Wednesday, November 15, 2006

On secrecy and surveillance

One point that is often made by those in favour of more surveillance is: "If you're innocent, what have you got to hide?"

I'm struggling to think of examples of things people would want to hide from the state qua state, but the state consists of people, and plenty of these are things that you'd want to hide from other people.

Businesses want to hide their marketing strategies and their business plans from competitors. In any negotiation, both sides - whether that's management and unions or one company and another, or a supplier and a purchaser, or whatever - are going to want to conceal their bottom line from the other side.

At the individal level, no-one wants their current employer to know when they are applying for a job elsewhere until they have an offer in hand.

There are also plenty of things that are morally dubious - not exactly "innocent" - but not criminal and not really of interest to the police, but which people are unlikely to want to be made public.

For instance, if you're having an affair, you probably don't want your wife to find out.

For instance, most customers of pornography don't want that to be made public, and even more so for customers of prostitutes.

For instance, lots of people and businesses make financial mistakes, and manage to pay them off eventually - generally they don't want to create a loss of confidence with their creditors until they are in a position to cover their losses.

You'll notice that the major secrets are financial and sexual - that's because money and sex are two of the most important things to most people - along with their own health and their opinions (political or religious, for example). Generally, a person's opinions are something they express publicly, so there's little to keep secret - though there are closet racists and the like - and your health is not in general something you can conceal, though there certainly are cases - for instance, would you tell your employer if you had been depressed in the past? Would you reveal it on a job application?

I'm trying to collect other examples of legitimate secrets; I think it's key to countering the authoritarian surveillance state that New Labour - especially John Reid - is trying to establish.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Remembrance Sunday

Today, we remember all of those who have died as a result of war.

We remember the heroes who laid down their lives to save others, whether or not they won posthumous medals.

We remember the ordinary soldiers of all nations who died of the bomb and the bullet or of starvation and disease in the terrible conditions of an army on the march.

We remember the cowards who deserted and were shot - and those of us who have never had to go to war especially remember that we don't know how brave we would have been ourselves.

We remember the civilians of all nations who were blasted to bit in their own homes, or even in shelters where they thought themselves safe.

We remember the criminals who started wars or who commited terrible atrocities in the course of wars and were executed afterwards.

All of these we remember; we remember that war always kills people and few people positively want to die.

They shall not grow old,
As we that are left grow old.
Age shall not weary them,
Nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun,
And in the morning,
We shall remember them
(Laurence Binyon)

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Montana results

I'm reassured.

I've just gone through all the partial results for Montana on a county-by-county basis. My approximations are that (a) the proportion of precincts declared is the same as the proportion of votes declared in that count and (b) the remaining votes in the county will split in the same proportion as the votes declared so far. On that basis, the Republicans will close the gap by about 2,000 votes - but the gap is about 5,000 so I'm no longer as stressed. The only heavily-Republican counties that aren't 100% declared are Fergus and Meagher, and both of those are tiny. The rest - Cascade, Gallatin, Lake and Yellowstone - are 50-50 counties on their results so far.

Update 11:11 GMT: Less reassured.

My predictor now says a Republican lead of about 1,100. This is attributable to Cascade County's completed results.

Update 12:30 GMT

R lead on my predictor down to approx 900 (702 plus an estimated 200 for Meagher County where there are no results yet).

Update 13:00 GMT

Democrat lead on my predictor now 1,000 - Yellowstone county has come in with a slight D lead, where my predictor was pointing to a big R lead.

Update 13:30 GMT

All counties have now completed counting apart from Meagher. Democrat lead is 1,586 - which is more than the total number of voters in Meagher County. Congratulations, Senator Tester (D-MT).

US Midterm Elections

I've been following these all night, as, I'm sure, have many other Lib Dems.

CNN have just "called" Missouri for the Democrats, which leaves just two seats to be decided in the Senate, and, while there are twenty-odd undecided House seats, the trend in that body is pretty clear.

The Democrats have won back control of the House of Representatives, which they lost in 1994. They have won a victory of near-landslide proportions. Getting on for one in ten of the seats have changed hands, which is amazing when you consider how many seats are gerrymandered to be safe for one party or the other. At the time I type this, CNN have 26 Democrat gains from the Republicans with 27 seats undecided. Essentially all the "undecided" seats were Republican in 2004, and all of them are 50-50. Assuming they split evenly between the parties, that's 39 or 40 Democrat gains, in a chamber of 435 Representatives. Like I said, near-landslide.

Turning to the Senate, which has been close all night, there are 100 seats in the Senate. 67 Senators - 40 Republicans and 27 Democrats - are not up for election this year. Of the 33 that were up, 15 were Republican and 18 Democrat (a reflection of the strong Democrat year of 2000). The Democrats have lost two seats: Vermont to Bernie Sanders, a Socialist, who will sit with the Democrats in the Senate, and Connecticut to Joe Lieberman, the sitting Democrat Senator, who lost in the primary election, but has committed to sit with the Democrats in the Senate. Lieberman is a moderate, so will not be a sure Democrat vote - but that was the case even when he was officially a Democrat.

The Democrats have gained four seats: Missouri, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island and have held the other 16 seats that were up for election. The Republicans have successfully retained only nine seats. That puts the state of the parties overall at 49 Republicans, 47 Democrats and two Independents who are allied with the Democrats.

The two remaining states are Montana and Virginia. While Montana is very close, Jon Tester looks to have enough of a lead - 50%-47% with over 70% of the vote counted - that I would expect to see an official "call" made (the point at which the media organisations estimate that only one result is now probable) within the next few hours that the Democrats will win Montana.

Virginia is a completely different story. The official count shows that with 2435 out of 2443 precincts (polling stations) having declared their results, the election is insanely close. The Democrat, Webb, has 1,169,373 votes to the Republican's 1,161,739, a difference of 0.32%. Because Dick Cheney, the Republican Vice-President, has the casting vote in the Senate, 50 Republicans constitute a majority. Apart from Virginia, there are 49 Republicans and 50 Democrats (and allies). So the winner of this tightest of tight races gets to control the United States Senate. Virginia has an automatic recount if the result is within 0.5%. Guess what: 2.3 million votes are going to be counted again. And they're going to be scrutinised to within an inch of their lives. There are still those eight precincts to declare: two in Richmond City (D 72-26), one in Fairfax City (D 56-43), one in Loudon County (D 50-49), two in James City County (R
53-46), one in Isle of Wight County (R 57-41) and one in Halifax County (R 59-40). If there is any trend here, it's Democrat. Averaging those numbers out, the Democrats might expect to win the remaining eight precincts 53-46, which will extend their lead marginally, but is unlikely to be quite enough to get them over that 0.5% threshold.

I think it's unlikely that we'll see three or four thousand votes change hands on the recount, so my final prediction is that sometime in early December the Democrats will win Virginia's second Senate seat and control of the United States Senate - and therefore both houses of Congress.

W: You're a lame duck.

Update: 10:11 GMT Two more Virginia precincts have declared, and they're the key Richmond City precincts. They broke D: 1,313; R: 588 so extending the lead to 0.36%. That will now come back down, but I'm now pretty confident of a Democrat lead going into the recount.

However, I'm starting to worry about Montana, the 3 point lead at 0700GMT is down to 1 point at 1000 GMT with only 15% more reporting - 70% to 85%. Assuming the 70%-85% tranche is representative of the 85%-100% tranche (which is likely), then there's enough momentum to hand the state to the Republicans.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Slowest Western Election in decades

The USA has been following a doleful British trend of late - postal voting, or as they call it "absentee voting". I've recently seen figures that the normal proportion of absentee votes is about 5%, that 2004 was about 10%, but that it's expected to be 25% or more this time.

The rules for postal votes in the UK are that they have to be received by the Returning Officer by the close of poll - normally 10pm on Polling Day.

The rules in for absentee votes in much of the US are that they have to be posted on or before Election Day. This is a unversal rule for military voters using the Defense Department postal system (which includes their families).

This means that there are going to be literally millions of votes that are going to take days - maybe even a couple of weeks - to get to the electoral officers. Given that the American system is to make the official declaration only after counting all the votes (normally several weeks after Election Day), my prediction is that it will be impossible to be sure who will win in many races overnight. Unless the Democrats get a landslide of 1994 (US) or 1997 (UK) proportions, there is no way that control of the House will be settled overnight.

Anyone planning on staying up might want to reconsider.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Iraq Inquiry

There seem to me to be three main things that we need to inquire into:

1. The process by which the decision was made to go to war in Iraq. This needs to include the questions about the intelligence and the use of intelligence on WMDs, questions about when Blair decided to press for an invasion - and how that interacted with Bush's decision, because some of the information that has come out suggests that Blair had reached his decision independently even before Bush was firmly committed to war.

In looking at intelligence, we need to be going back to the 80s when Saddam used chemical weapons on the Kurds and the Iranians, and to examine how intelligence looked at the disarmament process; UN inspectors and so on, because I think it's now clear, with hindsight, that the inspectors were more effective than even they believed they were at the time, and that intelligence underestimated the degradation of the chemical and biological arsenalsand completely missed the fact that Saddam didn't have anything left by 2002. The question of how that happened and what could have been done to prevent that mistake in the future is key.

2. The invasion and the proximate aftermath.

This should include both the military campaign itself, the initial occupation, the planning process for that - and a question of what went wrong, where the public sympathy from the Iraqi people was dissipated and how it could have been done better.

My view on the public evidence is that the UK and the US State Department both proposed a colonial solution, with the Allied forces seizing the existing reins of power, and then slowly removing the corrupt and the criminal officials, trying people, establishing the rule of law and establishing public order, and then slowly democratising.

I think there were some voices, above all the neocons - the Project for a New American Century types - that were calling for a total occupation, the replacement of all the political infrastructure by American/Allied occupation personnel, the commitment of a very large military to establish and maintain order and a large civilian presence to reconstruct Iraq and create a rule of law, followed by a rapid democratisation and then a handover of a reconstructed Iraq to the new government.

But, the dominant voice was, I think, Donald Rumsfeld, who saw maintaining Saddam-era institutions and personnel, even at a relatively junior level, as unnacceptable, but also regarded the price the PNAC people proposed as excessive. What he ended up doing was to propose the PNAC methodology and pace, but the State Department/FCO price and troop level.

Unsurprisingly, this was a disaster.

However, I wasn't privy to the internal discussions within the US and UK Cabinets on this, and I think we are owed the details of what really went on.

3. The ongoing occupation and the future

We need to know firstly where we stand; how much of Iraq has established order, how well is the rule of law operating, what kind of state is local government in, where are the Iraqi security forces up to.

Secondly, we need reasonable projections - which indicators are getting better, whch worse, at what rates, and what are the realistic prospects of turning the failures around.

Thirdly , we should look at the realistic options:

a) Reinforce the military in Iraq to enable them to establish and maintain public order more easily and to train the Iraqi forces more rapidly. Where would such reinforcements come from? Do we/the Americans need a more infantry-heavy military for these sorts of duties?

b) Keep on as we are and eventually hand over to the Iraqis - is this realistically ever going to happen? How long will it take?

c) Timetabled withdrawal / cut-and-run. Let the civil war happen, let Iraq get divided, then perhaps offer some reconstruction help to the replacement states.

d) Positive division: Publicly support self-determination for an independent Kurdistan, suggest a boundary between Sunni and Shia and help the mass population movement to get people onto their side of the border, then withdraw. This is nasty and would be seen as supporting ethnic cleansing, but may leave three stable states instead of one civil war. Opening up the boundary question in the rest of the Middle East will destabilise most other Governments, but given they are almost universally nasty dictatorships, is that necessarily a bad thing?