Your News Companion by Ben Mathis-Lilley

Sept. 29 2014 2:25 PM

At Least 38 Employees of Pa. Attorney General’s Office Sent or Received Porn on Work Email

It is fairly commonly known these days that:

  • Employers can monitor employees' email.
  • Law enforcement officials can search almost anyone's email.
  • Government employees' email is subject to being made public.

One place you might think those principles were especially well-known would be at a prosecutor's office. Not so for at least 38 current and former employees of the Pennsylvania attorney general, including several powerful public figures, who sent or received pornography using their work email. From the Associated Press:

At least eight prominent Pennsylvania officials — including the current head of the state police, Pennsylvania's top environmental regulator, and a former spokesman for Gov. Tom Corbett — were among the commonwealth employees who sent or received hundreds of sexually explicit photos, videos and messages from state email accounts between 2008 and 2012, according to documents made available Thursday by the state Attorney General's Office.

The current attorney general, Kathleen Kane, released the names of some of the implicated individuals last week. Kane's office did not say how many employees had actively sent or forwarded the messages vis a vis the number who had received them.

The emails include explicit photos and videos of women and men engaged in oral sex, anal sex and intercourse. The videos had titles such as "Cigar," "Chin strap," "Golf Ball washer," "Nascar victory" and "Rocking Horse."
The photographs included naked women and motivational posters with slogans such as "Devotion" and "Willingness" that depicted women performing sexual acts on their male bosses.

The emails were discovered during a review conducted by Kane into the office's handling of the Jerry Sandusky case.

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Sept. 29 2014 1:17 PM

Drinking 5,600 Beers a Day Could Make You Smarter

Crucial beer news via Quartz:

Researchers at Oregon State University discovered that doses of xanthohumol, a flavonoid found in hops, improved memory and thinking in a lucky group of mice.

Hops are used to make beer. Will drinking beer therefore make you smarter?

... it would require drinking 2,000 liters of beer a day (or 5,636 bottles of beer) to ingest the amount of xanthohumol used in the study.

Sounds like an emphatic "yes." What time is it right now, like 1:30? 1:30 is beer-30 (is IQ-30).

Sept. 29 2014 12:46 PM

Ferguson Officers Still Not All Wearing Identification After Two Justice Deparment Orders

Many of the police officers present during protests that followed the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, did not wear nametags and refused to identify themselves to members of the public when asked, a practice that is prohbited by law in some places and by department policy in many others. Per a Department of Justice letter sent to Ferguson police on Tuesday, Ferguson officers are in fact required to wear identification by the department's own regulations. The DOJ instructed officers to begin following this requirement immediately. From Reuters:  

... the Justice Department said its investigators had observed Ferguson police officers not wearing, or obscuring, their name tags on their uniforms, a violation of the police department's rules.
"The failure to wear name plates conveys a message to community members that, through anonymity, officers may seek to act with impunity," the letter said.

The Justice Department then reiterated the identification requirement in a second letter to Ferguson police (whose main purpose was demanding that officers stop wearing "I Am Darren Wilson" solidarity bracelets):

It further was reported to us that some officers affirmatively displaying these bracelets had black tape over their name plates. The practice of not wearing, or obscuring, name plates violates your own department's policies, which we advised you earlier this week when we requested that you end the practice imrnediately.

The second letter is dated Friday. Here's an excerpt from a New York Times account of events in Ferguson on Sunday:

A gaggle of journalists standing near the protest spotted a police officer who was not wearing a name tag. When a cameraman asked his name, the officer refused to give it and left the area.

Maybe the third time will be the charm when it comes to the Justice Department reminding Ferguson to follow their own rules.

Sept. 29 2014 10:37 AM

Protests Continue in Hong Kong as China Blocks Social Media

Pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong continued today and are expected to escalate through China's National Day holiday on Wednesday. Chinese authorities have called the "Occupy Central" demonstrations illegal, blocking that phrase on the Twitterlike service Weibo and shutting down Instagram on the mainland. The number of censored posts on Weibo, by one account, was twice as great over the weekend as during this 25th anniversary of the Tienanmen Square massacre earlier this year. (Social media appears to be running unfettered in Hong Kong itself.) From Reuters:

Organisers have said that as many as 80,000 people have thronged the streets after the protests flared on Friday night. No independent estimate of numbers was available.
The protests, with no single identifiable leader, bring together a mass movement of mostly tech-savvy students who have grown up with freedoms not enjoyed in mainland China...
Protesters say there should be open nominations for candidates for Hong Kong's 2017 leadership election. China's rubber-stamp parliament endorsed a framework on Aug. 31 that ensured only pro-Beijing candidates.

The Chinese government warned other nations not to praise the movement:

"We are resolutely opposed to any foreign country using any method to interfere in China's internal affairs. We are also resolutely opposed to any country, attempting in any way to support such illegal activities like 'Occupy Central'."

On National Day, demonstrators are also expected in nearby Macau, also a former foreign territory.

"If today I don't stand up, I will hate myself in future," a 55-year-old taxi driver in Hong Kong told Reuters about the protests, which have been nicknamed the "Umbrella Revolution" because of the items carried by activists to protect themselves against the sun (and against pepper spray and tear gas). "Even if I get a criminal record it will be a glorious one."

Sept. 28 2014 2:51 PM

Obama Acknowledges U.S. Underestimated ISIS

In one of his most candid comments yet on the issue, President Obama told 60 Minutes that the United States underestimated the strength of ISIS. The president told journalist Steve Kroft that it was “absolutely true” the intelligence community had also overestimated the ability of the Iraqi military to fight the extremist group. “Jim Clappper has acknowledged that I think they underestimated what had been taking place in Syria,” Obama said, in reference to Director of National Intelligence James Clapper.

The chaos of the Syrian civil war allowed meant that it “became ground zero for jihadists around the world,” Obama added, noting the extremist group was able to “attract foreign fighters who believed in their jihadist nonsense.” Their recruitment drive was helped by a “very savvy” social media campaign, Obama said, according to an excerpt of the interview released Sunday afternoon. But part of the problem is that the extremists have also been able to enjoy some “traditional military capacity” thanks to members of Saddam Hussein’s former military.

“That's why it's so important for us to recognize part of the solution here is gonna be military,” Obama said. “We just have to push them back, and shrink their space, and go after their command and control, and their capacity, and their weapons, and their fueling, and cut off their financing, and work to eliminate the flow of foreign fighters.” But ultimately a lasting peace will require a political solution. “We have to come up with political solutions in Iraq and Syria, in particular, but in the Middle East generally that arrive in the combination between Sunni and Shia populations that right now are the biggest cause of conflict, not just in the Middle East, but in the world.”

Sept. 28 2014 1:50 PM

Hong Kong Police Help “New Era” of Civil Disobedience Grow by Firing Tear Gas on Protesters

Police in Hong Kong tried to clear out thousands of pro-democracy protesters that had blocked traffic in some of the busiest areas of downtown with the harshest response against demonstrators since the city returned to Chinese rule in 1997, according to Bloomberg. It seems their efforts failed spectacularly and actually ended up backfiring. Whereas the pro-democracy protesters were tightly concentrated before, the tear gas made them spread out from downtown “across three of Hong Kong’s most important commercial neighborhoods,” reports the Wall Street Journal. The protesters were trying to join a sit-in outside government headquarters that was calling for democratic reforms. First launched by students, members of the broader Occupy Central movement said Saturday night they would join them to launch the long-threatened era of civil disobedience.

Protesters came to the demonstration well-prepared on Sunday. “Many arrived sporting raincoats or wrapped in plastic with swimming goggles over their eyes—items chosen to protest against the sting of tear gas and pepper spray,” notes the BBC’s Juliana Liu. The tear gas, however, seems to have surprised everyone.

Police say they have arrested 78 people in the largely peaceful protests and at least 26 people were injured and hospitalized, reports CNN. That comes after 70 people were arrested Saturday. In addition to the tear gas, police had already used batons and pepper spray to try to disperse protesters although all the efforts appeared to have the opposite effect and got more people to join the demonstrators. The police warned a harsher response could be imminent. “Police will use a higher level of force in order to restore public order and safeguard public safety,” the police said in a statement that urged demonstrators to leave, reports the Associated Press. They were hardly alone. Protest organizers also called on demonstrators to leave the sit-in, saying police could start using rubber bullets, but it seems few have budged.

One of the organizers of the protest warned the demonstrations would now be unstoppable, saying the only way to end them would be for Beijing to backtrack on its decisions on political reform, reports the South China Morning Post. The protesters have been demanding that Hong Kong be able to elect its leaders without the interference of Beijing. Last month, China said that any candidate for the 2017 election of chief executive, as Hong Kong’s leader is known, had to be vetted by a central committee, effectively assuring Beijing would have veto power.

A live video feed of the protests is available here:

Sept. 28 2014 11:31 AM

It Took Secret Service Four Days to Realize Someone Fired Seven Shots at the White House

When a man carrying a knife was able to jump the fence and sprint into the front door of the White House, many said it was symptomatic of larger issues with the Secret Service. A fascinating Washington Post piece today makes it clear just how true that is, recounting how it took four days for the Secret Service to even realize that someone had fired shots at the White House and that seven bullets had struck the upstairs residence in 2011. President Obama and his wife were out of town at the time but their younger daughter Sasha was at home with Michelle Obama’s mother. And Malia was expected back home any minute.

When Oscar Ortega-Hernandez, a man who appeared increasingly paranoid about the U.S. government and seemingly obsessed with how President Obama “had to be stopped,” fired his semiautomatic rifle out of his car, Secret Service agents were quick to respond. But they were told to stand down, with superiors saying no shots had actually been fired. Even though agents seemed to know that was clearly not true—a pair of agents said they could smell gunpowder while another had heard debris fall from the Truman balcony—they stayed quiet, apparently out of fear of angering their superiors. In the end the conclusion was that two rival gangs had gotten into a gunfight near the White House lawn.

It was only when a housekeeper found a broken window and a piece of concrete days later that agents began to realize what had happened. The president and first lady were understandably furious. Once the Secret Service actually started investigating, they quickly realized this was no small matter, finding $97,000 worth of damage. At the time, Ortega’s arrest did receive attention but all of the problems with the investigation—and the potential danger to the first family—had been kept under wraps. The way it is coming to light now suggests some powerful people want to speed up changes at the agency that has suffered numerous embarrassments in recent years.

Ortega-Hernandez was sentenced to 25 years in prison earlier this year for what his lawyers described as a "misguided effort to make the public aware of what he believed to be the coming Armageddon."  

Sept. 28 2014 10:29 AM

Ferguson Police Officer Shot in the Arm After Confronting Suspect

A police officer was wounded Saturday night in Ferguson, Missouri—the St. Louis suburb where a police officer shot an unarmed 18-year-old last month. Although there were two protests over the killing of Michael Brown taking place at the time of the shooting, officials say the incidents were unrelated. "I wouldn't have any reason to believe right now that it was linked in any way, shape, manner or form with the protests," St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar told reporters, according to Reuters.

But in a sign of the continuing tensions between police and residents in Ferguson, many did not believe the official version of events of what happened Saturday night, points out the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Part of the reason may be because what happened isn’t exactly clear since the story has changed a bit. Initial reports claimed the officer saw two men trying to break into a business, but later Belmar told reporters the officer approached two men who were standing outside a community center that was closed. And detectives later determined it was actually just one suspect and not two. The suspect quickly fled and “fired multiple rounds at the officer” during the chase. The officer returned fire but there are no indications that the suspect was hit, notes local NBC affiliate KSDK.

The shooting comes only days after the Justice Department called on Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson to stop officers from wearing bracelets in support of Darren Wilson, the officer who shot and killed Brown, reports the Associated Press.

Sept. 27 2014 4:16 PM

James Traficant, Convicted Ex-Congressman Expelled by House, Dies at 73

James Traficant, the populist Ohio politician who served in the House of Representatives for 17 years before becoming the second person to ever be expelled from Congress since the Civil War, died on Saturday. He was 73. Traficant, who was convicted on corruption charges in 2002, died at a hospital in Youngstown on Saturday only days after suffering a tractor accident at his daughter’s farm, which left him in critical condition. Traficant was flown to the hospital Tuesday night “after a vintage tractor tipped over on him inside a barn at the farm in Green Township,” reports the Cleveland Plain Dealer. “Police think the tractor tipped after Traficant struck a piece of farm equipment with a bar installed on the front of his 1943 Ford tractor.”

Family spokeswoman Heidi Hanni confirmed Traficant’s death to the Vindicator newspaper with a simple text message: “Traficant dead.” The news has since been confirmed by several other media outlets, including the Associated Press.

Traficant was expelled from Congress in 2002 only three months after a federal jury in Cleveland convicted him on corruption charges. Before his expulsion, he was known as “a maverick Democrat” who “was one of the most deliberately outrageous members of Congress in history,” notes the Washington Post. Traficant’s anti-establishment rants were legendary—as was his penchant for ending his speeches on the House floor with “Beam me up.” His clothes also made him stand out, as did his “bouffant mound of hair that seemed to defy gravity.”

Traficant was released from prison in 2009 and tried to return to politics as an independent. But he was only able to muster 16 percent of the vote in 2010 and was beat by a former aide, Rep. Tim Ryan. If you feel like taking a walk down memory lane, the Vindicator publishes a photo gallery that includes some of the most memorable moments from Traficant’s colorful career.

Sept. 27 2014 11:36 AM

Security Officials Fear iPhone 6 Marks New Era of Products Designed to Skirt N.S.A.

The country’s security agencies are concerned about the new iPhone. And it’s not because it may not fit comfortably in your pocket or has special bending abilities, but rather because they’re locked out. The main fear, notes the New York Times, is that the smartphone marks “the first of a post-Snowden generation of equipment that will disrupt their investigative abilities.”

Why this concern? Because under its new operating system for iPhones, iPads and iPod Touch devices, “once users set a passcode, Apple will no longer be able to unlock your device—even if ordered to do so by a court,” as Matthew Green explained in Slate earlier this week. That means if a court orders Apple to reveal the contents of a phone, all it will be able to turn over is a set of nonsensical data.

Apple claims that breaking the code that is unique to each user’s phone could take more than five years, although experts say that underestimates how quickly agencies can crack codes. Apple isn’t the first to encrypt data on a phone, Google’s Android has been able to do that for years, although it is not the default setting. The next version of Android, however, will have the encryption as the default.

screenshot_20140927121541
Android has the option to encrypt data on a phone, a feature that will become the default setting soon.

While security agencies worry about what this could mean to fight terrorism and other types of criminal activity, company executives say the U.S. government only has itself to blame. Revelations of the widespread nature of government eavesdropping has made everyone very suspicious of U.S. products. “Surviving in the global marketplace—especially in places like China, Brazil and Germany—depends on convincing consumers that their data is secure,” notes the Times. And as Green noted in his Slate piece, focusing only on the U.S. government is “shortsighted” considering that Apple has retail stores in 14 countries and sells phones in many more places: “The United States is not the only government with law enforcement, or with an interest in its citizens’ data.”  

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