Saturday, February 19, 2011

Bait And (Kill) Switch

A spate of headlines yesterday spread the word that a chastened Sen. Collins, stung by criticism from across the ideological spectrum, had revamped her "cybersecurity" legislation, abandoning efforts to give the government power to shut down parts of the internet:

--US Bill Would Prohibit Internet "kill Switch"

--Senators Dump Internet 'Kill Switch' for Cyber-Attack Response

--New Cyber Security Bill Kills the 'Kill Switch'

But did Collins and friends really revise the bill fundamentally to address concerns and answer objections?

Or did she and Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) instead just make a few cosmetic changes in a bid to reframe the debate and snooker lazy reporters into showering their pet project with a flurry of press release journalism?

What do you think?

The revised wording (PDF) continues to alarm civil liberties groups and other critics of the bill, who say the language would allow the government to shut down portions of the Internet or restrict access to certain Web sites or types of content.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation said today that it continues to have concerns about the Lieberman-Collins bill. "The president would have essentially unchecked power to determine what services can be connected to the Internet or even what content can pass over the Internet in a cybersecurity emergency," said EFF Senior Staff Attorney Kevin Bankston. "Our concerns have not changed."
Jim Harper, director of information policy studies at the free-market Cato Institute and a member of a Homeland Security advisory panel, says that supporters of the bill have yet to make the argument that such governmental emergency powers will do more good than harm.

"They recognize that a total Internet kill switch is totally unacceptable," Harper said today. "A smaller Internet kill switch, or a series of kill switches, is also unacceptable...How does this make cybersecurity better? They have no answer."

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

LIHEAP Then and Now

Sen. Collins is aghast at the prospect of cuts in LIHEAP funding. But she didn't make so much as a peep when funding for the program was trimmed in 2009 during the stimulus debate--even though she was arguably the key player on that legislation.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Dodge In His Own Words

Via Dirigo Blue, we learn that Andrew Ian Dodge has announced that he'll challenge Sen. Snowe in the 2012 Republican primary.

Here are some excerpts of an e-mail interview I did with Dodge earlier this week.

--On the key issues in a GOP primary

"I believe the key issue of the 2012 election cycle will be the state of the economy and the effect government is having on it. Factors like the debt burden, spending and taxation will be as important in 2012 as they were in 2010.

The fact is that in order for the economy to recover, the Federal budget needs to be drastically cut, the debt needs to be paid down and the tax burden on Americans needs to be decreased."

--On Sen. Snowe

"Sen. Snowe's record is absolutely terrible, both in the areas of preserving our freedoms and of creating a responsible fiscal policy.

She was the cosponsor of a proposal to give the government power to shut off the internet, and has come out in favor of the unconstitutional McCain-Feingold legislation, so she obviously doesn't care very much about the First Amendment.

She claims to be a fiscal conservative, but what kind of fiscal conservative would help vote a massive new entitlement out of committee in the teeth of her party and the people? She also voted against making the Bush tax-cuts permanent while voting for TARP and every other bailout."

--On Snowe's lurch to the right

"I'm not surprised Sen. Snowe has been making efforts to reach to the tea party movement. When you're staring down a group that could end your career, you don’t tend to antagonize them...If she wins, she'll go right on being moderate and won’t bat an eye about having lied to her constituents."

--On the Maine media's fawning coverage of Sen. Snowe

"Politicians aren't answerable to the media; they're answerable to the people...I hope Snowe keeps up her strategy of only talking to those who sing her praises. It'll keep her from ever hearing that she has weaknesses."

--On the conventional wisdom that he's not a serious challenger

"Spreading this meme is one that has worked successfully in the past for the Snowe machine. That and the one claiming that only Snowe can win in the general election. I wonder how that worked out for Robert Bennett or Charlie Crist.

I remember a time when the conventional wisdom said the tea party movement would not be a factor in the 2010 cycle. That turned out to be wrong...I know the burden of proof is on me to prove skeptics wrong, but I welcome that challenge."

--On raising enough money to be competitive

"The Snowe machine is an impressive leviathan to stand up against. However there are millions of people in this country that loathe Snowe with every inch of their being. Its not just the tea party movement that reviles her. While not letting on too much, we will be tapping into resource streams that look to defeat Snowe wherever they might be."

Friendship and Scrutiny

One idea that seems to be circulating is that Collins' participation in a $705,000 investment is unworthy of scrutiny because Collins and Daffron are friends who have known each other for a long time. But that's crazy.

The potential conflict of interest inherent in a pol and lobbyist participating together in a $705,000 investment doesn't dissolve simply because the two are friends.

And while there's no reason to assume that a financial transaction between friends is automatically suspect, the existence of a friendship doesn't preclude the possibility of impropriety either.

Bottom line: When two people call each other "friends" that designation should not function as a trump card shielding all dealings between them from press scrutiny.

Facts and Questions

It's worth stressing upfront: I have no grounds to believe there's anything improper or untoward about Sen. Collins' recent Washington house purchase.

That said, none of the public discussion so far has addressed--let alone answered--the very salient, public interest-minded questions that the purchase raises.

Since no one seems particularly inclined to put these questions to the junior senator, what follows is an attempt to get a handful of relevant facts on the table and draw attention to some of those outstanding questions:

--Collins and Thomas Daffron, with whom she bought the $705,000 house, have a professional relationship going back to the 1970s. He has worked on at least one of her political campaigns and donated at least $6350 to Collins over the course of several election cycles.

--Daffron is currently the Chief Operating Officer at Jefferson Consulting Group, a lobbying shop that helps clients "win access to the government contracting market." The firm also does consulting for government agencies.

Recent clients include the Lewin Group and the Department of Homeland Security. The company appears to have also done work for the Halliburton unit Kellogg Brown and Root.

--Whether Jefferson Consulting Group employees have lobbied Collins on behalf of these and other clients isn't clear. What kind of professional access Daffron has had to Collins (who is ranking member on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, which is charged with oversight of "the management, efficiency, effectiveness and economy of all agencies and departments of the Federal government") is not clear.

--During the early 2000s, Daffron was a lobbyist with Chesapeake Enterprises at a time when one of its largest clients was the Mortgage Bankers Association of America. Prior to that, he worked in the same capacity at American Defense International.

--Whether Daffron lobbied Collins on behalf of his clients during this period--or informally on behalf of his firm's other clients--is not clear. Whether other lobbyists at Chesapeake Enterprises and American Defense International lobbied Collins during this period is not clear.

--According to a financial disclosure form made public in June, Sen. Collins recently had assets of between $110,000 and $300,000.

--How the $705,000 home was paid for and/or financed is not clear.

--The structure of the financial agreement between Collins and Daffron is not clear.

--Collins' aim in purchasing the house remains unclear. (A Collins spokesman told the AP that Collins will be using the home as a secondary residence. In the same article, however, the house was described as an "investment property.")

--During her 1994 campaign for Senate, Sen. Collins promised voters she would serve two terms and then "come home" to Maine.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Quote of the Day

Duncan Black:

One thing I've learned is that being a senator probably isn't very much fun, at least for most people. To do your job minimally requires a lot of work. You oversee multiple offices of largely underpaid staffers...

It's the Senate, so if you care about getting things done you're inevitably going to be very frustrated...

If you move your family to DC you've moved out of the state you're supposed to represent. If you don't move your family to DC you have to travel hundreds or thousands of miles to see them...

It's a very high profile position, which means having a private life is almost impossible...

To actually enjoy the job you have to get some enjoyment out of the semi-corrupt aspects of the job such as the fundraising, hanging out with lobbyists, the general thrill of everyone kissing your ass, etc.

A.P. Plays Along

Four days later, the A.P. runs this laughably incomplete 75-word story on Sen. Collins' new house in Washington.

Yet somehow, even in its four short sentences, the piece manages to squeeze in a dollop of Collins-friendly spin ("U.S. Sen. Susan Collins still plans to return to Maine on most weekends") and muddy the waters by referring to the house as both an "investment property" and a "home-away-from-home."

The word "lobbyist" is nowhere to be found.

In other words, about what you'd expect in a banana republic. Or from the Maine media.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Total Deference?

As someone who focuses on politics and policy, I've been wrestling for the last couple of days with how to write about Sen. Collins' recent Washington D.C. home purchase.

Frankly, I'm not interested in Collins' personal life. And I think the national political discussion would be more constructive--and just healthier--if elected officials enjoyed a bit more privacy than they can currently expect.

But the Maine press clearly doesn't share these reservations. For years, prominent outlets have covered the junior senator like a member of the royal family, putting her personal story front and center. (How many times have we heard about Caribou?)

And for months now, the state's larger media organizations have been delving unabashedly into another pol's real estate transactions while exploring the shape and structure of his nuclear family.

What's more (and as in the LePage case) there are a couple of legitimate, hard-to-ignore news angles to Collins' home purchase. It may not demand days of wall-to-wall coverage, but surely it's a transaction worth noting.

So why the radio silence from the Maine media? Why the failure, for two days now, to draw attention to a juicy piece of genuine hard news?

The absence of coverage seems to be another vivid example of the state's sainted senators receiving coverage only when they want coverage.

Put simply: Collins would prefer that Maine papers not write about the purchase of a house 800 miles from Aroostook county, so they don't.

The junior senator doesn't want there to be any scrutiny of the fact that she's just made a $705,000 purchase with a lobbyist who helps run a firm that's done work for Kellogg Brown and Root among others, so there isn't.

The Maine media: Cowed, timid, almost comically deferential. Could it be that simple?

Now, maybe the state's prominent outlets are digging deep into the story, preparing exhaustive, carefully-researched articles that will prove me wrong in the coming hours or days.

But I'm not counting on it.

Quote of the Day

Nick Denton, via Felix Salmon:

Q: What irritates you in the print and online media world?

Denton: Fake news. I don’t mean fake news in the Fox News sense. I mean the fake news that clogs up most newspapers and most news websites, for that matter. The new initiative will go nowhere. The new policy isn’t new at all. The state won’t go bankrupt. The product isn’t revolutionary. And journalists pretend that these official statements and company press releases actually constitute news…

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Putting Down Roots

Gerald notices that Sen. Collins has bought a house in Washington D.C.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

They Write Headlines

The Hill: Egypt's Web blockade raises concerns about 'kill switch' for Internet

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) has recently indicated she plan to re-introduce the bipartisan legislation she crafted last year with Senate Homeland Security Committee chairman Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), which passed the Senate Homeland Security Committee last year only to get mired in a standoff with Senate Commerce Committee members over which panel should have oversight of civilian cybersecurity.

CIO Magazine: Internet 'kill switch' bill reintroduced as Egypt remains dark
Sen. Collins said the bill would not allow the President to deactivate the Internet in whole or in part during times of political unrest or protest--just during a "cyber emergency"...At the time of its initial introduction, it was opposed in an open letter by about 24 organizations concerned that it might lead to broader authority, including Internet censorship.

PC Magazine: Shutting Down The Internet
The most specious reason for this mechanism is that if some evil worm or attack on the National infrastructure—a.k.a. "Cyberwar"—would be underway, the Internet would need to be shut down to prevent further damage to the country, which apparently can no longer function without the Net. This is kind of a weird tautology. The country can't function without the Net, so we need to secure it, which includes having the ability to shut it down. But with the Net down, how can the country function?

Business Insider: Internet "Kill Switch" Bill Won't Die
We can't think of a single case where using such a "kill switch" would make sense (if terrorists mount such a strong cyberattack that we have to use it, isn't that still a win for them?) but we can think of many, many potential avenues for abuse. This has implications not just for free speech but also for free markets, as zillions of businesses (including this one!) depend on the internet directly or indirectly.