CRF Blog


by Bill Hayes

USAFacts is a non-profit that compiles government data to make it more understandable. Established by former Microsoft CEO Steve Balmer, USAFacts “is a new data-driven portrait of the American population, our government’s finances, and government’s impact on society.”

Poison In The System

by Bill Hayes

Buzzfeed has conducted a series of investigations on allegations of Kremlin-inspired murders in Britain. The series has four parts:

Part One: Poison In The System

Part Two: From Russia With Blood

Part Three: The Man Who Knew Too Much

Part Four: The Secrets Of The Spy In The Bag

The following is from Part One:

The British government is suppressing explosive intelligence that Alexander Perepilichnyy, a financier who exposed a vast financial crime by Russian government officials, was likely assassinated on the direct orders of Vladimir Putin.

Perepilichnyy, who faced repeated threats after fleeing to Britain, was found dead outside his home in Surrey after returning from a mysterious trip to Paris in 2012. Despite an expert detecting signs of a fatal plant poison in his stomach, the British police have insisted there was no evidence of foul play, and Theresa May’s government has invoked national security powers to withhold evidence from the inquest into his cause of death – which is ongoing.

But an investigation by BuzzFeed News has now obtained fresh evidence that the authorities have deliberately sidelined, and has uncovered how Perepilichnyy spent his last days in Paris. Secret documents and interviews with more than a dozen current and former intelligence and law enforcement officials in the US, France, and the UK reveal:

US spies said they have passed MI6 high-grade intelligence indicating that Perepilichnyy was likely “assassinated on direct orders from Putin or people close to him” and lambasted the British police for their “botched” investigation.

A highly classified report on Russian state assassinations compiled for the US Congress by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence last year asserts with “high confidence” that Perepilichnyy’s murder was sanctioned by Putin, Russia’s president.

French police are treating the financier’s death as a suspected organised assassination – but say they have been repeatedly stonewalled by their British counterparts.

Perepilichnyy travelled to Paris before his death for a secret assignation with a 22-year-old Ukrainian woman named Elmira Medynska, who gave an exclusive interview to BuzzFeed News, but who British and French police never spoke to. [more]

The Exquisitely English (and Amazingly Lucrative) World of London Clerks

by Bill Hayes

In England and Wales, lawyers are divided into solicitors, who prepare cases, and barristers, who go to court. Since they do not work in the same offices, the solicitors must somehow get barristers when cases are headed to court: That function is served by clerks, who are usually far less educated and of a lower social class than lawyers. In The Exquisitely English (and Amazingly Lucrative) World of London Clerks, Bloomberg Businessweek explores this fascinating world.

At Fountain Court Chambers in central London, the senior clerk is called Alex Taylor. A trim, bald 54-year-old who favors Italian suiting, Taylor isn’t actually named Alex. Traditionally in English law, should a newly hired clerk have the same Christian name as an existing member of the staff, he’s given a new one, allegedly to avoid confusion on the telephone. During his career, Taylor has been through no fewer than three names. His birth certificate reads “Mark.” When he first got to Fountain Court in 1979, the presence of another Mark saw him renamed John. Taylor remained a John through moves to two other chambers. Upon returning to Fountain Court, in 2008, he became Alex. At home his wife still calls him Mark.

Alex/John/Mark Taylor belongs to one of the last surviving professions of Dickensian London. Clerks have co-existed with chimney sweeps and gene splicers. It’s a trade that one can enter as a teenager, with no formal qualifications, and that’s astonishingly well-paid. A senior clerk can earn a half-million pounds per year, or more than $650,000, and some who are especially entrenched make far more.

Clerks — pronounced “clarks” — have no equivalent in the U.S. legal system, and have nothing in common with the Ivy League–trained Supreme Court aides of the same spelling. They exist because in England and Wales, to simplify a bit, the role of lawyer is divided in two: There are solicitors, who provide legal advice from their offices, and there are barristers, who argue in court. Barristers get the majority of their business via solicitors, and clerks act as the crucial middlemen between the tribes — they work for and sell the services of their barristers, steering inquiring solicitors to the right man or woman.

Clerks are by their own cheerful admission “wheeler-dealers,” what Americans might call hustlers. They take a certain pride in managing the careers of their bosses, the barristers — a breed that often combines academic brilliance with emotional fragility. Many barristers regard clerks as their pimps. Some, particularly at the junior end of the profession, live in terror of clerks. The power dynamic is baroque and deeply English, with a naked class divide seen in few other places on the planet. Barristers employ clerks, but a bad relationship can strangle their supply of cases. [more]

The people who shaped Islamic civilisation

By David De La Torre

In The people who shaped Islamic civilisation for 1843, Nicolas Pelham reviews Islamic Civilisation in Thirty Lives by Chase Robinson.

The warriors and potentates are there, of course. Starting with Muhammad and ending with Shah Ismail 900 years later, they bookend the narrative. But in Robinson’s telling their martial arts are secondary to their aesthetic ones. Muhammad is celebrated not for his battlefield victories but his verse. Abd al-Malik, the caliph who took Cyprus, was better known to Islamic chroniclers for building Jerusalem’s majestic Dome of the Rock and, less appealingly, halitosis so severe it could kill a fly. Mahmoud of Ghazni, the jihadist who conquered the Hindu kingdoms of northwestern India, was admired for decorating Islam’s eastern periphery with gardens. (“You have strung the wild rose with patterns of pearls,” oozed a court poet.) Timur, the Mongol “sheep-rustler and world-conqueror”, built towers of skulls but also the soaring, sublime mosques of Samarkand. Sultan Mehmed II, the Ottoman conqueror of Constantinople, was “a renaissance man”. [more]

This Week’s New Yorker Cartoons

by Bill Hayes

To see a slide show of this week’s New Yorker cartoons, go here, scroll down to “Cartoons From the Issue,” click on the date, and click on the arrows at the bottom of each cartoon to go through the slide show.

Land of Darkness

by Bill Hayes

In Land of Darkness for Lapham’s Quarterly, Suki Kim reports on her time spent in North Korea.

I pursued coverage of the country for a decade, every step of the way nearly paralyzed with fear. I was not one of those intrepid foreign correspondents who jump into war zones, nor did I have a team of editors, fixers, and photographers working alongside to help figure out the logistics and arrange the precautionary backups. Although I signed a book contract long before 2011—when I finally dove into Pyongyang for those six months—my meager contract was just a piece of paper with a vague deadline, never a support network I could rely on for protection. In Pyongyang I was watched around the clock by the minders who lived directly below me in a dormitory under complete surveillance. My classes were recorded and reported on, and I had to get permission for every lesson from the North Korean staff. I saved my notes on USB sticks, which I kept on my body at all times. I made sure to delete my traces from my laptop every time I signed off. I saved a backup copy on an SD card, which I hid in different spots in the room, always with the light off. I created a document within a document, burying the notes in the middle of what looked like class lesson material. I was utterly on my own and knew no one who could come to my rescue if I were caught with the four hundred pages of notes I had taken in secret. The most likely scenario was that I would vanish in that bleak, dark unknown.

North Korea is the most inaccessible country in the world, and its regime has committed human rights abuses at a scale, according to the United Nations, “without parallel in the contemporary world.” It is a society built entirely on fears. Its dictators have manipulated and exploited human frailties to incorporate them into its system of control and abuse. Its citizens cannot leave the country, and their movement within it is restricted. Information is censored, and every interaction is surveilled. Education is only about the cult of the Great Leader, as is the media, and the citizens are treated as slaves and soldiers to uphold the myth. Those who enter its borders without permission or who commit acts that are forbidden by the regime—even something as seemingly innocuous as ripping a poster of their Great Leader—can face sentences of more than a decade of hard labor. Public execution is sanctioned by the regime, which is also known for kidnapping foreigners. No one with any sense of self-preservation would sneak into North Korea to write a book.

This leads people back home in the United States, or in South Korea or Europe, where I’ve traveled in recent years to give talks—the same people who like to call me fearless and brave—to ask the inevitable questions: Wasn’t I scared? And why did I go? [more]

How to Deal With North Korea

by Bill Hayes

In How to Deal With North Korea for the Atlantic, Mark Bowden analyzes the options the U.S. has.

For years North Korea has had extensive batteries of conventional artillery — an estimated 8,000 big guns — just north of the demilitarized zone (DMZ), which is less than 40 miles from Seoul, South Korea’s capital, a metropolitan area of more than 25 million people. One highranking U.S. military officer who commanded forces in the Korean theater, now retired, told me he’d heard estimates that if a grid were laid across Seoul dividing it into threesquarefoot blocks, these guns could, within hours, “pepper every single one.” This ability to rain ruin on the city is a potent existential threat to South Korea’s largest population center, its government, and its economic anchor. Shells could also deliver chemical and biological weapons. Adding nuclear ICBMs to this arsenal would put many more cities in the same position as Seoul. Nucleartipped ICBMs, according to Lewis, are the final piece of a defensive strategy “to keep Trump from doing anything regrettable after Kim Jong Un obliterates Seoul and Tokyo.”

How should the United States proceed?

What to do about North Korea has been an intractable problem for decades. Although shooting stopped in 1953, Pyongyang insists that the Korean War never ended. It maintains as an official policy goal the reunification of the Korean peninsula under the Kim dynasty.

As tensions flared in recent months, fanned by bluster from both Washington and Pyongyang, I talked with a number of nationalsecurity experts and military officers who have wrestled with the problem for years, and who have held responsibility to plan and prepare for real conflict. Among those I spoke with were former officials from the White House, the National Security Council, and the Pentagon; military officers who have commanded forces in the region; and academic experts.

From these conversations, I learned that the U.S. has four broad strategic options for dealing with North Korea and its burgeoning nuclear program.

  1. 1. Prevention: A crushing U.S. military strike to eliminate Pyongyang’s arsenals of mass destruction, take out its leadership, and destroy its military. It would end North Korea’s standoff with the United States and South Korea, as well as the Kim dynasty, once and for all.

  2. 2. Turning the screws: A limited conventional military attack — or more likely a continuing series of such attacks — using aerial and naval assets, and possibly including narrowly targeted Special Forces operations. These would have to be punishing enough to significantly damage North Korea’s capability — but small enough to avoid being perceived as the beginning of a preventive strike. The goal would be to leave Kim Jong Un in power, but force him to abandon his pursuit of nuclear ICBMs.

  3. 3. Decapitation: Removing Kim and his inner circle, most likely by assassination, and replacing the leadership with a more moderate regime willing to open North Korea to the rest of the world.

  4. 4. Acceptance: The hardest pill to swallow — acquiescing to Kim’s developing the weapons he wants, while continuing efforts to contain his ambition.

Let’s consider each option. All of them are bad. [more]

Black Hat 2017: The Best (and Scariest) Hacks

by Bill Hayes

In Black Hat 2017: The Best (and Scariest) Hacks, PC Magazine looks at the cyber-security threats revealed at the latest Black Hat Conference.

The Black Hat sessions have always been the place to see surprising, and sometimes horrifying, examples of security research. This year, we saw how to fool Apple Pay’s web interface and how to topple a hoverboard using ultrasound, and we learned how vulnerable wind farms could be to a cyber attack.

One session saw the return of a trio of Tesla Model S hackers, who showed off new attacks. Their research is sure to continue as vehicles become more connected. Also a big hacker target? Printers.

Another remarkable talk looked at attacking industrial infrastructure. [more]

Mexican Views of the U.S. Turn Sharply Negative

by Bill Hayes

Pew Research Center has issued a report showing that Mexican Views of the U.S. Have Turned Sharply Negative.

U.S. Image in Mexico hits a low point

More Mexicans view the United States unfavorably than at any time in the past decade and a half. Nearly two-thirds of Mexicans (65%) express a negative opinion of the U.S., more than double the share two years ago (29%). Mexicans’ opinions about the economic relationship with their country’s northern neighbor are also deteriorating, though less dramatically: 55% now say economic ties between Mexico and the U.S. are good for their country, down from 70% in 2013.

This erosion of Mexico’s goodwill toward the U.S. coincides with low approval of American President Donald Trump and one of his signature policies. An overwhelming 94% of Mexicans oppose Trump’s proposed border wall and only 5% have confidence in him to do the right thing regarding world affairs, Trump’s lowest rating among 37 nations polled in 2017. [more]

World University Rankings 2018

by Bill Hayes

Times Higher Education has posted its annual World University Rankings for 2018, rating more than 1,000 universities around the world on “teaching, research, knowledge transfer and international outlook.”

  1. University of Oxford, UK
  2. University of Cambridge, UK
  3. California Institute of Technology, US
  4. Stanford University, US
  5. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, US
  6. Harvard University, US
  7. Princeton University,
  8. Imperial College London, UK
  9. University of Chicago,
  10. ETH Zurich – Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich, Switzerland
  11. University of Pennsylvania,
  12. Yale University,
  13. Johns Hopkins University,
  14. Columbia University,
  15. University of California, Los Angeles,
  16. University College London, UK
  17. Duke University,
  18. University of California, Berkeley,
  19. Cornell University,
  20. Northwestern University, [more]

Retreat and Advance

by Bill Hayes

In Retreat and Advance for the New York Times Book Review, Lynne Olson reviews two books on Douglas MacArthur: Supreme Commander: MacArthur’s Triumph in Japan by Seymour Morris Jr. and The Most Dangerous Man in America: The Making of Douglas MacArthur by Mark Perry.

Nonetheless Roosevelt gave him the assignment. When Japan surrendered in August 1945 after the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Roosevelt’s successor, Harry Truman, who despised MacArthur, felt he had no option but to name him supreme commander of the Allied occupation. Despite everything that had gone before, it was an inspired choice. Given virtually complete control, the autocratic, aloof MacArthur came to be regarded as a demigod by the Japanese, who could relate to his imperial personality far more easily than could his American colleagues. In return, he showed an uncharacteristic sensitivity in his dealings with both Japanese officials and citizens, believing, as he told the White House adviser Robert Sherwood, that if they were treated liberally and with dignity, “we shall have the friendship and cooperation of the Asian people far off into the future.”

Instead of trying Emperor Hirohito, who was considered a deity by his people, as a war criminal, MacArthur chose to keep him as constitutional monarch. [more]

For a free related classroom lesson, see Truman, MacArthur, and the Korean War from  CRF’s Bill of Rights in Action Archive.

How An Entire Nation Became Russia’s Test Lab for Cyberwar

by Bill Hayes

In How An Entire Nation Became Russia’s Test Lab for Cyberwar for Wired magazine, Andy Greenberg looks at how Ukraine came under cyberattack and what this may mean for the U.S.

The Cyber-Cassandras said this would happen. For decades they warned that hackers would soon make the leap beyond purely digital mayhem and start to cause real, physical damage to the world. In 2009, when the NSA’s Stuxnet malware silently accelerated a few hundred Iranian nuclear centrifuges until they destroyed themselves, it seemed to offer a preview of this new era. “This has a whiff of August 1945,” Michael Hayden, former director of the NSA and the CIA, said in a speech. “Somebody just used a new weapon, and this weapon will not be put back in the box.”

Now, in Ukraine, the quintessential cyberwar scenario has come to life. Twice. On separate occasions, invisible saboteurs have turned off the electricity to hundreds of thousands of people. Each blackout lasted a matter of hours, only as long as it took for scrambling engineers to manually switch the power on again. But as proofs of concept, the attacks set a new precedent: In Russia’s shadow, the decades-old nightmare of hackers stopping the gears of modern society has become a reality.

And the blackouts weren’t just isolated attacks. They were part of a digital blitzkrieg that has pummeled Ukraine for the past three years — a sustained cyber-assault unlike any the world has ever seen. A hacker army has systematically undermined practically every sector of Ukraine: media, finance, transportation, military, politics, energy. Wave after wave of intrusions have deleted data, destroyed computers, and in some cases paralyzed organizations’ most basic functions. “You can’t really find a space in Ukraine where there hasn’t been an attack,” says Kenneth Geers, a NATO ambassador who focuses on cybersecurity.

In a public statement in December, Ukraine’s president, Petro Poroshenko, reported that there had been 6,500 cyberattacks on 36 Ukrainian targets in just the previous two months. International cybersecurity analysts have stopped just short of conclusively attributing these attacks to the Kremlin, but Poroshenko didn’t hesitate: Ukraine’s investigations, he said, point to the “direct or indirect involvement of secret services of Russia, which have unleashed a cyberwar against our country.” (The Russian foreign ministry didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment.)

To grasp the significance of these assaults — and, for that matter, to digest much of what’s going on in today’s larger geopolitical disorder — it helps to understand Russia’s uniquely abusive relationship with its largest neighbor to the west. Moscow has long regarded Ukraine as both a rightful part of Russia’s empire and an important territorial asset — a strategic buffer between Russia and the powers of NATO, a lucrative pipeline route to Europe, and home to one of Russia’s few accessible warm-water ports. For all those reasons, Moscow has worked for generations to keep Ukraine in the position of a submissive smaller sibling.

But over the past decade and a half, Moscow’s leash on Ukraine has frayed, as popular support in the country has pulled toward NATO and the European Union. In 2004, Ukrainian crowds in orange scarves flooded the streets to protest Moscow’s rigging of the country’s elections; that year, Russian agents allegedly went so far as to poison the surging pro-Western presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko. A decade later, the 2014 Ukrainian Revolution finally overthrew the country’s Kremlin-backed president, Viktor Yanukovych (a leader whose longtime political adviser, Paul Manafort, would go on to run the US presidential campaign of Donald Trump). Russian troops promptly annexed the Crimean Peninsula in the south and invaded the Russian-speaking eastern region known as Donbass. Ukraine has since then been locked in an undeclared war with Russia, one that has displaced nearly 2 million internal refugees and killed close to 10,000 Ukrainians.

From the beginning, one of this war’s major fronts has been digital. Ahead of Ukraine’s post-revolution 2014 elections, a pro-Russian group calling itself CyberBerkut — an entity with links to the Kremlin hackers who later breached Democratic targets in America’s 2016 presidential election — rigged the website of the country’s Central Election Commission to announce ultra-right presidential candidate Dmytro Yarosh as the winner. Administrators detected the tampering less than an hour before the election results were set to be declared. And that attack was just a prelude to Russia’s most ambitious experiment in digital war, the barrage of cyberattacks that began to accelerate in the fall of 2015 and hasn’t ceased since.

Yushchenko, who ended up serving as Ukraine’s president from 2005 to 2010, believes that Russia’s tactics, online and off, have one single aim: “to destabilize the situation in Ukraine, to make its government look incompetent and vulnerable.” He lumps the blackouts and other cyberattacks together with the Russian disinformation flooding Ukraine’s media, the terroristic campaigns in the east of the country, and his own poisoning years ago — all underhanded moves aimed at painting Ukraine as a broken nation. “Russia will never accept Ukraine being a sovereign and independent country,” says Yushchenko, whose face still bears traces of the scars caused by dioxin toxicity. “Twenty-five years since the Soviet collapse, Russia is still sick with this imperialistic syndrome.”

But many global cybersecurity analysts have a much larger theory about the endgame of Ukraine’s hacking epidemic: They believe Russia is using the country as a cyberwar testing ground — a laboratory for perfecting new forms of global online combat. And the digital explosives that Russia has repeatedly set off in Ukraine are ones it has planted at least once before in the civil infrastructure of the United States. [more]

What, exactly, do philosophers do?

by Bill Hayes

In What, exactly, do philosophers do? for the Times Literary Supplement, Jonathan Clark reviews Anthony Gottlieb’s The Dream of Enlightenment: The rise of modern philosophy.

What, exactly, do philosophers do? Are they primarily engaged in inward- looking technical debates, or are they the leading innovators who frame wider projects? In this elegantly written and insightful survey of selected thinkers from Hobbes and Descartes to Voltaire and Rousseau via Spinoza, Locke, Bayle, Leibniz and Hume, Anthony Gottlieb argues for their key role in the formation of the Enlightenment. As an exercise in making philosophical writing widely accessible, this is a blast of fresh air; better still, the volume is one of a trilogy, following his widely praised The Dream of Reason (2001), and we have one more to come. But that putative outcome may be questioned.

Communicators of genius have organizing frameworks too. In Gottlieb’s account, this 150-year “staccato burst” of European philosophy was a response to two leading stimuli: “Europe’s wars of religion and the rise of Galilean science”. This phase (one of only two in philosophy’s history, he claims) happened when some people began to criticize “the ancients” and “the authority of the Church”. [more]

CRF’s Bill of Rights in Action Archive has three lessons on Enlightenment ideas:

Hobbes, Locke, Montesquieu, and Rousseau on Government.

Adam Smith and The Wealth of Nations.

“Tolerance: Voltaire and the Spirit of the Enlightenment.” This lesson is currently available from  CRF’s Bill of Rights in Action Archive only in PDF and you will have to register (if you haven’t already), which is free.

Constitutional Rot and Constitutional Crisis

by Bill Hayes

In Constitutional Rot and Constitutional Crisis for the legal blog Balkinization, Jack Balkin argues that the United States is not approaching a constitutional crisis, but it is experiencing what he calls “constitutional rot,” the decay of norms and institutions undergirding our democracy.

As Sandy Levinson and I have explained, there are three types of constitutional crises. In Type One crises, political leaders announce that they will no longer abide by the Constitution or laws (for example, because of emergency), or they openly flout judicial orders directed at them. In Type Two crises, people follow what they believe the Constitution requires, leading to political paralysis or disaster. In Type Three crises, political disagreement about the Constitution becomes so intense that the struggle goes beyond the bounds of ordinary politics. People take to the streets; there are riots; the military is called out to restore order (or suppress dissent); political figures threaten violence or engage in political violence; or parts of the country revolt and/or attempt to secede.

Constitutional crisis is very rare, and nothing that has yet happened in the Trump Administration — including the Comey firing — comes even close. But people are right to think that something important — and dangerous — is happening to our political institutions. That is why, I think, people so often reach for the term “constitutional crisis” to describe it.

In this essay, I want to introduce a new idea to explain our current predicament. I will distinguish constitutional crisis, which is very rare, from a different phenomenon, which I think better describes what is happening in the United States today. This is the idea of constitutional rot. [more]

The Anatomy of Finickiness

by Bill Hayes

In The Anatomy of Finickiness for the Los Angeles Review of Books, Geoff Nicholson reviews Einstein’s Beets: An Examination of Food Phobias by Alexander Theroux.

Inevitably the book contains a good deal of what we might call “food trivia,” although I’m sure the author would rightly insist that these matters are anything but trivial. This is a serious book. But that doesn’t mean we can’t have some fun along the way, starting with the title: it derives from the fact that “Einstein famously hated beets,” though it’s a limited fame as far as this reader was concerned. Einstein was not alone: Michelle and Barack Obama hate them too, as does the food writer and occasional novelist Gael Greene. In fact, the book demonstrates that you’re extremely unlikely to be alone in your phobia, however singular it may seem: Alfred Hitchcock wouldn’t eat eggs — but neither would President Taft, nor will Whoopi Goldberg. Naomi Watts and Jennifer Aniston can’t abide caviar. Colson Whitehead can’t face ice cream having worked an ice cream stand where the “perk” of the job was all he could eat.

William Cobbett eschewed tea because it was “a destroyer of health, an enfeebler of the frame, an engenderer of effeminacy and laziness, a debaucher of youth, and a maker of misery for old age.” Mussolini didn’t eat mashed potatoes because they gave him a headache. Idi Amin doesn’t seem like he’d have been a fussy eater, but he had his limits, “I tried human flesh, and it is too salty for my taste.” Of course the reader can’t be sure if this flesh was raw or cooked: if the latter, then surely the saltiness was the fault of the cook. There is also some speculation about whether Amin was actually speaking the truth or just buffing up his image as terrifying despot.

Prince (the purple one) didn’t like to eat much of anything, but he particularly disliked mushrooms, feta cheese, and onions, although when he let Heavy Table look in his fridge there were 18 jars of mustard in there …. [more]