Monday, April 24, 2017
from The Intercept
TO RESIDENTS OF MARYLAND, catching an occasional glimpse of a huge white blimp floating in the sky is not unusual. For more than a decade, the military has used the state as a proving ground for new airships destined for Afghanistan or Iraq. But less known is that the test flights have sometimes served a more secretive purpose involving National Security Agency surveillance.
Back in 2004, a division of the NSA called the National Tactical Integration Office fitted a 62-foot diameter airship called the Hover Hammer with an eavesdropping device, according to a classified document published Monday by The Intercept. The agency launched the three-engined airship at an airfield near Solomons Island, Maryland. And from there, the blimp was able to vacuum up “international shipping data emanating from the Long Island, New York area,” the document says. The spy equipment on the airship was called Digital Receiver Technology – a proprietary system manufactured by a Maryland-based company of the same name – which can intercept wireless communications, including cellphone calls.
With the exception of a few military websites that refer to the Hover Hammer as an “antenna mounting platform,” there is little information in the public domain about it. The classified NSA document describes the airship as a “helium-filled sphere inside another sphere, constructed of Spectra, the same material used to make bullet-proof vests. … It ‘hovers’ above small arms fire, has a negligible [infrared] signature, and radar can’t detect it.” The agency added in the document that it planned to conduct more tests with the Hover Hammer, and said it wanted to develop a larger version of blimp that would be capable of flying at altitudes of 68,000 feet for up to six months at a time. “More experiments, including the use of onboard imagery sensors, are being conducted,” it said.
The NSA declined to comment for this story.
In recent years, airships – or aerostats, as they are formally called – have been a source of major military investment. Between 2006 and 2015, the U.S. Army paid Raytheon some $1.8 billion to develop a massive missile-defense blimp called the JLENS, which is equipped with powerful radar that can scan in any direction 310 miles. (That’s almost the entire length of New York state.) In October 2015, the JLENS attracted national attention after one became untethered amid testing and drifted north from Maryland to Pennsylvania before it was brought back under control. In 2010, the Army commissioned another three airships – called Long Endurance Multi-Intelligence Vehicles – as part of a $517 million contract with Northrop Grumman. The company stated that the airships would “shape the future” of the military’s intelligence-gathering capabilities and provide a “persistent unblinking stare” from the sky.
Unsurprisingly, privacy groups have expressed concerns about the prospect of the blimps being used domestically to spy on Americans. However, military officials have often been quick to dismiss such fears. In August 2015, Lt. Shane Glass told Baltimore broadcaster WBAL that the JLENS blimps being tested in Maryland were not equipped with cameras or eavesdropping devices. “There are no cameras on the system, and we are not capable of tracking any individuals,” Glass stated. The same cannot be said, it seems, of the NSA’s Hover Hammer.
Are you trying to monitor a huge political protest? Look no further than DRT. Nicknamed “dirt boxes,” these devices can locate up to 10,000 targets and can process multiple analog and digital wireless devices all at the same time. They’re even capable of intercepting and recording digital voice data. The best thing about the devices is the fact that no one may ever know you’ve used one. Just be careful — if your targets do figure out you’ve used a DRT box, and you haven’t gotten a warrant, they may be able to convince a judge to throw out all the evidence you’ve collected on them after you used the device. The smaller 1301C model has advanced passive cooling technology, meaning there’s no noisy fan to give it away.
Saturday, April 8, 2017
Gov. Larry Hogan avoided a confrontation with Democratic lawmakers on Thursday by allowing more than a dozen bills to become law without his signature — including measures that give money to the attorney general to sue the federal government and require the state to fund Planned Parenthood if it loses federal funding.
The Republican governor declined to comment on the bills he elected not to sign or veto. Several drew stiff opposition from Republican lawmakers as they passed through the General Assembly.
Some of the other measures set to become law will prevent the state from opening oyster sanctuaries to harvesting until a population study is done and repeal a requirement that the state mass transit system get a certain portion of its income from fares paid by riders.
Hogan also let two of the state's budget bills become law without his signature — signaling his dissatisfaction that lawmakers refused to grant him relief from funding formulas and spending requirements that tie his hands in future budgets.
Meanwhile, Hogan's sole veto so far — of a bill that would limit some school reforms — was swiftly overridden on party-line votes in the House of Delegates and state Senate on Thursday. The bill sets guidelines for how the state identifies low-performing schools and limits actions the Maryland State Board of Education can take to help those schools.
Lawmakers sent 27 bills to the Republican governor's desk last week, early enough to require Hogan to sign or veto them while the legislature was still in Annapolis for their 90-day session, which ends Monday. That allowed Democrats the chance to override potential vetoes.
Hogan vetoed only the education bill, doing so during a visit to a Baltimore charter school on Wednesday. He signed 11 bills into law during a series of ceremonies over the past week.
The remaining 15 become law without his signature.
Supporters of Planned Parenthood said Maryland is the first state in the nation to guarantee funding for the nonprofit health organization, which has been criticized by Republicans in Congress and Trump administration officials. Planned Parenthood serves 25,000 patients at nine centers in the state.
"We must remember that a state solution does not change the fact that politicians in Congress are trying to prohibit millions of people from accessing care at Planned Parenthood," said Karen J. Nelson, CEO of Planned Parenthood of Maryland, in a statement.
Environmentalists were happy that oyster sanctuaries will be protected until a population study is completed. The Hogan administration had been considering giving watermen periodic access to the sanctuaries.
"We have so few oysters left, we can't randomly increase harvesting especially on sanctuaries," said Alison Prost, Maryland executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. "Those areas are our insurance policy for the survival of oysters in the Chesapeake."
Transit advocates cheered passage of a law that will end the Maryland Transit Administration mandate known as farebox recovery, which set a goal of financing 35 percent of the agency's operations through fares. Republican lawmakers have long sought to keep that standard as a way of holding down taxpayer subsidies for public buses and trains, but supporters of transit programs have insisted the goal is unrealistic.
"The farebox recovery mandate repeal will remove a steep impediment to a more reliable, affordable public transportation system for the citizens of Baltimore and residents of Maryland," the Get Maryland Moving Coalition said in a statement. "Maryland was one of the few states that legally required a transit system to cover a certain percentage of operating costs from fares. Maryland has no such mandate in place for other modes of transportation receiving public investment such as roads and highways."
Another bill becoming law without Hogan's signature extends the EmPOWER Maryland energy efficiency program. Under that program, customers are charged a fee on their utility bills that utility companies use for energy efficiency programs such as home energy checkups, rebates and bill credits for reducing electricity use and efficient appliances.
The American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy praised lawmakers and the governor for continuing EmPOWER Maryland.
"EmPOWER Maryland means more electricity savings for consumers, reduced operating costs for employers and increased jobs across the state," said Brendon Baatz, a policy manager for the council who has studied the effectiveness of EmPOWER.
Hogan's decision to avoid most of his possible veto fights this year is a concession to the political reality that Democrats hold super-majorities in both the House and Senate and can override his vetoes anytime they remain united.
That's what happened on Thursday, as lawmakers easily overrode Hogan's veto of the Protect Our Schools Act, which prohibits the state from enacting some school reforms.
On largely party-line votes of 90-50 in the House and 32-15 in the Senate, lawmakers upheld the measure, which they passed last week.
The bill had become a contentious political issue in the waning days of the session.
Hogan, the state school board and Republican lawmakers argue that it will trap students in troubled schools and tie the hands of the state when it tries to help. Democrats and the state teachers union, meanwhile, say the bill is necessary to prevent the state from taking over and privatizing troubled schools.
Del. Nic Kipke, an Anne Arundel County Republican who is the House minority leader, said the education bill has gotten caught up in the fervor to combat Republican President Donald J. Trump's administration. U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos supports some of the controversial reforms that the measure would prohibit Maryland from enacting.
Kipke said school children are becoming "collateral damage in the war on Washington, D.C."
Del. Eric Luedtke, a Montgomery County Democrat who sponsored the bill, said the Protect Our Schools Act will lead to "a new era in education" that isn't overly reliant on standardized tests and keeps decision-making on how to help struggling schools at the local level.
The bill will protect students from "vouchers and other quick fixes," said Sen. Paul Pinsky, a Prince George's County Democrat.
The measure will guide the state's plan for complying with the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, which is due in September. Under the act, the plan would not include the ability for the state to convert low-performing schools into charters, bring in private operators, give the children vouchers to attend private schools or putting all of those schools into a statewide "recovery" school district.
The measure also sets a formula for identifying low-performing schools that includes a mix of standardized tests and other factors, such as attendance and quality of the curriculum. The state would report how schools are ranked on the factors but would not be allowed to assign letter grades to the schools.
Hogan responded to the veto override with a posting on his Facebook page, saying he was "sad" for children who will be trapped in failing schools and concerned the state could lose education aid if the federal government finds Maryland's plan to be insufficient.
"This will long be remembered as a low point in Maryland's legislative history," Hogan wrote.
Sunday, April 2, 2017
by Pat Buchanan
"If we were to use traditional measures for understanding leaders, which involve the defense of borders and national flourishing, Putin would count as the preeminent statesman of our time."
"On the world stage, who could vie with him?"
So asks Chris Caldwell of the Weekly Standard in a remarkable essay in Hillsdale College's March issue of its magazine, Imprimis.
What elevates Putin above all other 21st-century leaders?
"When Putin took power in the winter of 1999-2000, his country was defenseless. It was bankrupt. It was being carved up by its new kleptocratic elites, in collusion with its old imperial rivals, the Americans. Putin changed that.
"In the first decade of this century, he did what Kemal Ataturk had done in Turkey in the 1920s. Out of a crumbling empire, he resurrected a national-state, and gave it coherence and purpose. He disciplined his country's plutocrats. He restored its military strength. And he refused, with ever blunter rhetoric, to accept for Russia a subservient role in an American-run world system drawn up by foreign politicians and business leaders. His voters credit him with having saved his country."
Putin's approval rating, after 17 years in power, exceeds that of any rival Western leader. But while his impressive strides toward making Russia great again explain why he is revered at home and in the Russian diaspora, what explains Putin's appeal in the West, despite a press that is every bit as savage as President Trump's?
Answer: Putin stands against the Western progressive vision of what mankind's future ought to be. Years ago, he aligned himself with traditionalists, nationalists and populists of the West, and against what they had come to despise in their own decadent civilization.
What they abhorred, Putin abhorred. He is a God-and-country Russian patriot. He rejects the New World Order established at the Cold War's end by the United States. Putin puts Russia first.
And in defying the Americans he speaks for those millions of Europeans who wish to restore their national identities and recapture their lost sovereignty from the supranational European Union. Putin also stands against the progressive moral relativism of a Western elite that has cut its Christian roots to embrace secularism and hedonism.
The U.S. establishment loathes Putin because, they say, he is an aggressor, a tyrant, a "killer." He invaded and occupies Ukraine. His old KGB comrades assassinate journalists, defectors and dissidents.
Yet while politics under both czars and commissars has often been a blood sport in Russia, what has Putin done to his domestic enemies to rival what our Arab ally Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi has done to the Muslim Brotherhood he overthrew in a military coup in Egypt?
What has Putin done to rival what our NATO ally President Erdogan has done in Turkey, jailing 40,000 people since last July's coup -- or our Philippine ally Rodrigo Duterte, who has presided over the extrajudicial killing of thousands of drug dealers?
Does anyone think President Xi Jinping would have handled mass demonstrations against his regime in Tiananmen Square more gingerly than did President Putin this last week in Moscow?
Much of the hostility toward Putin stems from the fact that he not only defies the West, when standing up for Russia's interests, he often succeeds in his defiance and goes unpunished and unrepentant.
He not only remains popular in his own country, but has admirers in nations whose political establishments are implacably hostile to him.
In December, one poll found 37 percent of all Republicans had a favorable view of the Russian leader, but only 17 percent were positive on President Barack Obama.
There is another reason Putin is viewed favorably. Millions of ethnonationalists who wish to see their nations secede from the EU see him as an ally. While Putin has openly welcomed many of these movements, America's elite do not take even a neutral stance.
Putin has read the new century better than his rivals. While the 20th century saw the world divided between a Communist East and a free and democratic West, new and different struggles define the 21st.
The new dividing lines are between social conservatism and self-indulgent secularism, between tribalism and transnationalism, between the nation-state and the New World Order.
On the new dividing lines, Putin is on the side of the insurgents. Those who envision de Gaulle's Europe of Nations replacing the vision of One Europe, toward which the EU is heading, see Putin as an ally.
So the old question arises: Who owns the future?
In the new struggles of the new century, it is not impossible that Russia -- as was America in the Cold War -- may be on the winning side. Secessionist parties across Europe already look to Moscow rather than across the Atlantic.
"Putin has become a symbol of national sovereignty in its battle with globalism," writes Caldwell. "That turns out to be the big battle of our times. As our last election shows, that's true even here."