Obama and the Power of the Pen

Jon-Christopher Bua   |   February 10, 2014   12:00 AM ET

There is a serious chill in air as Winter unrelentingly pounds our Nation's Capitol with storm after storm.

The Olympics in Sochi are well underway displaying all the grandeur the season has to offer.

And here in Washington, the relationship between President Obama and his not-so-loyal opposition in Congress could not be frostier.

It has only been a few weeks since both sides of the aisle met on Capitol Hill for a Joint Session of Congress to hear the President deliver his State of The Union address.

In keeping with tradition they did their best to honor a temporary cease fire.

However, it seems that at this time the President's gesture of peace and reconciliation may have been short lived and his patience may have run out.

In his address the President warned Congress that this year he would try to work with them but would not wait for them to take action.

Few expected him to resort to the use of sweeping Executive Orders quite so soon.

This week the President uses the power of his pen to eliminate discrimination between traditional and same sex marriages for all matters that will come before the Federal Courts.

This is a broad and sweeping step that could affect American lives in every state since each state has both State and Federal Court system.

What is perhaps most interesting here is that by this action and its consequences the President may not only be making a statement, he may also be ultimately setting up another challenge that the Supreme Court may have to decide.

President Obama can not make a permanent change to any law through the use of an Executive Order, however, he may be able to affect enforcement of those laws during the remainder of his term.

Last year the Supreme Court in two historic cases intentionally avoided a Constitutional decision on Same Sex Marriage - that would have effected all fifty states - but left the door wide open to revisit this issue at a later date.

Many believed that they were reluctant to do what the Supreme Court had done in earlier cases - pushing the law ahead of the popular sentiment of the people... "just too far too fast."

Some of the Supreme Court's most historic precedents have done just that - Brown v. Board of Education, Roe v. Wade... and the list goes on.

With this change of law in the Federal Court system, it is easy to see how a case might be decided differently despite the same set of facts and circumstances depending on which court is used to seek redress - the State Court or the Federal Court - in the very same state.

A number of circumstances determine which court a citizen may access to seek redress.

These circumstances may include diversity of citizenship, amount in controversy, the nature of the claim etc.

So it seems very likely that this change in the Federal Courts could give rise to a question of equal protection or another constitutional challenge that the Supreme Court might have to decide.

What is somewhat surprising here is that the Obama Administration chose this particular issue as the first use of the president's not so veiled threat that he made in his State of the Union address.

Although many states are adopting laws to treat traditional and same sex marriage equally, this change is clearly happening too fast for some more conservative areas of the US to absorb.

At this time 17 states and the District of Columbia have adopted laws giving same sex marriage equal standing with traditional marriage under the law.

Ten other states recognize civil unions and partnerships and 33 states limit marriage to opposite sex couples only.

This seems for some a politically perilous thing to do just as the Midterm Election cycle is getting underway.

Not only will this move antagonize President Obama's opponents in Congress and energize their base but it is also likely to concern some of his fellow Democrats who are up for re-election in more conservative states facing more severe challenges.

Taking such an aggressive move by means of an Executive Order is also likely to further complicate the President's relationship with Congress.

Speaker Boehner has already noted that his caucus no longer trusts the president to fully enforce the laws as passed by Congress - so immigration reform is probably dead for now and will have to wait until the Mid-Terms have passed.

President Obama is certainly not the first President to use the power of Executive Orders to get his way.

In 1863 Abraham Lincoln used his executive power to free the slaves with the Emancipation Proclamation.

It was originally signed in preliminary form as Lincoln's last attempt to bring the Civil War to a speedy close.

He later then pushed the Congress to make this change permanent.

In 1935 Franklin Roosevelt began most of the work of his New Deal with the Works Progress Administration - created by an Executive Order.

Using his Executive Order signing pen, FDR started putting the 25% of unemployed Americans back to work in the Civilian Conservation Corps - building over 600,000 miles of roads, 125,000 bridges, 8,000 parks and more.

Roosevelt used this power more often than any other president with 3,522 Executive Orders.

President Roosevelt is also known for one of the darkest uses of executive power - the Executive Order that called for the Japanese-American Internment.

This order authorized the detention of more than 110,000 Japanese-Americans during World War II.

In 1948, Harry Truman followed Lincoln's lead when he tried to work with Congress to desegregate the Armed Forces.

He underestimated the reaction of fellow Democrats from the South to this idea.

They seceded from the Democratic party and formed their own party, "The Dixiecrats".

Not missing a beat, in less than two weeks "Give 'em Hell Harry" desegregate the US Armed Forces by Executive Order.

So it seems clear there is precedent for presidents to take bold action when they believe that Congress simply fails to do so.

Presidents need to be careful how far they push their executive power.

There is always the risk of being viewed as an "Imperial President" - as was the case during the presidencies of Richard M. Nixon and "King Franklin I" as FDR was often referred to by his detractors.

Up till now, President Obama has used his executive power sparingly compared to his recent predecessors.

However, President Obama needs to chose these battles wisely and make sure he is on the right side of history when he acts alone.

As his predecessor Truman said, "The buck stops here", at the Oval Office desk, and so it will be for President Obama... and his legacy.

As the US Turns Against New Sanctions on Iran, Has the Israel Lobby Lost Its Mojo?

Mehdi Hasan   |   February 10, 2014   12:00 AM ET

In House of Cards, the award-winning US television show adapted from a BBC miniseries, the Machiavellian congressman Frank Underwood leaks a story (falsely) suggesting that Michael Kern, the president's pick for secretary of state, wrote an anti-Israel article during his student days. Kern, promptly denounced as an anti-Semite by pro-Israel campaigners, is forced to stand aside.

The pro-Israel lobby matters, OK? That's the message not just from Hollywood but also from the leading member of that lobby, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or Aipac. In a land of lobbies - from Big Oil and Big Pharma to the NRA (guns) and the AARP (pensions) - Aipac isn't afraid to brag about its power, influence and network of contacts. It boasts 100,000 members, a $67million budget and an annual policy conference attended by two-thirds of Congress, as well as serving and former presidents. It's said that the former Aipac official Steven Rosen once slipped a napkin to a journalist over dinner and deadpanned, "You see this napkin? In 24 hours, we could have the signatures of 70 senators on this napkin."

But has Aipac lost its mojo? Is a lobby group famed for its ability to move bills, spike nominations and keep legislators in line now in danger of looking weak and ineffectual? Consider the evidence of the past year. Exhibit A: Chuck Hagel. In January 2013, the independent-minded Republican senator from Nebraska was tapped by Obama to become his second-term defence secretary. Pro-Israel activists quickly uncovered a long list of anti-Israel remarks made by Hagel, including his warning in a 2010 speech to a university audience that Israel risked "becoming an apartheid state".

In previous years, Aipac would have led the charge against Hagel, but this time it stayed silent. "Aipac does not take positions on presidential nominations," its spokesman Marshall Wittman insisted. Hagel was (narrowly) confirmed by the Senate the following month.

Exhibit B: Syria. In September 2013, Aipac despatched 250 officials and activists to Capitol Hill to persuade members of Congress to pass resolutions authorising US air strikes on Syria. "Aipac to go all out on Syria" was the Politico headline; the Huffington Post went with "Inside Aipac's Syria blitz". And yet, although it held 300-plus meetings with politicians, the resolutions didn't pass; the air strikes didn't happen.

Exhibit C: Iran. Despite President Obama pushing for a diplomatic solution to the row over Tehran's nuclear programme, Aipac is keener on a more confrontational approach. Between December 2013 and last month, a bipartisan bill proposing tough new sanctions on Iran, and calling on the US to back any future Israeli air strikes on the Islamic Republic, went from having 27 co-sponsors in the Senate to 59 - and threatened to derail Obama's negotiations with Tehran.

The role of Aipac here isn't disputed. Speaking to CNN in 2013, Jane Harman, an ex-congresswoman and strong advocate for Israel, conceded that her former colleagues on Capitol Hill found it difficult to support Obama's nuclear diplomacy due to "big parts of the pro-Israel lobby in the United States being against it, the country of Israel being against it. That's a stiff hill to climb."

Yet the summit is in sight. "Support for Iran sanctions bill fades", MSNBC reported on 30 January. The bill is "on ice", a senior Senate Democratic aide told the Huffington Post. At least five Democratic co-sponsors of the bill have said they don't want to vote on the legislation while negotiations with Iran are ongoing.

Not only has the bill lost momentum but legislators haven't been afraid to speak out against it. Listen to the long-time Israel supporter Dianne Feinstein of California let rip on the floor of the Senate: "While I recognise and share Israel's concern, we cannot let Israel determine when and where the US goes to war." Ouch.

Obama has repeatedly vowed to veto the sanctions bill, while his National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan suggested that supporters of new sanctions want war with Iran and "should be upfront with the American public and say so". Such is the anti-Aipac feeling in the White House that there is even talk of the Obama administration boycotting the organisation's annual jamboree in March.

On Iran, as on Syria, Aipac bluffed. And its bluff was called. As even Rosen, the former Aipac official, has had to admit: "I don't believe this is sustainable, the confrontational posture [with the White House]." For now, the sanctions bill is dead. Democrats, if not Republicans, are giving peace a chance. "Much of Aipac's strength has been rooted in the false illusion of their invincibility," Trita Parsi, a DC-based analyst, tells me. "Because people thought they were invincible, most of the time they didn't think they could go up against them."

Let's be clear: this isn't about a "Jewish lobby" or illicit Jewish influence. Pro-Israeli groups such as Aipac don't represent American Jews; rather, they articulate the hawkish world-view of the Israeli right. Recent polls suggest a clear majority of American Jews support the president's approach to Iran's nuclear programme; and 70% of them voted for Barack Obama, not Mitt Romney, in 2012.

As Peter Beinart, the Jewish-American journalist and former editor of the New Republic, put it in a recent column in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz: "The only 'leader' who speaks for American Jews on Iran is Barack Obama." Aipac might want to get a new napkin.

Mehdi Hasan is political director of the Huffington Post UK and a contributing writer for the New Statesman, where this column is crossposted

  |   February 8, 2014    9:23 AM ET

Russia and discrimination has been something of a hot topic as of late.

And the lighting of the Olympic flame by two of Russia's famous Olympians, Irina Rodnina and Vladislav Tretiak, was also not without controversy — but this time over discrimination of a different variety.

As The Guardian reported last year, Rodnina garnered international attention after tweeting a doctored photo of U.S. President Barack Obama that sparked outrage as some interpreted the doctored photo to be racist.

READ MORE: Vladimir Putin's Tough Guy Act Just A 'Shtick' Says Barack Obama

The tweet, which has since been deleted from her account, showed Obama chewing. A hand holding a banana had been superimposed in the foreground.

ABC reporter Terry Moran posted a photo of the deleted tweet on the day of the Opening Ceremony.

The tweet was sent at at time of tension between the US and Russia over military intervention in Syria.

Rodnina's partner in lighting the flame, Vladislav Tretiak, a member of the United Russia part as well, voted in 2012 for a Russian law that would ban some US citizens from entering the country as well as prohibiting the adoption of Russian children by Americans.

  |   February 7, 2014    9:45 AM ET

The US President and his Russian counterpart have become known for their painfully awkward-looking photo ops during bilateral meetings at various global summits.

The world leaders have often been snapped together, desolately staring straight ahead as though they want the ground to swallow them.

Now, Barack Obama has rather daringly said that Vladimir Putin's bored, tough guy act is just a "shtick" designed to boost his domestic political image.

obama putin

Awkward...

"He does have a public style where he likes to sit back and look a little bored during the course of joint interviews," the US president said in an interview with NBC, timed to coincide with the start of the Sochi Olympics.

"My sense is that's part of his shtick back home politically as wanting to look like the tough guy."

"US politicians have a different style. We tend to smile once in a while," he added wryly.

But Obama denied his relationship with the Russian president was "icy."

He claimed the two leaders focus on issues of "mutual concern" where they can work together.

"The truth of the matter is that when we are in meetings there are a lot of exchanges, there's a surprising amount of humour, and a lot of give and take," he said.

"He's always treated me with the utmost respect."

Washington and Moscow have been at odds over the Ukraine crisis, Russia's support for President Bashar al-Assad in Syria and Russia's granting of asylum to fugitive US intelligence contractor Edward Snowden.

On Thursday, a recording of a private conversation between US diplomats discussing protests in Ukraine was posted on YouTube, embarrassing the United States.

The comments from Obama came as an international group of statesmen, diplomats, aid agencies and business leaders issued a dramaticplea Putin to use the opening of the Winter Olympics in Sochi to take steps to bring peace to Syria.

Protocols That Guarantee Privacy, Security and Freedom

Preetam Kaushik   |   January 31, 2014    6:28 PM ET

The Internet---a playground for millions across the world-- is increasingly at risk from perceived American cyber bullying.

The continuing backlash from Edward Snowden's NSA revelations is attracting some determined and articulate opposition against American overreach, not from the usual suspects in the Middle East or North Korea, but from the Western world.

One such resistance leader is Mikko Hypponen, computer security expert and head of research at Finnish cyber security firm, F-Secure. Finland is a neutral country but Hypponen's clarion call to take the battle to the Americans was delivered in Brussels, among other things, the location of the NATO headquarters.

Code Warrior

When assessing adversaries in a battle, against as mighty an opposition as the US intelligence apparatus (and allies such as GCHQ in the UK), it is useful to ascertain Hypponen's ability to walk the talk.

As a Vanity Fair profile of Hypponen's from 2004, gushingly titled "The Code Warrior", chronicles, the "pony tailed virus hunter" bio includes working closely with the FBI to take down a massive virus outbreak with organized crime connections.

Defenders of the NSA should reflect and worry that Hypponen was no left wing pinko such as Assange, nor a confused individual such as Bradley/Chelsea Manning, and certainly not a disgruntled employee such as Snowden. How then did they manage to antagonize one of the original "good guys?"

The answer can be found in Hypponen's talk where he accuses the NSA of having deliberately introduced vulnerabilities in security algorithms and "backdooring" to allow future exploitation. This strikes at the very core of how Hypponen earns his bread--how can he protect his clients when huge government resources and coercion are being used to subvert the very protocols that guarantee security?

He's registered his protest loudly and openly against industry players collaborating with the NSA as well. Cyber security firms work best when collaborating and backing each other up; clearly he is not impressed by weak links in this chain.

US vs Them

The first indication that all was not kosher in modern day cyber espionage precedes Snowdengate. What has angered Hypponen is that such measures were supposed to be directed at foreign enemies, not indiscriminately injure the privacy of American citizens and foreign allies.

Hardened intelligence operatives may well scoff at such naiveté but Obama's recent concession to end surveillance of friendly leaders seems vindication of Hypponen's public excoriation of the NSA for using the excuse of blurred lines to cross them.

The usual narrative of such speeches at this point segues into demands that Obama reign in his cyber spies, and dispose of the purloined petabytes of data stored in NSA facilities. Deviating from script, Hypponen sets forth his most interesting, some would say incendiary, proposition to his audience.

US is home to most of the companies that power the digital world today, and these have been severely compromised. Therefore, the rest of the world needs to create a parallel infrastructure and build it on open source, if we are to remain truly free.

Paranoia or Pragmatism

It's an idea that has been gaining ground with the NSA's victims this past few months. Was it just coincidence that Hypponen's presentation featured a slide devoted just to the Brazilian president evangelizing privacy as the foundation for democracy?

This begs the question, what happens if governments lead this charge to build an independent Internet? Authoritarian regimes ranging from Iran and China to even Singapore have pursued their own agendas under the garb of public good, when firewalling their citizens.

We have also seen that the promise of open source requires strong capital investment to succeed. Would Android be where it was today without Google's financial backing? Where Hypponen leaves the audience hanging in his talk is by just teasing us with a utopian possibility but not delving into the how of it.

There is merit though in giving this idea concrete shape. If nothing else, the threat of a global boycott of their products and services could prove to be just the motivation that carries the Facebooks and Googles past the tipping point of mounting a full-fledged challenge at home to ground Big Brother for good.

What the UK Could Learn From Obama

Chris Jones   |   January 31, 2014    5:11 PM ET

President Obama recently gave the much-anticipated State of the Union address.

It was encouraging to hear that we actually have similar views on education.

In particular, he called for more on-the-job training and apprenticeships, to help 'set a young worker on an upward trajectory for life.'

Sound familiar? That's because the UK has been training young people in practical skills for hundreds of years.

And yet the UK Commission's Employer Skills Survey 2013 shows that one in five job vacancies weren't filled last year because employers couldn't find qualified candidates.

So what's the problem? More importantly, how can we fix it? I suggest three things that the UK and the US need to do:

1. Teach options. Obama said that he wants every child to have access to a university education. It's eerily similar to when Labour set a target over a decade ago to have 50% of 18 year-olds attend university. As a result, we have thousands of young people with degrees but without jobs. Kids shouldn't be forced to go to uni if it isn't right or them. They need to know all the options that are available to them.

2. Get businesses involved. Obama suggested forging greater links between business and education. That way, employers can directly impact the curriculum to get the skills they need, and young people are prepared for employment. It seems like a no-brainer, but it's shocking how few businesses are actually involved in education. City & Guilds Group research shows that 60% of employers don't think young applicants have the right skills for the workplace. Yet, more than 40% of businesses in the UK don't work with local schools or colleges to attract new talent. Instead of sitting back and lamenting the under-skilled workforce they need to do something about it.

3. Fund it. To see change, Government needs to invest in all types of education, not just academia. Obama warned of the dangers of cutting education funding, and I think our leaders need to pay attention. How can they make a dent in the UK's astronomical youth unemployment rate if they don't support them? Sadly, the very training that could get them into work is under threat. Research shows that employers think that college leavers are more 'work ready' than school leavers, yet the Government has announced a 17.5% funding cut which will affect college students the most. If the Government really wants to get young people into work, they must support skills training with their chequebook.

The UK is in a much better position than the US to prepare our young people for work. We already have great programmes and systems in place. But, our future workforce could be completely undermined.

Sara C Nelson   |   January 30, 2014   11:10 AM ET

Citizens of the United States, give yourselves a pat on the back.

For an online petition calling for President Barack Obama to deport Justin Bieber has reached its target – and then some.

Posted on the White House website, the petition needed to reach 100,000 signatures to secure an official response from the government.

justin bieber mugshot

The Baby singer smiles for his mugshot

At time of press it was nearing 180,000.

That’s nearly 200,000 people who really, really want to see the “dangerous, reckless, destructive and drug-abusing” singer deported to his native Canada and for his Green Card to be revoked.

On Thursday Bieber was charged with assaulting a limo driver in Toronto last month. He also arrested in Florida for driving under the influence last week.

Police in Miami Beach said they arrested Bieber smelling of alcohol after officers saw him drag-racing before dawn on Thursday, with his yellow Lamborghini traveling at nearly twice the speed limit.

Sadly, it’s unknown when the White House will choose to respond to the deportation petition.

As the Washington Times points out: “There is no deadline for the President, and some have had to wait years before receiving a reply.”


Mehdi Hasan   |   January 29, 2014   12:09 AM ET

Here are the five things you need to know on Wednesday 29 January 2014...

1) OPENING THE DOOR

Hurrah! From the front page of the Times:

"Some of Syria’s most vulnerable refugees will be allowed to settle in the UK, Nick Clegg said last night. The Deputy Prime Minister invoked Britain’s 'long and proud tradition of providing refuge at times of crisis', saying that the most imperilled girls, women, torture victims and the elderly will be offered refuge. The coalition has refused to commit itself to a quota, but it is understood that several hundred refugees from the conflict in Syria."

Labour will continue to press for the British government to participate in the official UN-sponsored resettlement scheme but shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper did say: "Compassion and common sense have prevailed over government resistance." The head of the Refugee Council told the Today programme this morning that the decision would make a "profound difference" to the lives of the refugees who are able to come here.

Let's hope so, though let's not be pretend that this is anything other than a drop in the ocean. Millions of Syrians remain homeless; thousands continue to be killed each month. The (faltering) peace talks in Geneva between the opposition and the Assad regime are the Syrian people's only hope. A headline in the FT sums up the challenge: "Ending Syrian carnage requires a rapid deal with Iran."

2) MARK HEADS NORTH

From the BBC:

"The Bank of England governor will enter the Scottish independence debate by reflecting on the currency implications of a 'Yes' vote in the referendum. Mark Carney's speech in Edinburgh has come amid continuing speculation over the Scottish government's plan to keep the pound under independence. SNP ministers would also want to retain services of the Bank of England as part of a currency union. The UK government has said such an agreement would be 'unlikely'."

Carney told the BBC last week: "There are issues with respect to currency unions. We've seen them in Europe." Meanwhile, the Telegraph reports:

"Alex Salmond has suggested the Treasury could let Scotland keep the pound if his country votes for independence. The First Minister revealed that former Bank of England Governor Lord King told him the UK Government would adopt an 'entirely different' approach to Scottish issues after a Yes vote."

3) 'GIVE AMERICA A RAISE'

Last night was Barack Obama's State of the Union address. The president arrived at Capitol Hill with his approval ratings at an all-time low and his legislative agenda yet again stalled in the two houses of Congress. The Associated Press reports:

"Seeking to energize his sluggish second term, President Barack Obama vowed Tuesday night in his State of the Union address to sidestep Congress 'whenever and wherever' necessary to narrow economic disparities between rich and poor. He unveiled an array of modest executive actions to increase the minimum wage for federal contract workers and make it easier for millions of low-income Americans to save for retirement... Though Obama sought to emphasize his presidential powers, there are stark limits to what he can do on his own. For example, he unilaterally can raise the minimum hourly wage for new federal contractors from $7.25 to $10.10, as he announced, but he'll need Congress in order to extend that increase to all of America's workers...'Give America a raise,' Obama declared."

Guess what, Barack? The Republicans (still) aren't listening to you...

BECAUSE YOU'VE READ THIS FAR...

Watch this tear-jerking video of a guy reuniting his fiancee with her childhood teddy bear.

4) BURT BEATEN

More bad news for the Lib Dems on the female front - Lorely Burt, the female frontrunner in the race to replace Simon Hughes as the party's deputy leader, got beaten last night. The Guardian reports:

"Liberal Democrat MPs have chosen Sir Malcolm Bruce as their new deputy leader even though he will step down next year – and ahead of the female frontrunner. It comes after the party has been criticised for having the lowest proportion of female MPs out of the three main parties and badly handling allegations of harassment made by women activists. Bruce beat competition from Lorely Burt, the favourite, and Gordon Birtwistle, giving him the job of helping Nick Clegg steer the next election campaign."

5) SAME OLD TORIES?

No matter how hard the Conservative Party leadership tries to shed its 'nasty party' image, various Conservative politicians do their best to undermine it. The former minister Edwina Currie has been trolling the left - and the poor. My HuffPost colleague Asa Bennett reports:

"Former Tory health minister Edwina Currie has warned that 'pernicious' food banks can put local shops out of business and make users poorer. Writing for the Spectator's Coffee House blog, Currie argues that food banks end up making people poorer rather than helping them. 'Free food subsidises low wages; it helps support the black economy. It pauperises those it seeks to help. Like giving money to ‘homeless’ beggars on London streets, it encourages more of what it seeks to relieve.'"

As Labour MP Tom Watson tweeted, these are "appalling" comments. Not just appalling - misinformed, too. Contrary to what critics such as Currie claim, people can't access a food bank on a whim, or just walk in off the street. And the fact that hunger is afflicting hundreds of thousands of poor Britons should be a source of shame.

QUOTE UNQUOTE

"We should not allow Mr Farage to set out moral compass on this." - former Lib Dem leader Sir Menzies Campbell makes the case for allowing in Syrian refugees on the Today programme this morning.

PUBLIC OPINION WATCH

From the Sun/YouGov poll:

Labour 37
Conservatives 34
Ukip 12
Lib Dems 9

That would give Labour a majority of 32.

900 WORDS OR MORE

Daniel Finkelstein, writing in the Times, says: "One tax rise too far and suddenly . . . crash!"

Ian Birrell, writing in the Guardian, says: "The joke's not on Nigel Farage and Ukip. It's on the rest of us."

Mary Riddell, writing in the Telegraph, says: "Austerity Labour is on its way and Ed Balls is leading the charge."


Got something you want to share? Please send any stories/tips/quotes/pix/plugs/gossip to Mehdi Hasan (mehdi.hasan@huffingtonpost.com) or Ned Simons (ned.simons@huffingtonpost.com). You can also follow us on Twitter: @mehdirhasan, @nedsimons and @huffpostukpol

Harriet of Peckhamshire and the Wrong Shoes

Davis Mukasa   |   January 28, 2014    5:12 PM ET

2014-01-28-OvalHarrietPic2.jpg

So the story kind of goes like this. There was once a young black boy who studied economics and politics, spun his way to become a spin doctor for a political party, joined a local media organisation bringing politics to the people, became a champion of the people, was voted in by the people, lived as a Peckham legend, later became Lord Mufasa of Peckhamshire with his very own wing in the esteemed Peckham Library where for decades children would study his feats during Black History Month.

Or so it should've been. That is, were it not for the immovable force that was Harriet Hurricane Harman. She'd apparently occupied the seat since she was six. A time when children could legally be bonded in holy matrimony. (I believe this is still common in upper-class circles but nobody notices because only the gentry read the marriage section of broadsheets so nobody cares. Just so you know.)

At the time in question, Harriet had been promoted to deputy leader of the Labour Party. A double whammy. This lady was not for turning let alone leaving her seat. She was in her pomp. For the meantime it seemed Black History Month would remain Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, drumming and famines. Much the poorer I thought. I sipped on my latte.

So I watched from the wings planning and plotting. I did everything to make myself electable. I drank in the local Wetherspoon's to support local drinking, used night buses instead of taxis - even the ones that went through Elephant and Castle (!), went to boring town council meetings where councillors would labour (no pun intended) through steering committees to form focus groups to debate a proposed six-million-pound modernisation programme Operation Change Front Page Font, acronym, acronym, acronym. In short, life was shit-balls.

That was until I hatched the plan of the century. I'd phone Harriet's press people and arrange to interview her for my Peckham Radio show. Perhaps our repartee could paint me as the natural man-in-waiting. The heir apparent. We'd walk around the town chatting to people, have the people ask us questions, I'd ask her questions, maybe one or two innocent ones like 'when are you leaving', 'isn't it time you moved to another seat' and so forth. We all knew that any rejection of this wonderful offer to spend a Friday afternoon canvassing opinion outside Peckham Library would amount to casual racism. The papers would've had a field day. These were the days when a paper could call you a RACIST in bold red, 400-point-size font, and apologise in font size 8 on page 28, 8 full months after the public had fully digested your racist ways.

This was it. Mama didn't raise no fool. Strike time. Operation: Peckham Tour.

Harriet and her PA turned up promptly that Friday afternoon. She could have been enjoying a sunny cocktail or two on the Westminster lawn; instead here she was. The famous Peckham Square.

But from the outset the scenario was bleak. There was bloody barely anybody around. We were literally chasing shadows. Even worse, nobody seemed to know who Harriet was. But worse still, when they realised who she was, they had no idea this was their MP. So they had no idea why we were approaching them. This was proving to be a disaster for us both. My plan was making us both look silly and desperate. Far from being the man-in-waiting, I was beginning to feel more like the lady-in-waiting, running around behind Harriet cajoling people to partake. How could I showcase my political gravitas if we couldn't get past disparate and prolonged episodes of 'guess the face'? Somebody needed to hear the soliloquies I'd been rehearsing for a week.

In the end we seized upon two young girls who almost threw their chips in the air when we pounced on them from both sides. I thrust the microphone to their unprepared faces. As you can see, they were really quite thrilled. And Harriet too was having the time of her life at this point. We got a few choice sound bites and decided to leave the square at that. Cut our losses.

I thought we'd quickly move to the next part of my fun-filled Tour de Peckham, a jaunt through the fish and fresh meat district of the lively Peckham market, a chance to meet the common man. The library had been one thing but this was going to be something quite different for our Harriet. Now this would be a great time for me to shine as I had a natural touch with the common person. I wanted to do the kind of piece John Simpson does in a bustling street market in a hitherto unknown part of a distant land.

Alas, Harriet's enthusiasm had taken a bashing. The Right Honourable Lady took a look up the frenzied high street then glanced for mercy at her PA, her eyes narrowing as though prompting the PA to come up with something quickly. She didn't. Harriet looked again, then finally back to my enthusiastic face and said: "Errr. I seem to have brought the wrong shoes."

I was crushed. I pondered for a second if it would be gentlemanly to offer to carry the Honourable Lady through the market on my back. I then immediately considered the visual implications and possible ramifications of a white MP riding a black man like a horse through an urban marketplace. Riots have been started for less. I had to accept that my fun-filled Tour de Peckham was dead. My fun itinerary would never see the light of day. Those Peckham market traders would never know how close they had come to seeing their hero. And Harriet Harman.

What had made Harriet change her mind I would never find out. I've since pondered what her special market shoes looked like, and whether her PA was ever sacked for forgetting them. Perhaps that sideways look had been to say: I told you we should've brought the market shoes Grommit.

Anyway, Peckham and Shoegate would soon have to wait. There was other politicking to be done at the time. Ken Livingstone was the only one NOT laughing as the cirque de Johnson rumbled into town driven by Australian fire-starter Lynton Crosby. And a certain young black senator was beginning to make waves in the labour unions of Chicago. I knew what I had to do. I packed my bags, got my papers and set off for the centre of progressive politics. Camberwell.

Sara C Nelson   |   January 28, 2014    3:01 PM ET

UPDATE Your Move, Obama: The Petition To Deport Justin Bieber Has Reached Its Target

A petition calling on President Barack Obama to deport Justin Bieber has been signed by thousands of American citizens.

Though live for just a few days, the application posted on the White House website has already reached more than half the 100,000 signatures it needs to secure an official response from the government.

It calls for the singer to be deported to his native Canada and for his Green Card to be revoked.

justin bieber mugshot

The Baby singer smiles for his mugshot

It was posted by ‘J.A’ in Detroit on 23 January and says:

“We the people of the United States feel that we are being wrongly represented in the world of pop culture. We would like to see the dangerous, reckless, destructive and drug abusing Justin Bieber deported and his green card revoked. He is not only threatening the safety of our people but he is also a terrible influence on our nation’s youth. We the people would like to remove Justin Bieber from our society.”

Bieber was arrested in Florida for driving under the influence last week.

Police in Miami Beach said they arrested Bieber smelling of alcohol after officers saw him drag-racing before dawn Thursday, with his yellow Lamborghini traveling at nearly twice the speed limit.

The unravelling of Justin Bieber

Solving the 'Big Brother Problem' That Affects Every One of Us

Salil Shetty   |   January 22, 2014   12:00 AM ET

The 'Big Brother Problem' has helped to kick off this year's discussions of the most pressing problems facing the world today as the World Economic Forum meeting gets under way in Davos, Switzerland.

This is an important recognition of the urgency of the issue. It is one that affects every single one of us and is an area of law that needs to be resolved.

Some of the most memorable headlines of 2013 involved personal privacy, data security and intelligence gathering issues from all corners of the globe - from the US to Brazil, from Australia to India.

But what has bothered me about the conversation to date is the way it has been framed by some defenders of mass surveillance programmes. We must choose, they say, between security or privacy, protection or liberties.

This is a simplistic way of looking at the issues and it has damaged our ability to identify sound public policies that strike a sensible balance between these concerns.

The question that should be asked is: is it right for the state to store, and share, information about our personal phone calls, emails and social media interactions... potentially indefinitely?

The answer, I hope, is one that no one can dispute. People have a right to privacy; governments should only be looking at our information if, and only if, they have probable cause to suspect wrongdoing.

Of course law enforcement agencies have an obligation to investigate potential crimes. But that duty is not a licence to conduct a fishing expedition. Law enforcement agencies should not let their investigations become the electronic equivalent of a trawling net that indiscriminately scoops up everything that passes, with the catch put on ice indefinitely.

The surveillance of metadata tracks every instance in which we email, speak to, or communicate with someone online. It is no different than having someone spying on your house and monitoring who comes in and who leaves, at all times of the day.

This is an unacceptable breach of privacy that cannot continue. We must find a way to square the privacy vs. security argument in a more practical way for the future.

A starting point would be significantly greater openness about the scope of what is being monitored and why. We cannot effectively assess the extent of the threat to our privacy and determine what additional safeguards are needed unless we know what governments are collecting and what uses they make of that information.

This need for additional safeguards is clearly demonstrated by the way GCHQ, the UK's surveillance headquarters, is operating. GCHQ evades legal scrutiny by outsourcing its surveillance operations to the USA, asking the National Security Agency (NSA) to do what it itself would never be able to do.

The NSA, in turn, has grown into one of the most terrifyingly powerful government bodies in the world. Since 9/11, it has essentially been given a blank cheque to expand its sphere of influence exponentially, without any fear of oversight or transparency.

It was welcome news on Friday to hear President Obama affirming the need to safeguard the privacy of people, both in the US and around the world. The President's acknowledgements are certainly a step in the right direction, after such a disappointing year of revelations about the extent of the US's intelligence gathering.

However, the truth of the matter is, the substance of the President's most recent proposals hardly revolutionises the issues.

The President will still retain the power to authorise surveillance activities without having to answer to judicial review and the future of the country's bulk collection of metadata remains unclear.

Furthermore, despite the President's signal that he is prepared to recognise the privacy rights of those of us who live outside the USA, his policy falls short on specifics.

Most of the President's proposals will now need to be voted on by Congress before they can take effect. Even before the President spoke, bills had been proposed by Senators Baldwin and Leahy. But these legislative fixes themselves were limited in scope as they did not apply to people living outside of the country.

There is no doubt that striking the right balance between privacy and security requires careful, thoughtful analysis. Policy makers need to take a long, hard look at the choices they've made over the years that have created a world of Big Brother states.

Looking to the future, my hope is that our governments will not use rhetoric about security as any further justification for sacrificing a fundamental human right: the right to privacy.

Salil Shetty is Secretary General of Amnesty International. He is a panellist on 'The Big Brother Problem' at the 2014 World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos

Guantánamo: Where There Are No Shades of Grey

Neil Durkin   |   January 20, 2014    6:05 PM ET

One of the books that detainees at Guantánamo Bay are reportedly banned from reading is 50 Shades of Grey, the international bestseller from the US writer EL James. Could it be that the US military authorities have decided that James' erotic thriller is actually pornographic (so-called "mummy porn") and therefore unsuitable for the camp's 155 detainees? Er, I'd almost rather not know about the reasoning here ... but then again, I actually would. Because these kinds of micro-decisions are perhaps revealing of the larger mindset at Guantánamo.

For example, officials at Guantánamo regularly talk of "compliant" and "non-compliant" detainees at the camp, as if there's some kind of virtue in a detainee acquiescing in their unlawful captivity for years on end. "Compliant" detainees - held in Guantánamo's Camp Six - are given "privileges" such as access to communal facilities and to newspapers, videos and books (though not 50 Shades of Grey). "Non-compliant" detainees are put into the camp's infamous orange jumpsuits - "as a visual reminder" to the guards of their non-compliance - and held in maximum-security solitary confinement. To comply, or not to comply, this is the question that the Guantánamo authorities apparently want to make the big question for the detainees.

Meanwhile, the Gitmo authorities go on making decisions over the lives of the detainees. If a detainee refuses food - as part of a hunger strike or for some other reason - the camp's medical staff decide whether to feed that detainee (they are "enterally" fed as part of what the camp authorities call a "common medical procedure"). The detainees may not agree with this decision or the language around it, and recognised international medico-ethical standards forbid the force-feeding of detainees who can make an informed decision over refusing nutrition, but ... well, the detainee is strapped down and the nasal feeding tube is forced up the nose and down into the stomach anyway. Similarly, a detainee may be desperate to talk to a journalist on one of the (relatively) common media tours of Guantánamo, but the camp authorities prevent this insisting that such contacts with journalists "violate their privacy" (apparently round-the-clock monitoring and lengthy body searches ahead of meetings with lawyers don't interfere with a detainee's privacy).

So, having set the camp's framework question (compliance or non-compliance), decided when a detainee should be fed (or force-fed), and judged the suitability of reading materials and when a detainee's privacy is being invaded or otherwise, the US authorities have also taken care of all legal matters as well. Having designated the detainees "enemy combatants" in a supposed open-ended "global war" with al-Qa'ida, the US authorities have decided that "military commissions" at Guantánamo should be the preferred trial system, not courts on the US mainland. And, if it's been determined that there's not enough evidence for these trials (for example, if there's an over-reliance on evidence produced by torture) then the detainee will either be held indefinitely (apparently until they die), held until they're eventually transferred out (subject to a range of apparently secret US "security" conditions), or - in a recent twist - possibly re-assessed and then lined up for a long-overdue plane flight out of Guantánamo if a review panel (comprising federal officials sitting in Washington) decides that this should happen.

It's abundantly clear, then, that Guantánamo is all about control. Of liberty, food, reading matter, the law, the media, and language. Above all, of language. During an interview with the BBC's Rutila Shah in November, the current deputy commander of Guantánamo - the entirely self-controlled Brigadier General Marion Garcia - is at pains to reframe the conversation throughout. She won't accept phrases like force-feeding ("you're using interesting terminology") and when the BBC's questions become too insistent Garcia pulls down the shutters ("that's where we're gonna end it"). Meanwhile, during the same programme a guard speaks of the mental stress to her fellow guards of "being in enemy contact", as if the detainees were somehow armed protagonists in a battle zone and not men behind bars who have mostly yet to be charged, or tried, or of course found guilty of a single crime.

Five years after the newly-elected President Obama promised to close Guantánamo within a year, it still holds 155 detainees. Of these 76 have been cleared for transfer, but remain there nonetheless, including the former south London resident Shaker Aamer. By all accounts Aamer is in very bad shape after almost 12 gruelling years of Guantánamo captivity - including numerous reported beatings, long spells in solitary ("single-cell" housing) and protracted hunger strikes ("enteral feeding" sessions).

I don't know which books - if any - Aamer has read at Guantánamo , yet I somehow don't imagine that 50 Shades of Grey would have been top of his "to read" list even if it wasn't banned ("screened") by the camp authorities. On reflection it's probably not the racy goings on between Ana and Christian that makes 50 Shades apparently unsuitable for Gitmo's caged would-be readers, but its provocative title. At Guantánamo there are no shades of grey, just the orange (naturally) of the non-compliant detainees' jumpsuits and the black and white of US military practice. They are right and the rest of the world is wrong. We should stop quibbling and just submit to this world view ...

  |   January 17, 2014   11:04 AM ET

America's First Lady turns 50 on January 18th - so what better way to celebrate than to look back at some of her greatest photos?

And by 'greatest', we do of course mean 'funniest' (this is the Comedy section, after all). Whether it's giving a speech, reading a book for children, getting America fit or just pulling a wry face, Michelle Obama is never not animated-slash-delightful.

Happy birthday, your royal highness! (That's what they call you over there, right?)


Paul Vale   |   January 16, 2014   11:18 PM ET

Since becoming governor of the American state of New Jersey in late 2009, Chris Christie, a straight-talking former attorney from the city of Newark, had built a reputation as a pragmatic politician.

Christie has governed the state, which sits just across the river from New York City, as a moderate Republican with a strong focus on eschewing the national squabbles of Washington in favour of delivering balanced budgets and improving education.

However, the notion that Christie could transcend party politics -- a perception cemented in late 2012 when he and U.S. President Barack Obama were pictured arm-in-arm touring the stricken Jersey Shore after Hurricane Sandy -- recently came crashing down.

Newly released emails revealed that in August, a top Christie aide ordered the closure of two entrance lanes to the George Washington Bridge, the main traffic artery connecting the New Jersey borough of Fort Lee to New York City, because Fort Lee's Democratic mayor didn't endorse Christie's reelection bid.

An email from Christie's deputy chief of staff read, "Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee." One of Christie's top aides who worked at the agency that runs the bridge, replied, "Got it."

The revelation led to the immediate dismissal of the deputy chief of staff, while providing the American political lexicon with a new shorthand for an act of revenge -- "Bridgegate." Christie has denied all knowledge of the affair and said he was "blindsided" by the emails. Investigations continue, with the possibility of more incriminating revelations in the coming weeks.

While the scandal has yet to make a dent in Christie's favorability ratings, the long-term implications for the governor may be more profound. His popularity had given rise to talk of a run for the Republican presidential nomination ahead of the 2016 election. The real political fallout from "Bridgegate" might not be evident until it's dredged up by Christie’s Republican rivals. And the main beneficiary of one of the more bizarre political episodes of recent years may turn out to be none other than the 2016 Democratic Party nominee.