Sunday, October 27, 2013

The NSA re: Soviet Union: "As a totalitarian society, they valued eavesdropping and developed ingenious methods to accomplish it"

United States Representative to the United Nations, Henry Cabot Lodge, points to the spot on the seal where it had been bugged by the Soviets, circa 1960

German Chancellor Angela Merkel was "livid" upon hearing that the United States has been eavesdropping on her conversations, according to a recent report  in the British news outlet The Guardian.

Merkel's mobile telephone had been listed by the National Security Agency's (NSA) Special Collection Service (SCS) since 2002 -- marked as "GE Chancellor Merkel" -- and was still on the list weeks before President Obama visited Berlin in June, German news weekly Der Spiegel said.

Claudia Roth, co-leader of the German Green Party, told SPIEGEL ONLINE that the alleged bugging of Merkel's cell phone is a "terrible, terrible scandal" that if proven, is a more extreme invasion of privacy than those imagined in George Orwell's 1984.

"The NSA's monitoring activities have gotten completely out of hand and evidently take place beyond all democratic controls," said Thomas Oppermann, the chairman of the Parliamentary Control Panel, which is responsible for monitoring Germany's federal intelligence services.

The United States can understand outrage over spying. We were pretty pissed when US intelligence --the NSA no less!-- revealed that the Soviet Union had bugged our nearly complete embassy in Moscow. (Not to mention the time they gifted us a bugged seal of the United States, pictured with Henry Cabot Lodge II above. I wonder if we re-gifted that.)

Construction on the badly needed embassy was abruptly halted in August 1985 when it was discovered that Soviet workers had been doing concealed work not called for in the building plans.

Using a CAT-scan machine, US officials "found an elaborate and far-reaching network of spying equipment concealed inside beams, walls and floor slabs," the Philadelphia Inquirer reported in October 1988.

According to a 2012 history of the Moscow embassy scandal, produced by the NSA, bugs were also placed in typewriters. "As a totalitarian society, the Soviet Union valued eavesdropping and thus developed ingenious methods to accomplish it," the NSA report explains.

President Reagan decided that the only way to prevent the KGB secret police from eavesdropping on the U.S. Embassy in Moscow was to tear down the new chancery and rebuild it from the ground up, the LA Times reported on Oct 27, 1988.

This would've cost US taxpayers hundreds of millions dollars, but the Cold War ended in 1991 and the building remained in tact. Construction on the embassy was finally completed in May 2000.

In a radio address to the nation in April 1987, President Reagan said:

Recent events have made it clear that the Soviets have gone beyond the bounds of reason in their efforts to compromise the security of our current Embassy in Moscow. Unfortunately, no one is suggesting that Soviet espionage is not a fact of life, but what seems to be emerging is the picture of an intense espionage strategy that reflects a callous disregard for the consequences of such actions.

Crow anyone?

Sunday, October 20, 2013

The Alaska Appropriations Affair

Photo shows Walter W. Johnson, a mining engineer and designer of gold and tin dredges, who traveled around the Seward Peninsula on the family "pupmobile" and on horseback. Johnson wrote on the back of his copy of the photo, "When it was time to coast, the dogs would jump aboard without command." (Source: Granddaughter Lynn Johnson, 2013)


Most people--including me--don't realize how big Alaska is, nor how controversial it was. Even after the Treaty for its purchase had been signed, and the land surrendered to us, the appropriation of money to pay Russia was delayed by more than a year due to opposition in the House of Representatives (sound familiar?).

"Russian America" was officially surrendered to the United States on October 18, 1867. Dubbed "Seward's folly" after its chief advocate Secretary of State William Seward, the $7.25 million price tag was thought by some to be a colossal waste of money.

Those opposed to the Alaska acquisition argued we couldn't afford it. Burdened with debt from the Civil War and with plenty of uninhabited land, the New York Tribune wrote in May 1867 that this country is "already possessed of more territory than it can decently govern."

Using its powers to control the nation's purse strings, the popular branch of the government sought to shield American taxpayers from the burden of paying for a "perfectly barren" piece of land.

In the end, their actions threatened the nation's reputation as well as its security. "The Alaska affair had assumed such a position that it would have been highly discreditable to longer withhold from Russia the purchase-money. The nation was committed not only by the ratification of the treaty but by the actual transfer of the new territory, and there was no honorable alternative but to make the best of the bargain," concluded the Telegraph.

The House finally approved the appropriation on July 14, 1868, by a vote of 113 to 48.

As to whether the $7.25 million purchase was a good investment, there continues to be some debate.

An 1871 article written by W.H. Dall and published in Harpers New Monthly Magazine, however, was already dismissing detractors. With a rich source of seal skins, furs, salt-cod fish, whale oil, and Alaskan cedar, Dall estimated the Alaska investment was returning 14% annually, versus: Texas 23%, Florida 5%, New Mexico and Arizona 1%.

Fifty years later, and after gold had been discovered there, Secretary of the Interior Frank Lane said: 

Alaska's period of trial is over. She has been weighed in the balance and found magnificently worthy. Actual financial statements show and prove conclusively that to have neglected that opportunity would have been a colossal blunder, a blunder future generations could never forgive.

Today, Alaska is taking an innovative approach to political leadership. Read about Mayor Stubbs, the cat mayor, at WSJ.com

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Oct in D.C.: Shutting Down, Building Up

Illustration shows Theodore Roosevelt as a burlesque dancer labeled "Rosie", clutching money, and standing with a man labeled "Perkins" who is reaching into his pocket; in the background is a poster labeled "Bull Moose Burlesque". From Puck Magazine and LOC.gov

In 2013, mid October means government shutdown. In prior years, it was a time for building up, at least at the White House.

The first cornerstone was laid on what would come to be known as the White House on Oct 12, 1792. Over a century later, on Oct 13 1902, Teddy Roosevelt's West Wing addition was completed.

On Oct 14, 1912, colonel Roosevelt insisted on not shutting down, even after he had been shot. You would be forgiven if you've never heard of this assassination attempt. At the time, Roosevelt wasn't quite aware of it either.

Recall in June of that year, Roosevelt led a revolt against the Republican establishment and formed the Progressive Party. The Progressive platform included securing "legitimate and honest business, fostered by equal justice," and named a prominent banker, George Walbridge Perkins, as his executive secretary (pictured with Roosevelt above).

As his party's candidate, Roosevelt ran the most successful third-party campaign in our history, receiving more votes than his incumbent Republican rival W. H. Taft. Nonetheless, the Democrat Woodrow Wilson, won the day with 42% of the vote.

The assassination attempt occurred on a campaign stop in Milwaukee, WI. The would-be assassin was a poet named John Schrank, a "poorly attired man" who claimed he tried to kill Roosevelt because he believed no President should have three terms.

"Don't hurt him, I'm all right," the Washington Herald reported Roosevelt said as his guards tried to subdue the assassin-poet. Roosevelt's private physician, Dr. Terrill, spoke next.

"Colonel Roosevelt, I believe you are hurt."

"No not at all," returned Roosevelt with a smile. "I feel fine."

"I want to see if the bullet hit you," insisted Dr. Terrill. 

"Don't bother yourself," protested Roosevelt unperturbed. "If it hurt any, I would tell you. There are people waiting in the auditorium to see me."

"You can't go in there until I've seen if that bullet took effect," remarked Terrill. 

"My dear doctor, that is impossible," declared Roosevelt firmly. "I'm going to make that speech if it is the last one." 

Seeing it was useless to interfere, the colonel's bodyguard escorted him to the platform. As Roosevelt walked firmly to the stage as though nothing in the world were the matter, the gigantic crowd burst into the wildest cheer he has heard on the campaign trip. 

The former President had in his pocket a carefully prepared speech which he had dictated on the train on the way to Milwaukee. Without any formality, except to greet the crowd as "fellow citizens of Wisconsin," the colonel pulled the manuscript of his speech from his breast pocket. As he drew it out, he found for the first time, that the bullet had penetrated it.

October 13 is the birthday of singer-songwriter Paul Simon!  Was Simon thinking of Roosevelt's split from the Republicans when he wrote 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover?

For those you interested in learning more about Roosevelt's Progressive Party Platform of 1912, visit PBS.org.

Flannery O'Connor

You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you odd.