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September 20, 2007

'Enemy of the State' — Episode 2: This is not a movie


Robert Block's August 15, 2007 Wall Street Journal front page article about last month's public announcement of Director of National Intelligence Michael McConnell's May, 2007 decision to greatly expand the range of federal and local authorities with access to spy satellite data gets more profound and troubling each time I reread it.

Have a look.

    U.S. to Expand Domestic Use Of Spy Satellites

    The U.S.'s top intelligence official has greatly expanded the range of federal and local authorities who can get access to information from the nation's vast network of spy satellites in the U.S.

    The decision, made three months ago by Director of National Intelligence Michael McConnell, places for the first time some of the U.S.'s most powerful intelligence-gathering tools at the disposal of domestic security officials. The move was authorized in a May 25 memo sent to Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff asking his department to facilitate access to the spy network on behalf of civilian agencies and law enforcement.

    Until now, only a handful of federal civilian agencies, such as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the U.S. Geological Survey, have had access to the most basic spy-satellite imagery, and only for the purpose of scientific and environmental study.

    According to officials, one of the department's first objectives will be to use the network to enhance border security, determine how best to secure critical infrastructure and help emergency responders after natural disasters. Sometime next year, officials will examine how the satellites can aid federal and local law-enforcement agencies, covering both criminal and civil law. The department is still working on determining how it will engage law enforcement officials and what kind of support it will give them.

    Access to the high-tech surveillance tools would, for the first time, allow Homeland Security and law-enforcement officials to see real-time, high-resolution images and data, which would allow them, for example, to identify smuggler staging areas, a gang safehouse, or possibly even a building being used by would-be terrorists to manufacture chemical weapons.

    Overseas — the traditional realm of spy satellites — the system was used to monitor tank movements during the Cold War. Today, it's used to monitor suspected terrorist hideouts, smuggling routes for weapons in Iraq, nuclear tests and the movement of nuclear materials, as well as to make detailed maps for U.S. soldiers on the ground in Afghanistan and Iraq.

    Plans to provide DHS with significantly expanded access have been on the drawing board for over two years. The idea was first talked about as a possibility by the Central Intelligence Agency after 9/11 as a way to help better secure the country. "It is an idea whose time has arrived," says Charles Allen, the DHS's chief intelligence officer, who will be in charge of the new program. DHS officials say the program has been granted a budget by Congress and has the approval of the relevant committees in both chambers.

    Coming on the back of legislation that upgraded the administration's ability to wiretap terrorist suspects without warrants, the development is likely to heat up debate about the balance between civil liberties and national security.

    Access to the satellite surveillance will be controlled by a new Homeland Security branch — the National Applications Office — which will be up and running in October. Homeland Security officials say the new office will build on the efforts of its predecessor, the Civil Applications Committee. Under the direction of the Geological Survey, the Civil Applications Committee vets requests from civilian agencies wanting spy data for environmental or scientific study. The Geological Survey has been one of the biggest domestic users of spy-satellite information, to make topographic maps.

    Unlike electronic eavesdropping, which is subject to legislative and some judicial control, this use of spy satellites is largely uncharted territory. Although the courts have permitted warrantless aerial searches of private property by law-enforcement aircraft, there are no cases involving the use of satellite technology.

    In recent years, some military experts have questioned whether domestic use of such satellites would violate the Posse Comitatus Act. The act bars the military from engaging in law-enforcement activity inside the U.S., and the satellites were predominantly built for and owned by the Defense Department.

    According to Pentagon officials, the government has in the past been able to supply information from spy satellites to federal law-enforcement agencies, but that was done on a case-by-case basis and only with special permission from the president.

    Even the architects of the current move are unclear about the legal boundaries. A 2005 study commissioned by the U.S. intelligence community, which recommended granting access to the spy satellites for Homeland Security, noted: "There is little if any policy, guidance or procedures regarding the collection, exploitation and dissemination of domestic MASINT." MASINT stands for Measurement and Signatures Intelligence, a particular kind of information collected by spy satellites which would for the first time become available to civilian agencies.

    According to defense experts, MASINT uses radar, lasers, infrared, electromagnetic data and other technologies to see through cloud cover, forest canopies and even concrete to create images or gather data.

    The spy satellites are considered by military experts to be more penetrating than civilian ones: They not only take color, as well as black-and-white photos, but can also use different parts of the light spectrum to track human activities, including, for example, traces left by chemical weapons or heat generated by people in a building.

    Mr. Allen, the DHS intelligence chief, said the satellites have the ability to take a "multidimensional" look at ports and critical infrastructure from space to identify vulnerabilities. "There are certain technical abilities that will assist on land borders... to try to identify areas where narcotraficantes or alien smugglers may be moving dangerous people or materials," he said.

    The full capabilities of these systems are unknown outside the intelligence community, because they are among the most closely held secrets in government.

    Some civil-liberties activists worry that without proper oversight, only those inside the National Application Office will know what is being monitored from space.

    "You are talking about enormous power," said Gregory Nojeim, senior counsel and director of the Project on Freedom, Security and Technology for the Center for Democracy and Technology, a nonprofit group advocating privacy rights in the digital age. "Not only is the surveillance they are contemplating intrusive and omnipresent, it's also invisible. And that's what makes this so dangerous."

    Mr. Allen, the DHS intelligence chief, says the department is cognizant of the civil-rights and privacy concerns, which is why he plans to take time before providing law-enforcement agencies with access to the data. He says DHS will have a team of lawyers to review requests for access or use of the systems.

    "This all has to be vetted through a legal process," he says. "We have to get this right because we don't want civil-rights and civil-liberties advocates to have concerns that this is being misused in ways which were not intended."

    DHS's Mr. Allen says that while he can't talk about the program's capabilities in detail, there is a tendency to overestimate its powers. For instance, satellites in orbit are constantly moving and can't settle over an area for long periods of time. The platforms also don't show people in detail. "Contrary to what some people believe you cannot see if somebody needs a haircut from space," he says.

    James Devine, a senior adviser to the director of the Geological Survey, who is chairman of the committee now overseeing satellite-access requests, said traditional users of the spy-satellite data in the scientific community are concerned that their needs will be marginalized in favor of security concerns. Mr. Devine said DHS has promised him that won't be the case, and also has promised to include a geological official on a new interagency executive oversight committee that will monitor the activities of the National Applications Office.

    Mr. Devine says officials who vetted requests for the scientific community also are worried about the civil-liberties implications when DHS takes over the program. "We took very seriously our mission and made sure that there was no chance of inappropriate usage of the material," Mr. Devine says. He says he hopes oversight of the new DHS program will be "rigorous," but that he doesn't know what would happen in cases of complaints about misuse.


I laugh every time I read in some article about satellite imaging capability that they can't yet positively identify a person or read a car's license plate.

Guess what? Since the 1980s these extraordinary machines — remember that they cost upwards of $1 billion apiece — have been able to read not only the headlines but the whole newpaper story from orbit.

Use your imagination combined with Moore's law to get an idea of what they see (and hear) today.

September 20, 2007 at 04:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

The King Speaks: Talking Elvis Keychain


From the website:

    Talking Elvis Keychain

    Talking keychain speaks the actual recorded voice of The King!

    It says one of 6 different phrases like "Hi, this is Elvis Presley," "Just hang loose for a minute," and others!

    Keychain is trimmed in blue flock!

    Includes replaceable button battery.


September 20, 2007 at 03:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

BehindTheMedspeak: 'People who want to end it all have lost the necessary illusions that make life bearable' — Daphne Merkin


Her superb essay on depression and suicide appeared in the September 16, 2007 New York Times magazine, and follows.

    Darkness Invisible

    Here is the question lurking behind the recent news of Owen Wilson’s suicide bid: In a culture that encourages outing everything from incest to pedophilia, is depression the last stigma, the one remaining subject that dares not gossip its name? Does a disclosure about depression, especially from someone who seems to have it all, violate an unspoken code of silence — or, at the least, make us radically uncomfortable with its suggestion of a blithe public face masking a troubled inner life?

    Most of us have experienced the everyday, transient blues — the emotions nibbling around the edges of depression (whether they manifest themselves as a sense of malaise, dejection or comic-tinged despair) that can be brought on by a shift in the weather or an unfortunate event. They may be chronic yet benign, the sort of moroseness that causes the narrator of Camus’s “Stranger” to stand around listlessly puffing on a cigarette. Sadness is probably more endemic to the human subtext than sanguine spirits, which is why funereal songs like Billie Holiday’s “Gloomy Sunday” strike a universal chord and why Freud conjectured that “ordinary unhappiness” (as opposed to what he called “hysterical misery”) was the best the talking cure could hope to achieve.

    The romance of melancholy — a style of self-presentation marked by an appealing air of ennui — has been with us since Hamlet. It is perhaps best expressed in the opening of Chekhov’s “Seagull,” when Masha, asked why she always wears black, replies, “I am in mourning for my life.” But a poetic conception that tethers creativity to a despondent temperament is also misleading, discounting as it does how unproductively crippling the malady can be.

    Depression — the real hard stuff — is not chic, and it doesn’t sell tickets. It is a clinical illness urgently requiring treatment, usually hit-or-miss medication that tinkers with serotonin or dopamine levels. I am referring to the sort of condition that subverts lives, making it difficult to talk to people and impossible to leave the house. At its worst, it can spiral into the sort of suicidal ideation that requires hospitalization, or into suicide.

    From a young age, I have intermittently found myself in this painful, barren zone. Each time it occurs, I am struck by how paralyzing and isolating the experience is; it remains essentially impenetrable to people who can’t (or don’t care to) distinguish it from a random bad day. For all that it is acknowledged to be a disease afflicting millions — we are as much a Prozac Nation as a Fast Food Nation — depression remains culturally quarantined. The revelation that Wilson may be afflicted with a physiological vulnerability to the downward pull — to the sort of self-annihilating impulse best described in William Styron’s “Darkness Visible” — simultaneously fascinates us and causes us to avert our gaze.

    Wilson, a 38-year-old light-as-air actor and sometime screenwriter, was a golden-haired member of the Frat Pack, the last person you would associate with a long, concealed history of this disease. He suggests that more familiar construction: a bachelor who ran in a fast crowd, used hard drugs and flipped when his romance with another movie star went sour. According to this scenario, Wilson slit his wrist because he spotted a candid of his ex, Kate Hudson, smooching a new man in a grocery store — as if life obligingly played itself out as a series of press-ready storyboards: Girl dumps boy. Girl moves on to new boy. Ex-boy tries to kill himself. Shoot and print. He becomes just another funny man harboring an inner sad sack — a “Tears of a Clown” syndrome — alongside Robin Williams and Richard Pryor.

    However you parse Wilson’s desperate act, it is clear that in an instant-fix, cure-all culture — one in which we habitually reduce fraught real-life dramas into smart-alecky quips on late-night talk shows — we want instant-fix, cure-all answers. Addiction and recovery sagas are by now more boring than heartrending, but they go down smoothly and are media-pleasing. These versions of psychological mayhem sidestep the complex interior drama of self-destruction — Lindsay Lohan’s father visits her in rehab! — and thereby allow us off the hook. How much thought can you give to yet another celebrity who checks in and out of a $1,600-a-day rehab center as if it were Canyon Ranch?

    Put it this way: It’s one thing for Wilson to draw upon his familiarity with “the black dog” (as Winston Churchill called it) in order to co-write “The Royal Tenenbaums,” a darkly funny movie about an unhappy family of grown-up child prodigies that includes a lovelorn sibling (played by Wilson’s own brother, Luke) who tries to kill himself. That’s entertainment, diverting in a poignant way. But it’s another thing to be the guy with everything who tries to take his own life. That’s threatening, suggesting a failure of will that might prove contagious — or worse, capsize box-office investment.

    People who want to end it all have lost the necessary illusions that make life bearable; the sources of their pain are impossible to pinpoint but all the same infect the air they breathe. The defining tragedy of severe depression is that it comes without an objective correlative like a white plaster cast. This makes it easy to mistake those who suffer from this disorder for people who, with a little coaxing — a dinner with friends or a distracting movie like “Wedding Crashers” (starring, Lord help us, Owen Wilson) — might bounce back the following day.

    Perhaps this is what makes depression dangerous to scrutinize too closely. If we don’t keep it at arm’s length, it might implicate us in a way that the coked-up antics of the Rehab Gang fail to. Which is why it is all the more important that when it ravages those who seem as if they should be riding high, it isn’t spun merely as a side effect of addiction or heartbreak. It is an illness that deserves to be given its due, uneasy as it may make us.


Even though you know it can't help, when everything is collapsing around you and you have nowhere to turn, try here.


For those who want to better understand what it is like to be under the influence of "the black dog," Styron's book is the single best resource out there.

September 20, 2007 at 02:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Riedel Stealth Wineglass


Black is ideal for blind tasting — not only will you not know what the wine is, but you won't get clues from color, clarity, brilliance or effervescence.


Hand-blown of 24% lead crystal in a number of shapes to bring out the best in different wine varieties.


$14.79-$31.20 at Amazon.

September 20, 2007 at 01:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

What is the lifespan of a microwave oven?


How about a screen door? 40 years.

"The National Association of Home Builders conducted a study of appliances and other parts of a house to try to put an estimate on lifespans," wrote Winston-Salem Journal columnist Ronda Bumgardner.

Find it here.

September 20, 2007 at 12:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Vosges Bacon Chocolate Bar


Yeah, yeah, we know — everything's better with bacon but this baby bumps up against the envelope.

From the Vosges website:

    Bacon Exotic Candy Bar — New

    Applewood smoked bacon + Alder smoked salt + Deep milk chocolate

    Deep milk chocolate coats your mouth and leads to the crunch of smoked bacon pieces.

    Surprise your mouth with the smoked salt and sweet milk chocolate combination.


Note to self: Forward this post instanter to Katie Das — new caramelini flavor?


September 20, 2007 at 11:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Great hack — 32 AA batteries for $5: Why pay more?

Videre est credere.

[via Dean Kaltsas and godean.com]

September 20, 2007 at 10:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Powdered Peanut Butter


From yesterday's Washington Post Food section "Shopping Cart" feature:

    PB2 Powdered Peanut Butter

    A familiar taste in an unfamiliar form

    PB2 Powdered Peanut Butter is a protein powder for those who prefer their supplements to be actual food — in this case just peanuts, salt and sugar. Add to smoothies, milkshakes or baked goods, or, better yet, just mix in some water for a spread that contains 75 percent less fat than regular peanut butter, but with a full-fat taste. Made by Georgia's Bell Plantation, which slow-roasts and presses the peanuts to remove oil.



A pack of four 6.7-ounce jars — "[each] equivalent to an 18-ounce jar of peanut butter" — is $15.96.

September 20, 2007 at 09:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

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