early in the tenure of leadership there is a willingness to be open to a wide range of ideas and even constructive criticism. But as experience is gained, especially if that experience is one of success, there is a tendency for the leader to narrow the opening that allows divergent ideas or suggestions to enter into the mix of the leader’s thinking and acting.

This disconnect begins small but becomes compounded as the power of the leader increases and there are fewer and fewer people willing – or even allowed – to offer unembellished opinions to the leader. So either because they have succumbed to their own feeling of invincibility or the power structure has choked off divergent ideas, the leader becomes more and more isolated with his/her thoughts.

Moreover, experience and success can tempt the leader to believe they have all the answers, but yielding to that temptation is the ultimate death knell of effective leadership. And often a leader (think of Hillary Clinton and Richard Nixon here) will come to believe their mission and work is so important that they have the right to use any means to accomplish it and others will be castigated as not supportive if they question how or why the leaders do what they do.

Avoiding the “Big Man” Trap

The only way for a leader to avoid falling prey to the false invincibility of “knowing it all” is to make sure that there are always those close by who are not only allowed, but encouraged to question and challenge – not the ideas of the imagesleader—but the tactics and strategy used to achieve the objective. The leader must have enough confidence in their ability to say to others, “Look I know I’m good. You don’t have to tell me that. What I need from you is to tell me when I am off base.” In effect, a leader needs a “burr under the saddle” that will constantly question tactics and give perspective as to how actions may appear to others.

Those who serve in such roles are not malcontents or complainers. To the contrary, they may not have their own ideas for accomplishing the objective. Indeed, it works best if the individual questioning and challenging the leader has no personal axe to grind. Their value is to view the issue from a different perspective and to question and constructively challenge what has been proposed. This forces the leader to at least consider other actions and options to achieve the objective.

There is another benefit for the leader when they are always open to contrary viewpoints on tactics and strategy. Leaders will be identified as being different from others, and this builds a real bond of appreciation and loyalty from those who work for them. The followers appreciate the opportunity to have their viewpoint heard – without recrimination – and to be appreciated as offering value in the process. Invariably this creates a loyalty to the leader and a sincere desire to help the leader be successful.

And the Moral of the Story …

In the perspective of all that is actually important in the world, the fact that Hillary Clinton used a private e-mail system when serving as Secretary of State is a proverbial gnat on an elephant’s ass. As it turned out Hillary complied with the letter of the law, but did not have the sensitivity to recognize the spirit of the law. The current situation would never have emerged if someone close to her had been charged with and allowed to ask the question: “What will this look like if the private e-mail system becomes public?” If, at the start, Clinton had openly disclosed the system and allowed the State Department to install systems and procedures to monitor it, there never would have been an issue.

But this is a good lesson not just for the elite and powerful in politics, it’s a good lesson for any leader. The aura of authority and the typical corporate structure creates a “core of power” that by its nature suppresses diversity of ideas, challenge and criticism. The presence and freedom of those who can question and challenge tactics and action may at times be frustrating and an irritant for leaders, but they perform a very important function. As a leader, you may never know how many bad decisions such an open environment will prevent, but it will make all your decisions better.