TIME Government

Americans Actually Love the Post Office

United States Postal Service clerks sort mail at the USPS Lincoln Park carriers annex in Chicago
USPS mail clerks sort packages in Chicago, November 29, 2012. A new Gallup poll shows that most Americans think the post office is doing a good or excellent job despite its financial difficulties. John Gress—Reuters

Poll finds that the beleaguered USPS is the nation's most-liked government agency

Complaining about the post office is an American pastime, like griping about Congress, or whining about the DMV. Who, in their right mind, actually likes dealing with the post office?

A lot of people, it turns out. According to a new Gallup survey, 72% of Americans say the U.S. Postal Service is doing an excellent or good job. That puts the USPS ahead of 12 other government agencies, including the FBI, the CDC, NASA and the CIA. And the younger the respondent, the more likely they were to think highly of our much-maligned courier: 81% of 18-to-29-year-olds rated the post office’s job as excellent or good, while 65% of those over 65 said the same thing.

So what accounts for the post office’s surprising popularity? Age, for one.

(MORE: The Postmaster General Hangs Up His Mail Bag, With a Parting Shot at Congress)

As the volume of letters has declined, the USPS has evolved to become as much a courier of packages as it is a way to send and receive first-class mail. In the last few years, the post office has not only expanded its delivery of parcels (it recently began a partnership with Amazon to deliver on Sundays), but it also often delivers packages for FedEx and UPS in what’s called “last mile” delivery, which are shipments to residents that private carriers don’t service. That means millennials interact less with the USPS at its worst — the interminable lines at understaffed post offices — and more from the comfort of home, where the mailman is the person at the door with their new shoes from Amazon or their iPhone from the Apple store.

The post office is also the one agency that Americans actually see doing its job each day. You see postal employees on their routes. You can see post offices open. When’s the last time you saw an FDA worker inspecting your local restaurant or the Federal Reserve Board in action as it plotted the end of quantitative easing?

Not that the latest survey should make the post office rejoice. The faltering institution has run deficits every year since 2007 and its aggressive efforts to adapt to the digital age have not yet been enough to offset the substantial drop in mail volume and onerous Congressional mandates to fund retirees. But it never hurts to have the public on your side.

TIME

#AskTIME Subscriber Q and A: Michael Scherer

Welcome to TIME Subscriber Q&A, with TIME’s Washington bureau chief, Michael Scherer. He has a story in this week’s TIME about America’s New Anchor, Jorge Ramos of Noticiero Univision. His other stories can be found here.

To read the full post, you need to be a subscriber. It’s not too late to sign up.

sacredh asks, Do you think that Jim Webb throwing his hat into the ring could signal interest in the VP job if Hillary gets the nomination?

From my time with Webb, he doesn’t strike me as the sort of guy who is all that comfortable toeing someone else’s line, and I would guess the Clinton camp would be worried, with good reason, that he might not follow marching instructions. There is another reason I would guess this is unlikely, at least at this point. If you read his announcement letter, he is pretty clearly positioning himself, like Obama did in 2007, as someone who can turn the page on the Clinton v. GOP wars of the past. On the issues, he is likely to campaign to her right.

Outsider asks, Thanks for bringing the feature back this week, Mike.

In your piece about the end of the post-partisan dream, you wrote:

Now we come to the final hours of this miserable season. It’s likely, though not certain, that when you wake up Wednesday, Republicans will control the Senate for the first time since 2006, give or take a recount in the West or a runoff in the South. But don’t expect that result to tell you much about the direction of the country.

Other than TV ads, how can anyone get the voting population to actually get at the polls? This election had the lowest turn out in a very long time. And how do you think the media played into the lack of enthusiasm for voting?

Since most people get their information via reporting, how do you think, or do you think, the media could help raise the level of concern regarding voter participation?

I tend to be a glass half full guy when it comes to Democracies: Large groups of people, even if sometimes ill informed, tend to be completely rational. How do you get people to the polls? You give them an incentive. Either a candidate they can believe in, or the prospect of political or economic change that they desire. As a rule, candidates in 2014 offered neither. It was a grim time, highlighted by the fact that gridlock in Washington has reduced everyone’s power to actually accomplish much of anything, and the voting public, a rational body, sort of gets that. Also people are upset, about the economic stagnation of their own lives and the childlike spectacle of their elected leadership. It will change when the conditions change, and a Presidential election, which inevitably ask bigger questions and bring bigger characters to the stage, will help that along, though I would not be surprised if 2016 turnout is far lower than 2012 and 2008.

What is the media’s role? To say what is happening, and explain what it means. I think people are interested in both, but I don’t think they will look to my opinion to decide whether voting is worth their time. For the record, I think everyone should vote, with the possible exception of those living in false democracies, where not voting can send a stronger signal than voting.

outsider asks, Hey Michael, in your piece about the end of Post-Partisan dream, you wrote:

Message control, in other words, has replaced governing.

This is absolutely true: Why do you think that more politicians aren’t called on doing that very thing when they are questioned by members of the media?

I think they are called on it, but they just keep repeating the soundbites. At some point, especially at the end of expensive campaigns, the voice of the journalist tends to diminish. We can say so-and-so did not answer the question, or does not actually have a plan to govern. But that is just an article or news report in a sea of endless television spots and direct mail pieces peddling balderdash.

deconstructive asks, Michael, how do you explain the disconnect over Obamacare between its unpopularity (in polls, media coverage, etc.) and its success (in numbers of people covered, etc.)?

Yes, I think this is quite simple. About 20 million have gained coverage under Obamacare, but this country has 316 million people. It’s a tiny fraction. For the people who have got coverage, or the millions more who have a chronic condition that is now covered or get coverage they could not get before, Obamacare is seen for the most part as a good thing. But most of us still get our insurance through our employers, and it is still more than we want to pay, and increasing in cost (though slower), and insurance companies are still difficult, and our wages are flat. Liberals support Obamacare because they are ideologically predisposed to think it is a good think. Conservatives opposes because they assume it is bad. And most in the middle don’t really understand what it does, or how it has done for them. Some are convinced it has harmed them. Thus, you get a sort of general discontent.

deconstructive asks, Michael, after our midterm election, how you explain the disconnect between populist issues winning in red states – especially the minimum wage – and GOP politicians winning in those states who consistently fight those same issues? Low voter turnout, especially among D’s and minorities, explains a lot, but maybe not this – are populist issues popular with conservative working class voters too?

Progressives have identified a few issues that are popular with lots of voters, but for which Republican politicians oppose. Minimum wage and pot decriminalization are two, which did well this cycle. But neither issue is a top issue for many voters, meaning it is not the issue that voters decide on when they choose their elected leaders. Those choices are made for other reasons, including their general satisfaction with the direction of their lives, the state and the country. This cycle had a huge anti-incumbent undercurrent because of those issues. Also, there a group of Republican and independent voters who vote in low-turnout elections for Republicans, even if they don’t mind pot and want higher minimum wages.

yogi asks, MS, does the pentagon release statistics on the sorties that are being flown in Syria and Iraq? What is the percentage break down of sorties flown by the US compared to the other allied nations supposedly fighting ISIS? (Perhaps this would be a good post by MT if the data is available).

Mark Thompson replies, “The U.S. is flying 85% of the air strikes since Aug. 8, according to the latest Pentagon data. The U.S. has flown 843 of them—459 against targets in Iraq and 380 against targets in Syria. Sixteen allies have flown 163 air strikes, including 102 in Iraq and 61 in Syria. U.S. officials also say U.S. planes are conducting most of the intelligence, escort and refueling missions.”

yogi asks, #AskTIME, MS, do members of both branches of Congress really believe their kabuki vote on Keystone XL meant anything to the citizens they serve? Why waste time on a vote, that Obama has said he would veto and there is so little time until they have another recess? Especially when Congress has more important issues like a budget and actual debate and vote on whether to wage war against ISIS.

Republicans use Keystone as a cudgel, looking to paint Democrats as ideologues who don’t care about jobs and the middle class. Environmentalists see Keystone as both a substantive issue, given the emissions that might be prevented by delay of Canadian oil development, and as a symbolic stand that could shift the conversation about fossil fuel development. As an electoral issue, the evidence suggests that it has been a winner for Republicans, similar to the way equal pay has been a winner for Democrats. It arguably helped the GOP in a number of races in 2014, when Democratic candidates had to distance themselves from the party. That’s why you are almost certainly going to see more votes. When Republicans talk about Keystone they are usually winning, which is not always true on issues that deal with global warming.

Sue_N asks, Seriously, how far can we expect to see the rampant obstructionism of the GOP go? How long can this government tolerate being shackled and kept from functioning? And, hey, while I’ve got your ear (eye, whatever), can we expect to see this oh-hell-no continue beyond Obama’s presidency? Yes, a lot of it seems personal, but the ugly genie of the Party of No has been let out of the bottle. When another Democrat is elected to the White House in 2016, are the shackles going to stay on?

There was a moment in 2005, when President George W. Bush decided to push hard on Social Security reform. His bet was that he could get some form of personal investment accounts by Democrats in the Senate by offering to bargain on other issues, like the long term solvency of the program. Instead the Democrats countered with: You get nothing. It was probably the right political move for Democrats, who cleaned up in the 2006 elections. Republicans did something similar after Obama came into office, and most Democratic strategists will tell you that it was probably a good short term political strategy. They now control both chambers. That said, there is now far more pressure on Republicans to actually come up with a credible positive agenda, which has not been much in evidence over the last few years, in part because the party is so fractious.

Your question could be, how long will rampant political polarization that punishes compromise and rewards obstruction continue? I would argue that this is more important. I don’t know the answer, but I can tell you some factors that would alleviate the pressures: less partisan redistricting after 2020 that allows for more competitive seats, population changes that make more Senate seats competitive, an improvement in the labor market that begin increasing wages broadly across the country, the emergence of a candidate or set of candidates that convinces a large share of the American people that there is a third way, or a shift in the national mood away from finding comfort in ideological extremes.

Sorry for the delay in getting these up today. There will be no Subscriber Q&A again next week, but we’ll be back in the first week of December. In the meantime, Happy Thanksgiving. And keep commenting.

 

TIME Congress

House Sues Obama Over Health Care Law

Barack Obama
President Barack Obama announces executive actions on immigration during a nationally televised address from the White House in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 20, 2014 Jim Bourg—AP

"The House has an obligation to stand up for the Constitution"

House Republicans sued the Obama Administration on Friday over how it has implemented the health care reform law, taking legal action after threatening to do so for months.

The House sued the cabinet secretaries for the Department of Health and Human Services, and the Department of the Treasury, and filed the case in the U.S. District Court for Washington D.C., House Speaker John Boehner’s office said. At issue are administrative tweaks the Administration has made during the course of implementing the law.

“Time after time, the President has chosen to ignore the will of the American people and re-write federal law on his own without a vote of Congress,” Boehner said in a statement. “That’s not the way our system of government was designed to work. If this president can get away with making his own laws, future presidents will have the ability to as well. The House has an obligation to stand up for the Constitution, and that is exactly why we are pursuing this course of action.”

The lawsuit went unfiled for months after House Republicans first floated it. Legal experts have been skeptical of its chances of success.

Boehner said in July that the House would sue President Barack Obama for twice delaying the Affordable Care Act’s mandate that businesses with more than 50 full-time employes provide insurance or pay a fee—a provision Republicans oppose anyway. The suit also alleges that the law does not allow the executive branch to transfer funds to insurance companies to reduce out-of-pocket payments for low-income enrollees, as Congress has not appropriated the money for that purpose. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimates that those cost-sharing subsidies for low-income Americas—those at two-and-a-half times the poverty level, or $11,670 to $29,175 a year for an individual—will cost $175 billion over the next ten years.

Republicans had trouble finding a lawyer to pursue the case, but Boehner found his man this week in George Washington Law School professor Jonathan Turley, who had testified in favor of such a lawsuit this summer. House Republican aides have suggested the lawsuit could be expanded to include the Obama’s executive actions taken this week to grant temporary legal status to millions of immigrants in the country illegally, but Turley has said in the past that expanding the lawsuit would weaken it.

House Democratic Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi ridiculed the lawsuit as a political stunt.

“After scouring Washington for months, Republicans have finally found a TV lawyer to file their meritless lawsuit,” Pelosi spokesman Drew Hammill said in a statement Friday. “While the American people want Congress to get serious about creating good-paying jobs and strengthening the middle class, House Republicans are paying $500-an-hour in taxpayer money to sue the President of the United States. The fact is, this lawsuit is a bald-faced attempt to achieve what Republicans have been unable to achieve through the political process.”

TIME Immigration

Obama Will Pressure GOP to ‘Finish the Job’ on Immigration

Barack Obama
President Barack Obama announces executive actions on immigration during a nationally televised address from the White House in Washington, Thursday, Nov. 20, 2014. Jim Bourg—AP

President feels 'liberated' now that midterms are over

President Barack Obama will use his executive action on immigration to pressure Republicans to “finish the job” by passing a reform bill, White House Senior Advisor Dan Pfeiffer said Friday.

At a Christian Science Monitor breakfast at the St. Regis Hotel in Washington, Pfeiffer was asked if Obama would tout his action in swing states to put pressure on Republicans.

Pfeiffer didn’t answer directly, but he did say the administration “will be making the case about what we did and the need for Congress to finish the job.”

He added that this would be an “incredibly important priority” in 2015.

The remarks came two weeks after Democrats were routed in the midterms, losing control of the Senate. But Pfeiffer said that in contrast to an election season where Obama needed to protect Democratic candidates and “wasn’t able to be out there and make an argument,” he will now be freer to flaunt his plan, which grants temporary legal status and work permits to almost five million undocumented immigrants in the U.S.

Though advisers have suggested that Obama feels “liberated” now that midterms are over, Pfeiffer says he’s already looking ahead and planning for to 2016. “A very important thing for him will be to be succeeded by a Democrat,” Pfeiffer said.

TIME

House GOP Sues Administration Over Health Care Law

(WASHINGTON) — House Republicans have sued the Obama administration over steps President Barack Obama took to put his health law into place.

The lawmakers say the president overstepped his legal authority.

The lawsuit was filed Friday against the departments of Health and Human Services and the Treasury.

Republicans voted earlier this year to sue Obama over his actions to unilaterally waive provisions of the law.

Democrats have said any suit would be a political sideshow and waste of money.

The suit comes hours after Obama said he was acting on his own on immigration — further infuriating Republicans.

TIME Immigration

Boehner: Immigration Action Damages The Presidency

Speaker promised the House will respond

House Speaker John Boehner said President Barack Obama is “damaging the presidency itself” by unilaterally providing temporary legal status and work permits to millions of immigrants who are living in the country illegally.

“With this action he has refused to listen to the American people,” said Boehner in a press conference Friday. “The President has taken actions that he himself has said are those of a king or an emperor, not an American president.”

Boehner did not lay out a specific response to counter the President’s executive action, the largest American immigration move in decades, but promised that “the House will in fact act.”

Republicans are considering everything from using the power of the purse to a lawsuit in response. The latter move may prove unsuccessful, as some of the most high-profile American legal scholars, including Harvard’s Laurence Tribe, have said that the action was within the President’s lawful authority.

TIME Bill Cosby

Morning Must Reads: November 21

Capitol
The early morning sun rises behind the US Capitol Building in Washington, DC. Mark Wilson—Getty Images

Obama Unveils Immigration Plan

President Barack Obama announced on Thursday night he is granting temporary legal status and work permits to almost 5 million undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. illegally, the largest single immigration action in modern American history

Behind Bill Cosby’s Silence

The comedian and his wife Camille have largely been reticent about sexual-allegations directed at him. History tells us why this silence is oppressive

Forecasters Warn of Rain in N.Y.

After relentless snowfall blanketed much of western New York this week, officials warned on Thursday that a new danger is now threatening the area — rain

NSA Warns Cyber Attacks Could Cripple U.S. Infrastructure

NSA director Mike Rogers said U.S. adversaries are performing electronic “reconnaissance” on a regular basis so that they can be in a position to disrupt the industrial control systems that run everything from chemical facilities to water treatment plants

World Heads Toward Warmest Year Ever

October marked the fifth month to break worldwide heat records. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced on Thursday that the average global temperature for October was 58.43ºF (14.74ºC)

U.S. to Up Nonlethal Aid to Ukraine, Says Report

Washington is ready to increase its delivery of nonlethal aid to the Ukrainian government, but will refrain from furnishing Kiev with weapons to use in its fight against pro-Russian forces in the country’s southeast, according to a Reuters report citing unnamed U.S. officials

University of California Approves Steep Tuition Hike

Tuition at University of California schools could rise by as much as 28% by 2019 under a plan approved on Thursday. The vote by the system’s board pitted top state officials, including Governor Jerry Brown, against those who run the UC’s 10 campuses

Michael Brown Sr. Urges Calm Ahead of Grand Jury

The father of Michael Brown, the black teenager shot by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo., this summer, has asked people not to “hurt others” or “destroy property” ahead of a grand jury decision into whether the officer will be indicted in the killing

Suicide Helpline Aims to Help Transgender People

On 2014’s annual day of remembrance for transgender victims of violence, Trans Lifeline, a crisis hotline staffed entirely by transgender people, aims to help transgender people struggling with depression or suicidal thoughts

How TIME Reviewed the Work of Mike Nichols

The Oscar-winning director, who died on Wednesday aged 83, first appeared in TIME in 1958 as he was becoming famous as a comedian. But after Hollywood came calling, his movies got rave reviews from our critics — with one or two notable exceptions

Zoolander Will Return, With Penelope Cruz Attached

The Spanish actress will bring her finest Blue Steel to Ben Stiller’s long anticipated sequel to his 2001 supermodel comedy. No word yet on whether Will Ferrell and Owen Wilson will return for the follow-up, which is reportedly set in Europe

Oakland Raiders Win First Game Since 2013

The Raiders used a 17-play touchdown drive and a late defensive stop to pull off the shocking upset, 24-20. It was their first victory since a 28-23 triumph at Houston on Nov. 17 of last season

We will hold an #AskTIME subscriber Q&A today, Friday, November 21, at 1 p.m., with TIME Washington bureau chief, Michael Scherer, who wrote this week’s story on America’s New Anchor, Jorge Ramos of Noticiero Univision. His other stories can be found here.

You can submit your questions beforehand on Twitter using the #AskTIME hashtag or in the comments of this post. We depend on smart, interesting questions from readers.

You will need to be a TIME subscriber to read the Q & A. ($30 a year or 8 cents a day for the magazine and all digital content.) Once you’re signed up, you can log in to the site with a username and password.

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TIME politics

Biden Will Push Turkey to Step Up Role in Fight Against ISIS

Smoke rises from the Syrian city of Kobani, following airstrikes by the US led coalition, seen from a hilltop outside Suruc, on the Turkey-Syria border, Nov. 17, 2014.
Smoke rises from the Syrian city of Kobani, following airstrikes by the US led coalition, seen from a hilltop outside Suruc, on the Turkey-Syria border, Nov. 17, 2014. Vadim Ghirda—AP

Biden is the latest U.S. official to meet with Erdogan as divide between the coalition and Turkey grows

ISTANBUL — Vice President Joe Biden on Friday will become the latest in a parade of U.S. officials trying to push Turkey to step up its role in the international coalition’s fight against Islamic State extremists.

His visit comes after weeks of public bickering between the two NATO allies. The Turkish president insists that if the U.S. wants his help, it must focus less on fighting IS and more on toppling Syrian President Bashar Assad. Erdogan wants the U.S.-led coalition to set up a security zone in northern Syria to give moderate fighters a place to recoup and launch attacks.

The U.S. has no appetite to go to war against Assad and has said a no-fly zone against Syria’s air force is a no-go.

Turkey has pledged to train and equip moderate Syrian forces on its soil, but no details have been announced by either side. U.S. and Turkish officials have discussed the coalition’s desire to use Turkey’s Incirlik Air Base for U.S.-led operations against IS militants, but Turkey has made no public decision about Incirlik.

“From the no-fly zone to the safety zone and training and equipping — all these steps have to be taken now,” Erdogan said on Wednesday. Then he echoed the same line he’s been saying all along: “The coalition forces have not taken those steps we asked them for. … Turkey’s position will be the same as it is now.”

That’s after a U.S. military delegation spent two days in Ankara last week trying to hammer out details to implement Turkey’s pledge to train and equip moderate fighters. That’s after top U.S. military officials visited Incirlik in the past few weeks. And it follows two visits in two months by retired Marine Gen. John Allen, the U.S. envoy for the international coalition.

Allen told the Turkish daily Milliyet on Wednesday in Ankara that fighting extremists in Iraq was the “main effort” right now, but that’s not the only effort and “we’ll be doing that in Syria as well.”

“Eventually, of course, our policy intent for the U.S. is that there be a political outcome in Syria that does not include Bashar Assad,” said Allen, who left Turkey for NATO headquarters in Brussels.

Now it’s Biden’s turn.

He plans a dinner meeting Friday with Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu. On Saturday, Biden is to have an extended meeting with Erdogan, and plans to fly back to Washington on Sunday.

The obvious compromise would be if Washington shifted its policy on Syria to do more to force out Assad, and Turkey agreed to do more against IS, said James Jeffrey, former U.S. ambassador to Turkey and Iraq who is now at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Jeffrey is not holding his breath.

“Erdogan is a tough customer to reason with, but Turkey is already a major source of stability and support in region and could be better if we play cards right,” Jeffrey said. “But Erdogan is, at this point, troublingly unpredictable.”

Turkish officials say Turkey is an active partner in the coalition.

Besides pledging to train moderate Syrian forces, Turkey gave Kurdish fighters from Iraq permission to traverse its soil on their way to help Kurdish fighters in the besieged Syrian town of Kobani near Turkey’s border. That was an unprecedented step for Erdogan, but Turkey’s military has been inactive regarding the IS advance on the town.

Turkey has good relations with the Kurds in Iraq, but it views the Kurds in Syria as an extension of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party. The party has waged a 30-year insurgency against the Turkish government and is designated as a terrorist group by the U.S. and NATO. Asked if more Kurdish fighters from Iraq would be moving through Turkey, a Turkish official said: “Yes, we might see them again.” He spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak publicly about Turkey’s policy on Syria.

Turkey also is hosting 1.6 million Syrian refugees. Washington acknowledges that Ankara has worked to stem the flow of foreign fighters into Syria, although it’s still easy in some places to move across for a price. U.S. officials also say Turkey has cracked down on oil smugglers. Analysts estimate that IS earns up to $3 million a day in revenue from oil fields captured in Iraq and Syria.

Still, the U.S. and Turkey are not in sync about Syria, and Biden’s visit follows weeks of misunderstandings and harsh rhetoric emanating from both capitals.

Locals in Istanbul have dubbed one flap the “apology-no apology,” which began over something Biden said in a speech at Harvard University.

Biden said that early in the Syrian conflict, Turkey assisted extremists because they were seeking to depose Assad. Erdogan demanded an apology; the White House said Biden called Erdogan to apologize, but Biden said he didn’t.

There was more disagreement over whether Turkey had decided to let the U.S. use Incirlik base for operations against extremists in Syria and Iraq.

Aggravating the tension was an incident last week in Istanbul where three American sailors from the USS Ross were roughed up by anti-American demonstrators.

TIME technology

How US Companies Help Central Asian Autocrats Eavesdrop

A Long Island firm is helping Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan clamp down on dissent

American companies are supplying technology that the governments of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are using to spy on their citizens’ communications and clamp down on dissent, according to a new report from the UK-based advocacy group Privacy International.

Verint Systems, a manufacturer of surveillance systems headquartered in Melville, N.Y., has sold software and hardware to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan that is capable of mass interception of telephone, mobile, and Internet networks, the group alleged in its Nov. 20 report. It also provided the training and technical support needed to run them, the report said.

Verint, which claims customers in 180 nations, in turn sought decryption technology made by a firm in California, Netronome, as it helped the Uzbek government attempt to crack the encryption used by Gmail, Facebook, and other popular sites, according to the report.

The report’s overall message is that countries in Central Asia – including also Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan – regarded as among the world’s most autocratic are getting Western help to install, on a much smaller scale, some of the same advanced mass interception techniques that Edward Snowden revealed are used by the National Security Agency.

Those acquisitions have been facilitated in part by loose export controls over surveillance technology. To be subject to U.S. export restrictions, products must appear on a Commerce Department control list — and the key components of the surveillance products described in the Privacy International report do not appear to be on those lists, according to report co-author Edin Omanovic.

Products that can lay the foundation for mass surveillance are not restricted by special export controls if they are sold in an off-the-shelf, unaltered state, according to Eva Galperin, a global policy analyst at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a non-profit digital rights foundation.

While many of the group’s sources are not listed in the report, and its claims therefore cannot all be confirmed, the report says that staff members interviewed activists in the region who recounted that transcripts of their private communications were used to convict and imprison them on charges of conspiracy.

Recent U.S. State Department reports for Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan describe a pattern of state-sponsored torture, inhumane treatment of prisoners, arbitrary arrest, and limited civil liberties in both countries. The State Department’s report on Uzbekistan specifically accused authorities there of detaining and prosecuting activists and journalists for politically motivated reasons. In the Kazakhstan report, “severe limits on citizens’ rights to change their government” was listed as a significant human rights problem.

Kathleen Sowers, an assistant to the general manager of Verint Systems, said in a telephone conversation on Nov. 20 that all of the company’s senior personnel were traveling and could not be reached for comment. Netronome spokeswoman Jennifer Mendola said in an email that the company had “no information on the matter” described in the Privacy International report. The company complies with all applicable laws of the United States and every other jurisdiction in which it operates, and “does not condone any violation of human rights or personal privacy,” she added.

Privacy International, a 24-year-old registered charity in the United Kingdom, publishes investigations and studies about digital privacy. It has challenged the legality of Britain’s spy agency using information obtained from the U.S. National Security Agency’s PRISM surveillance program to conduct mass surveillance of British citizens.

Several of the firms alleged to have exported snooping gear to the region have Israeli connections. Verint’s exports, for example, were dispatched by its Israeli subsidiary, according to the report. According to Omanovic, multiple sources had told his group that the transfers had been approved by the Israeli government. Israel and Kazakhstan signed an agreement for defense trade and cooperation at the beginning of 2014. A spokesman at the Israeli embassy in Washington did not have any immediate comment.

The report also said the Israeli firm NICE Systems has supplied monitoring systems with mass surveillance capabilities to the Kazakh and Uzbek regimes. Erik Snyder, NICE’s director of Corporate Communications, told the group in response that NICE provides law enforcement agencies and intelligence organizations with solutions for lawful communication interception, collection, processing, and analysis, but that it “does not operate these systems, and has no access to the information gathered.”

Some of the U.S. companies named in the report allegedly provided the Central Asian governments with technology that has less controversial purposes. Sunnyvale, CA-based Juniper Networks manufactured broadband equipment that Kazakhstan has been using to transmit data, according to the report, and a surveillance system that actively monitors internet users is now operating from that equipment. But the report makes no claim about Juniper’s complicity in surveillance. Juniper spokeswoman Danielle Hamel said she would look into the claim but then did not respond further.

The sole international agreement that includes regulations for the export of mass surveillance technologies – known as the Wassenaar arrangement — is non-binding on its 41 signatories. Israel is not a signatory, but says it uses Wassenaar’s control list as a guide, according to Privacy International’s Omanovic.

In October 2014, the European Commission amended its export controls to impose extra licensing requirements on monitoring and interception technologies. But the U.S. has not enacted its own controls on such exports.

Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) has introduced several versions of a bill entitled “The Global Online Freedom Act,” meant to “prevent United States businesses from cooperating with repressive governments in transforming the Internet into a tool of censorship and surveillance.” But he has not been able to get the bill approved even by the subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights and International Organizations that he chairs.

TIME Immigration

The Latin Grammy Awards Celebrates Obama’s Immigration Plan

A political moment turns into a cultural celebration on Spanish-language television

The 2014 Latin Grammy Awards were delayed by 17 minutes Thursday night so President Obama’s announcement on immigration could be carried live with Spanish translation on Univision.

But that wasn’t the only impact President Obama had on one of the most-watched Spanish-language broadcasts of the year. From the first minutes of the show, his decision to give legal status to nearly 5 million undocumented immigrants was celebrated as an affirmation of Latino power. Host Eugenio Derbez, a Mexican actor and comedian, started off the theme in his opening remarks. Here is a translation:

Good evening. Welcome to the Latin Grammys, an award that today celebrates 15 years of excellence in Latin music at an international level. What a way to start the night. On Univision we are celebrating that, little by little, millions of Latinos in this country are beginning to benefit. It was about time that the rights of Latinos were recognized, because it was long ago that we stopped being a minority. Latinos are an important part of what moves this country. What is more, Latinos are already part of this country, gentlemen. And what a better stage to celebrate this great news than this one of the Latin Grammys, because if you notice, Latinos have always used music to cross borders. What’s more, I have an uncle who crossed the border inside a piano.

That joke was segue to a bunch of more traditional award show one-liners.

Later in the night, the theme continued when Spanish crooner Enrique Iglesias accepted the award for Song of the Year. He gave a shout out to the President’s actions in his acceptance speech.

Good evening. We’re here in France, in Paris, and we want to send you a very big hug. We wish we could be there with all of you celebrating. This night is not only historic for all the Latino artists, but for all the Latino people who live in the U.S. A big hug. Thank you.

Then Carlos Vives, a Colombian singer, accepted an award further into the show. “I want to dedicate this especially to President Obama,” he said at the end of his speech, holding up his golden gramophone trophy.

The White House, which had scheduled the remarks to coincide with the Grammys, seemed pleased by the result. Shortly after Iglesias made his comments, the official White House Twitter account retweeted the news of his shout out.

In 2013, 9.8 million people watched the Latin Grammy Awards on Univision, making the channel a top-three network for the night in the U.S.

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