NIST on Electronic Voting

The NIST has released a draft white paper on electronic voting machines. Washington Post summarizes:

Paperless electronic voting machines used throughout the Washington region and much of the country “cannot be made secure,” according to draft recommendations issued this week by a federal agency that advises the U.S. Election Assistance Commission.

NIST says in its report that the lack of a paper trail for each vote “is one of the main reasons behind continued questions about voting system security and diminished public confidence in elections.” The report repeats the contention of the computer security community that “a single programmer could ‘rig’ a major election.”

Fears about rigging have animated critics for years, but there has been no conclusive evidence that such fraud has occurred. Electronic voting systems have had technical problems — including unpredictable screen freezes — leaving voters wondering whether their ballots were properly recorded.

Computer scientists and others have said that the security of electronic voting systems cannot be guaranteed and that election officials should adopt systems that produce a paper record of each vote in case of a recount. The NIST report embraces that critique, introducing the concept of “software independence” in voting systems.

NIST says that voting systems should not rely on a machine’s software to provide a record of the votes cast. Some electronic voting system manufacturers have introduced models that include printers to produce a separate record of each vote — and that can be verified by a voter before leaving the machine — but such paper trails have had their own problems.

What's going on in the world

  • Seymour Hersh documents the battle in between Bush’d administration and the military branches over Iran policy.
  • Political slogans were once again turned in poor law, this time proving your citizenship for Medicaid.
  • Hadman proves the point that “conservative judges” are more idoligical then constitutional. It’s feels good to know that we haven’t lost the american system of government yet. Yes it’s easier to bypass the law when we don’t like its consequences and possibities, but that is not the America most of us cherish so much. 

Happy July 4th!

State Secrets

Henry Lanman over at slate is discussing the ramp up of the federal governments use of the state secret privledge. While it’s a fundamentally reasonable privilege, the ways it’s getting used to block investigation of possible illegal behavior is worrying. It doesn’t add confidence to learn that the original case in which the doctrine was confirmed by the Supreme Court turned out to be the Air Force using the tool not to safe guard secrets but to avoid damning proof of negligence.

Despite the burgeoning use of this privilege and the way it’s been used to gut entire cases, the most disturbing aspect of the Bush administration’s expansion of the state secrets privilege may well be this: More and more, it is invoked not in response to run-of-the-mill government negligence cases but in response to allegations of criminal conduct on the part of the government. These are not slip-and-fall cases. They are challenges to the administration’s broad new theories of unchecked executive power. By using the state secrets privilege to shut down whole lawsuits that would examine government actions before the cases even get under way, the administration avoids having to give a legal account of its behavior.

Washington Post:
The state secrets privilege was invoked about 55 times from 1954 to 2001, according to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, and in the first four years after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, it was invoked 23 times.

It feels like the system is broken. The judicial branch and the legislative branches are already unable to keep up their end of the check and balances system, and yet there are some that continue to support a more powerful executive branch under the excuse of the war on terrorism?

On the other side of the coin, let’s say that legislative and judicial branches did counterbalance with the result of a weaker State Secret privilege. This may be just as bad because there really are some things that need it. The administration still hasn’t learned the lesson of the boy who cried wolf. When you abuse a powerful tool, you lose that tool.

Whenever the next scandal comes around remember there are three sins bore from it. First is the scandal itself. Second is loss of trust of our leaders and institutions. Third is the damage done to our government in the abuses of power afterwards to stop the story or limit its damage.

By claiming state secret, we have more or less confirmed the Khalid el-Masri extraordinary rendition story. These extraordinary renditions make up sin one. The loss of soft power and public trust in us doing these things is sin two. Finally weakling the State Secret power in trying to use it (ineffectively) to cover up what was done is Sin three.

Which brings back a final note: One of the more sickening aspect of republican’s current spin strategy is that it tries to assign blame of the second sin to the media and then focus on that as if the primary sin didn’t exist and that the owner of the first sin has no responsibility for the second. This is my new concept is my new term for the day; when I hear another “Why is this media printing this!” comment, I will simply remember: The Second Sin

The strategic scorecard for the US in Iraq

Here is a relativly concise and damning evaluation of the Iraq War by Anthony Cordesman of CSIS as posted on The Washington Note and linked to by Obsidian Wing:

“The Iraq War Three Years On: A Scorecard Anthony H. Cordesman

Let me preface the following points with the statement that I do not oppose the war, and that I believe we have an obligation to the Iraqi people to pursue our current strategy, to try to end the insurrection and prevent civil war, and help them create an inclusive and stable government.

I believe that we have made major advances in creating effective Iraqi forces, that the US Embassy is pursuing the best political approach it can in trying to create the government Iraq needs, and that we are making slow progress towards taking the aid process out of disastrously incompetent US hands in Washington and making Iraqis responsible for their own economic progress.

But, this should not blind us to the strategic consequences of the war to date. We may well fail in all our efforts because they came far too slowly, involved years of inept execution, and face a scale of problems that we still tend to deny. There is a real risk that Iraq will degenerate into full-scale civil war or a level of divisiveness that will paralyze or limit Iraq’s progress for years to come.

It is also clear that creating a unity government with a small Sunni minority isn’t going to stop the insurrection or risk of a major civil war during 2006, and perhaps for years to come. At best, it will take years to create a fully stable and functioning new political structure and defeat the insurgency.

As a result, I believe it is time to look quite frankly at the war in terms of how it has achieved it is original its objectives after three years, and consider what this means the need to avoid rushing into wars we do not really understand or prepare for in the future:

Objective One: Get Rid of Iraqi WMD Threat: Happened before the war. The main stated objective of the war was pointless.

Objective Two: Liberate Iraq: Security for the average Iraq is now worse, and the new political freedom is essentially freedom to vote for sectarian and ethnic divisions. Some progress to be sure, but much more limited than the Administration claims. It will be 2007-2008 at the earliest before stability can be established — if it can. We essentially used a bull to liberate a china shop, without any meaningful plan to deal with the consequences. We have tried to fix the resulting problems, but we still don’t know whether we can salvage our early mistakes.

Objective Three: End the Terrorist Threat in Iraq: There was no meaningful threat in the first place. Neo-Salafi terrorism now dominates the insurgency and is a far worse threat. Al Qaida now has serious involvement in Iraq. The impact on the region has alienated many Arabs and Muslims and has aided extremists. It has given Iran leverage that has added a new risk of Shi’ite extremism.

Objective Four: Stabilize the Gulf Region and Middle East: The war has been extremely divisive. It has created a major new source of anger against the US and new tensions over the US presence. Iran, Turkey, and neighboring Arab states have all become involved in destabilizing ways.

Objective Five: Ensure Secure Energy Exports: There have been consistently lower Iraqi exports than under Saddam. The predicted increases in Iraqi production have never occurred, and will not for years to come. There has been no meaningful renovation of oil fields and export facilities and serious further wartime disruption. The previous problems have spilled over into the other Gulf exporting states.

Objective Six: Make Iraq a Democratic Example that Transforms the Middle East: Iraq is not a model of anything. Public opinion polls in region show that our efforts at reform to date have created new Arab fears of US, and distrust of US efforts at reform in other countries.

Objective Seven: Help Iraq Become a Modern Economy: The flood of wartime, oil for food, and aid money has put tens of billions of dollars into the Iraqi economy and raised the GDP and per capita income on paper. So have record oil revenues. Even the latest US quarterly report, however, has oil not only dominating the GDP, but rising as a percentage in the future. Most new businesses are shells, starts ups or war related. Youth unemployment easily averages more than 30% nationwide and is 40-60% in the trouble Sunni areas. As yet, no meaningful sectoral reform in agriculture, state industries, or the energy sector. A shift to focused short term aid and letting the Iraqis manage more of the money may help, but largely a wasteful, highly ideological and bureaucratic failure.

In short, being a superpower is not enough. Fighting wars requires both a realistic grand strategy and the ability to implement it.

We may salvage the Iraq War on a national level, but there is little or no chance of salvaging the war in terms of our broader strategic objectives.”


Heart of the Matter

Obsidian Wings by quoting Glen Greewald gives laser focus to the heart of the domestic spying program,

Greenwald is laying out points that he thinks people should make when explaining the NSA program. His first is this:

(1) The President is now claiming, and is aggressively exercising, the right to use any and all war powers against American citizens even within the United States, and he insists that neither Congress nor the courts can do anything to stop him or even restrict him.

Greenwald begins by saying that he thinks the issue is best described in this way, rather than as an issue about the rule of law. If we make it about the rule of law, the administration will be able to trot out its legal justifications, everyone will get confused, and the whole thing will just seem like an arcane legal disagreement. Far better, he says, to explain clearly what their legal theory is, and why it is genuinely radical and frightening. He then does exactly that.

“The Administration’s position as articulated by Gonzales is not that the Administration has the power under the AUMF or under precepts of Article II “inherent authority” to engage in warrantless eavesdropping against Americans. Their argument is much, much broader — and much more radical — than that. Gonzales’ argument is that they have the right to use all war powers of which warrantless eavesdropping is but one of many examples against American citizens within the country. And not only do they have the right to use those war powers against us, they have the right to use them even if Congress makes it a crime to do so or the courts rule that doing so is illegal.

Put another way, the Administration has now baldly stated that whatever it is allowed to do against our enemies in a war, it is equally entitled to exercise all of the same powers against American citizens on American soil.

Anyone wishing to defend to me this program or even Bush in general has to start there.

Government Accountability Website

Expect More WebsiteI like the idea of as setting yearly goals that the program is measured against. However there are many areas for improvements. I’m cautious about political motivations for claiming that a program has unclear goals (like the pell grants) or isn’t meeting expectations. This type of thing needs to partnered with outside the government organizations for developing metrics and the ratings. There is also a need for a full list of metrics and deeper analysis then what’s listed on the detail page for each program. Then there is granularity; Medicare and it’s drug benifit is one entry. If you roll up such a huge program into a single line item with no breakdown, then what’s the point? Ineffective programs will just get attached to giant effective ones. At least FEMA was broken out a bit. Next there is the lesson of a balanced scorecard. What is the organizational health and goals? I’ve heard about a number of people leaving the government in some form of protest, where is the good/bad attrition numbers? Last there is some design aspects of the site that aren’t great. The site doesn’t give me the summary line item views when organizaing by topic, instead using the search snipit view. When I look at a topic like ‘Foreign Affairs“, I want to see the same type of view that I get when see the list of “Adequate“. As a bonus, the data should be available with some XMLRPC/SOAP interfaces. You can see the schema right off the page, let some people build some cool tools on top of this.

Today The White House released a list of government programs that were deemed either effective or ineffective. Curt Nickisch browsed the site to figure out how the government’s doing.

[Via APM’s Marketplace]

The implicit hubris

Slate’s commentary on Alito’s confirmation hearing’s third day gets pretty close to my concerns with this nominee. Specifically Alito appears to have the belief that he should look at every last issue with a complete fresh open mind. Sounds good at first, but it quickly becomes worrysome. People don’t like change, and when  only a case like Brown v. Board of Education is a settled matter to Alito, there is alot of room for change. This lack of deference to the past is exactly what causes much of the desire for constitutional originalism from thoose around me. It’s when the courts seem to create something completely new that seem to be at the heart of every conservative complained about judicial decision. Alito’s lack of deference points that he is going to be a very much an activist judge, which is exactly the reason he was nominated. The difference is that he’ll be activist to a different set of beliefs. So what are the specified beliefs? At one point Alito talks about traditional values, about safe neighborhoods and preventing your children from getting exposed to values and beliefs that you don’t agree with. Stuff that sounds good on the surface but then one can recall some of the more racist and ugly beliefs that can hide underneath such a noble veneer.

Even more then that there are a couple things I worry about with his philiosophy. First there is the implict implication that a judge can shake off thier implicit biases when interpreting law. This does not seem likely to me, but it’s amazing that conservatives claim to believe it so wholehartily after so often critizing the media which strives for the same thing. Second, if all a judge is, is the execution of something as mechanical as a program, then as a programmer and tester I am doubly scared. There are bugs in code, and the law is exactly that, code. I expect the judicial system as a human sanity check and part of the system to make sure that we don’t end up with insane outcomes. In the end for a judge,  the law matters, but so does the person. The attempt to remove the person and this extra and important role from the judicial process isn’t healthy.

Science Friday looks at a wrap up on Intelligent Design

Barbara Forest speaks on Science Friday about the recent Dover rulling on Intelligent Design. Two key things I want to remember from this chat. One the notion of falsabilityis important for scientific theory. The second is that many of the creationists out there on school boards are pushing stuff specifically because they want to advance religion in the classroom without event understanding what they are pushing.

The Divide

I think I might be getting a bigger clue to the right left divide post 9/11. For many republicans the main focus changed; liberty, morality, constitutional originalism took a back seat to the war on terrorism, and it is quite literally one war to them. I’ve understood this before but I didn’t actually believe it. The same people who so readily condemn the things that happen under dictators and communism excuse some of the same behaviors done by the US as long as it can be defended under the word terrorism. The root logic is survival. Almost any principle can be sacrificed if it even remotely can be tied back to their safety. To me these words still seem harsh, but that is always the root aspect of the arguments. “If it prevents the loss of a major American city, would you say no?” I believe there is a fundamental cowardliness underlying this type of thinking; that our country has been reduced down to just the people in it, all the rules and ways we relate to each other are not enshrined values and principles but things that can be cast aside at the first hint of fear since they are just obstacles to an effective defense. I guess it is this downgrading of us from human to animals in the governmental sphere that drives so many people to get religion back into it. It is so much sadder that the real messages and meaning of religion has been hijacked into a war on the symbols. The religious right has decided that the latest worthy fight is what way retailers wish people a happy holiday season. If that is what religion means to them, they have lost all religious meaning completely. It seems to me to be that the fundamental position of the right in response to 9/11 is to be as much like our enemy as possible; torture as a tactic, drive religion into the public square, and a super powerful executive branch. Their message to the troops who defend us is that they are not defending the US anymore but just the collection of people who are (legally) sitting between Canada and Mexico.

NPR: Court: Same-Sex Couples Must Provide Child Support

California’s Supreme Court rules that unmarried, same-sex couples are lawful parents and must provide for their children if they break up. The court ruled that if both same-sex partners intended to parent a child conceived by artificial insemination, then both partners have an equal right to child custody and child support, even if one partner has no genetic link.