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Amid fears the internet has become Big Brother, secretive US agencies are heading online simply to ask our opinion. By Keegan Hamilton
Illustration by Dan Page.

When Israel invaded the Gaza Strip in July, I turned a profit of $146.55. That same month, I made another $152.36 by successfully predicting that Joko Widodo would be elected president of Indonesia. And when Congress failed to approve President Obama’s request for $3.7 billion to deal with unaccompanied child migrants at the border, I collected a tidy $293.96.

The events were real, of course, but alas, the payouts were not. My earnings were phony digital currency awarded by the website Inkling Markets, a public “prediction market” in which people use fake cash to buy fake shares in the outcomes of various developments in world news, politics, sports, and entertainment. Guess correctly often enough and you watch your screen name rise up the site’s leaderboard.

But if the shares have no monetary value, the results, collected and analyzed by Inkling, increasingly do. Mass-prediction models such as Inkling’s have existed as long as the internet has. For years, Intrade, a platform that did accept legal tender, was a favorite among politicos for besting pollsters in predicting vote totals, until it suspended trading in 2013 because of regulatory issues.

In recent years, as Americans spend more and more time on the internet, major corporations have increasingly turned to online markets to gauge bestselling products and choose which pharmaceuticals to develop. And now, even as public unease rises about the government’s prowling around our digital lives, the most shadowy federal agencies are asking what they can find out simply by soliciting our collective opinion.

Inkling Markets is the brainchild of Adam Siegel and Nathan Kontny, former consultants for Accenture. (Kontny is now CEO of Highrise, a business networking site.) Since its founding in 2006, Inkling’s clients have included Fortune 500 companies such as Chevron, Ford, and Lockheed Martin, the Defense Department, and several unspecified agencies in the US intelligence community.

A political-science major at Indiana University, Siegel, now 41, began informally studying user-interface design—how humans relate to computers—and became, as he puts it, “a hack” at front-end software development. As his consultant work expanded, he often found that executives weren’t incorporating enough feedback from their employees in decisions. He came to believe in prediction markets as a novel way of trying to attack the problem.

Inkling caught a break early on when it was contacted by officials at Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA), the research arm of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI).

The first meeting was hardly the stuff of spy novels. Siegel—who splits his time between Washington and Chicago—got a call from the Mitre Corporation, a nonprofit that manages research-and-development centers for the Defense Department and other agencies, inviting him to its offices in McLean. But if the initial meeting was “nothing that sexy,” Siegel won’t reveal what was discussed or how Inkling software might be applied for national-security purposes.

“I can’t talk about it,” he says. “I can’t confirm that it’s even happening.”

The US spent more than $48 billion in 2014 to finance the National Intelligence Program, which funds the conglomeration of three-letter agencies that includes the CIA, NSA, and FBI. These agencies’ analysts collect information from many sources—human contacts, computer networks, satellite imagery—and draw conclusions that go into purportedly objective, apolitical assessments presented to military commanders and State Department officials across the world, all the way up to the President in his daily briefing.

The problem, says Jason Matheny, who started a program at IARPA called Aggregative Contingent Estimation, is that “people who have the traditional markers of expertise are typically not the most accurate forecasters.” Experts, Matheny explains, are prone to highlight information that confirms their experience. This tendency is called “the paradox of expertise.”

A more troubling pitfall is our natural reluctance to give our bosses bad news. “There’s a culture in government organizations and in companies where it is just not welcome to report bad information,” says Siegel.

Recent history has only amplified the human static in the system. Intelligence agencies are “in a quite awkward situation,” says Barbara Mellers, a University of Pennsylvania expert in decision-making who works with IARPA. “When they under-connect the dots, they get extreme death, like 9/11. That can change their threshold, so that they over-connect the dots, like with weapons of mass destruction [in Iraq], and they get slapped back in the other direction.”

No matter how impartial analysts strive to be, in other words, human frailty and outright bias inevitably cloud their judgments.

In 2010, IARPA and Matheny put out a call for academic researchers to help improve “accuracy of judgment-based forecasts” by “mathematically aggregating many independent judgments.” Mellers, fellow UPenn psychologist Philip Tetlock, and Berkeley organizational-behavior scientist Don Moore responded with a proposal that won them the job. With funding from ODNI, they created a forecasting tournament called the Good Judgment Project. Roughly 3,000 amateur forecasters were recruited through listservs, social media, and the project’s own website to compete against one another over the course of a year in a forecasting tournament.

In the program’s second year, the most accurate 2 percent of Good Judgment players, dubbed “super-forecasters,” were grouped into teams that pooled their knowledge. Their predictions were roughly 30 percent more accurate than those of their counterparts in the agency, Mellers heard—despite the fact that the super-forecasters weren’t using classified information.

What sets successful amateur forecasters apart, according to Matheny, is “a need to challenge your own beliefs and update beliefs frequently,” a process he says is less common among experts. Good Judgment Project participants tend to be political-news junkies who “find things on the internet that are obscure and interesting and wonderful,” adds Mellers.

The Good Judgment Project doesn’t just identify super-forecasters—it cultivates them. Some participants receive training in “probabilistic reasoning.” Mellers says the best treat it as “a skill to be learned.”

One of the program’s most successful guinea pigs is Jay Ulfelder. The 45-year-old Takoma Park resident has worked with the CIA-funded Political Instability Task Force, which assesses the risk of state failures around the globe, and he currently leads a project with the US Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Center for the Prevention of Genocide to build an “early-warning system” for mass atrocities. Ulfelder’s expert background makes him different from many of the other Good Judgment forecasters, but his curiosity, along with a somewhat jaundiced attitude toward his own analysis, is in line with the program’s principles. Ulfelder, who writes a blog titled Dart-Throwing Chimp, cautions that what he does isn’t an exact science. Of the 30 nations he might say are at high risk of a coup, he explains, only a handful may actually try to overthrow their governments in a given year: “That would be a relatively successful model in our field. In other fields, people would look at that and go, ‘Wow, that’s terrible.’ ”

Ulfelder says his goal in analyzing something like genocide is not to predict events definitively but to raise awareness in order to get responsible parties talking about “things we can do to mitigate the risk.”

Michael Birmingham, a spokesman for ODNI, clarifies that analysis is different from making predictions. Rather, analysts use “estimative language” to describe the likelihood of a certain outcome, given the available data. “A prediction is a certain definitive statement about something happening at a certain place and time,” says Birmingham. “That’s not necessarily what analysts do. It’s not like picking the winner of the Preakness on Saturday in Race 10.”

But if intelligence analysts are just guessing, the question remains: How do we guess better?

The basic theory behind crowd-sourcing predictions dates to 1906, when a British scholar named Francis Galton stumbled on an idea later dubbed “the wisdom of crowds.” Legend has it that Galton was attending a livestock fair that featured a prize for the person who could come closest to guessing the weight of a dead ox. Galton tallied the average guess of each person and estimated that the carcass would tip the scales at 1,197 pounds. His aggregated estimate was supposedly just one pound shy of the correct weight.

That’s essentially what happens at Inkling Markets. Click the “predictions” tab at the top of the website’s home page and a lengthy list of questions appears asking users to buy into the outcomes of sporting events, elections, economic trends, and weather. With 50,000 registered users, the public site sees anywhere from 750 to 1,000 “trades,” or forecasts, a day. Inkling’s corporate clients use a more sophisticated version of the software to poll employees about sales forecasts and other business questions. SciCast, another IARPA-funded project, run by George Mason University, uses a model similar to Inkling’s to forecast developments in science and technology. SciCast has a mere 200 active users in a given month, according to project leader Charles Twardy, and the top 15 of those carry one-third of the site’s activity.

The lack of mass appeal is a persistent problem for crowd-sourcing sites, which typically require large numbers to yield accurate forecasts. “The whole thing hinges on participation,” says Sean J. Taylor, a member of Facebook’s data-science team and a creator of the public forecasting site Creds. “You need a lot of people for a market to function efficiently.”

The Good Judgment Project’s results suggest that its super-forecaster model solves this glitch—a small team of trained forecasters seems to outperform the mob every time. Ulfelder points out that Galton’s dead-ox fable is valid but can be misinterpreted, arguing that the “wisdom of the crowd” works best when the crowd knows what it’s talking about.

“If you asked a bunch of people from DC to do that today, they’d be terrible because they have no frame of reference,” Ulfelder says. “A bunch of people in rural England are going to know about animal husbandry.”

The flip side to his argument is the philosophy that underpins sites such as Inkling Markets and Creds: If enough users participate, they naturally gravitate toward topics that suit their knowledge and interests.

This was true of my predictions. As a journalist who follows world news and domestic politics closely, I was drawn to make bets on those topics while avoiding questions about the intricacies of business, technology, and science. A few news stories about subsiding tensions between Japan and China convinced me to wager heavily against a statement posted on Creds that “the Chinese military will open fire on a Japanese vehicle (boat, plane, etc.) in the Chinese ADIZ (Air Defense Identification Zone) by June 27, 2014.” I enjoyed a stint atop the site’s leaderboard when China held its fire.

My reign was brief: It’s hard to maintain one’s spot on the board because one is rarely alone in being right. The majority of fellow respondents also thought violence wouldn’t erupt over the ADIZ. In fact, after making several dozen forecasts over a three-month span, I was impressed how often the collective wisdom got things right on obscure topics.

“One of the big bets we made with Creds was if we could create the right system, where people would self-select about certain kinds of statements, we might get the best of both worlds,” Taylor says. “The Jay Ulfelders of the world show up and bet on statements they’re best suited to bet on.”

However, I also wagered on sports questions, typically with disastrous results. My Inkling Markets picks on the World Cup, NBA finals, and Triple Crown horseraces were all incorrect. The crowd appeared to be less accurate here, too: Brazil was picked to win in the World Cup right up until they were annihilated, 7-1, by Germany. Fandom, it might be surmised, is akin to expertise—it drives people to cling to their beliefs. On the other hand, the best data and objective analysis can predict a win for teams that suffer shocking upsets. As the adage goes, that’s why they play the games.

“We know there are limits,” IARPA’s Matheny says. “There are some events we can’t accurately forecast because they’re effectively random.”

Crowd Followers

The scientific theory behind prediction markets goes back to the 19th century, but their practical power to tap collective hunches was vastly increased by the internet. Today governments, universities, and corporations use websites like these to crowd-source their intelligence.

Creds

Created by a current Facebook employee*, Creds asks its relatively small number of active users to click simple plus and minus buttons to rate the likelihood of events in politics, culture, news, and sports to generate scores of 1 to 100. Predictions that go against the grain are the most valuable, vaulting newbies to the top of the user rankings.

Good Judgment Project

Teams compete annually in a months-long tournament to predict events in the spheres of national security, global affairs, and economics. Anyone can apply to take part in this federally funded experiment, but the competition requires a substantial time commitment.

SciCast

Using a stock-market model similar to Inkling Markets, this project from George Mason University focuses on science, technology, and the environment. Geared toward serious experts, SciCast can be intimidating but occasionally touches on accessible topics such as flu season, hurricanes, and space.

Inkling Markets

Part corporate consulting tool, part addictive time-suck, this slick, free site is one of the web’s most popular forecasting games. Users trade virtual stocks in future events such as the success of Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid and which NFL coach will be fired first.

Keegan Hamilton (keeganhamilton@gmail.com) is a journalist in New York City who covers drugs, crime, and conflict.

*A version of this article incorrectly stated that Creds was created by a former Facebook employee.

This article appears in the January 2015 issue of Washingtonian.

Posted at 11:23 AM/ET, 01/08/2015 | Permalink | Comments ()
The former CIA agent says he'd "do it all again." By Natalia Megas
John Kiriakou in the documentary Silenced. Photograph courtesy AFI Docs.

In an exclusive interview we posted last week, CIA whistleblower John Kiriakou talked about his life in prison, charging that his sentence was in retribution for leaking information about the agency’s torture program. Since then, the Senate partially released its report critical of the program, prompting a ping-pong game of blame between critics and defenders. After the release, reporter Natalia Megas wrote to Kiriakou to get his reaction to the Senate report. He answered in two letters about accountability, efficacy, and the problems with the CIA’s interrogations. Some excerpts:

What’s your reaction to the torture report?

It’s worse than anyone suspected. The torturers are free, the people who conceived of the torture are free. The attorneys who justified the torture are free. I’m the only one in prison, and I’m the one who refused to torture anybody.

If CIA leaders and the Bush Administration approved the brutal interrogation methods, how can anyone else be blamed or prosecuted?

I don’t think the prosecutable offenses are those that were approved by the Justice Department. The prosecutable offenses are those where CIA officers overstepped their legal authority. People died in CIA custody. How is that not a crime? And of course, the CIA’s former Deputy Director for Operations, Jose Rodriguez destroyed video evidence of the torture. I would call that obstruction of justice.

A letter from Kiriakou.

Do you feel like the CIA cast you off?

I don’t... I had a fantastic career at the CIA, and I still have a lot of friends there. But the CIA, in my view, became corrupted by its virtually unlimited power to create, expand, and then cover up the torture program. I’m proud of my CIA service. But the truth is that there are a lot of former and current CIA employees, including many in former and current positions of leadership, who should be in prison right now.

What do you say to those who say torture is justified if it works?

Whether the torture worked or not is irrelevant. (It didn’t anyway.) Rape works. We don’t do that. Murder works. We don’t do that. Beating children in front of their parents works. We don’t do that. The question isn’t, Does it work? The question is, Is it right? Is it moral?

What would you see the government do differently?

The post-9/11 national security state mentality must change. It’s untenable within the confines of the Constitution. The FBI doesn’t need to know what books we borrow from the library (as called for in the Patriot Act). NSA doesn’t need to know when Americans call their doctors, for how long they speak, and what websites they visit (as part of NSA’s metadata collection). None of it has anything to do with national security. Politicians shouting "9/11" every time somebody questions our national security policies is a red herring and an insult to the intelligence of the American people.

What can the American people do?

Americans must demand accountability from their elected officials on issues of transparency, surveillance, and national security. Answering questions with "That’s classified" or "That was approved by the secret FISA court" is anti-democratic.

You blew the whistle on torture, then got prosecuted for talking to the press. Would you do it all over again?

I would do it all again ... Someone has to stand up and say it’s enough.

Posted at 04:02 PM/ET, 12/18/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
A jailhouse interview with the man whose disclosures prompted this week's damning torture report. By Natalia Megas
John Kiriakou in the documentary Silenced. Photograph courtesy AFI Docs.

In 2007, 15-year CIA veteran John Kiriakou told an ABC News reporter that his agency had waterboarded an Al Qaeda detainee, Abu Zubaydah, whom Kiriakou was involved in capturing in 2002. His revelation confirmed to the American public the CIA’s torture program and helped spur a years-long Senate investigation and a damning, 6,000-page report, the abstract of which was released this week.

Kiriakou pleaded guilty in 2012 to disclosing classified information, including the name of a fellow CIA operative, to a New York Times reporter. In early 2013, he reported to the a federal prison in Loretto, Pennsylvania, to begin serving a 30-month sentence. Kiriakou, along with supporters that include his congressman, Virginia Democrat Jim Moran, says the real point of his prosecution was to silence him and others from talking about torture. (Kiriakou case is the subject of the documentary Silenced, which screened last summer at AFI Docs.)

Kiriakou will be transferred to home confinement for the final three months of his term in February. Earlier this month, as the Senate debated releasing its report, I went to Loretto to talk to Kiriakou about his experience in prison, his feelings about the government, and his future.

Jim Moran recently asked President Obama to pardon you, calling you an “American hero.”

Moran has gone out on a limb. He’s really done right by me. He has really been there through the whole nightmare.

What do you think was misunderstood about your case?

The most important issue is my case wasn’t about leaking [the name of a CIA operative]. It was about torture. CIA never forgave me for telling the American people that torture was part of official US government policy.

Do you think the Obama’s administration’s record is better than Bush’s?

Obama’s intelligence policy is essentially an extension of the Bush administration, but bloodier. Especially the use of drones ... I’m disappointed because the administration has turned its back on human rights. Obama has surrounded himself with true hawks.

You’ve just finished writing a new book, Doing Time Like A Spy: How the CIA Taught Me to Survive and Thrive in Prison. Can you give us a sneak peek?

Admit nothing, deny everything, make counter accusations. If calm is not to your benefit, chaos is your friend. And don’t trust anyone.

How has that helped you survive prison?

I’ve “survived and thrived” here based on my wits, by forming strategic alliances, by relying on myself, by trusting nobody. They made me appear more “seasoned,” more commanding of respect.

What challenges do you face coming out?

The biggest challenge will be finding permanent work. I recognize I’m controversial. Some companies dislike controversy. I’ll have to find a place that will fit both of us.

What do you want to do?

I’d like to sit at a desk at a think tank, think the big thoughts and write provocative articles and books. I think I can do more good with writing and speaking. I hope to speak a lot about prison reform.

What kinds of changes do you envision?

Europe makes good use of house arrests [especially for non-violent crimes]. First-time, non-violent offenders get no second chances in the US. You do hard time from the first moment. Nothing’s correctional about it.

What are your living arrangements like?

We live in open cubicles—10-by-16 made for four. There are 250 people in my unit and we have ten sinks, 11 showers, six toilets, six telephones. We stand in line for everything. Everyone is sick all the time. Overcrowding leads to short tempers and increased violence. There’s no legal effort to depopulate federal prisons.

How do the other inmates treat you?

At first, they stayed away. Thought I was a hit man.

If a movie were made about you, what would it be about?

It would focus on the fact that I’m a regular guy doing decidedly irregular things, who found himself in historic situations. If it happened to me, it could happen to anybody.

How so?

Americans didn’t understand that after 9/11 the national security state would be permanent in our lives. Certainly, reasonable people can agree to disagree on the civil liberties that we should or should not give up to remain safe. But the government has imposed a regime where we’ve lost our liberties without debate, and we’re not supposed to complain about it. Indeed, you risk an Espionage Act charge if you do.

Natalia Megas is a freelance journalist who has written for numerous publications in the United States and abroad. Find her on Twitter at @NataliaMegas.

Posted at 09:46 AM/ET, 12/11/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
Edward Snowden is not alone, CNN reports. By Benjamin Freed
Photograph by Trevor Paglen via Wikimedia Commons.

Someone other than Edward Snowden is leaking classified documents about the United States’ surveillance operations.

According to CNN, government officials have concluded that there’s a new fount of secret documents, following the publication Tuesday of an article on the Intercept, the site led by Glenn Greenwald, who’s reported the bulk of Snowden-connected stories. The new article looks at the Terrorist Screening Database, or TIDE, an interagency list of “known or suspected” terrorists that has ballooned from 500,000 names in 2009 to 1.1 million last year, 680,000 of whom are on government watchlists. Of that latter figure, more than 40 percent are listed as not having any affiliation to any recognized terror group. The article also features details on the federal government’s no-fly list, which has expanded to 47,000 people under President Obama, ten times its reported peak under George W. Bush.

The Intercept’s story, by Jeremy Scahill and Ryan Deveraux, does not name its source, but it includes a slide from the National Counterterrorism Center dated August 2013, several weeks after Snowden went into exile in Russia. But Greenwald himself hinted last month that there are other sources of classified intelligence documents after Snowden.

Today’s Intercept story also landed with a side dish of media drama. The Associated Press, which had also been chasing the story of TIDE’s expansion, published a report about 12:30 PM, a few minutes before Scahill and Deveraux posted their more detailed version. The timing was not accidental, the Huffington Post reports. The NCTC, perhaps knowing the AP’s prose would be less stinging, tipped off the wire service to “spoil” the Intercept’s scoop. To wit: The AP frames the growth in anti-terror watchlists as a reaction to the failed “underwear bomber” who attempted to bring down an airliner over Detroit on Christmas in 2009; the Intercept paints it as surveillance run amok.

Find Benjamin Freed on Twitter at @brfreed.

Posted at 04:29 PM/ET, 08/05/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
The agency is now part of the social-media network. Officially, that is. By Benjamin Freed
Laugh factory. Photograph courtesy CIA via Flickr.

The CIA follows many, and now we can follow it back, in a sense. The agency officially joined Twitter on Friday, sending out a debut tweet that is unusually funny for government work.

Heh.

But don’t expect too much excitement out of the account. In a press release, the CIA says it will use its account mostly for “the latest news, statements, and career information”—unclassified stuff, basically—as well as “Throwback Thursday” posts featuring memorable moments in intelligence history.

“By expanding to these platforms, CIA will be able to more directly engage with the public and provide information on CIA’s mission, history, and other developments,” CIA Director John Brennan says in the press release. The agency is in the midst of a social media push: It also launched an official Facebook page and is stepping up its use of YouTube and photo-sharing site Flickr.

Scads of Twitter users are now following the CIA, but the agency only appears to be following other segments of the US Intelligence Community. Officially, the CIA is only following 25 accounts; the actual number is probably much higher.

Posted at 02:03 PM/ET, 06/06/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
A view of Washington is so good, it should be against the law. Actually, it is. By Benjamin Freed

Here’s a view of DC we don’t get to see very often, mostly because it’s totally illegal. But a crafty drone operator managed to get two stunning minutes of aerial footage of the city.

Viktor Mirzoyan, a local software developer, shot the video using a quadcopter rigged with a high-definition GoPro camera. Mirzoyan uploaded the clip in February, although it managed to stay hidden until today when Vice spotted it. Mirzoyan did not respond to Washingtonian’s questions about when and how he shot the video, but in the comments on the clip’s Vimeo page, he tells viewers he’s managed to stay out of trouble.

“No feds, no water-boarding, and no Guantanamo,” he writes.

The same can’t be said for others who have attempted to fly recreational remote aircraft over the District. Adam Eidinger, probably known more for his marijuana reform advocacy, is also a drone enthusiast, but he was publicly scolded by the Federal Aviation Administration in 2012 after he lost a quadcopter he was piloting over Northwest DC. Because of security concerns, the FAA tightly restricts nearly all types of non-government flight over the city, spanning everything from hang-gliders to model airplanes to drones. (CBS News got a rare exemption last year for a 60 Minutes piece on Capitol Dome reconstruction.)

But even if Mirzoyan is about to get spanked by the feds like Eidinger was, the views of DC offered in his video are captivating, especially when scored to The Verve’s embarrassingly addictive late ‘90s anthem “Bitter Sweet Symphony.”

Posted at 01:21 PM/ET, 05/02/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
An internal report released Tuesday says the Pentagon did not properly record gunman Aaron Alexis’s troubled history. By Benjamin Freed
Navy Yard shooter Aaron Alexis moves through the hallways of Building 197. Photograph courtesy of the FBI.

The mass shooting last September at the Washington Navy Yard in which 12 people were killed could have been avoided if background checks conducted on gunman Aaron Alexis had been more thorough, according to an internal report released today by the Defense Department.

The review blames both the US Navy and the contracting firm that employed Alexis with failing to see the “insider threat” he posed, based on a personal history that should have invalidated his security clearance, the report says.

Alexis, who was killed by police about an hour after he began his rampage, had been arrested several times during his four-year stint as a Navy Reserve member, at least twice for incidents involving firearms. He also suffered from episodes of paranoia and other mental instabilities which were not properly treated, according to investigators.

The report blames Alexis’s employer, the Experts Inc., for not alerting mental-health professionals that he was showing signs psychological instability in the weeks before the shooting, despite having temporarily revoked his security clearance. The company allowed Alexis to return to work without getting a professional assessment of his mental state.

But Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel ultimately faulted the Pentagon for the lapse, noting that the Experts could have known more about Alexis’s history if his superiors during his Navy service had entered his past adverse behavior into the Navy’s security-records system.

“The reviews identified troubling gaps in DOD’s ability to detect, prevent and respond to instances where someone working for us—a government employee, a member of our military or a contractor—decides to inflict harm on this institution and its people,” Hagel said at a Pentagon news conference Tuesday morning.

Hagel called for the creation of a “continuous evaluation program” to review federal employees with access to classified information against law enforcement databases and other systems to determine if people with security clearances are still trustworthy or mentally fit enough to retain them. He also said the Pentagon will establish a new office to manage insider threats.

Posted at 04:38 PM/ET, 03/18/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
City officials got angry this week when the Secret Service shut down a critical downtown roadway. By Benjamin Freed
The facts of life. Photograph by Flickr user Eric Fidler.

DC Mayor Vince Gray, congressional delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, and the US Secret Service got into an epistolary shouting match after the Secret Service shut down several blocks of 14th St., NW, downtown DC this week. Gray fired off a letter yesterday, complaining that it made the post-snowstorm commute particularly hellish for drivers trying to travel between the District and Northern Virginia.

The road closure was connected to the visit of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was in town for the annual American Israel Public Affairs Committee convention, and staying at the Willard Hotel. Ordinarily, a dignitary like Netanyahu would stay at Blair House, but the White House’s official guest quarters are being renovated.

But to Gray’s consternation, the Secret Service gave the District very little advance warning of the three-day road closure. “I appreciate that important dignitaries visiting the nation’s capital and the White House must be afforded every courtesy and protection available by the United States government and local jurisdictions,” the mayor wrote. “However, I do not understand why the Secret Service insists on dignitaries staying in a hotel that results in significant portions of downtown Washington being paralyzed by traffic.”

Tuesday’s closures caused a torrent of angry phone calls into city agencies. “This was very crippling,” Gray’s spokesman Pedro Ribeiro says of losing access to 14th St. “It’s one of the leading intakes and outtakes between the city and Northern Virginia.”

Secret Service Director Julia Pierson responded promptly, sending a letter back to Gray striking a conciliatory tone. “They’re willing to work with the city,” Ribeiro says of the letter.

But even after Pierson sent her letter, Norton jumped into the ring, slamming the Secret Service for imposing a “unilateral” street closure.

“I was astonished and distressed to learn of the unusually extensive street closures of major downtown thoroughfares for extended periods of time, over a period of three days,” she writes in a statement. “Had the Secret Service consulted with the appropriate city officials, a plan could have been developed that would not have paralyzed the city and region.  We are very grown up in this city about the need for closures and protection of highly placed U.S. officials and foreign dignitaries. However, DC is not a fiefdom to be subjected to the dictatorship of the Secret Service or any other federal agency.”

Posted at 02:34 PM/ET, 03/05/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
The FCC is poised to allow cell phone calls during flights.
The terrible, horrible, no good, very bad future of aviation. Photograph via Shutterstock.

The Federal Communications Commission said today it intends to propose allowing commercial airliners to install equipment making it possible for passengers to make phone calls during flight.

“Modern technologies can deliver mobile services in the air safely and reliably, and the time is right to review our outdated and restrictive rules,” FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said in a news release. The FCC will discuss the proposed rule change at its December 12 meeting. 

The FCC’s announcement comes just a few weeks after the Federal Aviation Administration came around to the fact that iPads and laptops do not disrupt aviation equipment. But the FAA’s rule change kept in place longstanding restrictions on using cellular signals during flight.

In order to make it possible to use a cell phone during flight, airlines would install equipment that carries wireless signals via satellite from the ground to planes, similar to a system already in place in Europe. The European Commission last week approved allowing air passengers there to make calls during flight.

Posted at 04:16 PM/ET, 11/21/2013 | Permalink | Comments ()
The annual OSS Society Donovan Award dinner honored Adm. William H. McRaven. By Carol Ross Joynt
US special operations commander, Adm. William H. McRaven, greets guests at the annual OSS Society dinner, where he was honored with the William J. Donovan Award. Photograph by Carol Ross Joynt.

No one in the ballroom came right out and shouted, “William McRaven for elected office!” but the idea hovered like a thought bubble over the OSS Society’s William J. Donovan Award Dinner Saturday night, where the commander of US Special Operations was honored—including by President Obama—and even sounded himself a bit like a candidate. The annual celebration commemorating the World War II spy agency and predecessor of the CIA—for the intelligence and special operations communities, it’s the prom and the Oscars wrapped in one—is a time for reminiscing and gossiping for both the smooth-skinned, ramrod-spined young operatives and the retired spies and warriors with more medals than hair or teeth. But McRaven, the Navy admiral who oversaw the 2011 Navy SEAL mission that resulted in the death of Osama bin Laden and who received the Donovan award, gave this year’s gathering a political edge.

President Obama addressed the audience and the honoree via taped video, his image filling three ceiling-high screens. He called McRaven “one of the finest special operators our nation has ever produced. Few Americans will ever see what you do, but every American is safer because of your service.” Also lauding him in taped messages were two other individuals who were directly involved in the bin Laden mission, former CIA director Leon Panetta and Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

A third official who was a player in that historic episode, John Brennan, now director of Central Intelligence, relived the experience in his remarks. He said the deliberations to undertake the mission were “difficult and fraught with uncertainty.” He said there was “a key moment in those deliberations when President Obama seemed to move a step closer to his final decision. It was when Adm. McRaven looked at the President and said, ‘Sir, we can get this job done.’ You could hear a pin drop. It was at that time that everyone in that room knew the decision was made and we were going forward.”

McRaven was the last act after at least nine toasts, as many speeches, and several videos (including one of soldiers singing a spoof of At The Hop), a jazz performance, and repeated standing ovations. It probably helped that waiting for each guest at his or her place, was a gin martini with onions, to be raised in a toast to Ernest Hemingway, who famously liberated the Paris Ritz at the same time as the allies liberated Paris. It’s a ritual of the dinner.

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Posted at 01:00 PM/ET, 10/28/2013 | Permalink | Comments ()