• close up of the capitol building on a United States bank note

    Follow the Money

    In a conversation about campaign finance reform years ago, a friend and former colleague told me that he believed “money is a form of speech.”  The same argument underpinned the majority opinion in the Supreme Court’s ruling on Citizens United and poses a fundamental threat to our democracy.

    Any question about the corrosive and dangerous effects of money in our electoral system can be resolved with a quick look at two articles this week: one details the political strategy for the billionaire Koch brothers who are—along with a handful of other billionaire activist donors—shaping the ideology and candidates of the modern Republic party.  In another article, we see millions of dollars flowing to the Clinton foundation from donors with a financial stake in the sale of uranium mines in the United States to the Russian atomic energy agency Rosatom.  At the time, Hillary Clinton was Secretary of State and the sale of the Canadian company that owned the U.S. mines to Rosatom had to be approved by a U.S. government committee because uranium is considered a strategic material.  The State Department has a seat on that committee.  In the midst of these moves, the New York Times reports, a Russian investment bank that advocated for the Russian acquisition, paid former President Bill Clinton $500,000 for a speech.

    In an age where celebrity trumps substance, and cash equals speech, familial political dynasties backed by unregulated and unfettered finance amount to rot at the heart of our political system.  My friend, former-Senator Gary Hart, this week asked, rightly, whether or not the United States is already an oligarchy.  It may be.

    Our only hope is a public awakening to the dangers our republic faces.

    Secret Koch memo outlines plans for 2016 | POLITICO

    Cash Flowed to Clinton Foundation as Russians Pressed for Control of Uranium Company | The New York Times

    Dare we Call it Oligarchy | Time

  • Who Are We As a People?

    Poverty in the United States is destroying lives and making this great nation weaker.

    In Maryland this past week, Rodney Todd, a single, working-father of seven died, along with all of his children, from accidental carbon monoxide poisoning in their home.  Investigators found a generator in the kitchen that was out of gas.  Several days earlier, the local utility had disconnected power to the home because a stolen electric meter was discovered there.  The generator, authorities believe, had been used to provide light and heat on a cold spring evening.

    Mr. Todd, we know, worked in food service at a university near his home.  He began working there after leaving prison for an assault conviction and gaining custody of his children.  He made $10 per hour when he started in 2012.  We don’t know if he received any type of public assistance, but several news outlets reported that, in previous years, Mr. Todd had sought and received assistance with his utility bills.  This year he did not for reasons that are still unclear.

    There are details about the lives and deaths of Mr. Todd and his children that we will never know with certainty, but by all evidence, poverty and a cold night claimed those eight souls this past week in the richest nation on Earth.

    In Kansas, and other places around the country, it’s not enough to be poor.  Some elected officials would like to humiliate you, too.  They do so by passing laws prohibiting users of food-stamps from buying lobster or filet mignon.  It’s a modern twist on the “Welfare Queen” myth a generation ago.  It’s ugly.  We should be better than this.

    But we’re not, sadly.  Worse still, other countries are out-pacing us in important ways.  The Social Progress Index for 2015 ranks the United States as 16th in the World—just ahead of Belgium and Portugal, but behind Japan and Germany and a slew of our allies.  The decisive issue according to the authors of the report is not income equality, but the depths of poverty.  In the United States, we invest in our military—the finest in the world—but we under-invest in our schools, in our infrastructure, and in our people.

    We’re the wealthiest nation on Earth.  When will we act like it?

    Enjoying the Low Life? | The New York Times

    The rush to humiliate the poor | The Washington Post

    Carbon monoxide blamed after father his 7 children die in their sleep | The Washington Post

  • Trying to Understand U.S. Foreign Policy

    The Western-allied government in Yemen, which had been hailed by President Obama last fall as a successful example of his counter-terrorism approach, has fallen.

    The resulting chaos has now seen air strikes by a coalition of Sunni-Arab nations, led by Saudi Arabia, fighting the Iranian-backed Shiite Houthi for control of Yemen.

    In Iraq, the United States finally launched airstrikes against ISIS elements hunkered down in Tikrit where they held off an Iraqi force of 30,000 troops led, principally by Shiite militia and, until this past week, receiving senior-level advice, if not operational control, from Iranian commanders.

    In Washington, the Secretary General of NATO arrived mid-week only to be snubbed by the American president, sending the unmistakable signal to Russia that U.S. policy will—at least for now—defer to Russian initiative.  If the United States was serious about confronting Russia over Ukraine, President Obama would not ignore the Secretary General of the Western Alliance.

    It’s not the lack of strategy—the application of national means to achieve desired ends—that I find most troubling.  Rather, it’s the uncertain steps.  Last year was a disaster in the rhetoric of American foreign policy.  From the president’s cavalier dismissal of ISIS as the “J.V.” team to his heralding of success in Yemen last October, the administration seems simply unaware, challenging even its most ardent supporters to pause and assess what they are doing.

    I find myself in that position now—troubled by actions and uncertain of what the United States is trying to achieve in the Middle East and Europe.

    A Policy Puzzle of U.S. Goals and Alliances in the Middle East | The New York Times

    Obama’s Mideast “free fall” | POLITICO

    Obama Snubs NATO Chief as Crisis Rages | BloombergView

  • Ukraine and Russia: It’s Not Getting Better

    In response to the growing war clouds to its East, Lithuania this week approved a law to reinstate compulsory military service.  In Poland, young men and women are joining paramilitary units, with government support, and pledging to defend the Polish republic “at all costs.”  The American military is deploying armored units to the Baltic members of NATO for exercises, and planning to leave the equipment in place.  The Russian military has increased the pace and frequency of its military probing of NATO air defenses.  On Monday, Vladimir Putin called for snap drills of Russia’s Northern Fleet.

    Meanwhile, a generation of arms control is slowly falling apart.  While the New START treaty between the United States and Russia remain in place, as does the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty, Russian voices are calling all into question, even while their country walks away from the Conventional Forces in Europe treaty.

    It is increasingly clear that Russia’s intention is revision of the post-Cold War international settlement.  It is using force in Ukraine now, according to Yuval Weber writing in the Washington Post, because Russian leaders understand their relative position is declining.  This is a dangerous moment, all the more so because the United States has made clear, both in word and deed, that it will not fight for Ukraine.  That may be the wise course, but it is also a risky course should Putin succeed there and then turn his eyes to NATO allies in the Baltics.

    Why the U.S. does nothing in Ukraine | Washington Post

    Poles Steel for Battle, Fearing Russia will March on them Next | The New York Times

    An Unnoticed Crisis: The End of History for Nuclear Arms Control | Carnegie Moscow Center

  • War and Peace: Iran and Eastern Europe

    Barack Obama ran for president in 2008 on the promise that he would end America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and change the tone of American foreign policy.  He was motivated by a belief that Iraq was misguided and that the country was weary of war.  In addition, many Americans believed that the perception of American belligerence in the aftermath of September 11, 2001, contributed to insecurity around the world.  Unfortunately, six years later, the world is far more fractured and the president’s approach to foreign policy is open to criticism.

    The most obvious example of this criticism in the past week was “The Letter” signed by 47 Senate Republicans to the leaders of Iran, warning them that negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program would be merely an executive agreement and may be revoked by the next president or modified by future Congresses.  The Constitutional complexities of the argument aside, the Senate Republicans missed badly on this one—and not just because so many Americans rightfully see The Letter as undermining the President in the midst of complex and serious negotiations with a historic adversary.

    The issue in the Iran negotiations is how best to keep Iran from building a nuclear bomb.  Critics of the negotiations argue that Iran cannot be trusted to keep its word.  The Obama administration maintains any agreement will not be based on trust—it will depend upon verification.  It’s the right approach: a negotiated settlement with Iran would contain their nuclear ambitions, impose an intrusive verification regime, all the while retaining for the United States and its allies the ability to impose the violent sanction of force should Iran fail to meet its obligations.  An agreement would buy time for other forces to reshape Iranian politics—and that’s a wise long-term strategy.

    Events in Eastern Europe, however, have to shape American policymakers views of potential conflicts in other regions.  Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia—former Soviet republics who are now NATO’s eastern-most members—are nervous.  They know they can’t trust Putin’s Russia, but they are uncertain, too, of the strength of the western alliance’s commitment to their defense.  So in Vilnius—where memories of Lithuania’s fate in the 20th century remain strong—parents make plans for their children in the event of war, even as the government issues advice to citizens about what to do should war come to their neighborhoods.

    The candidate who ran to end wars, governs as president in a period of incredible insecurity from Eastern Europe to the Middle East—and we haven’t even touched on the South China Sea.  That level of insecurity requires a prudence in the application of military power not familiar to a lot of Americans in the post-9/11 era.  Airstrikes—war—to keep Iran from going nuclear are still an option regardless of what the president’s critics claim.  But another war in the Middle East will gravely limit America’s and NATO’s options in Eastern Europe.

    Preparing for War in Lithuania | Foreign Affairs

    Russia stand-off: 3,000 US troops on exercise in Baltic | Yahoo

    Obama pressed on many fronts to arm Ukraine | POLITICO

  • Identity, War and Peace

    Two articles have recently caught my attention—one about the rise of Christian militias, financed by American evangelical Christians, who are fighting ISIS in Iraq and Syria.  The other about the first signs of hope in Iraq in a long, long time.  They reflect different dimensions of the same conflict, and those differences give me pause.

    In Baghdad, the curfew imposed after the American occupation began has been lifted.  People are beginning to return to the sidewalk cafes and parks of that city, even as ISIS continues its marauding and terror only dozens of miles away.  In Baghdad, with a new Prime Minister, there is a sense, we are told, of hope returning—enabled in part by a recognition that Sunni and Shia have to rely on each other for there to be peace.

    The rise of Christian militias shouldn’t surprise us.  People who have been abandoned by recognized authorities are sure to do what they can to defend themselves—and to rely on friends and co-religionists with the means to support them.  The danger, though, is that in introducing another armed religious force into a region awash with armed religious forces only underscores the ISIS narrative: that the West is fighting a religious war against Islam.

    All of this underscores my reluctance to accept the Obama administration’s national security strategy of strategic patience.  The longer groups like ISIS are left to sow terror and murder unchecked, the more risk there is for other ugly developments.

    The Islamic State is Losing Iraq | New Republic

    US Christians back emerging private war on Iraq jihadists | France 24

  • People Power

    It has been easy, in recent months, to focus on what’s going wrong in the world.  Wars, terrorism, and disease compete for our attention each week.  None of them are hopeful.  But this week, events on two sides of the Atlantic give us hope.

    This past week, more than 1000 Muslims formed a ring of peace around a synagogue in Oslo.  They stood hand in hand with Jews to protect those praying inside.  One of the event’s organizers, Zeeshan Abdullah, was quoted saying:

    Humanity is one and we are here to demonstrate that. There are many more peace mongers than warmongers. There’s still hope for humanity, for peace and love, across religious differences and backgrounds.

    There is hope for us, yet.

    In Washington, DC, at the end of the week, people power took a different meaning when the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), despite withering opposition from America’s biggest Internet service providers, voted to regulate the Internet as a public utility: embracing the broadest and most ambitious calls of advocates of “net neutrality.”  It means that providers cannot throttle content nor can they offer pay-to-play fast lanes that would provide unreasonable barriers to entry for Internet start-ups.

    The public played a huge role in the FCC’s decision.  During a public comment round, the New York Times reports that four million Americans made their desire for net neutrality heard—and the FCC listened.

    I find myself processing these enormous events in the context of my own experience in Rhode Island.  Tuesday night, I was privileged to appear before the RI State Senate Judiciary Committee to offer testimony on a bill that would give Rhode Islanders information to protect themselves when the data they entrust to corporations or governments is breached by hackers.  More than a half-dozen lobbyists for big companies and industry associations took their turns testifying about the “onerous” and “overly-broad” provisions of the proposed legislation.  The choice became crystal clear: protect Rhode Island’s consumers or accept the status-quo that lets businesses decide when the public has a right to know about the breach of their personal information.

    There were no big crowds around the RI statehouse Tuesday night.  There were not four million comments from the public to sway the Senators.  There were just lobbyists paid to make a point for their clients; lobbyists who I’m sure are also sought after for campaign contributions during election season.

    I’m not naïve or Pollyannaish about the value of lobbying or even the needs of corporations and their preference for minimal regulation.  But the dearth of citizens’ voices in Providence on Tuesday night left me unsettled.  A lot of money and lot of talent was arrayed against a good bill.  The public should care about that.

    F.C.C. Votes to Regulate the Internet as a Utility | The New York Times

    Inspiring Images of Over 1,000 Muslims forming ‘Ring of Peace’ Around Oslo Synagogue | The Huffington Post

  • White Pell Center logo with blue background.

    Testimony from Pell Center Executive Director on RI Data Breach Notification Legislation

    On Tuesday, February 24, 2015, Pell Center Executive Director Jim Ludes offered testimony on Rhode Island Senate Bill 134–a legislative proposal that drew from work done at the Pell Center to improve RI data breach notification.  His testimony, as prepared, follows below:

    *                *                *

    Testimony of James M. Ludes, Ph.D.

    Executive Director, Pell Center for International Relations and Public Policy at Salve Regina University

    Before the RI State Senate Judiciary Committee

    February 23, 2015

    Mr. Chairman, members of the committee, thank you for the opportunity to appear before you today to offer some brief remarks on Senate Bill 134 offered by Senator Lou DiPalma. I have submitted my full testimony in writing and respectfully request that it be included in the record.

    Mr. Chairman, I am the Executive Director of the Pell Center for International Relations and Public Policy—a think tank on the campus of Salve Regina University in Newport. Named for a giant in Rhode Island’s political history, the late Senator Claiborne Pell, the Pell Center exists to help our community think through complex issues and make good policy decisions.

    For several years, one of the Pell Center’s principal focus areas has been cybersecurity. We’ve published several studies by Ms. Francesca Spidalieri, who is our Senior Fellow for Cybersecurity Leadership, on emerging trends in cybersecurity, especially the preparation of leaders for an era of persistent cyber threat.

    As an outgrowth of that research, we have organized the Rhode Island Corporate Cybersecurity Initiative (RICCI)—an effort to bring together Rhode Island’s corporate leaders to share information about the most critical cybersecurity challenges facing the private sector. RICCI meets monthly at the Pell Center in Newport for briefings and occasional exercises designed to encourage Rhode Island’s senior executives to take ownership of their organization’s cybersecurity and help them develop approaches to make their companies more secure and resilient to cyber incidents.

    Last September, we hosted a roundtable discussion on Rhode Island’s current data security breach notification law—its gaps, how it compares to similar laws in other states, and how the RI law might be improved.

    Senator DiPalma and Representative Stephen Ucci attended that session of RICCI, and drew from it important insights that shaped the legislation you are considering today.

    Mr. Chairman, we need only to read the newspaper occasionally to know that we are in an era of massive data breaches. The list of affected companies is long, but the list of affected Americans is even longer. In 2013, the information security firm Symantec reported that 552 million personal records were breached by hackers. The November 2013 breach of Target Corp. alone exposed 110 million customers to possible fraud or identity theft.

    In a summary of the September RICCI meeting prepared by Ms. Spidalieri, she wrote:

    Target’s response and notification drew heavy criticism based on the method of notification as well as its timeliness. Like many other retailers, major banks, and countless other companies, Target chose to keep evidence of its data breach private until cybersecurity expert Brian Krebs brought the issue to light on his blog “Krebs on Security.” Unfortunately, the reticence to disclose data breaches is widespread and deeply rooted within corporate America. Days, weeks or even longer periods can pass between the moment a company learns of a cyber-crime and when its customers do. That gap can amount to crucial lost time for people and other organizations that would need to take immediate measures to protect themselves by monitoring transactions, changing passwords, or alerting other relevant parties such as a credit card company.

    A wave of state laws passed over the last dozen years requiring companies to notify customers in a timely manner about data breaches that affect them.  Forty-seven states and the District of Columbia have laws governing such disclosures (as of August 1, 2014, only Alabama, New Mexico, and South Dakota had no laws related to security breach notification).  Rhode Island has had its breach notification law on the books since 2005. RI’s current “Notification of breach law,” however, is both outdated and lacks clear information/direction for a business to follow in the event of a data breach. The participants in the Pell Center workshop noted that this law requires disclosure “in the most expedient time possible and without unreasonable delay,” but does not prescribe an actual timeframe and allows for delays to accommodate “the legitimate needs of law enforcement” during an ongoing investigation. Moreover, it requires the notification of a breach “if the personal information was, or is reasonably believed to have been, acquired by an unauthorized person,” but does not provide additional measures to prevent future breaches or to effectively mitigate the risks associated with data breaches. Finally, there is no mention of the role that state agencies or law enforcement should play in the case of a data breach or of whom within those departments should be notified.

    As I mentioned, Senator DiPalma and Representative Ucci participated in our September RICCI workshop. Their proposed legislation, we believe, reflects well the consensus of the participants in that session. In particular:

    • The proposed legislation would extend the definition of “personal information” to medical information, health insurance information, and email addresses when acquired with passwords.
    • It would define clearly the course of action a business must take in the event of a data security breach and the specific timing of notification to those individuals potentially affected by the breach (no later than 15 days after the discovery).
    • It would also define the roles that the Attorney General, law enforcement, and major credit reporting agencies play in case of a data breach and the notification requirements of these agencies.
    • It would include data security requirements for third-parties.
    • Finally, the proposed legislation would require all entities in Rhode Island not to retain personal information for a period longer than necessary for the specific services provided, and to destroy all records (including paper records) when personal records are discarded.

    As you know, President Obama has rightly identified cybersecurity as an urgent national security challenge, and he has talked about a federal data breach notification law that would address many of these issues, too. But just because the president is talking about it does not mean Congress will do anything about it. The burden then falls to the individual states to address this issue where they can while we wait for Congress to act. The reality is that, if passed, this legislation could serve as a model for the country to follow, both in other state houses and at the federal level.

    Thank you.

  • Authorizing the Use of Force

    This was a big week for national security wonks.  In less than a week, the Obama White House issued a new national security strategy—it’s first since 2010, speculation swirled over whether the United States should provide lethal assistance to Ukraine, and then the administration released the language it sent to Congress for a new authorization to use military force against ISIL.

    Through it all, I found an unsettling disconnect between the rhetoric of the administration and the reality of the world around us.

    In a speech to the Brookings Institution last week, National Security Advisor Susan Rice described the security challenges to the United States and asserted that none of them are existential.  As a result, Dr. Rice argued, the United States can afford to play a long-game, exercise strategic patience, and maintain the course we’re on.  Such an approach presumes that long-term indicators are all favorable for the United States and its interests.  A simple scan of the headlines undermines that view.

    Islamic extremism is ripping apart large swaths of the Middle East.  Despite months of U.S. and coalition airstrikes, ISIL continues to hold vast areas in both Iraq and Syria even while their barbarism reaches new lows with recent accounts of mass executions, children being forced into sex slavery, and wanton disregard for human values and life.

    Of course, ISIL emerged from the fragments of a fractured Syria after the United States called for the overthrow of Bashar al Assad.  In Libya, where the United States provided military support to topple a secular strongman in the form of Muammar Gaddafi, conflict rages with Islamists threatening another long civil war.  And in Ukraine, where the United States certainly called for regime change last year, a civil war between Ukraine and Russian-backed separatists has editorial pages again talking about the Russian nuclear arsenal.

    It pains me to write this: I’m not sure what long-term indicators the Obama administration is looking at, but the record of the last six years appears to show a world more uncertain and in peril than before this president took office.  That’s not to say it’s all Barack Obama’s fault, but it is worth questioning the course were on when the president’s advisors assert we should stay on it.

  • US Election 2016 map of voting symbols

    Election 2016 and the Pell Center

    If the election calendar holds, it’s less than one-year until Iowa holds it caucuses on January 18, 2016, the first round in a fifty state marathon to select the Democratic and Republican nominees for president.

    Already, the press is focused on the horse race: who’s up, who’s down, who’s surging, who’s fading. Will Hillary Clinton face any meaningful opposition? Will Mitt Romney and Jeb Bush split centrist Republicans and clear the path for Marco Rubio or Rand Paul?

    We’re not even one month into 2015 and these story lines already seem tired. Worse, they are about personalities, not issues. They track the fortunes of elite politicians, not the welfare of the typical American family, and they do nothing to educate voters on the issues facing the country in the years ahead.


    Fortunately, at the Pell Center, we are committed to issues that matter. So over the next 22 months, our focus will be to explore and elevate issues that should be part of the national dialogue. All of our research, events, social media, and engagements will be built with an eye on the election of 2016 and the ideas and issues the public must contend with to make informed choices at the ballot box.

    The Pell Center’s focus has long been at the intersection of politics, policies, and ideas. Join us there and contribute to a vital dialogue about the future of our country.