Thursday, April 28, 2016

Found Money

I found $20 the other day. The bill was folded up and stuffed in the coin pocket of my jeans. What it was originally intended for is lost to my middle-aged memory and instead the discovery is a nice happenstance. It’s not like I lost the money or had a huge lottery win, but instead it was what Dad used to call “mad money” that can be used for fun purposes. I think he made that up, but I still like the concept. As I contemplated what to do with the largess I had squirreled away unintentionally I discovered that I wasn’t the only one who hides money. The CIA has been planting money in plain sight in the most terrifying way.

It’s been well reported that in 2009 the CIA gave $1 million al Qaida to free an Afghan diplomat. Oops…the U.S. was supposed to be fighting against al Qaida.

The Department of Defense lost $8.7 billion of the $9.1 billion intended for infrastructure in rebuilding Iraq in 2010. Reread those figures. Billions. This is money that was misplaced or pocketed. It disappeared, it's not a deficit. Poof.

So the CIA and its other military brethren don't handle money well. Why should it? Nobody knows how much the CIA gets to start with. Per Wikipedia: “Details of the overall United States intelligence budget are classified. Under the Central Intelligence Agency Act of 1949, the Director of Central Intelligence is the only federal government employee who can spend "un-vouchered" government money. The government has disclosed a total figure for all non-military intelligence spending since 2007; the fiscal 2013 figure is $52.6 billion.” With the growth in the budget and the obsession of "security" it's not unreasonable to consider the budget around $75 billion. 

That secrecy supports my own image of the CIA that has been largely formulated from Hollywood. Clandestine. Secretive. And of course cool gizmos for use in the spy stuff. Wikipedia states “CIA has no law enforcement function and is mainly focused on overseas intelligence gathering, with only limited domestic collection. CIA is the only agency authorized by law to carry out and oversee covert action on behalf of the President.”

Imagine my surprise to discover that the CIA has an active entrepreneurial side that is firmly based in the U.S. and is heavily invested in technology and other sectors. The CIA has a Venture Capital division. “In-Q-Tel is the independent, not-for-profit organization created to bridge the gap between the technology needs of the U.S. Intelligence Community (IC) and emerging commercial innovation.” So says the company’s public facing website. Independent? Not if its funded by the CIA.

The company is currently invested in 108 different start up technology companies. They are also invested in cosmetics. Oprah’s magazine, lifestyle bloggers and skin care professionals love Clearista, a skin product that clears your face of dirt and other stuff. According to The Intercept: “Skincential Sciences developed a patented technology that removes a thin outer layer of the skin, revealing unique biomarkers that can be used for a variety of diagnostic tests, including DNA collection.” Forget having a clean face, the CIA now owns the technology to gather DNA from every citizen as they wash up.

I randomly selected Video and Imaging to see where they are invested in that subsector. There are 11 companies. The first one, 3VR is described: “Searchable surveillance systems and services 3VR, Inc., the video intelligence company, enables organizations to search, mine, and leverage video to bolster security, identify and mitigate fraud, and better serve customers. 3VR’s Video Intelligence Platform allows video surveillance systems to reach their true potential and deliver a measurable and sustainable return on investment by revealing powerful new insights in the correlation of video with other sources of enterprise data.”

Translation: The CIA can now mine video data and match it with other data that the government has collected. What Fourth Amendment? (Guess the CIA is no longer just focused on overseas issues.) 

Going through the In-Q-Tel portfolio is perhaps one of the most upsetting, frustrating and scary things that I’ve done since I saw a snake in 3-D on a 70 foot screen coming after me. 

Maybe there is some strategic security reason for the Central Intelligence Agency to be one of the largest investors in new technology companies. But shouldn’t that be a discussion in Congress? During a debate of those people who seek to be President? Why is it funded from taxpayer money that is not accounted for?

What’s most egregious and unfathomable is that while the investments are open and transparent and the technology that the government is creating available for all to see – the financial impact to the taxpayer is hidden. It’s not found money – it’s American taxpayer funds and they deserve to be accounted for.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Benefits of Death

My grandmother died when I was a junior in high school. It was 1982. She was the first major figure in my life that passed away. In the ensuing 34 years I’ve lost my mother’s parents, my father, friends, acquaintances, classmates…lots of people, but not as many as others I know. How do you value somebody’s life? Almost universally for me the losses have been emotional. But there is, of course, the practical side. I remember contacting Social Security after Dad died and being told of the $255 death benefit we would be getting. His life insurance policy had a different valuation which was based on a whole series of things that were agreed to when the policy was taken. That was 2010 and I don’t think much about the finances any more, let alone of the financial impact of my grandmother’s death in 1982. Anybody who has passed away in the past 33 years and had been killed by terrorism, then it’s a different story.

The CIA expanded the Survivor Benefit for “survivors of all federal employees, including contractors, killed overseas in the line of duty and as a result of terrorism. It is retroactive to April 18, 1983, the date a suicide attacker crashed a truck into the front of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, killing 63 people, including 17 Americans, some of whom were CIA officers.”

I knew a number of people who died on Pan Am Flight 103 which was blown up by the Libyans in December 1988. Syracuse schoolmates were on that plane. In 2003 Colonel Muammer Gaddafi admitted responsibility and paid the families compensation though he claimed to have never given the order for the attack. Will those people now get additional benefits with this retroactive award? Part of me wants them to and part of me doesn't. 

I don’t know what it’s like to lose a family member to an act of terrorism. It’s not like losing somebody you love to a disease. Nor is it analogous to accidents or violence. As a capitalist society everything seems to have a value, including human life.

OJ Simpson was found not guilty of killing his ex-wife Nicole and her friend Ron Goldman. Despite that declaration from a criminal court, in a separate civil trial the former football star was found liable for the deaths and awarded $33.5 million to the families, only $500K of which was ever paid.

Kenneth Feinberg may be the most well known arbiter of what a life is worth. He is most famous for spending 33 months (pro bono) as the Special Master for the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund. It was (and as of 2016 still is) the largest distribution of proceeds to beneficiaries in U.S. History. The Rand Corporation did an analysis showing how the $32 billion was distributed to the various groups – from families of victims to workers, first responders and businesses.

Whenever there’s a major event – the Boston Marathon, the BP Oil Spill, etc. Feinberg is there to allocate funds – whether they be government, insurance or private donations. It’s quite a specialty and he appears to have perfected the ability to use whatever resources are available to resolve claims and upsets.

I must say that I’m rather uncomfortable with this sort of valuation. I understand the need to blame and that financial compensation is a way to measure impact – especially when there’s negligence. When it comes to the brave men and women who serve the United States via the CIA, I raise my hat to them. I was called to be of service in my own way and they are called to be of service in their way. They get paid and the risks are a known quantity.

Going back 33 years and compensating survivors of the victims of terrorism feels like a wonderful gesture but one that is terribly misguided and sets a potentially damaging precedent. Why not go back to the Vietnam era? Or World War II? Or the Revolutionary War? Where would it stop? One person's terrorist is another's freedom fighter.

Every life is valuable. That doesn’t mean that every life is worth cash.

Thursday, April 14, 2016


Death is sad. For somebody of my vintage I’ve lost a number of family and friends over the years. When a peer goes it’s particularly unsettling because we are facing our own mortality. Death is part of life. Moving from the morbid to the sublime: the end is a necessary part of life and for our growth as people and as a society. And then there are things that cease that represent the stopping point of an era or an experiment. We are all experiencing such a loss now.

Al Jazeera America shut down on Tuesday, April 12, 2016. It lived for just under 3 years, having gone live on August 20, 2013. It leaves a big gaping hole in quality the media environment. Well, the hole might not be as big as I’d like it to have been.

The channel attracted some 10,000 viewers per hour at its low point and a high of less than 100,000 while Fox, CNN, MSNBC draw in the millions and the major networks the tens of millions. Carriage issues (having the channel on a cable provider) were part of that lower viewrship, amongst other issues as to why the channel shut down. CNN Money reported on the problems that were threefold: it was a risky proposition to launch an all news channel from scratch; they bet on a cable model that excluded an online//streaming which would have driven viewership of the content. Most importantly, though, they bled money.

Qatar bought Current TV for $500 million and Al Gore reportedly made $100 million. Qatar then poured in hundreds of millions more. The launch of the network was impressive – building an entire infrastructure for a network in 7 months and hiring hundreds of people. The oil rich nation said ratings were not their priority and put a break-even goal in their business plan for 2023 or 2024.

The price of oil plummeted from $110 a barrel to under $40 a barrel. That’s a nearly 2/3rd drop in what generated all of the money for the venture, so bye-bye cash flow for the emerging network. As quickly as it started up it was shut down in a matter of months. Mothballed. Not even sold for parts. On my cable system it’s literally disappeared. Channel 107 is no more.

I enjoyed AJAM – the quality of the news was top notch. Several times I’d watch the flagship AJAM newscast and then watch a CNN newscast or another one – and only a handful of stories would replicate. It was real coverage of real issues that was done really well and was balanced. The finance program by Ali Velshi was a harbinger of CNN’s heyday. The hyperventilating style of Wolf Blitzer and the rest of the cable anchors who bloviate between commercials was nowhere to be found. It made it boring sometimes sure, but never bad.

It was a strategic mistake to spend that kind of money and agree not to ‘compete’ by streaming their product. Cable providers demand that out of fear that they’re losing customers. Others are able to stream and broadcast, AJAM should have too. With such a small base viewership it sunk the network. Too many times I’d watch a fascinating story or bit that I wanted to share with others who might not have immediate access to the network via a television.

I think their other mistake was keeping the Al Jazeera name. I understand branding. I know that they have spent huge sums of money building that global brand and it has value from a news gathering perspective inside of the overall company as well as to the business itself. What they never understood was that the brand value in the U.S. was not just unknown – it actually carried negative weight. Al Qaeda and Al Jazeera just sound too much alike. We can joke about the stupidity of the viewing public --- but with so many other choices, why tie yourself down from the get go? Few Americans know that a woman was running the network or that some of the finest journalists working today were hired there. The network won a slew of awards including two Peabody Awards and 16 National Headliner awards amongst many others.

I often bemoan the state of media in this blog. AJAM was a stunning example of what could be done right most of the time. They will be missed. Rest in Peace.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Pants on Fire

I have a recollection that at some point in my youth running around playing a game “Liar Liar Pants on Fire.” What the rules were, how the ‘truth’ was determined are a foggy notion today. It might just have been my middle child syndrome of tattling on my siblings…or being tattled on! Researching the idea to refresh my memory I was amused to find it’s a book and a board game as well as fan fiction. It’s a popular concept. It is, of course, standard fare in U.S. politics.

Ranker is a site where “U.S. politicians that have been caught lying or have been suspected of lying.” Virtually every major political figure this century is on the list – from Barack Obama to Richard Nixon. You can click on somebody and add your opinion…fun but not very scientific.

CBS News summarized it in a report in 2012: “Here are three things most Americans take as an article of faith: The sky is blue. The pope is Catholic. And politicians are liars.” 

Politifact has built an entire business around it, winning the Pulitzer Prize by putting in the time, effort and resources to quantify when somebody’s being truthful and when they’re not. The site even has an Obamameter which ranks the 500+ promises made in his 2008 & 2012 campaigns against what has been accomplished.

Candidates themselves hurl the insult at each other with directness today. A GOP ‘debate’ is akin to a World Wide Wrestling match – lots of huffing and puffing with great theatrics – but not a lot of real substance going on. The Democrats tried to restrain themselves but as time has gone by they too have devolved to the grade school name calling.

There’s different sorts of lies. There’s taking the record of an opponent and framing it around a narrative that puts them in a bad light. Hilary Clinton did that to Bernie Sanders in Michigan when she claimed that he voted against the bailout of the auto industry – a hot button issue in Detroit. On a pure factual level she was absolutely correct – the Vermont Senator voted against the first proposed bailout. What she failed to mention was why. The white haired self-described socialist didn’t think it went far enough and wanted more money to go to the unions. Did Hilary lie? Yes and no. Factcheck details the entire issue.

It is this type of nuance that many use as an example of how she can’t be trusted. When reporters drill down they find that most of the statements she makes are accurate and honest. She’s very deliberate about framing and shading those statements, though. Whether it’s personality or a lifetime in the public eye (including being married to a President who was impeached for lying) the issue of trustworthiness is one of her weakest characteristics in poll after poll. The Daily Caller found in their poll “Hillary Clinton Least Honest And Trustworthy Of All Presidential Candidates.”

Is that fair? Donald Trump is the leading fabricator of the 2016 election cycle (so far). The litany of misstatements, erroneous facts and outrageous claims have kept the fact checkers working overtime. The National Review outlined “Trump’s Yuuge Lies” in February – and they’ve only grown since then.

The leading party Presidential candidates have near opposite responses from voters when it comes to the issue of trust and honesty. Trump’s lack of filter from a though meandering through his head and popping out of his mouth has been framed that he “tells it like it is” which is somehow believable. Clinton’s measured and parsing of nearly every comment has been framed that she’s hiding something.

American’s don’t want to hear the truth. The don’t want to know that the country is $20 trillion in actual debt and continues to spend some $1.25 for every $1.00 it brings in. They don’t want to know that there are tens of thousands of U.S. troops deployed covering virtually every region of  the globe. There are intractable issues of poverty, homelessness and other issues that for half-a-century (or more)  haven’t been solved despite trillions of dollars of investment. Medical costs increase while health care coverage decreases. The social service net has gaping holes and is headed towards bankruptcy. And that doesn’t even begin to address the vast social change issues that are tearing away at the fabric of what used to unite the nation. Americans aren’t coming together to accept our differences – laws are being passed to segregate us based on race, religion and other things. It’s shameful and sad.

Candidates make passionate and absolutist statements that when they’re elected (to whatever office) they’ll make sure “_fill in the blank__” is fixed/solved/stopped. They’re all liars. American Democracy requires separate branches of government to work together. Until elected officials are willing to say and do that – there’s a lot of pants that are on fire.