Five & One: April 29, 2011

    Logo by Nina Lincoff / North by Northwestern

    This quarter, North by Northwestern is hosting weekly columns from Politics & Policy, a new undergraduate publication with a focus on — you guessed it — politics and policy at local, state, national and international levels. Five & One breaks down what news to read — and what news to ignore.

    5. Sony reports massive loss of private user information

    Sony reported last Tuesday that their PlayStation Network gaming service and Qriocity video streaming service had been hacked, and that up to 77 million accounts had been compromised. The attack was dated between the 17th and 19th of this month. The hackers had access to personal information such as names, emails, physical addresses and passwords that were not encrypted and therefore easily stolen when the network security was breached. Sony says that there is no evidence that credit card data was taken, but that they cannot rule out the possibility it has occurred.

    Sony has been questioned as to why it waited so long to disclose the attack, with Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut sending a letter to Sony asking why consumers were kept unaware of the situation. However, it appears that Sony has not broken any laws, at least on the federal level. With this attack coming on the heels of the massive Epsilon breach in which seventy million consumers lost personal information, more public attention has been drawn to the lack of legislation addressing consumer privacy rights when information is stolen on such a massive scale. As the pace of attacks increase, public outcry can only increase resulting in a swath of new legislation.

    4. New faces at Pentagon and CIA signal potential shifts in policy

    As part of a major reshuffle of the U.S. national security team, President Obama announced Thursday that CIA Director Leon Panetta would become the administration’s new secretary of defense and be replaced by General David Petraeus, current commander of American forces in Afghanistan. The appointments reveal both a strategic shift for the Pentagon and a seemingly irrelevant hierarchy within the intelligence community.

    Panetta, a former Democratic congressman and White House chief of staff for the Clinton Administration, has spent time on the House Budget Committee and as director of the Office of Management and Budget — a résumé perfect for a department struggling to scale down its budget in the face of major cutbacks. President Obama has already called for $400 billion in security cuts by 2023, leaving Panetta as the man to oversee the job.

    Meanwhile, Petraeus’ appointment to the CIA reveals an intelligence hierarchy not functioning as intended. The Director of National Intelligence (DNI), a position developed by President George W. Bush in 2005 to oversee all institutions within the intelligence community, is nominally ranked above Director of the CIA (DCI). Petraeus, a top-ranking military official who has garnered approval from the Obama Administration, is a qualified candidate for intelligence command and should logically have been made DNI. His appointment to CIA indicates that the traditional intelligence hierarchy, whereby the DCI operates as chief intelligence officer to the President, is still firmly in place.

    3. Federal Reserve holds first press conference ever

    The Federal Reserve held its first press conference in history Wednesday. The decision to have chairman Ben Bernanke speak directly to the press highlights the growing demands for increased transparency in the Federal Reserve. Before chairman Alan Greenspan began announcing decisions to change the overnight federal funds rate in 1994, secrecy was the general practice. In fact, it was actually encouraged because surprise monetary policies were thought to be best for the market. But under reformed economic theories, and pressure after the financial crisis, the Federal Reserve has moved to more transparent policies.

    Since Greenspan’s first reforms, the Federal Reserve has generated increased news coverage of its policies and statements; it now publishes full transcripts of meetings and its chairman often testifies before Congressional committees. Wednesday, however, was the first time the floor has ever been open to reporters for questions.

    The moves toward increased transparency come after outspoken demands for more openness by libertarian Congressman Ron Paul, who introduced the Federal Reserve Transparency Act in 2009. There is no question that the Federal Reserve’s decisions move markets, but it remains to be seen whether its press conferences will have similarly far-reaching effects.

    2. Syrian government escalates violence against protesters

    The Syrian government’s violent response to pro-democracy protests escalated this week, with unofficial counts putting the death toll at hundreds of citizens. After more than a month of protests, the Syrian government has backed away from negotiating concessions and has instead sent in the military to quell protests.The city of Dara’a, Syria’s third largest and an important center for protesters, is under siege by army units. The Syrian government has also locked down communication in and out of the country, depriving the rest of the world of a clear understanding of what is actually happening in the country.

    The Syrian government’s extreme use of military force shows that the country’s protests have reached a breaking point. Only a week ago, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad agreed to end the decades-long emergency powers law that had allowed him to rule with an iron fist. The fact that protests continued and escalated perhaps forced the Syrian government to take a harder stance against them. It remains to be seen whether citizens will be able to continue protesting in the face of such a harsh government response.

    1. Egypt pushes Hamas and Fatah to agree on government

    The two major political factions in Palestine, Fatah and Hamas, announced plans to form an interim unified government and hold new elections within a year. The two factions have been in conflict since 2006 when Hamas won parliamentary elections and seized full control of the Gaza Strip in 2007. Israeli officials have warned Fatah not to collaborate with Hamas, with Prime Minister Netanyahu saying “the Palestinian Authority must choose either peace with Israel or peace with Hamas.”

    Egypt appears to have played a major role in negotiations; the deal was brokered during secret talks in Cairo organized by the caretaker Egyptian government. What motivated Egypt to take such an active role in these negotiations remains unclear but there is a high likelihood that smuggling tunnels which run from Egypt into Gaza were a point of influence. The tunnels, which supply a variety of goods, are the single largest avenue for imports into Gaza to circumvent the standing Israeli cordon. The negotiations show that Egypt is capable of playing a pivotal role in the Middle-East, one which could become more significant as the Egyptian government solidifies.


    0. Death of Al-Qaeda leader of doubtful significance

    A coalition airstrike killed the second highest ranking target in Al-Qaeda, Abu Hafs al-Najdi, in the Kunar province of Afghanistan this week. The strike has been hailed as a great success by coalition authorities because of Hajidi’s role in “recruiting, training and employing fighters.” The real implications of Najdi’s death may be less spectacular however. Since the invasion of Afghanistan, efforts by U.S. military and intelligence agencies to target high value members of Al-Qaeda have been successful in forcing a high rate of turnover amongst the upper echelon leadership. Al-Qaeda officers have little chance to become ingrained in the network before they are captured or killed.

    The difficulty remains in how U.S. and coalition forces can translate temporary victories such as Najdi’s death into sustained momentum against Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. While the strategy of capturing or killing major personalities in the region no longer draws much criticism, doubts remain concerning its ultimate effectiveness. Personalities like Najdi are fairly minor when compared to their pre-9/11 predecessors and his removal does not signal a major increase in the likelihood for success in Afghanistan.


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