Where Human Rights Meet the Internet: RightsCon Day One


San Francisco, CA—technologists, lawyers, journalists, human rights activists, and others have gathered here in San Francisco to brainstorm solutions to the myriad human rights challenges that face the world in the digital age. I’m reporting live from RightsCon, a human rights conference hosted by Access, “an international human rights organization premised on the belief that political participation and the realization of human rights in the 21st century is increasingly dependent on access to the internet and other forms of technology.” While there’s no question that RightsCon represents a step in the right direction in terms of thinking about the intersection between human rights and Internet-based technologies, the journey has yet to come full circle. Here at the Fourth Estate Watch, I want to close the gap between a few things that others at the conference may have missed.

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– What I first noticed upon entering RightsCon was that event sponsors include various companies mentioned in the NSA’s PRISM slides: Microsoft, Google, and Facebook. These are also the companies that voluntarily dismissed their pending case before the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) in exchange for the ability to publish (allegedly)  more robust corporate “transparency reports,” a move that even the Washington Post has described as “mostly a PR stunt.” Despite the NSA and FISC controversies, however, I later discovered that a panelist for “transparency reporting for beginners” was a Policy Communications Manager at Google.

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– During the event’s opening remarks, Nnenna Nwakanma reminded attendees that “more than half of the world’s population still does not have Internet access.” This is a critical point that I feel does not deserve enough attention. As I have previously reported, there is a gross disparity in Internet accessibility between people (and countries) of varying wealth, and the rule of thumb is that greater wealth equals greater Internet access. It is important for those thinking about human rights, then, to keep in mind that vast swaths of (largely indigent) humanity do not yet use the Internet. Internet-based approaches to human rights tend to downplay the reality that many victims of human rights violations simply do not have Internet access, rendering them out of sight, out of mind, and out of the conversation.

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– Lastly, I want to note that while everyone at RightsCon seems to be talking about the Internet, no one seems to be talking about the environmental costs of the Internet. The question has critical implications. The New York Times has reported that “[m]ost data centers, by design, consume vast amounts of energy in an incongruously wasteful manner … [o]nline companies typically run their facilities at maximum capacity around the clock, whatever the demand. As a result, data centers can waste 90 percent or more of the electricity they pull off the grid” (emphasis ours). All of the Internet-based solutions to human rights, then, will require more and more data servers on which to store all of  that Internet-generated data. But yet, as seen above, data centers can waste “90 percent or more” of the electricity they pull. Human rights activists who champion Internet-based approaches to human rights problems must find a way to square the ever-increasing energy consumption of the Internet and the ever-decreasing natural resources of our planet. Failure to do so could be catastrophic.

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Drone Strikes & Due Process: A Legal Analysis of Targeted Killing

MQ-1 Predator

“Whatever disagreement there may be as to the scope of the phrase ‘due process of law,’ there can be no doubt that it embraces the fundamental conception of a fair trial, with opportunity to be heard.”
—Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., dissenting, Frank v. Magnum, 1915

When President Obama authorized a drone strike in Yemen that targeted and killed US citizen Anwar al-Awlaki, the The New York Times (NYT) described the decision as “extremely rare, if not unprecedented[.]” Less than two-and-a-half years after the first targeted strike against a US citizen, however, and Obama appears poised to make that decision once again. Abdullah al-Shami, the nickname of an otherwise anonymous man alleged to be a top Al-Qaeda terrorist living in Pakistan, is the latest US citizen in the Administration’s cross-hairs. As Glenn Greenwald has written, these strikes against US citizens are being executed “[w]ithout any due process, transparency or oversight[.]” This week’s NYT article by Matt Mazzetti and Eric Schmitt about the potential killing of al-Shami—entitled “U.S. Militant, Hidden, Spurs Drone Debate”—disregard Greenwald’s concerns and focus on an entirely different debate. By avoiding questions about the constitutionality or transparency of drone strikes targeting US citizens, however, the NYT implicitly suggests those issues don’t matter. Here at the Fourth Estate Watch (FEW), we believe they do.

Mazzetti and Schmitt are correct when they state that the decision surrounding al-Shami’s fate “encapsulates some of the thorniest questions raised by the targeted killing program that Mr. Obama has embraced as president,” but their article somehow manages to miss all of them. Crucially, for example, the authors ask “under what circumstances the government may kill American citizens without a trial,” instead of asking whether the government can kill American citizens without a trial. The second question is essential because the Fifth Amendment states that “no person” shall be “deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law,” which generally requires that the accused be afforded the right to examine the evidence against him, the right to counsel, the right to examine witnesses, the right to have his case heard before an impartial tribunal, etc. Under the Obama Administration’s targeted killing program, by contrast, you can be “deprived of life” after a group of anonymous government officials decide to authorize a drone strike against you (which is what happened to al-Awlaki). How, then, can President Obama’s targeted killing of US citizens be said to square with the Fifth Amendment? In the case of al-Shami, the Obama Administration hasn’t even disclosed his real name, notwithstanding Obama’s previous promise of an “unprecedented level of openness in Government.” How can the government be “open” in any meaningful sense if it can authorize a drone strike against a US citizen abroad in near-total secrecy?

Instead of addressing the constitutionality of targeted killings of US citizens, though, the NYT prefers to ask “whether the CIA or the Pentagon ought to be the dominant agency running America’s secret wars[.]” That strikes us as a secondary concern, something far less critical than questions relating to overall credibility and accountability. One of the anonymous U.S. officials interviewed for the article, for example, asserts that “[w]e have clear and convincing evidence that [al-Shami is] involved in the production and distribution of I.E.D.’s” without offering anything concrete in support. Given that the NYT has previously apologized for part of its reporting in the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq, stating that US government claims about Saddam Hussein were “allowed to stand unchallenged,” one wonders why the paper published the official’s comment about al-Shami without asking for elaboration or corroboration. In 2004 the NYT lamented that “we wish we had been more aggressive in re-examining the claims” made by the US government, yet in 2014 the paper seems unable to apply that lesson to the targeted killing of US citizens.


The mistake may have far-reaching implications. If and until journalists begin to question the government aggressively regarding the constitutional concerns over the targeted killing of US citizens, this once-rare event will only proliferate. After all, the NYT itself tells us the debate on whether to kill al-Shami “comes less than a year after Mr. Obama announced new guidelines to tighten the rules for carrying out lethal drone operations” (emphasis ours). Let’s keep in mind that what we are talking about is the US government’s alleged authority to kill a US citizen without offering that person any opportunity to examine evidence, consult counsel, or present their case. That is an extreme proposition, and that it may soon happen twice in under three years should startle everyone. And not only do Obama’s new guidelines not appear to have tightened anything at all, we don’t even know what those guidelines are since they are kept hidden from public scrutiny.

With the targeted killing of US citizens wrapped in so much secrecy, it is perhaps unsurprising that the NYT concludes that “[i]t is unclear what Mr. Obama’s position is on whether Mr. Shami should be targeted.” But perhaps the President need not speak for us to know his position. Given that he has already authorized the targeted killing of one US citizen (al-Awlaki) and that he is currently weighing the decision whether to do so again, it is clear that the President believes the US government can satisfy the Due Process clause of the Fifth Amendment by unilaterally, and in secret, deciding whether a US citizen abroad should be placed on a list for targeted killing. That tells us everything we need to know.

On Targeted Killing: The Establishment Media & Administration Officials are One and the Same


Today’s editorial in the Chicago Tribune, which proclaims that the U.S. government’s targeted killing program “needs to keep flying,” is perhaps the worst editorial on the subject we have ever read. Since the editorial raises a number of arguments that are consistently raised by those who support “death by unreliable metadata,” to quote Glenn Greenwald and Jeremy Scahill’s memorable phrase to describe drone strikes, here at the Fourth Estate Watch (FEW) we wanted to take the opportunity to debunk some of these baseless claims, many of which have been advocated by Administration officials as well.

In the context of the recent report from the Associated Press that President Obama is again weighing the decision whether to kill a U.S. citizen abroad, the Tribune declares: “we know [that] U.S. government officials have been debating since last summer whether to authorize a strike against the man. What’s taking so long? If he poses an imminent threat…” (emphasis ours). Clearly impatient that blood has not yet been drawn in the matter, the Tribune blindly accepts the Administration’s assertion that the man in question poses an “imminent threat.” But based on what evidence, and what definition of “imminent”? The AP article itself was based on statements from anonymous U.S. officials, who should not be viewed as having credibility on these matters as Dan Froomkin’s latest article in The Intercept shows us that “[t]he White House’s record of truth-telling when it comes to drone warfare is appalling.” One wonders what media organizations are doing, then, if they are content to repeat anonymous government claims without even the slightest attempt to square them with existing evidence.

Caught in the matrix of the Administration’s deceit and deception regarding the drone war, then, the Tribune appears happy to take the blue pill when it describes targeted killing as “extraordinarily effective” and “[o]ne of America’s most effective anti-terrorist programs” (emphasis ours). But that makes no sense, unless an “effective” anti-terrorist program is one that is designed to create more terrorists. As we know from Scott Shane and Jo Becker’s reporting in The New York Times, “[d]rones have replaced Guantanamo as the recruiting tool of choice for militants” (emphasis ours). Similarly, Glenn Greenwald has extensively documented how those engaged in attacks against the United States “emphatically all say the same thing: that they were motivated by the continuous, horrific violence brought by the US and its allies to the Muslim world[.]” Not to mention that civilians on the receiving end of a drone strike are often afflicted with terrible, constant psychological trauma and fear regardless of whether the drone strike is aimed at them or not. To proclaim that the targeted killing program is an effective anti-terrorist tool, as both the Tribune and Administration Officials have argued, is to engage in self-deception and a willful blindness to the facts on the ground.


Second, the Tribune—again like the Obama Administration—treats the question of national sovereignty as somewhat of a joke, mocking Pakistan’s leaders who “have loudly denounced drone strikes as a violation of their country’s sovereignty.” Instead of offering a serious analysis on sovereignty, then, the Tribune prefers to gloss over the issue and implicitly assert that the United States government must exercise its innate authority to seek, surveil, and strike anyone in the world it deems an imminent threat. We’re not necessarily surprised by this cavalier attitude. After all, why would the Tribune want a serious discussion about sovereignty when the government itself doesn’t appear interested in that conversation?

Lastly, the Tribune argues that the U.S. should “wait until a new [Afghan] president is elected in April” in order to get the new Afghan President to sign the currently-stalled U.S.-Afghan security agreement. Readers interested in the U.S.-Afghan pact should review our previous article on the subject, but for the moment it is sufficient to note that the Tribune—and the Obama Administration—generally tend to ignore a critical provision when discussing the proposed agreement: that the U.S. demands immunity for U.S. troops as a condition of the agreement. In other words, given that U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan have been videotaped urinating on deceased Afghanis, have killed civilians in numerous instances, and have sent drone strikes to various Afghan villages, is it any wonder the Afghan government would hesitate to sign an agreement that affords U.S. soldiers immunity? How would the people of Afghanistan benefit from this? The short answer is as follows: the only ones who benefit from such an arrangement are the ones endowed with immunity.

In sum, today’s editorial in the Tribune offers a classic example of establishment media organizations publishing material that belongs more to public relations experts than serious journalists. Virtually all of the claims in the Tribune have been advanced by Administration officials at one point or another and all are demonstrably false or exaggerated. Here at the FEW, we believe in Judge Gurfein’s observation from the Pentagon Papers case that the press must fight to preserve “the even greater values of freedom of expression and the right of the people to know.” The right of the people to know, however, is seriously and perhaps irreparably harmed when major media outlets are content writing articles and editorials packed with demonstrable lies. The public deserves better.

Government DoubleSpeak & the Permanent War Footing

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“The Party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command.”
—George Orwell, 1984

While the phrase “War on Terror” may have dropped from official parlance years ago, the term’s core feature—a violent conflict that knows no limits in terms of time or terrain—remains part and parcel of U.S. counterterrorism policy. Here at the Fourth Estate Watch (FEW), we look at the media’s discussion of the current drone war and we’re left wondering whether the more things change, the more they stay the same. Yesterday we learned from The Intercept that NSA surveillance of electronic metadata provides the intelligence behind many drone strikes, and we also learned from the Associated Press that the Obama Administration is weighing whether to kill (another) U.S. citizen via drone strike abroad. Taken together, these reports suggest that the U.S. government’s “Assassination Program”—to borrow the phrase from Glenn Greenwald & Jeremy Scahill—has expanded beyond the realm of reason or rationality. Indeed, that the U.S. government even has such a program should shock and awe those who value national sovereignty, international law, human rights, the U.S. Constitution, and human dignity. If we are to have any hope of changing the tide of history, however, we must begin to wrestle with the reality that this war has no end. After all—how can we hope to confront what we have not yet understood?

When President Obama declared that “America must move off a permanent war footing” in his State of the Union (SOTU) address, he could only have been intentionally channeling Orwellian DoubleSpeak for that phrase to make sense. In its first of a three-part series on Obama’s counterterrorism practice of targeted killing, for example, The Washington Post (Post) details the “disposition matrix” that the Obama Administration employs to determine whether an individual in the matrix lives or dies. A critical aspect of the Post’s article emerges partway through: the targeted killing program transcends the boundaries of time. “Among senior Obama administration officials,” the Post reports, “there is a broad consensus that such [targeted killing] operations are likely to be extended at least another decade” (emphasis ours). That time frame—another decade—would drag the drone war into 2024. Some Administration officials apparently conceded 2024 may be closing the curtain too soon on targeted killings, noting there was “no clear end [in] sight” for the program, and that there are plans to “continue adding names to kill or capture lists for years” (emphasis ours). And despite presiding over the implementation and expansion of these very programs, President Obama speaks with a straight face about moving away from a permanent war footing. How can that be? Obama has also allowed the NSA to launch surveillance programs such as XKeyscore and PRISM that, like the targeted killing program, suggest the government is engaged in a conflict that is almost infinite in scope and duration.


And don’t take our word for it. Obama’s SOTU—yes, the same speech where he spoke of moving off the war footing—itself presages a conflict on which the sun will never set. “While we’ve put al-Qaida’s core leadership on a path to defeat,” Obama intoned, “the threat has evolved as al-Qaida affiliates and other extremists take root in different parts of the world. In Yemen, Somalia, Iraq, Mali, we have to keep working with partners to disrupt and disable these networks” (emphasis ours). Numerous aspects of that sentence should immediately jump out to careful readers. Notice that while the President suggests the war is over with one hand (al-Qaida is on the “path to defeat”), with the other hand he informs us the war is not really over at all (it has grown to include “Yemen, Somalia, Iraq, Mali”). And look at the countries Obama mentioned. Mali? Do most Americans even know where that is? (Answer: West Africa). More critically, what are U.S. drones doing in Yemen and Somalia? We—and the public in general—have essentially no idea. Obama has refused to release most of the legal memos that outline his alleged authority to engage in targeted killing, and so despite having previously assured Americans “an unprecedented level of openness in Government,” we only get a glimpse into the drone war during the occasional news story such as when a U.S. drone strike converts a Yemeni wedding into a family funeral. Iraq is also mentioned as a site of extremist activity to “disrupt,” which is somewhat curious given that here is a video Obama declaring the war in Iraq is over—back in 2011. How can the war in Iraq have ended in any meaningful sense if, three years later, we are actively “working with our partners” to “disrupt and disable” extremist activity there and around the world? It seems that the way to get America off the war footing (at least in DoubleSpeak) is to kill more people. This is not hyperbole: Obama has launched eight times as many drone strikes as his predecessor and there’s no end in sight. The light at the end of the tunnel is (yet another) drone strike.

Media outlets must write candidly about a war that appears to have no end, otherwise the debates surrounding the tactics, strategy, and legality of the drone war will reverberate into an echo chamber where they will be heard only by the speakers themselves. In the interim, those running the drone war and targeted killing programs will likely continue their actions more-or-less unchanged. A good example of this phenomenon is exemplified in the AP article cited above regarding the latest U.S. citizen abroad the Obama Administration has set its sights on. The AP begins its piece noting the targeting of another American citizen “underscores the complexities of President Barack Obama’s new stricter targeting guidelines for the use of deadly drones.” Read that sentence carefully. Why didn’t the AP say, for example, that the Obama Administration’s targeting of yet another U.S. citizen underscores a drone war gone out of control? Or that it underscores the increased acceptance of the (in our view, absurd) proposition that it’s OK to kill U.S. citizens abroad without due process? If, as The New York Times has reported, the targeted killing of a U.S. citizen abroad is “extremely rare, if not unprecedented,” then wouldn’t yet another targeting of a U.S. citizen just a few years later underscore something slightly more fundamental than “the complexities” of Obama’s “stricter targeting guidelines”? Various news outlets have already reported that Obama’s new guidelines are nothing but Orwellian “pure wind,” devoid of any real substance and designed to make murder respectable. To make matters worse, the AP article itself quotes Amnesty International’s Naureen Shah for the proposition that “[s]o little has changed since last year[.]”

The evidence suggests Shah stands correct, not just for last year but for many more before that. If and until journalists understand that the U.S. government is firmly implanted on a permanent war footing—in other words, understand that Obama’s SOTU was primarily delivered in DoubleSpeak—we will continue to witness the expansion of a drone war that has no end. And if that turns out to be the case, we will find ourselves in the company of the protagonist of 1984, for as we know, “Winston could not definitely remember a time when his country had not been at war…”

On NSA Reform & The Media: Have we Learned Nothing?


“POLITICS, noun—a strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles. The conduct of public affairs for private advantage.”
—Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary

We’ve long since lost confidence in how major media outlets report on national security / surveillance matters, and their take on yesterday’s hearings in Washington only entrenches that belief. After all, what’s the purpose of “journalism” if media outlets are content merely reporting the facts (i.e., describing them) instead of analyzing them? Here at the Fourth Estate Watch (FEW), we prefer journalism that’s in line with Judge Gurfein’s observation in the Pentagon Papers case: “[a] cantankerous press, an obstinate press, a ubiquitous press must be suffered by those in authority” (emphasis ours). Notice Judge Gurfein’s phraseology that the work of the press “must be suffered” by authority figures suggests that true journalism must be both tenacious and aggressive.

The majority of reporting on yesterday’s surveillance-related hearings fails on both counts. Take The Washington Post (WP), whose article on the hearings ran with the headline “Snowden’s Leaks: Are journalists ‘fencing stolen material’?” While the WP spent fifteen paragraphs exploring the question, they never bothered to present the obvious answer: no. The facts here should not be misunderstood—the answer to the WP’s question is a simple “no” because there is no evidence whatsoever that Glenn Greenwald or any of the other journalists reporting on the Snowden documents has ever sold anything to anyone. As Greenwald himself has stated: “I have never, ever sold a document[.]” That Greenwald has never sold an NSA document didn’t stop major media outlets from writing page upon page exploring the hypothetical situation of whether selling such a document would be a crime.

In other words, rather than explore whether everything Representative Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) and others said at yesterday’s hearing was based in fiction or fact, many media organizations quoted the officials at length, implicitly suggesting that what they said either makes sense or should be taken seriously. But we know neither is true. Take a look at this quote from Rogers, reprinted by The New York Times in its article on the hearings: “If I’m hawking stolen, classified material that I’m not legally in possession of for personal gain and profit, is that not a crime?” Almost every word of the sentence is inaccurate, yet readers of the NYT wouldn’t know it. First, Rogers’ hypothetical is nonsensical because (as noted above) there is no evidence that anyone has hawked confidential material. Rather, Greenwald has had a clear history of partnering with—not selling or hawking to—other media outlets in reporting on the Snowden documents, including Globo in Brazil and Der Spiegel in Germany. The second part of Rogers’ hypothetical—selling the materials “for personal gain and profit”—also emerges more from Rogers’ vivid imagination than concrete fact. While Greenwald’s prominence and stature have no doubt increased as a result of his work on the Snowden documents, there’s again no evidence to suggest he pursued this story for personal profit. And there’s plenty of evidence to indicate he’s working on these stories because he believes them to be in the public interest.

Regardless of whether media outlets believe their work to be better “after Snowden” than before, their reporting continues to leave much to be desire on these issues. We’ve previously documented how many politicians in Washington have essentially no credibility when it comes to speaking sensibly or truthfully about NSA surveillance or reform, yet the major media outlets continue to report on these events as if they do. Our question is a basic one: why?

Journalists on Twitter and elsewhere repeatedly declared that yesterday’s hearing demonstrated the Obama Administration’s desire to “criminalize” journalism, to quote Greenwald. Hearing that disheartens us somewhat, because these journalists should know better than anyone that this Administration already has taken significant, concrete steps in the attempt to criminalize journalism. Did we already forget the time when the Department of Justice (DOJ) obtained two months worth of telephone records from the Associated Press without their knowledge? At the time—and this was less than a year ago, keep in mind—AP President & CEO Gary Pruitt said “The DOJ’s actions could not have been more tailor-made to comfort authoritarian regimes that want to suppress their own news media,” (emphasis ours). Can it be we no longer recall that the DOJ suggested FOX News reporter James Rosen was a “co-conspirator” as part of his reporting? We remember those things, and we’re here to ensure you do too. Indeed, the mainstream discussion around NSA surveillance reminds us of the poem Ozymandias from Percy Bysshe Shelley—media outlets are focusing on NSA reform with bated breath without realizing there’s no reason to believe there’s any substance behind the Administration’s promises of reform. Promise of NSA reform is like the statue in Shelley’s poem—there’s nothing really there. “Round the decay / Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,” Shelley tells us, “The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

Profit & Poverty: A Socio-Economic Analysis of Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation


“The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.”
—Franklin D. Roosevelt, Second Inaugural Address, 1937

Regardless of whether one believes in one, twelve, or no God(s), the recent apostolic exhortation by Pope Francis—entitled Evangelii Gaudium—feels a bit like divine intervention. In a time where we’re attuned to hearing many media outlets report on the economy almost exclusively in terms of numbers—jobs created, jobs lost, stock prices, consumer spending, etc.—Pope Francis tosses a lighting bolt into an otherwise moribund discussion. Boldly declaring that we should not worship “the idolatry of money and the dictatorship of an impersonal economy lacking a truly human purpose,” the Pope’s exhortation sounds like it was distributed on Soviet leaflets rather than Vatican parchment. Ultimately, Pope Francis’ exhortation upends the conventional discussion of the economy from products to people and from dollars to dignity.

And when one focuses on souls instead of stocks, one cannot help but notice that our world is rife with extreme income inequality and widespread poverty. In fact, the Pontiff spends many paragraphs arguing that the global economy has produced such extreme income inequality precisely because we’re not focusing on people. The plight of the poor “fail[s] to move us,” Pope Francis exclaims, in part because of “our relationship with money, since we calmly accept its dominion over ourselves and our societies” (emphasis ours). Consider the attention and sheer number of articles that are devoted to the sale of consumer goods, whether it be the latest smartphone or television. Rarely does the media consider who made the goods, and rarer still do they ask under what conditions does that person work and live.

Pope Francis takes us where others won’t: he urges us to think about people not products. “The culture of prosperity deadens us,” he says, to the point where “we end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, weeping for other people’s pain, and feeling a need to help them, as though all this were someone else’s responsibility and not our own.” The notion helps explain how Oxfam can publish a report, to no tangible effect, indicating that the wealthiest 85 individuals in the world have as many assets as the 3,500,000,000 poorest.* Oxfam’s report made headlines worldwide, but those living in poverty witnessed no change in their quality of life from one day to the next.

Aware that reports such as those published by Oxfam perennially fail to alleviate the world’s ever-increasing income inequality, Pope Francis calls for a “vigorous change of approach” in our thinking about the global economy. The Pope’s exhortation is unwavering in its commitment to remedying income inequality: “As long as the problems of the poor are not radically resolved by rejecting the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation … no solution will be found for the world’s problems or, for that matter, to any problems. Inequality is the root of social ills” (emphasis ours). By contrast, President Obama’s State of the Union (SOTU) address said nothing about socio-economic inequality except to note that “[i]nequality has deepened,” which isn’t so much thoughtful analysis as regurgitation of obvious fact. President Obama never bothers to ask why income inequality has expanded in recent years, instead preferring to speak about the economy as if what truly powered it was “a set of conveniently invisible numbers rather than [a] body of fellow citizens,” to paraphrase Lewis Lapham.

Pope Francis turns Obama’s SOTU on its head. Whereas Obama’s SOTU doesn’t mention “the poor” once, the Pontiff keeps the focus on the poor throughout—mentioning them in his exhortation over sixty times. In short, a close read of Pope Francis’ Evangelii Gaudium suggests a message that echoes what Occupy protesters spoke of in Zuccotti Park: people before profits. Don’t take our word for it—we’ll leave the last words to the Pope himself. “The thirst for power and possessions knows no limits,” Pope Francis declares. “In this system, which tends to devour everything which stands in the way of increased profits, whatever is fragile, like the environment, is defenseless before the interests of a deified market, which become the only rule.”

*That’s 3.5 billion people, or approximately half of the world’s population.

President Obama’s SOTU: On Education, It’s all About the Economy


“Fortunately in England, at any rate, education produces no effect whatsoever. If it did, it would prove a serious danger to the upper classes, and probably lead to acts of violence in Grosvenor Square.”
—Oscar Wilde, “The Importance of Being Earnest”

Yesterday, we identified how the State of the Union described immigrants as if they were mere numbers contributing to the economy rather than people joining the citizenry. It turns out that when President Obama turned to the topic of education, though, the periscope through which he viewed the issue was the same: jobs & the economy. Here at the Fourth Estate Watch (FEW), we believe education should be about the mind—not the market—and we fear Obama may be taking the phrase “the value of an education” literally.

In the context of Obama’s stated desire to “speed up growth and create more jobs,” for example, he said: “I’ve asked Vice President Biden to lead an across-the-board reform of America’s training programs to make sure they have one mission: train Americans with the skills employers need, and match them to good jobs that need to be filled right now” (emphasis ours). The message needs no translation. What does it say about the value of education when the President’s stated goal is to transform it into something that only exists to serve for-profit entities? Has the value of an education been reduced to nothing more than what it can contribute to the corporate balance sheet?

Evidently, yes. President Obama praised schools for “preparing students with the skills for the new economy—problem solving, critical thinking, science, technology, engineering, math” (emphasis ours). Notice that history, English, philosophy, economics, anthropology, and the arts aren’t on the curriculum. Seemingly unable to exist as something to be desired in its own right, education is reduced to little more than a connecting flight on the (increasingly) long journey to a job.

Lewis Lapham once observed that “unless we stop telling ourselves that America is best understood as the sum of its gross domestic product, we stand little chance of re-imagining our history or reengineering our schools.” The problem is that, according to The State of the Union, education and the economy are inseparable. Obama made that clear when he praised the value of educational training as a way to “connect more ready-to-work Americans with ready-to-be-filled jobs.” We wonder: who are “ready-to-work Americans”? Obama’s choice of words suggests those people are more akin to pre-programmed robots than free-thinking people—an inversion of Voltaire’s notion that minds are fires to be kindled, not vessels to be filled. Moreover, what are these “ready-to-be-filled jobs”? Although President Obama skirted the details, we know the answer: low-wage jobs made up 21% of the jobs lost during the recession but more than half the jobs created since. These ready-to-be-filled jobs, it turns out, may not be poised to fill the pockets of America’s workers.

There is no conclusion except that Americans are being trained with business needs in mind, and there can be no mistake that businesses often seek low wages as a way to maintain their profit margins. If, as former Yale Professor William Deresiewicz argues, “the true purpose of education is to make minds, not careers,” then Obama is intent on presiding over a different lecture. Judging from how he spoke about education and the economy in the State of the Union, Obama’s words reminded us of something once said by then-president of Princeton Woodrow Wilson: “We want one class of persons to have a liberal education, and we want another class of persons, a very much larger class of necessity in every society, to forego the privilege of a liberal education and fit themselves to perform specific difficult manual tasks.”

President Obama’s SOTU: On Immigration, It’s all About the Economy


Nihil humanum a me alienum puto, said the Roman poet Terence: ‘Nothing human is alien to me.’ The slogan of the old Immigration and Naturalization Services could have been the reverse: To us, no aliens are human.”
—Christopher Hitchens, Hitch 22

The term “immigration reform” means many things to many people, but to President Obama it appears to refer to one thing alone: strengthening the economy. He devoted seven sentences of his State of the Union to the subject, the first of which sets the tone for his vision: “if we’re serious about economic growth, it is time to heed the call of business leaders, labor leaders, faith leaders, law enforcement—and fix our broken immigration system” (emphasis ours). Here at the Fourth Estate Watch (FEW), we believe immigration reform begins with respecting the dignity and human rights of all people. A natural reading of Obama’s address, however, leads us to conclude his impetus for immigration reform stems not from a desire to help people but from a desire to boost the economy.

For those wondering what that means in practical terms, Edward Alden, an immigration expert at the Council on Foreign Relations explains: “The business community badly wants immigration reform … [t]he agricultural lobby wants it to ensure a steady supply of low-wage farm workers, restaurants want it so they will have low-wage dishwashers, and Microsoft and Google want it so they can recruit Indian computer scientists” (emphasis ours). Those seeking entry into America, then, should keep Alden’s observation in mind when Obama waxes inspirational on forthcoming “ladders of opportunity.” Left unaddressed in the State of the Union is how tall that ladder will be for those employed as low-wage dishwashers and farm-workers. As we have previously noted, we find it troubling that the President appears intent on bringing America more jobs rather than better jobs. Obama said that immigrants “make our country a more attractive place for businesses to locate and create jobs,” further underscoring his view that the primary purpose of reform is to appeal to businesses rather than immigrants themselves.

During Obama’s entire discussion of immigration, in fact, there is one group of people who are strangely absent from the conversation: immigrants. While the word “immigration” appears three times in the State of the Union, the word “immigrant” doesn’t appear once. This is unlikely to be an oversight.  As Julia Preston for The New York Times (NYT) has reported, “[s]ince taking office, President Obama has deported more than 1.9 million foreigners … a record for an American president” (emphasis ours). We can understand why Obama would prefer to avoid raising the awkward subject of his record removals during the State of the Union, but by ignoring the topic and ignoring the plight of immigrants who are in removal proceedings, he implicitly suggests those aspects of immigration are not up for reform.

But instead of heeding the call of immigrants or human rights groups for reform, Obama turns to business leaders and law enforcement for ideas. This is a curious choice, as anyone familiar with the history of immigration in the United States understands that less, not more, law enforcement is needed. As James Verini has written in Washington Monthly, “[w]ith almost 7,000 agents, [U.S. Immigration & Customs Enforcement] ICE is the largest investigative agency in the Department of Homeland Security and the largest in the government after the FBI. While most of the people ICE pursues are not threats, pursuing them has become an increasingly violent and stressful business” (emphasis ours). Since ICE operates under the umbrella of Homeland Security, every immigrant enters the United States through the prism of crime and national security.

The end results are unsurprising. Even though the CATO Institute, the Immigration Policy Center, and others have demonstrated that “immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than the native-born,” immigrants remain subject of law enforcement investigation and prosecution. As Human Rights Watch notes, “[i]n 2012, immigration cases constituted 41 percent of all federal criminal cases; illegal reentry is now the most prosecuted federal crime. Many of those prosecuted have minor or no criminal history…” (emphasis ours). Since immigrant crime rates are comparatively low, the question remains: why are ICE investigations “increasingly violent”—and who is initiating the violence? These questions remain unanswered and unexplored in Obama’s plea for immigration reform.

Ben Ehrenreich, reporting in Los Angeles Magazine, chronicles those immigrants who are swept into the “rapidly expanding system of immigrant detention, a largely unregulated and almost invisible system of internment” (emphasis ours). According to Obama’s State of the Union, however, it appears that these aspects of immigration reform are irrelevant. Those of us waiting for serious, substantive immigration reform—the kind of reform that addresses human rights, asylum, detention, removal proceedings, human trafficking, etc.—are left with a dream deferred and a long ladder to climb.

Here at the Fourth Estate Watch (FEW), we support immigration reform, but we yearn for actions that don’t conceptualize reform as a way to boost the stock market. If we take him at his word, Obama appears concerned about immigrants only to the extent they can serve as laborers and consumers. We prefer to recognize the nuanced, human component of immigration. As Amnesty International explains, “The reasons for migration are varied and complex. Some people move to improve their economic situation, reunite with families, or obtain an education. Others leave their countries to escape violence, poverty, or discrimination.” Until we take these realities into account and begin to think about immigration reform from the human perspective—and draft policy accordingly—the plight of many immigrants will continue unabated.

As President Obama spoke about immigration reform exclusively in the context of the economy, we were reminded of a line from Lewis Lapham: Obama spoke about immigrants “as a set of conveniently invisible numbers rather than as a body of fellow [humans].”