from the blathering-about-other-stuff-coalition dept
We already wrote about how US Secretary of State John Kerry made some tone deaf remarks about "online freedom" and transparency during his appearance at the Freedom Online Coalition meeting in Estonia last week. However, it appears that his remarks fit in well with the theme of the event, which appeared to be "big governments ignoring that whole state surveillance online thing." The Freedom Online Coalition is a group of 23 governments, including the US, UK, Canada, Germany, France and many others -- and you'd think they'd pay some attention to the very vocal concerns about how those governments are engaged in lots of online spying. In fact, a bunch of public interest groups sent a letter asking the FOC to live up to their state commitments, and respond to claims of human rights violations against journalists and others via state surveillance online.
A dominant theme that ran throughout the conference was erosion of credibility and doubt about member government follow-through on commitments to protect freedom online themselves, much less to serve as role models for other governments. Dutch Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans acknowledged the credibility gap facing the coalition and invited constructive criticism and debate about the proper limits of surveillance.
Yet while the final Tallinn declaration produced by FOC governments asserted that members would “[c]ollectively condemn – through diplomatic channels, public statements and other means – violations and abuses of human rights and fundamental freedoms online as they occur in different countries throughout the world,” the declaration says little about reining in indiscriminate surveillance, nor does it acknowledge that mass surveillance chills freedom of expression and violates the right to privacy.
Perhaps the Freedom Online Coalition should start exploring a name change to more accurately reflect what they really represent.
New NSA boss Admiral Mike Rogers (once again, a different guy than NSA "overseer" and "chief #1 fan" Rep. Mike Rogers) has kicked off his new job by significantly understating the current predicament of the NSA with regards to its relationship with the public. In fact, count the multiple understatements in his comments:
“I tell the [NSA] workforce out there as the new guy, let’s be honest with each other, the nation has lost a measure of trust in us,” Admiral Michael Rogers told a conference of the Women in Aerospace conference in Crystal City, Va.
"A measure of trust." I guess that depends on exactly what "measure" you're talking about, but I'd start with a fairly large one, and then go up from there. And then up some more.
In the future, he said, “If we make a mistake, you will hear about it. That’s my job as director and I have no problem with it. ... We are not going to hide our mistakes.”
Yes, the director of the agency which once denied its own existence and was referred to as No Such Agency is claiming the agency won't hide its mistakes? Pretty much the only thing that the NSA does is hide its own activities. That's its core competence. Hiding everything that it does, which all too frequently includes its mistakes.
“The whole media leaks issue as we call it, has caused quite a stir,” said Rogers, who was sworn in as director of NSA and assumed command of U.S. Cyber Command at the beginning of April.
"Lost a measure of trust," "media leaks issue," "quite a stir." Yes, Admiral Rogers is the master of the understatement.
And, for all the talk about how the NSA won't hide from its mistakes, rather than taking responsibility for its mistakes, Admiral Rogers takes the easy way out: blame the media!
Rogers didn’t lay complete responsibility at the doorstep of the NSA: He blamed public mistrust on the way the newsmedia had framed the issues raised in the Snowden revelations.
“From my perspective the debate and the dialogue to date have been very uneven,” he said.
“Your neighbors are saying to you: ‘Man, I’ve been listening about you on the TV and reading about you in the papers and I had no idea what a bad person you are,’” he joked.
That's a joke?
He said the NSA and its staff had to work to “earn and sustain” Americans’ trust, but could not be too open about the work of the ultra-secret agency, which specializes in electronic eavesdropping and other surveillance using the latest high technology.
Wait. I thought he was just saying that the NSA wouldn't hide from its mistakes any more (note that he has still yet to admit to a mistake, but instead, blamed the media for everything).
“I believe in transparency and I will be as transparent as possible, but I also have to be mindful that in doing so I cannot undermine the specifics of what we’re doing” to protect the country, he said.
“To do that [be transparent] I have to get out of my comfort zone,” he acknowledged. “I have to walk that tightrope.”
So, he doesn't know how to be transparent, but he believes in transparency.
To sum up, Admiral Rogers appears to be saying that the NSA lost some trust because of a "media leak" which caused "a bit of a stir," and because of that he's going to embrace transparency and not hide from his mistakes. But... at the same time, he won't admit to a single mistake, and it's really all the press's fault for misreporting on things that need to be kept secret. And, also, he believes in transparency so much that he admits he isn't comfortable with transparency, and if he's actually transparent, we might all die.
That's not exactly going to win back any of the "measure" of trust the NSA lost there...
from the transparency-is-only-for-when-you're-trying-to-get-elected dept
Adopting a tactic that has been used by officials ranging from Sarah Palin to staffers of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, aides to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo are sending emails from private accounts to conduct official business.
I know because I got one myself. And three other people who interact with the governor's office on policy or media matters told me they have too. None of the others wanted to be named.
The tactic appears to be another item in the toolbox of an administration that, despite Cuomo's early vows of unprecedented transparency, has become known for an obsession with secrecy. Emailing from private accounts can help officials hide communications and discussions that are supposed to be available to the public.
"Government business should never be conducted through private email accounts. Not only does it make it difficult to retrieve what is a government record, but it just invites the suspicion that a government employee is attempting to evade accountability by supervisors and the public," said Christopher Dunn of the New York Civil Liberties Union, a frequent requester of records under the state's Freedom of Information Law.
Emailing from private accounts also may violate state policy. State employees are not to "use a personal email account to conduct State business unless explicitly authorized," according to a policy bearing the governor's name published by the Office of Information Technology Services.
The Cuomo administration declined to comment on whether any employees are authorized to use private accounts.
Back when he was running for governor, Cuomo pledged, "We must use technology to bring more sunlight to the operation of government."
The governor himself uses a Blackberry messaging system that does not save messages to communicate with aides, the Daily News reported in 2012. Under the Freedom of Information Law, those records would typically not have to be released because there is an exemption for internal deliberative material.
But emails with anyone outside of the administration – such as lobbyists, company executives, or reporters – usually have to be made public upon request. It is for those communications, with people outside the administration, that private email accounts have been used.
Last year, I was poking around on a possible story and filed some public records requests that sought emails from Director of State Operations Howard Glaser, a top Cuomo adviser. One day in October, just hours after filing a request with the governor's office, an email appeared in my inbox from Glaser himself.
The email, inquiring what I was working on, was sent from a @glasergroup.net address rather than a government account. The note had a signature line about not using the email address for official business (even though it appeared to be doing just that). My interest was piqued.
So I filed a request under the state's Freedom of Information Law, asking for all records sent to and from Glaser's private account. It is not supposedto matter if an email is sent from an official account or a private one: If it pertains to government business, it typically has to be released.
A couple of months later, the Cuomo administration responded with a terse denial: "Please be advised that the New York State Executive Chamber has conducted a diligent search, but does not possess records responsive to your request."
I appealed, noting that I had in my possession a record responsive to the request – Glaser's email to me – and included it as an attachment.
The administration upheld its original denial, now citing a retention issue.
"[T]he fact that this record is in your possession does not mean that the Chamber failed to produce a responsive record in its possession. Emails and certain other correspondence are not required to be preserved indefinitely," the March letter said.
When I asked about the email this month, Cuomo spokesman Rich Azzopardi took a different tack, now disputing that Glaser was emailing me in his official capacity at all and calling the email "informal." "It would be inaccurate to characterize Howard's email as official business – as he noted, your official business was being handled by the FOIL office, not him," Azzopardi said.
But I have no personal relationship with Glaser, and my Freedom of Information Law requests focused only on his activities as a state official. When I recently asked Glaser about his email practices, he said, "I don't use personal email to conduct official business." He would not say how he defines "official business."
In its letter denying my request for emails from Glaser's private account, the administration cited the general retention policy of the State Archives. That policy says that "many email communications are not records and are therefore suitable for immediate destruction" but also that those emails which are records must be preserved.
So how does one determine which emails are "records"?
The governor's office seems to take a particularly narrow view. The governor's policy says that emails are only "records" if they are formal documents like press releases and nominations. Azzopardi, the Cuomo spokesman, said: "Official email is not required to be retained unless it meets the definition of a particular kind of record (eg – contract), consistent with the State Archives policy."
But the Archives, which Cuomo's office itself cited, takes a more expansive view, even as state law gives the governor leeway to determine which records should be kept.
Quoting the official definition of records, Archives spokeswoman Antonia Valentine said an email is a record if it is created "in connection with the transaction of public business (and provides) … evidence of the organization, functions, policies, decisions, procedures, operations, or other activities (of an agency)."
In practice, Glaser seems to be either eschewing his official email account or promptly deleting messages of substance. When I asked for a 10-day sample of emails from Glaser's official account, I got back little actual communication: 147 pages that are largely filled with newsletters, press releases, and the occasional terse email to set up a phone call.
The use of private accounts can result in even more roadblocks when an official leaves the government. (Glaser is reportedly leaving the administration in June.)
The issue has come up before.
In 2007, executives from the insurance giant AIG filed a public records request with the Office of the Attorney General, seeking, among other things, former Attorney General Eliot Spitzer's communications with the press from the period when he had sued the insurance giant. That request was resisted for years by Spitzer's successor as attorney general: Andrew Cuomo.
While Cuomo's office eventually released emails sent from official accounts, it maintained that Spitzer's use of a private account put any of those emails beyond its reach.
"[T]he reality is that the Office of the Attorney General lacks access to this account and possession of whatever e-mails it may contain, thus rendering them beyond the scope of petitioner's FOIL request both practically and legally," Cuomo's office said in a 2009 court filing.
A judge ruled against the attorney general's office, which has appealed. Seven years since the original request, the case is still in the courts and Spitzer's private email account – which he was known to use in his capacity as a state official – has never been searched for records.
Lawyers for Spitzer joined the case this year, arguing in a March filing that because Spitzer is now a former employee and a private citizen, the Freedom of Information Law doesn't apply.
Beyond the governor's office, the state is reportedly moving toward an email system that would automatically delete emails after 90 days except for those marked by users to save.
It's not clear how that process would work or how the state will ensure that records are not destroyed. The Office of Information and Technology Services declined to provide the memo describing the new policy, requiring that I file a formal public records request to get it.
Transparency advocates have criticized 90 days as too short a period because emails may only become relevant months later after a scandal or other event.
A document on the IT office's website references the possibility in a state email system for "recovery of deleted mailbox contents for the length of the retention period" – another capability that would not exist for officials using private accounts.
Across the river in New Jersey, private email accounts are at the center of the Bridgegate scandal.
The infamous "Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee" email was sent from a Christie aide's Yahoo account to another official's Gmail account. That tactic held off public access to the email for a time.
In December, the Christie administration claimed it did not have records in response to a request from the Record of Bergen, N.J. The emails became public later, only after the officials were subpoenaed by the state Assembly.
If you have gotten emails from the private account of an official in the governor's office or other state or city agencies, email me at email@example.com.
Reposted from ProPublica via its Creative Commons (BY-NC-ND) license.
In a bit of a surprise move, the House Judiciary Committee, led by Rep. Bob Goodlatte, caught people off guard this morning by announcing that there would be a markup of the USA FREEDOM Act on Wednesday, complete with a Manager's Amendment from bill author Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner. If you don't recall, the USA FREEDOM Act was the best bet for real NSA reforms. It was far from perfect, but did actually do a lot of good things without adding a bunch of bad things. The amended version scales that back a bit. It's not as good, but it's still pretty good. Harley Geiger, over at CDT has a good overview of the Manager's Amendment, and how it actually improves the bill in certain areas, while Marcy Wheeler highlights both the good and bad of the amendment.
Of course, within just a few minutes of the Judiciary Committee announcing its plans to move forward with the USA FREEDOM Act, the House Intelligence Committee announced that it would hold its own damn markup on the competing "NSA reform" bill from Reps. Mike Rogers and Dutch Ruppersberger, which is designed to look like a shot at NSA reform, but which really would make it easier for the NSA to collect info on people. That bill, called the FISA Transparency and Modernization Act (almost none of that is true), is basically the NSA's prime choice for pretending to be reform.
This sets up a bit of an upcoming fight -- assuming that both markups lead to bills getting voted out of committee -- to see which bill House Speaker John Boehner is willing to bring to the floor. Basically, Boehner gets to make the final decision on NSA reform at this stage. Will he bring the real reform bill or the fake one?
from the might-still-making-right,-despite-technological-developments dept
Once you've ceded the high ground, it's very difficult to reclaim it. At this time last year, the Secretary of State could have gotten away with the following remarks, but just barely. The NSA documents had not yet been revealed, but the US government had been giving up chunks of free speech high ground for quite some time.
[L]et me be clear – as in the physical space, cyber security cannot come at the expense of cyber privacy. And we all know this is a difficult challenge. But I am serious when I tell you that we are committed to discussing it in an absolutely inclusive and transparent manner, both at home and abroad. As President Obama has made clear, just because we can do something doesn’t mean that we should do it. And that’s why he ordered a thorough review of all our signals intelligence practices. And that’s why he then, after examining it and debating it and openly engaging in a conversation about it, which is unlike most countries on the planet, he announced a set of concrete and meaningful reforms, including on electronic surveillance, in a world where we know there are terrorists and others who are seeking to do injury to all of us.
First off, almost every "cyber security" bill has pushed for security at the expense of privacy. CISPA has done this twice. The new CISPA, being presented by the Senate, does the same thing.
Second, the reforms set up by the administration are hardly "concrete and meaningful." They're shallow and limited and do very little to walk back the expansive readings of outdated laws (something Kerry references earlier in his remarks) that have led to these programs being declared "legal." There is a review currently underway, but almost everything the review board has suggested has been ignored.
As for "examining and debating" domestic surveillance, the president only did so because he could no longer ignore it. The leaks weren't simply going to stop and so he finally "welcomed the debate" he'd been making stand out in the foyer for the past several years.
But here's where Kerry treads deepest on his faux moral high ground.
And finally, transparency – the principles governing such activities need to be understood so that free people can debate them and play their part in shaping these choices. And we believe these principles can positively help us to distinguish the legitimate practices of states governed by the rule of law from the legitimate practices of states that actually use surveillance to repress their people. And while I expect you to hold the United States to the standards that I’ve outlined, I also hope that you won’t let the world forget the places where those who hold their government to standards go to jail rather than win prizes.
That last sentence is incredible, in the most pejorative sense. This administration has prosecuted more whistleblowers -- the people who "hold their government to standards" -- than all other administrations combined. And this administration isn't done yet. The infamous "Insider Threat" program, one that tells US government employees to look for warning signs like "dissatisfaction with government policies," began during this administration. Further efforts are being kicked around in the wake of Snowden's departure from the NSA with thousands of documents, including the Director of National Intelligence telling employees they can no longer speak to the media. The CIA spies on the Senate while a Senator sends the DOJ on a mission to find out who leaked bullet points from the still-secret CIA Torture Report to journalists.
As for the prizes, I presume Kerry is referring to the awarding of Pulitzers to journalists who reported on the Snowden leaks. If so, that's a very self-serving statement, considering the government had exactly nothing to do with awarding these prizes and if it was in the administration's hands, those prizes would not have gone to The Guardian and the Washington Post.
Kerry caps it off by casting the internet freedom fight as a battle between right and wrong -- which it is -- but portrays the US government as being firmly on the "right" side.
[T]his debate is about two very different visions: one vision that respects freedom and another that denies it. All of you at the Freedom Online Coalition are on the right side of this debate, and now we need to make sure that all of us together wind up on the right side of history.
This is a very chilling statement, one that suggests the Freedom Online Coalition needs to side with the US government if it wishes to "wind up on the right side of history." As it stands right now, the "right side of history" is almost diametrically opposed to the administration's protection of abusive agencies and persecution of whistleblowers. Kerry's words read more like a subtle threat. Fight the good fight, he says, but never forget history is written by the winners. Your "privacy" will never be worth more than your "security," not when those values are determined by the government.
The money in politics issue is one that gets a lot of attention and the good folks over at the Sunlight Foundation have been trying to help provide much more transparency for years. And now they're bringing out the lawyers. Teaming up with the Campaign Legal Center and represented by Georgetown University's Institute for Public Representation, the Sunlight Foundation has filed complaints against 11 TV stations for blatantly violating the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, which requires networks disclose who is actually buying political ads on TV.
Political nonprofits, which often come with singularly uninformative names like "American Action Network" or "Patriot Majority USA," are not required to disclose much of their spending — or any of their donors — to the FEC. But there is one place where they do have to leave a paper trail: the TV stations where they buy ads. That's why we put our focus there.
Just one problem: a bunch of TV networks have basically done everything possible to avoid complying. Even though courts have said that the major TV stations need to post very specific information online, many simply don't include the necessary (and required) information.
Why is it important? Because "Americans for Better Apple Pie" might be your local slag heap operator. "Citizens for a Conservative GOP" might be Democrats trying to sabotage the primary contender that they think has the best chance of beating their candidate in the general. These are not far-fetched scenarios. Take a look at this ad, which doesn't anywhere mention toxic materials, but which paint an indubitably positive picture of the chairman of the House committee that's now working on a rewrite of the government law on toxic waste. Unless you are looking carefully at your TV screen at just the right time, you'd miss the fact that these ads are brought to you by the American Chemistry Council — an organization that is lobbying on the bill in question. Without the online TV ad files, you'd never know that the American Chemistry Council spent some $250,000 airing the ad.
Hopefully the FCC actually does something and makes these networks obey the law.
from the well,-that-would-appear-to-be-your-own-fault dept
It's become fairly clear that the TPP agreement is in trouble these days (for a variety of reasons). And it appears that President Obama is losing his cool concerning the agreement and its critics. In a press conference with Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, President Obama lashed out at TPP critics, calling them "conspiracy theorists" whose criticism "reflects lack of knowledge of what is going on in the negotiations." Oh really?
If you take an issue like drugs, for example, the United States does extraordinary work in research and development, and providing medical breakthroughs that save a lot of lives around the world. Those companies that make those investments in that research oftentimes want a return, and so there are all kinds of issues around intellectual property and patents, and so forth.
At the same time, I think we would all agree that if there’s a medicine that can save a lot of lives, then we’ve got to find a way to make sure that it’s available to folks who simply can’t afford it as part of our common humanity. And both those values are reflected in the conversations and negotiations that are taking place around TPP. So the assumption somehow that right off the bat that’s not something we’re paying attention to, that reflects lack of knowledge of what is going on in the negotiations.
But my point is you shouldn’t be surprised if there are going to be objections, protests, rumors, conspiracy theories, political aggravation around a trade deal. You’ve been around long enough, Chuck — that’s true in Malaysia; it’s true in Tokyo; it’s true in Seoul; it’s true in the United States of America — and it’s true in the Democratic Party.
Um. You know why those complaining may "lack knowledge of what is going on in the negotiations"? Perhaps it's because the USTR -- a part of the Obama White House -- has insisted that the entire negotiations take place in complete secrecy with no transparency at all. If President Obama doesn't want conspiracy theories about the agreement, and wishes that its critics were more informed about the negotiations, he can change that today by instructing the USTR to release its negotiating positions and promise to make all future negotiating positions public.
But he won't do that. Why? Because the USTR has admitted that if the public knew what was going on with the TPP, it wouldn't support the agreement. And so the negotiations continue in secret. And the President Obama gets frustrated about a lack of knowledge and conspiracy theories? Really?
[T]he Guardian has confirmed that Senate leaders have removed the language as they prepare to bring the bill to the floor for a vote, after the director of national intelligence, James Clapper, assured them in a recent letter that the Obama administration was looking for its own ways to disclose more about its highly controversial drone strikes.
“The executive branch is currently exploring ways in which it can provide the American people more information about the United States’ use of force outside areas of active hostilities,” Clapper wrote to the leaders of the Senate committee, Democrat Dianne Feinstein of California and Republican Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, on 18 April.
CC'ed on the letter are the heads of the House Intelligence Committee, Mike Rogers and Dutch Ruppersberger. This decision wasn't in their hands, but even if it was, it wouldn't have played out any differently. Rogers, in particular, is a huge fan of the administration's drone work and has publicly lamented the fact that the slowly-turning wheels of bureaucracy are keeping the US from killing even more people.
Feinstein's relationship with drones is, of course, somewhat hypocritical. She feels there should be stricter regulations on commercial drone usage (partially prompted by a non-commercial drone appearing outside her house during a Code Pink anti-NSA protest) and seems generally opposed to drone surveillance. However, she does stand strongly behind the nation's counterterrorism efforts and believes killing people with drones (rather than just watching them) is more acceptable.
Feinstein has long been a defender of the CIA’s drone strikes. During a February 2013 confirmation hearing for CIA Director John Brennan, Feinstein stated that the CIA’s targeting procedures kills only “single digits” of civilians annually, an assertion that cannot be independently confirmed because of the official secrecy surrounding the strikes.
Even some intelligence officials have grudgingly agreed some transparency on this issue would be a positive step for the administration to take. But that number doesn't include James Clapper, whose unintentionally humorous letter asserts that the self-proclaimed "most transparent administration" is actively seeking ways to publicize drone strike numbers. Only in recent months has the administration even acknowledged there might be a downside to its drone strike program. There's been a rollback in the number of strikes and the administration did express its hesitance to kill American citizens with drones, even if they clearly were associating with known terrorists. But this hand-wringing was mostly about public relations and less about the reality of the situation -- that the US would have to piss off yet another country by blowing past its agreement with them to not engage in military strikes on its soil.
So, there's that. And all of that is indeed very little. For years, it's been even less, as Ackerman points out.
The sharing of even basic information about drone strikes has run into a wall of official secrecy. Several independent groups attempt to track the numbers of people killed in the strikes, but no official US confirmation has been possible.
For one obfuscation artists (Clapper) to claim another (the administration) will be taking the lead when it comes to transparency borders on farcical. Now that Senate intelligence heads have complied with Clapper's request, the intelligence community's accountability has been removed. This puts the whole thing in the administration's hands, which isn't really an improvement. I'm sure the current president has no desire to publicly announce his regime has been more deadly than his predecessor's, especially given Bush's proclivity for pushing military/surveillance solutions to the world's problems.
At the beginning of 2012, about 20 WTO members (the EU counted as one) calling themselves "The Really Good Friends of Services" (RGF) launched secret unofficial talks towards drafting a treaty that would further liberalize trade and investment in services, and expand "regulatory disciplines" on all services sectors, including many public services. The "disciplines," or treaty rules, would provide all foreign providers access to domestic markets at "no less favorable" conditions as domestic suppliers and would restrict governments' ability to regulate, purchase and provide services. This would essentially change the
regulation of many public and privatized or commercial services from serving the public interest to serving the profit interests of private, foreign corporations.
The Australian government's TISA page fills in some details:
The TiSA negotiations will cover all services sectors. In addition to improved market access commitments, the negotiations also provide an opportunity to develop new disciplines (or trade rules) in areas where there has been significant developments since the WTO Uruguay Round negotiations. There negotiations will cover financial services; ICT services (including telecommunications and e-commerce); professional services; maritime transport services; air transport services, competitive delivery services; energy services; temporary entry of business persons; government procurement; and new rules on domestic regulation to ensure regulatory settings do not operate as a barrier to trade in services.
If that sounds familiar, it's because very similar language is used to describe TAFTA/TTIP, which aims to liberalize trade and investment, to provide foreign investors with access to domestic markets on the same terms as local suppliers, to limit a government's ability to regulate there by removing "non-tariff barriers" -- described above as "regulatory settings" -- and to use corporate sovereignty provisions to enforce investors' rights.
The 23 TiSA parties currently comprise: Australia, Canada, Chile, Chinese Taipei, Colombia, Costa Rica, European Union (representing its 28 Member States), Hong Kong, Iceland, Israel, Japan, Liechtenstein, Mexico, New Zealand, Norway, Pakistan, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Republic of Korea, Switzerland,, Turkey and the United States.
Once more, the rising economies of the BRICS nations -- Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa -- are all absent, and the clear intent, as with TTIP and TPP, is to impose the West's terms on them. That's explicitly recognized by one of the chief proponents of TISA, the European Services Forum:
the possible future agreement would for the time being fall short of the participation of some of the leading emerging economies, notably Brazil, China, India and the ASEAN countries. It is not desirable that all those countries would reap the benefits of the possible future agreement without in turn having to contribute to it and to be bound by its rules.
The Australian government's page reveals that there have already been five rounds of negotiations -- all held behind closed doors, of course, just as with TTIP and TPP. The Public Information Session taking place in Geneva this week seems to mark the start of a new phase in those negotiations, at least allowing some token transparency. Perhaps this has been provoked by the growing public anger over the secrecy surrounding TPP and TAFTA/TTIP, and fears that the longer TISA was kept out of the limelight, the worse the reaction would be when people found out about it.
Last fall, many folks who follow these issues were somewhat dismayed by a weird NY Times editorial that appeared to endorse the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement, while basically ignoring the many complaints about it. It wasn't exactly a ringing endorsement, but it did clearly support the agreement, concluding with:
A good agreement would lower duties and trade barriers on most products and services, strengthen labor and environmental protections, limit the ability of governments to tilt the playing field in favor of state-owned firms and balance the interests of consumers and creators of intellectual property. Such a deal will not only help individual countries but set an example for global trade talks.
The endorsement resulted in the Times being rightly mocked for endorsing a secretive agreement that the NY Times editorial writers had not seen (indeed, could not see). Apparently, some folks on the editorial staff took at least some of this criticism to heart, and have now released a new editorial that is much more critical of the TPP -- in particular, the process around it.
That is, while the editorial still (rightly, in our opinion) supports the idea of lowering key trade barriers, it finally acknowledges that a lot of what the TPP is doing has little to do with removing trade barriers, and plenty to do with helping corporations push through global regulations that it could not get adopted domestically. Furthermore, it directly takes on the fact that the USTR is ridiculously secretive on the negotiation with everyone except big businesses that have direct access:
The Obama administration has revealed so few details about the negotiations, even to members of Congress and their staffs, that it is impossible to fully analyze the Pacific partnership. Negotiators have argued that it’s impossible to conduct trade talks in public because opponents to the deal would try to derail them.
But the administration’s rationale for secrecy seems to apply only to the public. Big corporations are playing an active role in shaping the American position because they are on industry advisory committees to the United States trade representative, Michael Froman. By contrast, public interest groups have seats on only a handful of committees that negotiators do not consult closely.
That lopsided influence is dangerous, because companies are using trade agreements to get special benefits that they would find much more difficult to get through the standard legislative process. For example, draft chapters from the Pacific agreement that have been leaked in recent months reveal that most countries involved in the talks, except the United States, do not want the agreement to include enforceable environmental standards. Business interests in the United States, which would benefit from weaker rules by placing their operations in countries with lower protections, have aligned themselves with the position of foreign governments. Another chapter, on intellectual property, is said to contain language favorable to the pharmaceutical industry that could make it harder for poor people in countries like Peru to get generic medicines.
The editorial further notes the problematic "corporate sovereignty" provisions that allow companies the ability to sue countries for regulations they dislike, noting how it could be abused by banks to block financial regulations (as an example). It further questions some of the predictions of economic benefits from these agreements.
Towards the end, it notes (as many of us have been pointing out for years) that the Obama administration, and the USTR in particular, only have themselves to blame for this mess:
To a large extent, the administration has only itself to blame. By keeping secret so much information about trade negotiations, which have ceased to be purely about trade matters like tariffs and quotas, the government has made itself a target for criticism. Mr. Obama and Mr. Froman argue that their critics have misunderstood or misrepresented their intentions. But that is precisely why the president should provide answers to the questions people have raised about these agreements. It is time for him to make a strong case for why these new agreements will be good for the American economy and workers.
Of course, considering how many times this has been pointed out, and the USTR's only response is to push out blatant misrepresentations of the truth, it seems unlikely that anything is going to change any time soon.