In the USA...United Surveillance AmericaProfile Of NSA Boss General Keith Alexander Reveals: He Wants All The Data, And He Doesn't Care About The Law
Monday, September 9, 2013 13:34 EDT
Shane Harris has an explosive and fascinating profile of NSA boss General Keith Alexander for Foreign Policy magazine. You should read the whole thing, but I wanted to highlight a few key points that are really kind of eye-opening.
His predecessor, General Michael Hayden, thought Alexander is a loose cannon who doesn't understand or care about the law. One of Alexander's strongest defenders since the Snowden leaks came out has been Hayden -- the guy who called NSA critics just a bunch of internet shut-ins who can't get laid. However, the FP report suggests that Hayden felt Alexander was dangerous, not right for the job at the top of the NSA, and not clued in to basic legal realities. Specifically, after 9/11, Alexander (at the time in charge of the Army's Intelligence and Security Command (INSCOM)) tried to get the NSA to hand over its firehose of data directly to him to analyze. But that's a no, no.
By law, the NSA had to scrub intercepted communications of most references to U.S. citizens before those communications can be shared with other agencies. But Alexander wanted the NSA "to bend the pipe towards him," says one of the former officials, so that he could siphon off metadata, the digital records of phone calls and email traffic that can be used to map out a terrorist organization based on its members' communications patterns.
"Keith wanted his hands on the raw data. And he bridled at the fact that NSA didn't want to release the information until it was properly reviewed and in a report," says a former national security official. "He felt that from a tactical point of view, that was often too late to be useful."
Hayden thought Alexander was out of bounds. INSCOM was supposed to provide battlefield intelligence for troops and special operations forces overseas, not use raw intelligence to find terrorists within U.S. borders.
This is fairly incredible, considering that Hayden was the guy who oversaw the infamous illegal warrantless wiretapping program under President Bush. The fact that he felt Alexander wanted to go way too far in spying on Americans should say something.
General Alexander apparently has no problem playing word games to justify what he wants. This shouldn't be a surprise given all we've seen so far, but from the article, you realize that this isn't just someone trying to keep secret things secret with word games, but rather someone who has a rather Machiavellian outlook on things. He decides what he wants to do, and then he'll come up with the justification for it.
"He said at one point that a lot of things aren't clearly legal, but that doesn't make them illegal," says a former military intelligence officer who served under Alexander at INSCOM.
That's not something that someone trying to stay inside the law says. That's someone trying to stretch the law to do his personal will.
General Alexander is obsessed with collecting every bit of data possible, with little concern for the legal issues associated with such a desire. This one isn't new. We'd already seen that Alexander's infamous mantra was "collect it all," but the FP article shows this going to ridiculous lengths:
"Hayden's attitude was 'Yes, we have the technological capability, but should we use it?' Keith's was 'We have the capability, so let's use it,'" says the former intelligence official who worked with both men.
Later in the article, someone who worked with General Alexander notes that he believes the legal justifications for any data collection can come later:
"If he becomes the repository for all that data, he thinks the resources and authorities will follow."
Having the capability doesn't automatically make it legal. General Alexander seems to think that point is subservient to his own desire to collect all the data, incorrectly believing that the way you find the necessary needles is to collect more haystacks.
General Alexander gets so overwhelmed by big data that he starts finding needles in those haystacks where none really exist. This is kind of the key point. The profile makes it clear that General Alexander loves digging through big data, but seems unable to recognize that what comes out of looking at a giant data set isn't automatically true. Multiple instances are discussed of him claiming connections where none actually existed.
"He had all these diagrams showing how this guy was connected to that guy and to that guy," says a former NSA official who heard Alexander give briefings on the floor of the Information Dominance Center. "Some of my colleagues and I were skeptical. Later, we had a chance to review the information. It turns out that all [that] those guys were connected to were pizza shops."
A retired military officer who worked with Alexander also describes a "massive network chart" that was purportedly about al Qaeda and its connections in Afghanistan. Upon closer examination, the retired officer says, "We found there was no data behind the links. No verifiable sources. We later found out that a quarter of the guys named on the chart had already been killed in Afghanistan."
[....] Under Alexander's leadership, one of the agency's signature analysis tools was a digital graph that showed how hundreds, sometimes thousands, of people, places, and events were connected to each other. They were displayed as a tangle of dots and lines. Critics called it the BAG -- for "big ass graph" -- and said it produced very few useful leads.
Loving big data, but not being aware of its limitations is not a good sign -- especially for someone who's trying to always collect even more data.
General Alexander's fascination with big data was in part driven by a "mad scientist" friend who followed Alexander from job to job implementing massive projects that were done poorly and with little planning, and rarely did anything useful. To get the full extent of this, you really need to read the article, but the details of James Heath and Alexander's reliance on him -- as well as his inability to actually get stuff working -- are fairly incredible. Here's just one example, and there are many more.
Heath was at Alexander's side for the expansion of Internet surveillance under the PRISM program. Colleagues say it fell largely to him to design technologies that tried to make sense of all the new information the NSA was gobbling up. But Heath had developed a reputation for building expensive systems that never really work as promised and then leaving them half-baked in order to follow Alexander on to some new mission.
"He moved fairly fast and loose with money and spent a lot of it," the retired officer says. "He doubled the size of the Information Dominance Center and then built another facility right next door to it. They didn't need it. It's just what Heath and Alexander wanted to do." The Information Operations Center, as it was called, was underused and spent too much money, says the retired officer. "It's a center in search of a customer."
This is what happens when you have a combination of people who believe very strongly in one key point -- "big data solves all" -- and then provide them with massive amounts of money and almost no real oversight. It's a "kids in a candy store" mentality that is a serious problem when you realize what kind of "candy" is available.
He's somewhat oblivious to the reasons why people are concerned about all of this, because he thinks of himself as a trustworthy guy. This fits with previous things we've heard about General Alexander. He's genuinely perplexed by why people are so upset about this, believing strongly in two things: that he's protecting the safety of Americans, so they should thank him for that, and on top of that, that since he's trustworthy, there's nothing to worry about. This is incredibly naive.
"You'll never find evidence that Keith sits in his office at lunch listening to tapes of U.S. conversations," says a former NSA official. "But I think he has a little bit of naivete about this controversy. He thinks, 'What's the problem? I wouldn't abuse this power. Aren't we all honorable people?'...."
This fits with our earlier article about how he appears to be focused on intentions over actions. And, to some extent you can actually understand how the incentives in his job lead him in exactly that way. He knows that if there's another terrorist attack, he'll take some of the blame for it. Given that, it's no wonder that protecting the 4th Amendment or the legal rights of Americans is low on the priority list. He doesn't get any credit for that. He only loses credit if there's an attack under his watch.
Again the entire profile is worth reading -- including the bits about how he's apparently obsessed with the stupid puzzle game Bejeweled Blitz, and how he once hired a Hollywood set designer to make his base of operations look just like the bridge of the starship Enterprise from Star Trek (complete with wooshing doors) to better "wow" politicians who came to visit. The overall profile is fascinating to read, but scary, because it suggests someone with little actual concern for the Constitution, a strong (if faulty) belief in his own capabilities, and immense power. That's a bad combination, even if he doesn't have "nefarious" intent.
September 9, 2013The Border Is a Back Door for U.S. Device Searches
By SUSAN STELLIN
Newly released documents reveal how the government uses border crossings to seize and examine travelers’ electronic devices instead of obtaining a search warrant to gain access to the data.
The documents detail what until now has been a largely secretive process that enables the government to create a travel alert for a person, who may not be a suspect in an investigation, then detain that individual at a border crossing and confiscate or copy any electronic devices that person is carrying.
To critics, the documents show how the government can avert Americans’ constitutional protections against unreasonable search and seizure, but the confiscations have largely been allowed by courts as a tool to battle illegal activities like drug smuggling, child pornography and terrorism.
The documents were turned over to David House, a fund-raiser for the legal defense of Chelsea Manning, formerly known as Pfc. Bradley Manning, as part of a legal settlement with the Department of Homeland Security. Mr. House had sued the agency after his laptop, camera, thumb drive and cellphone were seized when he returned from a trip to Mexico in November 2010. The data from the devices was then examined over seven months.
Although government investigators had questioned Mr. House about his association with Private Manning in the months before his trip to Mexico, he said no one asked to search his computer or mentioned seeking a warrant to do so. After seizing his devices, immigration authorities sent a copy of Mr. House’s data to the Army Criminal Investigation Command, which conducted the detailed search of his files. No evidence of any crime was found, the documents say.
“Americans crossing the border are being searched and their digital media is being seized in the hopes that the government will find something to have them convicted,” Mr. House said. “I think it’s important for business travelers and people who consider themselves politically inclined to know what dangers they now face in a country where they have no real guarantee of privacy at the border.”
A spokeswoman from Customs and Border Protection said the agency declined to comment about the settlement with Mr. House, or answer questions about travelers’ rights when their devices are seized or inspected during a border crossing.
While many travelers have no idea why they are singled out for a more intrusive screening at a border, one of the documents released in Mr. House’s settlement shows that he was flagged for a device search months before he traveled to Mexico.
On July 8, 2010, Immigration and Customs Enforcement investigators in New York created an alert, known as a TECS lookout, for Mr. House, noting that he was “wanted for questioning re leak of classified material” and ordering border agents to “secure digital media” if he appeared at an inspection point.
TECS is a computer system used to screen travelers at the border, and includes records from law enforcement, immigration and antiterrorism databases. A report from the Department of Homeland Security about border searches of electronic devices says a traveler may be searched “because he is the subject of, or person-of-interest-in, an ongoing law enforcement investigation and was flagged by a law enforcement ‘lookout’ ” in the Immigration and Customs Enforcement computer system.
On Oct. 26, 2010, an automated message notified investigators that Mr. House had an airline reservation on Oct. 30, traveling on American Airlines flight 865 from Dallas-Fort Worth to Los Cabos, Mexico; a later query noted that he would be returning to Chicago O’Hare on American flight 228, landing at 6 p.m. on Nov. 3.
Since airline passengers are required to provide carriers with their birth date and passport number before a flight to or from the United States, and airlines pass that information to Homeland Security (as part of the Advance Passenger Information System), computers matched the lookout alert with Mr. House’s itinerary. Agents were then dispatched to meet him.
“It is clear from these documents that the search of David House’s computers had nothing to do with protecting the border or with enforcing immigration laws,” said Catherine Crump, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union, which represented Mr. House along with the A.C.L.U. of Massachusetts. “The government used its broader powers at the border to conduct a search of House’s devices that no court would have approved.”
The documents, released by the A.C.L.U. on Monday, also detail the extent of the government’s examination of Mr. House’s computer. After a search using 183 keywords that turned up more than 26,000 files, the investigation concluded that “no data was found that constituted evidence of a crime.”
As part of the settlement, the government agreed to destroy all copies of the data taken from Mr. House, and update his file so he will not automatically be detained when he returns to the United States after traveling abroad, which has happened repeatedly since 2010.
Courts have largely supported the government’s authority to search electronic devices when travelers, including citizens, enter the United States. The so-called border search exception to the Fourth Amendment is based on the government’s interest in thwarting illegal activities.
But in March, the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in California set a new limit on device searches at the border, ruling in United States v. Cotterman that reasonable suspicion of criminal activity was required for a forensic search of a device — for instance, using software to analyze encrypted or deleted data, as opposed to performing a more cursory look at documents, photos or other files.
Customs and Border Protection, part of the Department of Homeland Security, said that it conducted electronic media searches on 4,957 people from Oct. 1, 2012, through Aug. 31, 2013, or about 15 a day, which is similar to the average during the previous two years. About 930,000 people are screened daily by border agents.
But for those pulled aside for a secondary inspection (about 35,000 travelers a day), the experience can be distressing, resulting in a missed connecting flight, a prolonged interrogation, and in Mr. House’s case, the loss of a laptop necessary for his livelihood.
“I was worried about losing my job, and not being able to pay my rent, and what I was going to tell my parents,” said Mr. House, 26, who was working as a computer programmer at the time. He was also concerned about the government getting access to names stored on his laptop of individuals who had donated money to Private Manning’s legal defense. Private Manning was sentenced by a military judge last month to 35 years in prison for providing more than 700,000 government files to WikiLeaks.
Mr. House’s lawsuit was among a handful of cases challenging the government’s authority to search devices at the border. Pascal Abidor, a graduate student in Islamic studies, sued the government after he was detained and his laptop was seized during an Amtrak trip from Montreal to New York in 2010. A decision in that case is expected soon, according to the case manager for Judge Edward R. Korman, who is writing the opinion for the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York. Mr. Abidor is also being represented by Ms. Crump of the A.C.L.U.
For now, the law remains murky about any limits on intrusive border inspections, including how long travelers can be detained, whether they are required to provide passwords for their devices — Mr. House refused — and whether they must answer any question an agent asks. Responses may be recorded in a traveler’s TECS file and shared with other government agencies.
September 9, 2013Russian Proposal Catches Obama Between Pig Putin and House Republicans
By PETER BAKER
WASHINGTON — President Obama woke up Monday facing a Congressional defeat that many in both parties believed could hobble his presidency. And by the end of the day, he found himself in the odd position of relying on his Russian counterpart, Vladimir V. Putin, of all people, to bail him out.
The surprise Russian proposal to defuse the American confrontation with Syria made a tenuous situation even more volatile for a president struggling to convince a deeply skeptical public of the need for the United States to respond militarily in yet another Middle Eastern country, this time in retaliation for the use of chemical weapons. It could make the situation even more precarious. Or it could give Mr. Obama an escape from a predicament partly of his own making.
In effect, Mr. Obama is now caught between trying to work out a deal with Mr. Putin, with whom he has been feuding lately, or trying to win over Republicans in the House who have made it their mission to block his agenda. Even if he does not trust Mr. Putin, Mr. Obama will have to decide whether to treat the Russian proposal seriously or assume it is merely a means of obstructing an American military strike.
“Putin knows that everyone wants an out, so he’s providing one,” said Fiona Hill, a former national intelligence officer and co-author of “Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin.” “It seems like a bold idea that will get everyone, including Obama, out of a bind that they don’t want to be in.”
But, she said, it may be an idea that derails a strike for now without solving the underlying problem. Indeed, the Senate quickly postponed plans for a vote authorizing an attack.
“It just adds to the uncertainty and makes a vote soon a little more difficult,” said Howard Berman, a Democrat and former chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “It just gets dragged out and causes the Congress to say let’s wait to see what happens with this before they vote.”
All of which had White House speechwriters revising their drafts before Mr. Obama addresses the nation Tuesday night in what is shaping up as one of the most challenging moments of his presidency. He hoped to explain why it was necessary to retaliate for a chemical weapons attack that, according to United States intelligence, killed more than 1,400 in Syria, but also reassure Americans the result would not be another Iraq war.
Now Mr. Obama needs to also explain why Congress should still vote to authorize such a strike in the face of a possible diplomatic solution and what if any conditions would satisfy him enough to order American destroyers in the eastern Mediterranean Sea not to act, at least for now. And he has to win over a public that by significant margins opposes American military action.
“Their path to success is really, really tough,” said Joel P. Johnson, who was a counselor to President Bill Clinton. “I don’t think there’s any question that they went into this eyes wide open, knowing how tough this was going to be, and volatile and unpredictable, and probably will be hour to hour until there’s a vote.”
The twists and turns in the Syria debate have whipsawed the nation’s capital and by some accounts imperiled Mr. Obama’s presidency. Democrats are mystified and in some cases livid with Mr. Obama for asking Congress to decide the matter instead of simply ordering one or two days of strikes and getting it over with.
By most estimates, the Republican-controlled House would reject authorizing such an attack if the vote were held now, and it is not clear whether the Democrat-led Senate would approve it. Few presidents have lost such a major vote on war and peace in the almost century since the Senate rejected Woodrow Wilson’s League of Nations.
In their private moments, Mr. Obama’s allies said even the argument that his presidency would for all intents and purposes be over did not sway some unsympathetic Democrats, frustrated over how few victories there have been to hang on to in Mr. Obama’s fifth year in office.
Although Mr. Obama’s decision to ask for a Congressional vote has come to be seen as a strategic mistake, White House officials consider that hypocritical second-guessing from lawmakers who want to have it both ways. “One of the things we heard with near unanimity was a desire by Congress to have its voice heard and its vote counted,” said Antony Blinken, a deputy national security adviser to Mr. Obama.
Some Democrats argue that their colleagues worry too much. Even if Mr. Obama lost the vote, they argue, this would not be the decisive moment many anticipate. “Yes, it’ll take some wind out of his sails temporarily,” said Matt Bennett, a former aide to Mr. Clinton. “But our sense is it’s not going to be long lived.”
The Russian proposal came days after Mr. Obama returned from a tense trip to St. Petersburg, where Mr. Putin hosted a meeting of the Group of 20 and rallied opposition to any American strike on Syria.
Mr. Obama cautiously embraced Russia’s plan on Monday to avert a strike by having President Bashar al-Assad of Syria turn over chemical weapons to the international community, but it remained uncertain whether it would succeed. Russia has tried to intervene before other American-led military actions. But none of the moves proved meaningful.
Lawmakers seized on the Russian proposal while urging caution. “Just the fact the Russians have moved tells me having this debate on military action is having a positive outcome,” said Representative Mike Rogers, a Michigan Republican who leads the House Intelligence Committee and supports a strike. But he added, “They’re going to have to prove they mean it.”
Representative Eliot L. Engel of New York, the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, was more cautious. “If this thing is real, I think we should look at it,” he said. “But the question is this: Do you trust Assad, and do you trust the Russians?”
Former Representative Tom Perriello of Virginia, president of the Center for American Progress Action Fund, said the answer might be no. “There’s every reason to believe so far that Russia is playing Congress like fiddles,” he said, “and not playing peacemaker.”
Eric Schmitt and Jonathan Weisman contributed reporting.
September 9, 2013In New Health Law, a Bridge to Medicare
By REED ABELSON
THE sweeping federal health care law making its major public debut next month was meant for people like Juanita Stonebraker, 63, from Oakland, Md., who retired from her job in a hospital billing office a year and a half ago.
She was able to continue her health insurance coverage from the hospital for a time, but when she tried to find an individual policy on her own, none of the insurers she contacted would cover her because she was diabetic.
“I didn’t even get to tell them about the heart attack,” said Ms. Stonebraker, who has been without health insurance since July. She is a little over a year away from qualifying for Medicare, the federal insurance program for people 65 and older. She now worries a recent hospitalization will leave her several thousand dollars in debt.
Under the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, insurers must now offer coverage to people like Ms. Stonebraker, and they will not be able to set the premiums they charge on the basis of someone’s health. Starting Oct. 1, she and millions of other Americans are expected to be able to buy one of the plans available through newly created online state marketplaces, or exchanges, for coverage that begins in 2014. For those with low incomes, subsidies are available to help pay premiums.
“The state and federal exchanges create a great opportunity for pre-65 retirees to get coverage like never before,” said John Grosso, a senior executive overseeing retiree health care for Aon Hewitt, a benefits consultant.
While older people could pay up to three times as much as younger people buying coverage, because rates can take account of age, the marketplaces could allow them to buy a policy for much less than they would pay today in some states, particularly those people with expensive medical conditions.
Early retirees are “the big group of winners in this equation,” said Edward A. Kaplan, a senior benefits consultant at the Segal Company, who said many of the premiums he had seen so far in the states that had made them public were relatively low, with subsidies making them even lower.
“You may get significant relief,” he said.
For those who are already well insured, through Medicare or private coverage, the law seems like a threat. Even after its long and rocky rollout, the 2010 law continues to face strong opposition from many Americans, especially older people who worry that their Medicare benefits will be cut to pay for coverage for the uninsured.
While the Affordable Care Act seeks hundreds of billions of dollars in savings from the Medicare program over 10 years, the benefits of people covered under the program were essentially untouched by the law; instead, the law focuses on curbing payments to providers and insurers, which could make them less inclined to accept Medicare patients in the future.
But the growth in health care spending has slowed since the law was passed, making it less likely that Congress will try to cut back the program significantly anytime soon. Nor have payment cuts to date been particularly disruptive for hospitals and the private insurers participating in Medicare Advantage plans.
At contentious town hall meetings held by lawmakers before the law’s passage, critics also claimed that “death panels” would sharply limit care at the end of life. But the focus of the ire of many, the Independent Payment Advisory Board, a government body created to try to control costs, has yet to get off the ground. Many lawmakers still seek to eliminate the board altogether.
It could be years before it is clear how well, or poorly, the law works, and many people do not understand how the law will affect them. “Most of the conversations so far that have been in the public have been about the politics of it,” said Ron Pollack, the executive director of Families USA, a Washington consumer advocacy group that has supported the law and is working to persuade people to enroll.
The idea is to enroll enough young and healthy people to spread the costs over a sufficient number. But people could ignore the requirement that they buy insurance, because the penalty for not doing so is low ($95 or 1 percent of family income for adults in the first year, whichever is higher, versus potentially thousands of dollars a year for a policy without any subsidies). If proportionately too many old and sick people sign up for coverage, premiums, even if they are moderate so far, could easily skyrocket, especially in those states with low enrollments. And the law’s subsidies could end up costing the government too much at a time when lawmakers are trying to tame the federal budget.
The law’s many skeptics argue that people, including early retirees, could be disappointed. The most affordable plans require substantial out-of-pocket spending and may not offer much in the way of a choice of hospitals and doctors, said Robert Laszewski, who heads a health policy consulting firm in Alexandria, Va. Even with the subsidies, many people will not feel as if the money is worth it, he said.
The problem with the less expensive plans is they are “going to be a Medicaid-style plan,” he said, referring to the state and federal government program for the poor.
As it approaches its biggest milestone to date in three weeks — the first open enrollment period for the state exchanges — public awareness of the law remains low, according to a recent Kaiser Family Foundation poll. But even those focusing on the law and on next year, when most of it takes effect, are finding concrete information hard to come by.
While a few states, like California, are far enough along to make it possible for a 60-year-old to determine what she will pay for different plans, other states and the federal government have made few details public. Ms. Stonebraker, who lives in Maryland, does not know how much a policy will cost her, and she worries that it could be more than $1,000 a month.
“I can’t afford that kind of money for insurance,” she said.
As for next year, experts say retirees who already have Medicare should see no surprises as a result of the law. Those eligible can still opt for traditional Medicare, along with a drug-only plan, or one of the Medicare Advantage plans run by private insurers, but they do not have to select their plans through the new exchanges.
“Medicare has not been radically altered,” said Gerry Smolka, a policy expert at AARP Public Policy Institute. “This is the same for you as it was last year.”
AARP has also been a proponent of the law.
But experts agree that the law could represent a fundamental change for people who find themselves in early retirement. With the exception of a few states, insurers have been able to choose whom to cover, avoiding those people who could have potentially expensive medical conditions, and older Americans are much more likely to have a chronic health condition like diabetes or heart disease.
Nine million Americans between 50 and 64 years old were uninsured in 2010, according to a recent analysis by the AARP Public Policy Institute.
Greg Burke, for example, is 61 and he retired in 2008. While he still had insurance from his former employer, he had a knee replacement.
“After my knee replacement, I found that the insurers didn’t love me anymore,” Mr. Burke said.
He and his wife were eventually covered under a special federal government program aimed specifically at people with potentially expensive medical conditions, to help provide coverage until the exchanges were up and running. Together, they pay around $700 a month for coverage.
But programs like that one, unless they become state-run and financed, are going to be phased out. The Burkes believe they may qualify for the Affordable Care Act’s subsidies. Because they live in Ohio, a Republican-run state that declined to set up an exchange on its own, the marketplace will be run by the federal government, and final details about plans are not available. Mr. Burke said he was checking the government’s Web site, www.healthcare.gov
, for information every week.
“We’re really in new territory now,” he said
An early analysis of premiums in a dozen states showed that 60-year-olds are likely to pay about $615 a month in premiums for a midlevel plan, before the impact of any subsidies, according to Avalere Health, a Washington research firm, but there is wide variation among the states. Ohio’s rates average $150 higher than those in Maryland for the same type of plan.
Experts say making apples-to-apples comparisons is difficult. The law requires more generous coverage than many individual policies offer today, and today someone who is healthy may be offered a policy at a much lower rate than someone with a chronic medical condition.
But other alternatives are also dwindling. While companies sometimes offered their retirees health coverage as a bridge to Medicare, as well as a kind of additional coverage, they are less and less likely to do so, according to an October 2012 analysis by the Employee Benefit Research Institute. The percentage of employees who work for a company offering coverage dropped to 18 percent in 2010 from 29 percent in 1997. Some companies are also moving retirees eligible for Medicare to privately run exchanges. I.B.M. and Time Warner became the latest to make the shift.Even some at financially strained local governments seem inclined to encourage their early retirees to enroll in the exchanges rather than foot their high medical bills. Detroit, for example, is considering moving retired workers who are not eligible for Medicare to the exchanges as a way of reducing its spending.
Early retirees may well be better off on the exchanges, with a range of plans from which to choose and the possibility of subsidies, said Paul Fronstin, who leads the research into health benefits for the research institute. Because subsidies are based on income, individuals, even those with considerable nest eggs, may be able to defer payments under a pension or withdrawals from a 401(k) so they qualify; subsidies, through tax credits, begin for people whose modified adjusted gross income is under the threshold of 400 percent of poverty, around $62,000 for a couple with both buying coverage.
The Kaiser Family Foundation, a research group, has developed a calculator at kff.org/interactive/subsidy-calculator/ for people trying to determine whether they might be eligible and how much they could receive.
Whether the new plans will be more attractive than the coverage early retirees have now will also depend on where you live and how much you make. Some states, like New York, have long required insurers to offer coverage to all residents and charge the same in premiums, regardless of health and age. State officials say the plans on the exchange are much less expensive than the one available today in New York because the new law will create a much larger pool of people being insured.
But some plans may not be cheap, especially for those receiving no help in the way of subsidies. In San Diego, for example, a 60-year-old can choose a plan from Anthem Blue Cross ranging in cost from under $500 a month, with a $5,000 deductible, to a little over $1,000 a month for a plan with no upfront deductible.
Individuals who are considering making the switch should also make sure the policies they are comparing have similar coverage, said Ms. Smolka at the AARP policy institute. AARP has also created a site where consumers can learn more about it, bit.ly/1a805Gg.
The federal law’s requirement that insurers charge older Americans no more than three times what they charge the youngest policy holder is also serving to keep rates lower than they might otherwise be for similar coverage. Age and smoking status are the only factors insurers can use to determine an individual’s premiums within the set of health plans, divided into four tiers, ranging from bronze to platinum.
“From the individual’s perspective, older adults are shielded from the premium extremes they could have otherwise faced in the private marketplace,” said Tricia Neuman, a senior official at the Kaiser Family Foundation.
Retirees 65 or older with coverage under Medicare are not much affected, but experts worry that there is significant potential for confusion. The open enrollment period for Medicare, which runs from Oct. 15 to Dec. 7, overlaps with the enrollment period for the exchanges. There have already been reports of fraud involving Medicare retirees who are told they need to buy another policy to avoid paying the tax penalty associated with people who do not have enough coverage.
If anything, Medicare enrollees enjoy more robust coverage under the earlier provisions of the law, which expanded coverage for preventive care and prescription drugs. The law will eventually close the so-called doughnut hole, a gap in Medicare prescription-drug coverage between the initial coverage limit and a higher threshold that leaves individuals paying in full out of pocket until their coverage kicks back in.
“It really strengthened Medicare,” said Paula Muschler, who leads a Medicare plan selection service for Allsup, a company that helps people get Social Security disability and Medicare benefits.
She worries that people who are confused about what is happening in October may not bother to see if there are important changes to the Medicare Advantage plans they can select. “There are always new plans that come out, and formularies change,” she said, which alter the prescription drugs that may be covered.
Early retirees considering making a change or those contemplating leaving their employer because they can now get insurance should be cautious, according to financial planners. Reed C. Fraasa, who advises people at Highland Financial Advisors, says he and his colleagues are just starting to work through the details of the offerings themselves. “Our advice would be to wait and see,” he said.
But individuals could start incorporating the new reality into their thought processes in a way that was never possible before. People approaching retirement typically stayed in jobs longer than they wanted to only because they needed the insurance or their spouse was too young for Medicare. The exchanges now make it possible for such people to consider early retirement because many for the first time will be able to find insurance coverage even if they have a pre-existing medical condition.
“It really helps to disconnect decision-making around employment and health care,” said Diahann W. Lassus, a fee-only financial planner at Lassus Wherley. “That’s a tremendous change in dynamic.”
*****************John Boehner’s Do Less Than Nothing Congress Refuses To Get To Work
Sep. 9th, 2013
Most Americans have no idea how it feels to enjoy a 5-week vacation from the rigors of going to work to do nothing but hamper economic recovery and vote to defund the Affordable Care Act. The United States Congress returns today with a laundry list of important items to address and only 9 days to solve some very important issues. If history is any indication, it is unlikely this Congress will get down to work to accomplish anything except attempting to defund the Affordable Care Act, shut down the government, and cause a national credit default, but the President has asked them to decide whether or not America should take action against the Assad regime for using banned chemical weapons in the ongoing Syrian civil war.
It is apparent that either the President has great faith that Republicans will put aside their racially-motivated obstructionist ways and finally do the jobs they were sent to Washington to do, or continue bickering amongst themselves about how best to sabotage the economy and let Syrians sort out their own civil war. It is entirely possible that was the President’s intent all along, but of course that is purely speculation; and maybe brilliant.
Over the past five weeks Republicans have spent their vacation sucking up to the oil industry and attempting to convince their constituents that defunding the Affordable Care Act is more pressing than immigration reform, government funding levels, increasing the federal debt limit, fixing the sequester, reworking the Voting Rights Act, and restoring food stamp funding in the farm bill. Now their demand to have input into whether or not America should take limited action against Syrian forces is before them and they appear astonished they are tasked with making a decision with so many pressing domestic issues waiting for their attention. In fact, a 10-term representative from New Jersey, Republican Frank A. LoBiondo said upon leaving a briefing on Syria that “We’re having trouble walking and chewing gum already. This doesn’t make it any easier.”
It may be that the idea of intervening in the Syrian conflict and assisting the rebels in their attempt to overthrow the Assad regime is not in America, or the region’s best interests and doubtless that thought is not lost on President Obama. Let’s face it, the President has resisted repeated calls from Republican warmongers to get involved in giving the rebels an advantage for a good reason and it has everything to do with Syria’s considerable cache of chemical weapons that are the source of consternation among regional and world governments today. The rebels have promised that if the United States weakens the Syrian army, they will launch a ferocious assault to overthrow the Assad regime and there is no way of knowing whether or not a new government will be a serious threat to American interests or its allies in the region.
The specter of an extremist Islamist regime with access to a twenty-year buildup of chemical weapons and the means to deliver them does not bode well for anyone in the region, but especially Israel that activated their Iron Dome defense system over the weekend in anticipation of Syrian retaliation against America’s closest ally in the region in the event Congress gives the go-ahead for an America-only military strike. The President intimated on Sunday that turning “a blind eye to images like the ones we’ve seen out of Syria, and failing to respond to this outrageous attack would increase the risk that chemical weapons could be used again; that they would fall into the hands of terrorists who might use them against us, and it would send a horrible signal to other nations that there would be no consequences for their use of these weapons.” The President is absolutely right and there is no guarantee that “terrorists” he alluded to will be none other than a hostile Syrian government controlled by Islamist extremists within the rebel movement fighting to overthrow the Assad regime.
President Obama has suggested over the course of the Syrian civil war that intervening on behalf of the rebels is ill-advised because there is no way of knowing who is behind the rebel forces. Likely, it is why the President spent considerable time and energy at the G20 summit attempting to marshal international support to hold the Syrians accountable for the chemical weapon attack on a Damascus suburb that claimed countless lives of innocent civilians. Now, any American involvement is in the hands of an impotent Congress that is unable to manage passing a budget, farm bill, and immigration reform because they are too focused on defunding the Affordable Care Act, shutting down the government, and bickering over whether or not to default on the nation’s debt obligation.
Republicans in Congress, particularly the dependable warmongers who lust to bomb the Middle East, have shown no inclination to set aside their hatred for this President and support him; even to kill Muslims accused of using chemical weapons against their own countrymen. It is reasonable to assume that it may be the outcome the President hoped for after all. America cannot be the world’s police and the civil war in Syria is an internal matter and frankly, the rebels attempting to overthrow the legal government have given no assurance they have not already acquired some of the considerable chemical weapons few in the world cared to address.
The Syrian issue is a very complex problem that falls under the aegis of the United Nations and not just America. As the President has noted several times, 98% of the world’s governments signed treaties banning chemical weapons and mandated their destruction, and yet over the past twenty years Russia, Iran, European nations, and even American companies helped Syria buildup of a very substantial chemical weapons stash. The question the 188 signatories to the Chemical Weapons Convention now have to answer is just how committed they are to banning chemical weapons, and if as a group they will hold the Syrians who deployed them accountable for their actions or continue turning a blind eye.
President Obama has made America’s position clear that its commitment to banning chemical weapons is not confined to signing a treaty, and sending the decision to Congress sent a message to Americans that the democratic process will decide whether America takes action. There are valid arguments on both sides why America should or should not intervene in a sovereign nation’s internal affairs, and it is up to Congress to make the final decision. For his part, the President has silenced critics that he is not willing to take a principled stand and defend America’s interests abroad, or that he is adhering to the Bush doctrine of unilaterally deciding when America goes to war. The signal to Congress is that it is long past time for them to get to work for the American people and maybe resolving the question of military action against Syria will inspire them to quickly decide that it is not in America’s best interest to risk the possibility of a new Syrian regime unafraid to use chemical weapons against America or its allies.
With only 9 days to oppose raising the debt ceiling and funding the government, Republicans in Congress have their work cut out for them and it is likely their automatic opposition to President Obama will decide the Syria issue quickly and put responsibility for addressing chemical weapons use where it belongs in the hands of the United Nations. It is unreasonable that Republicans will want to miss an opportunity to waste 9 days creating another economic crisis over funding the government and threatening the nation’s credit, and it is possible the President counted on them to reject his request all along.
*****************Michele Bachmann Says Only God Can Defeat Hilary in 2016
By: Hrafnkell Haraldsson
Sep. 10th, 2013
bachmann-fbiSpeaking with Jan Markell of Olive Tree Ministries, Michele Bachmann in the course of an hour-long chat said that only God can defeat Hilary in 2016. Probably, only God can keep Bachmann out of jail, but that’s another story.
Where Hilary is concerned, Bachmann is trusting to the Lord God Almighty:
I don’t at all [fear Hilary will win] because I look at the story of David and Goliath, all David needed was one smooth stone to fell the giant. It wasn’t the stone, it wasn’t David, it was the strong right arm of a Holy God.
Bachmann is forgetting that Republicans were trusting to God to defeat Obama in 2008, and God gave them Barack Obama, whom they now accuse of plotting to establish an Islamic Caliphate (presumably then, he was killing Osama bin Laden as a potential rival for the role).
As a matter of fact, they have trusted in their god to do a lot of things (end abortion, lower the price of gas, etc) he has declined to do.
It’s almost as if they are turning their god into a tool or a weapon to be deployed to accomplish tasks they can’t.
Which doesn’t make him much of a god, when you think about it, occupying, as he does, such a subservient role to his alleged worshipers. Shouldn’t God’s voice be thundering down from heaven warning us not to vote for Hilary?
Not happening. Bachmann knows its not happening. That’s why so many Republicans are pretending to speak for their god.
Just like Bachmann said God told her to run for Prez in 2012. If she’s listening to God, doesn’t that also mean he told her to break election laws? And look where that’s getting her.
And yes, that’s another story. I’m sorry. It’s such an attractive story….
Bachmann apparently wants to hedge her bets, saying the GOP needs a “positive, big picture message solution.” Positive and GOP are not words that go together these days, when a message built on hate and exclusion permeates American conservatism.
Look at their platform last time around, written by a bunch of religious fanatics, a platform based on the Old Testament rather than the United States Constitution.
And they wonder why they lost.
And, of course, Bachmann says we have to stick with Israel and, speaking of exclusion, reject immigrants. “I got to tell you,” she said, “I’ve been shocked and appalled by the conservatives who have gotten on board this train of amnesty for illegal aliens. I’ve been absolutely floored.”
Appalled…wait till she gets to federal prison. Then she will be appalled and…floored.
Oh, sorry! I promised that was another story. I won’t do it again. Promise.
Anyway, Bachmann said,
For some reason they’re [naughty Republicans] on a political suicide journey to make sure this [immigration reform] happens. This will hurt and forever structurally change our country into the future and I think it will hurt us from a national security perspective as well.
Right. Republican fantasies of immigrants with explosives smuggled across the border in their anuses with those beefy cantaloupe calves.
And in a sort of shout-out to Iowa, where Ted Cruz is carrying on with her particular brand of crazy, Bachmann could not ignore Republican millennialism:
We are in times that are unprecedented. These are the times of birth pangs, we’re seeing the intensity of age and the speed and rapidity that these events are starting to speed up so fast that we can hardly get our minds about it.
Well, her mind, at any rate, which was never one of the world’s finest. I mean, she thinks David Barton is a constitutional expert. ‘Nuff said.
Jan Markell opined “that many are heartbroken because we’ve watched this wonderful country of ours just tank more and more and more because of this secular humanist, hardcore, atheistic, left who is hell bent on socialism for America.”
Oh those nasty secular humanists and their United States Constitution. Just as Republicans won’t forgive Obama for being a black man, they won’t forgive the Founding Fathers for writing a secular Constitution. The Founding Fathers aren’t around to blame anymore so they blame those of us who defend that Constitution instead, while they try to turn the Founding Fathers into religious fanatics.
What’s funny is that Americans seem well aware of its choice coming down to that between rampant and unbridled capitalist corporatism and a people-friendly socialism and the corporatist message has been rejected in two consecutive national elections.
And now we have Bachmann’s open admission that 2016 will bring yet a third rejection – unless the Lord God Almighty steps in and smites Hilary hip and thigh in the best Old Testament sense.
Good luck with that, Michele.
************Fox anchor asks viewers to consider if bombing Syria is a harbinger of the Second Coming of Christ
By David Edwards
Tuesday, September 10, 2013 9:36 EDT
Fox News anchor Neil Cavuto on Monday devoted an entire segment to the possibility that a United States attack on Syria could be a sign of the End Times, a period in which Christians believe that Jesus Christ will return to face the emergence of the Antichrist.
“This Syria stuff is way old,” Cavuto explained. “I mean Old Testament old. That’s how old I’m talking about. Don’t laugh. Some biblical scholars say it’s all there in black and white.”
The Fox News host invited author Joel Rosenberg to weigh in on the link between the Syrian conflict and the Bible passages, which he said were “uncanny” and “kind of scary.”
“These are prophecies more than 2,700 years old, some of them, but they have not actually been fulfilled,” Rosenberg said. “But this prophecy, as you just pointed out, talks about the complete and utter destruction of Damascus. That’s an End Times or eschatological prophecy.”
“It’s a very sobering thought to think that a judgment of a city or a country could happen in which an entire city could be wiped out, but that is, in fact, what the Bible is predicting,” he added. “I think it’s wrong for people who teach Bible prophecies to guess — I mean, in a sense try to say for certain it’s going to happen now.”
“But you have 7 million Syrians that are already on the run, 2 million have left the country, 5 million are internally displaced. That Jeremiah 49 prophecy says that people will flee, but there will still be people in Damascus when the prophecy happens. So, the bottom line is that we don’t know if these two prophecies — Isaiah 17 and Jeremiah 49 — will happen in our lifetime or soon, but they could because they haven’t happened yet.”
“Amazing,” the Fox News host observed. “It’s in in there. It’s worth a read.”
Cavuto and Rosenberg did not speculate if one of the current world leaders could be the Antichrist at the time of Christ’s Second Coming.