30 Nov

Fights over Internet encryption extend from Paris to privacy

This month’s terrorist gunfire in Paris echoed around the world, and could be heard quickly in the long-running, nonstop argument of how closely the U.S. government can monitor its own citizens.

Almost immediately, CIA director John Brennan complained to a group in Washington that, “in the past several years, because of a number of unauthorized disclosures and a lot of hand-wringing over the government’s role in the effort to try to uncover these terrorists, there have been some policy and legal and other actions that are taken that make our ability collectively, internationally, to find these terrorists much more challenging.”

Or, as Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., put it in an interview, “As soon as Paris happened, Brennan was right there complaining that Congress is taking away tools” that could protect Americans.
“The facts just clearly reveal otherwise.”

For more than a decade, Wyden, a senior member of the Senate intelligence committee, has been a loud congressional voice challenging government surveillance activities, an effort leading to Congress’ recent banning mass surveillance of Americans’ telephone habits. In March, Wyden cast the only vote against the committee’s endorsing the new Cybersecurity Information Sharing Act, providing a route for companies to share on-line data with the government, which the Senate passed last month.

He’s holding his line.

“It’s very obvious, in the passion of the moment, we’re clearly having some knee-jerk responses,” says Wyden. “We’ll see how serious John Brennan is about trying to revisit mass surveillance.”

At bottom, Wyden’s certain, “The American people want safety, and they want liberty.” Sacrificing one for the other, he warns, leads to a “lose-lose” outcome.

On Brennan’s resistance to the congressional ban on mass collection of metadata – records of who was called, when and for how long – Wyden reads repeatedly from page 104 of the report of a presidential commission studying Patriot Act intelligence collection: “The information contributed to terrorist investigations by the use of section 215 telephony metadata was not essential to preventing attacks and could readily have been obtained in a timely manner using conventional section 215 orders.”

On the other hand, the data did fill up a lot of government hard drives.

The Paris massacre has focused more attention on another high-tech theme, data encryption, an issue heightened by massive hackings of both corporate and government data bases. The CISA Act provides a way for companies to provide encrypted data to government, but some intelligence sources are also seeking more: encryption keys given to government agencies to let them get in themselves.

Reports have spread of the Paris terrorists allegedly “going dark” in the days before the attack, meaning turning to communications law enforcement couldn’t follow. “There are a lot of technological capabilities that are available right now,” says Brennan, “that make it exceptionally difficult both technically as well as legally for intelligence security services to have the insight they need to uncover it.” To some in law enforcement and counterintelligence, encryption keys have a powerful allure.

Wyden has led the opposition, with the support of privacy advocates and some major tech companies, such as Apple and Twitter. He has argued not only on the Senate floor and in committee, but – appropriately enough – extensively on-line. “Security experts have shown again and again,” he wrote on Medium.com last week, “that weakening encryption will make it easier for foreign hackers, criminals and spies to break into Americans’ bank accounts, health records and phones, without preventing terrorists from ‘going dark.’”

Considering hackers’ success in getting into protected sites, it’s hard for Wyden to imagine that they couldn’t get to the encryption keys. “Encryption back doors,” he said in a recent interview, “would do more to harm American security than anything else.”

Last week, the web site TechCrunch reported that the encryption battle wasn’t taking Thanksgiving off, citing a Wall Street Journal report that the Obama administration – which in October had opposed encryption keys for government – was reopening conversations with Silicon Valley companies on the subject.

They might be challenging conversations. “The reality is that if you have an open door in your software for the good guys, the bad guys get in there, too,” Apple CEO Tim Cook told NPR in October. “I don’t support a back door for any government, ever.”

Immediate reaction to 9/11 produced the Patriot Act, which then took years to clean up, and the argument now is over the immediate reaction to Paris. “That’s what you can expect when everybody comes back Nov. 30,” predicted Wyden just before the Thanksgiving recess.

Following that fight won’t take an encryption key.

NOTE: This column appeared in The Sunday Oregonian, 11/29/15.

25 Nov

Thanksgiving one more day in trying to keep kids fed

Some years at this time, the after-school support staff at Parklane and Oliver schools has some donated turkeys to distribute. This Thanksgiving, they didn’t

Still, the twin elementary schools out by Southeast 158th, with 89 percent of their students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch, maintain a massive effort to try to keep their students fed. It’s almost like nutrition was important for kids to learn something.

Besides lunch, there’s breakfast, served in one school in class, in the other in the cafeteria. For kids staying after classes, about 85 from each school, there’s dinner late in the afternoon. In other words, says Sarai Rodriguez, coordinator of the Schools Uniting Neighborhoods program at Parklane, a significant number of students get all three meals at school.

She recalls, “I heard a mom telling a kid, ‘You need to eat your supper, because there’s no food at home.’”

The schools also try to have some fruit around for kids, and it can be surprising how often some of them sample the supply. But nobody complains, because as Rodriguez points out, teachers can see a student get calmer when there’s something in his stomach.

For the times when school isn’t in session, there’s a summer lunch program, and a handful of kids getting food backpacks to help them through the weekend. And because the kids’ families can also be hungry, there are some emergency food boxes from the local SnowCap community agency, and food brought around by Urban Gleaners, and bread donated by Dave’s Killer Bread; mothers, or grandmothers, pick up a loaf when they get their kids from the program. Students from Centennial High School sometimes bring over a school bus to provide a mobile pantry.

And there’s a two-acre community garden, which, Rodriguez thinks, produces not only vegetables but community.

It takes a lot to keep more than 800 kids in a low-income area fed, but it seems you can’t do much else until you do.

The drive is bolstered by local volunteers and agencies, including Metropolitan Family Services, which operates the SUN programs around here. But the core of the effort, the school breakfasts and lunches and late-afternoon meals, and the summer food program, comes from the federal government, which is now trying to figure out its programs.

Every five years, Congress has to reauthorize all the child nutrition programs, the school lunches and the summer food and the Women, Infants and Children program for small children and pregnant women and the Child and Adult Food Care program supporting day care and after-school efforts. In 2010, with the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, Congress expanded the programs and raised the nutritional levels, providing some more money to support the new standards.

That was, however, a different Congress. This year, just passing reauthorization seems unlikely – which, considering that no reauthorization leaves the programs unchanged, might not be the worst thing.
“We’d like to see it reauthorized if it’s a good bill,” says Kevin Concannon, undersecretary of agriculture for food and nutrition (and former director of the Oregon Department of Human Services).

Key for the Obama administration, he says, is “We want to see it preserve the integrity of the school meals program,” notably the 2010 nutritional gains, including more fresh fruit and vegetables. He’d also like to strengthen the summer programs: “The time a child is most likely to be hungry is in the summertime.”

When Congress is likely to manage reauthorization is a lot less clear. The Senate Agriculture Committee, handling the bill on that side of the Capitol, has been holding hearings and might move, and there’s some interest in strengthening the summer programs. At the end of October, Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., promised, “We are nearing the finish line” on a reauthorization.

In the House, of course, achieving anything is further away, and reauthorization seems unlikely this year. It goes through the House Education Committee, where Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, D-Ore., who represents the other side of Portland, has a proposal to strengthen the Child and Adult Food Care program and to simplify paperwork for sites with both child care and summer programs. Both changes would affect Parklane and Oliver.

House Republicans, however, also keep talking about big cuts in food stamps – with, Concannon points out, 48 percent of the client base under 18 – which could considerably outweigh any improvements in the child nutrition programs.

What’s needed, says Bonamici, is Congress considering “more long-term interests than we usually do.”

Maybe that could produce a clear child hunger position by next Thanksgiving.

NOTE: This column appeared in The Oregonian, 11/25/15.

19 Nov

Paris: We’ve been here before — and should have learned something

Right after 9/11, while New York and Washington were still smoldering, a rider attacked the driver of an interstate bus, sending it into a crash. It was the kind of freak, thousand-miles away outburst that today might merit two or three inches at the bottom of a newspaper page.

At that moment in time, the attack briefly flared as a national headline, as we feared it was part of a wave of Al Qaida terror attacks widely expected to follow 9/11. It fit into a feeling of shock and fear and vulnerability seizing the entire country, easily reaching Portland, 3,000 miles from the attacks.

Last week’s coordinated assaults in Paris, wanton slaughter seemingly unstoppable in a closely watched Western city, brought back a shudder of that time. Again, an open society was attacked by shadowy murderers, bringing not only widespread death but the looming threat of what might follow.
We can recall, if not quite recapture, the freezing fear of fall 2001. The state of Oregon ran a hurry-up effort, and repeated briefings, on defenses against biological warfare. Seven local Muslims were arrested and convicted for conspiring to join the Taliban in Afghanistan, although the seven involved may have been more of a danger to themselves than to Operation Enduring Freedom.

The expected horrors never materialized. Ending the Al Qaida sanctuary in Afghanistan, killing a large number of their leaders over time, strengthening our intelligence capacity and some amount of luck – a highly inept underwear bomber on an airplane, a car in Times Square noticed in time – eased the domestic threat, and the prickly sense of impending peril. A recent Pew poll found that voters under 30 – for whom 9/11 is more history than memory – were less concerned about terrorist attacks in America and less likely to pay attention to overseas attacks than voters over 30, who need only close their eyes to see planes flying into towers.

Now, that could change. If it could happen to Paris, it could happen to Portland. “I think this incident in Paris,“ Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., told The New York Times, “will break down some of the false sense of separation from the experience the rest of the world is having with terrorism.”

Reality is a useful awareness, but so is remembering who you are. Already, the political debate is frothing with demands to reject all Middle Eastern immigrants – or to apply, for maybe the first time ever, a religious qualification for admission – and for some politicians, a crackdown on all immigrants. Donald Trump, the frontrunner for the Republican nomination for president – words that still look bizarre in print – mused Monday about the government closing down some mosques, although he assured listeners he would hate to do it.47

In Portland and in Oregon, among the most open places in the world’s most open society, this all rings especially strident. Following 9/11, when the attack was much bigger and much nearer – in one writer’s phrase, extremely loud and incredibly close – Portland still resisted some of the U.S. government’s flailings, such as refusing to cooperate with a program of interrogation and detention of recent immigrants that the feds admitted, years later, had produced nothing of use.

One reason the United States seems to have a better connection to its Muslim population than many European countries – at least calculated in metrics such as numbers seeking to run to Syria to join ISIS – is a greater U.S. effort in accepting Muslims as part of the larger society, of treating them as though they were actually citizens. The effort has been imperfectly successful, and it neither makes all Muslims feel accepted nor guarantees against all terrorist attacks, but it’s been an attitude and an advantage not to be casually abandoned.

Monday, President Obama awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, three decades posthumously, to Minoru Yasui, a Hood River native and University of Oregon graduate who challenged World War II Japanese internment all the way to the Supreme Court and lost. It was one more reminder that the impulses felt right after an attack, and in the fear of more, are not always trustworthy.

Nobody knows where our current crisis goes, and you can imagine situations that would put crushing pressure on our tolerance and our due process. But we’ve been here before, and it now looks like Portland was wrong after 1941 and closer to right after 2001.

We were just reminded again that our enemies are vicious and evil.

But our real challenge is still to be true to ourselves.

NOTE: This column appeared in The Oregonian, 11/18/15.

16 Nov

Salem slow on fixing ethics rules, but let’s do it right

It’s almost hard to remember, but at the start of this year, and the start of this year’s legislative session, Oregon had a different governor. John Kitzhaber’s abrupt departure raised questions about the state’s ethical rules, and his successor, Kate Brown, promised to deal with them.

As Brown would agree, she and the legislature haven’t done it, and now it seems next year’s short session won’t, either. But facing a wave of high-impact ballot measures, that session will have plenty to do, and it’s not like ethics issues drive voters – or like next year looks like a hotly contested election.

But we should be clear on what we’ve learned, and what we should do. Freedom of Information requests for documents shouldn’t take months to meet. The legislature should have a process for removing officials; the media shouldn’t have all the fun. We should make absolutely clear the rules for officials’ relatives, or their significant others.

These issues won’t shape next year’s election – voters just don’t care the way they should about reporters’ access to documents – so Brown and the rest of us have a year to get them right. Ethics reforms in Oregon have been known to go wrong, but so has official behavior.

Let’s get this fixed before another governor departs suddenly.

NOTE: This commentary appeared in KGW-TV, 11/14/15.

12 Nov

Unlike other states, Oregon tries to expand voting, and gets noticed

All American citizens, of course, have certain rights.

It’s just that in some places, they don’t have quite as many.

Ari Berman, author of “Give Us the Ballot,” has found that the United States is in the middle of two different ballot trends: one with states expanding the right to vote, one with states working hard to narrow it.

Fortunately, Oregon is part of the American trend.

In fact, we’re driving it.

Berman appeared last Saturday at Wordstock, Portland’s resurfacing annual book festival, where crowds gave a participatory display that underlined Oregon’s expansive attitude toward citizenship. The event stood in sharp contrast to the theme of Berman’s book, that across the country many states’ political leaders are using voter identification requirements and other strategies to limit voting by what they consider the wrong kind of people.

The strategy has been helped by a 5-4 Supreme Court decision largely gutting the 1965 Voting Rights Act – now celebrating a somewhat melancholy 50th anniversary – on the grounds that everything in America was now racially swell.

As a result, Berman said after his appearance Saturday, a General Accounting Office study found that Kansas and Tennessee – two of the most enthusiastic practitioners of selective admission to voting – managed to reduce their electorate by 2 percent to 3 percent, with particular drops in (say it all together) African American, young and low-income voters.

Then there’s Oregon, land of mail voting and – as of this year’s legislative session – automatic voter registration for anybody in the files of the Department of Motor Vehicles, a move expected to increase our potential voters by 300,000.

“As so many states restrict voting rights, other states like Oregon are aggressively expanding them,” Berman told an audience of about 200 at Wordstock. “Oregon is leading the way in expanding voting rights, a model for the rest of the country.

“What you’re doing is very important. People need to see that there is an alternative vision.”

Oregon has taken a while to get to its voting expansions. It took about a decade of argument back in the 1990s before we settled on vote-by-mail – which Berman, like a lot of Easterners, still doesn’t entirely believe could work in their grittier locales – and two legislative sessions, and the election of two more Democrats to the state Senate, before the passage of DMV registration.\

But once established here, they spread. Vote-by-mail has now advanced, with somewhat different rules, into Washington and California and other states. Registration by the DMV has now advanced – in what Berman calls a domino effect – into California, where registered voters might increase by as many as six million.

(Along with vote-by-mail and DMV registration, California has now also borrowed assisted suicide from Oregon, raising the issue of who is now the trend-setter state. Oregonians might have mixed feelings about adding six million Californians to the voting rolls, but how else are you going to set the rules of beach volleyball?)

Monday, The New York Times reported the formation of a new group called iVote, led by political operatives from the Obama and Clinton administrations, seeking to raise $10 million to spread DMV voter registration state-by-state. Bills have been introduced in 17 state legislatures, and there are others where it might be advanced through initiative measure.

“I do think it can be a complete game-changer,” explained the group’s leader, Jeremy Bird, who directed the Obama 2012 voter turnout effort. “It’s definitely countering what we see as a very well-funded and organized effort by the Republican Party across the country to chip away at voting rights.”

Possibly he has read Berman’s book.

Making the same point from the other side, Kansas secretary of state Kris W. Kobach, a leading national advocate of restrictive voting and tightening his own state’s rules, firmly opposes DMV registration, warning darkly, “You’re going to end up with aliens on the voting rolls.”

Saturday, thousands of Oregonians swarmed four different venues on the South Park Blocks to greet the reappearance of Wordstock, crowding into a dozen rooms to listen to authors and maybe get a book signed. The day reflected Oregon’s belief, at our best, that lots of people should be involved with debates and ideas, even if some other places have adopted the convenience of limiting the number who get to make decisions.

“It would be very unfortunate if the United States moved to a two-tier democracy,” said Berman afterward, “where it’s easy to vote in Oregon and hard to vote in Texas.”

Possibly Oregon can have something to say about that.

NOTE: This column appeared in The Oregonian, 11/11/15.

10 Nov

Wheeler would bring county commission vote-counting to City Council

The next mayor of Portland sees the key part of the job as a simple but basic skill.

“Getting what you want,” says Ted Wheeler, “is about counting to three.”

It’s an arithmetic skill that he says he learned not at Stanford nor at graduate school at Harvard, but as chairman of Multnomah County, where he managed regularly to gather at least the two other commission votes to create a policy majority. It’s a mathematical feat not always in evidence lately on the Portland City Council.

A key part of the strategy, Wheeler says, is to “respect the concerns and goals of your peers,” and “There shouldn’t be surprises. Colleagues shouldn’t be surprised, and regional partners shouldn’t be surprised.”

The mayor’s race, of course, has recently had its own surprise, when incumbent Charlie Hales pulled the ripcord and changed his mind about running for re-election, leaving Wheeler as the only major candidate.

“I certainly didn’t see the mayor’s withdrawal coming,” he muses. “I was looking for a highly contested mayoral campaign.”

At this point, that kind of campaign might itself be a surprise, since Hales’ departure has been followed by a wave of refusals by local pols to enter the race. The mayor insists he’s looking for another candidate, but it’s not clear how successful he’ll be in recruiting someone into a race he didn’t want to make himself.

Whoever joins Wheeler in the race (or doesn’t), the state treasurer is devising a range of goals and strategies to offer the city. It’s a plan to break out of a system he calls “bifurcated, fragmented and siloed,” an effort he thinks would be strengthened by his connections with current City Council members, with working relationships going back to his time running the county.

“My top priority if elected mayor is matching Portland with economic opportunity,” says Wheeler.

“The cost of housing is going up twice as fast as median incomes” – which, he notes, might be a generous estimate of income growth. He would attack both ends of the equation, housing and incomes.

The city of Portland, he argues, does badly in creating affordable housing, with private developers able to do it at a third of the cost and in half the time. The permitting process, fees and multiple (but seemingly uncoordinated) inspections hamper productivity.

And while neighborhoods battle over increasing density, the city has some areas, starting with the Pearl and South Waterfront, where density could increase considerably.

On the extreme of the housing problem, “Homelessness is an umbrella term for a lot of different problems that need separate solutions.” This includes more emergency shelters and transitional housing, and devoting specific attention, working with agencies like Inside Out, to street youth – many of whom are recently aged out of foster care.

And even a minimum wage of $15, Wheeler points out, wouldn’t provide housing for a family. The vital strategy is to get more Portlander into jobs that pay much more than that – jobs that the Portland economy is now producing, in areas like technology, health care and marketing, but for which the area is not producing qualified workers, causing companies to fill the jobs from outside.

Matching workers with jobs involves working with local universities and community colleges, projects Wheeler, and maybe also a bolder approach.

“Why not recruit a world-class university to open a specific degree program?” Wheeler asks. “If you can’t create a world-class university, why not invite one in?”

He thinks the city could attract a major university; in certain ways, “Portland’s on fire.”

It could be a drawback, of course, if Portland streets get steadily harder to navigate. As mayor, Wheeler would assign himself the transportation bureau (along with the mayorally expected police bureau), and start redesigning its budget from zero. “The PBOT budget,” he has concluded, “is Byzantine.”

Wheeler supports the proposed city gas tax, and its going onto the ballot – a road that it’s taken the City Council a while to travel. But he thinks that may not be enough to fix the problem: “We have a patient on the table bleeding to death. That’s our streets.”

At a time of rising growth and national attention, Portland hasn’t had a lot of recent success with local government. Hales will be the city’s third one-term mayor in a row, and both Wheeler’s predecessor as county chairman and his successor flamed out dramatically, in very different ways.

We’re at a point now where Portland’s popularity needs to be matched by policy.

Maybe it’s a start to count to three.

NOTE: This column appeared in The Sunday Oregonian, 11/8/15.

10 Nov

Housing must be top priority for Hales and his successor

San Francisco and Portland began at about the same time, in the middle of the 19th century. For most of the time since then, we’ve looked south admiringly and enviously, at a great international city.

Now, Portland Monthly says, San Francisco is what we fear to become. It’s not because we hate cable cars and great views. It’s because San Francisco is becoming a place where only rich people can afford to live.

Portland doesn’t want to get there. The cost and availability of housing is the greatest issue now facing Portland, expressed in soaring rents, people evicted and exiled to mid-county, and tents under bridges and overlooking freeways.

That issue should absorb Charlie Hales for the rest of their term, and the next mayor for all of his.
Hales has been moving in that direction, leading the City Council in dedicating more increment tax revenue to housing. We need more strategies for expanding housing options, and getting homeless people off the streets and out from under bridges.

Nobody thinks these are short-term problems, or fixable by a mayor in the last year of his term. But we also can’t wait.

We don’t want to be a city of only people in expensive homes, and people without any.

NOTE: This commentary appeared on KGW-TV, 11/7/15.

04 Nov

Benghazi persistence could poison House prospects

In ten terms representing mostly the eastern and southern suburbs of Seattle in Congress, Adam Smith has never been particularly partisan. He’s now the ranking Democratic member of the Armed Services Committee – his district approaches the massive Joint Base Lewis-McChord, and defense spending is a fond subject for Washington state congressmen – and he’s been known to vote with Republicans.

But it’s a long way from Bellevue to Benghazi.

Early on in last month’s marathon House special committee questioning of Hillary Clinton on the deaths in the attack in Libya, Smith declared angrily, “We have heard nothing, not a single, solitary thing that hasn’t been discussed repeatedly.” (There had been seven previous investigations, ruining a lot of the suspense.) Later on, he told Clinton, “The purpose of this committee is to prosecute you. This is unquestionably that, a prosecution.”

Over the course of the 11-hour hearing, Smith, Adam Schiff of California and Elijah Cummings of Maryland led the Democrats in challenging Republicans’ questions, often creating loud exchanges that left Clinton watching silently from the witness chair, a mildly interested observer. For long stretches, the hearing seemed less like C-Span and more like “Crossfire.”

In his highest-profile national moment, the only Northwesterner on the special committee was uncharacteristically combative, reflecting his feelings on the investigation as not only poisonously political, but potentially darkening hopes for a more productive House under new Speaker Paul Ryan.
Compared with his previous experiences in Congress, Smith said last week, in language unusual for him, “This investigation was vastly more partisan. The questions had nothing to do with what happened at Benghazi. It’s all a political exercise from the get-go.”

The progress of the hearing – Republican committee members getting more frustrated, Democrats getting more confidently aggressive, Clinton getting a bump in the polls – would seem to discourage the investigators. But committee Chairman Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., declares himself stoutly determined to proceed, suggesting that the next step might be to subpoena all State Department emails having anything to do with Libya – a tactic Smith finds not only desperate but bewildering.

“Chairman Gowdy does not understand the scope of email in the modern world,” says Smith. “He could spend years on this.”

It’s not something Smith looks forward to, even if it gets him on national television again. There was talk, among the Democratic members, of abandoning the committee, denouncing it as pointless and partisan, and leaving the Republicans to read emails by themselves. But to Smith, “We definitely need to stay on the committee, just to call the Republicans on their partisan action.”

It’s not clear just where the investigation goes next – in addition to the emails, there are other people the Republican members might want to interview – but the issue seems likely to hang fire for the immediate future.

Last week, after Speaker John Boehner quit suddenly in the middle of the session, in the mood of someone unexpectedly paroled, House Republicans managed to come together to elect the reluctant Paul Ryan, who insisted that the atmosphere in the House would change. “It`s a new day,” he declared. “We are wiping the slate clean.”

On the question of defunding Planned Parenthood, a conservative demand with the potential of closing down the entire government unless a spending package is passed by Dec. 11, Ryan said flatly, “I think we need to be very clear about what we can and cannot achieve and not set expectations that we know we can’t reach given the constraints of the Constitution.”

Smith thinks the House atmosphere could improve. ‘I think Paul genuinely wants to try,” he says hopefully. “There is some cause for optimism.” He sees some signs of actual progress, such as the budget agreement passed by Boehner (with mostly Democratic votes) before he escaped, and the reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank – whose importance to Boeing also makes it important to congressmen from Washington and the Northwest.

But there could be a complication. “Benghazi is the fly in the ointment for Mr. Ryan,” Smith warns. “Republicans make it difficult to move forward.”

Looking at Congress over the past few years, it might be hard to be too optimistic. But Adam Smith, after two decades in the House with a record of working with Republicans – and a priority list of Northwest issues focusing on defense – sees a possibility, and also a potential peril.

If the special committee extends, as some suspect, deep into the 2016 election year, it won’t encourage good feelings in the House.

After three years and eight investigations, Benghazi could claim more casualties.

NOTE: This column appeared in The Oregonian, 11/4/15.