TSA fires 4 screeners, suspends dozens in wake of probe at Newark Liberty airport

NEWARK-In October, after a year-long investigation of lax baggage screening at Newark Liberty International Airport, the Transportation Security Administration moved to fire 25 screeners and supervisors and suspend 19 others.

Today, after nearly six months of due process hearings involving the 44 screeners, the TSA announced that a total of four employees were dismissed, 32 were suspended, and six were exonerated. In the two other cases, one employee resigned before the hearing process played out, and another is still awaiting a final determination. While several of the proposed dismissals or suspensions were upheld during the hearing process, many ended up being downgraded, for example form a dismissal to a suspension, or from a lengthier suspension to a shorter one.

“Accountability is an important aspect of our work and TSA takes prompt and appropriate action with any employee who does not follow procedures or engages in misconduct,” Lisa Farbstein, a TSA spokeswoman, said in a statement. “TSA can assure travelers that measures have been in place to ensure bags on flights out of Newark are properly screened since TSA first learned of this situation in December 2011.”

The dismissals and suspensions are the result of one of the biggest disciplinary actions the TSA has taken since it was created in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks and targeted under-performing employees at a Newark Liberty, an airport with a history of high-profile security breaches. One of the planes hijacked on 9/11 took off from Newark.

Stacy Bodtmann, an official of the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents the TSA’s 44,000 screeners nationwide, said the fact the overwhelming majority of proposed dismissals were not upheld was a vindication of the workforce.

“I’m very happy that they’ll be returning to work, and I still feel that they did nothing wrong,” said Bodtmann, who is also a screener at Newark Liberty. “The officers were doing their job according to the way they were trained to do it.”

The probe was sparked in the fall of 2011 by reports that items were being stolen from checked luggage in a baggage screening room inside Terminal B. But it soon broadened into an investigation into lax screening, led by the Office of the Inspector General in the Department of Homeland Security, the TSA’s parent agency.

Using hidden security cameras during November and December 2011, the TSA said it caught dozens of screeners on tape failing to physically search bags that had been flagged during the X-ray process. Investigators also determined supervisors and managers had failed to ensure bags were searched.

Six screeners who faced dismissal were exonerated after they were found during the hearing process to have been misidentified. Farbstein declined to elaborate on how the misidentifications occurred.

The four employees whose dismissals were upheld were given pink slips this week, the TSA said. One employee facing termination chose to resign before the review process played out, the agency said.

None of the workers was identified.

All 19 of the originally proposed suspensions were upheld, although several were reduced, the TSA said. The main reason for the reduction in the proposed penalties was that the screeners’ conduct was found to have been unintentional, the TSA said.

The disciplined employees ranged from entry-level transportation screening officers, or TSOs, to the airport’s TSA leadership team under Federal Security Director Donald Drummer, who remains in charge. Drummer has presided over a performance crackdown at Newark Liberty since taking over in April 2011 amid low morale that followed a string of high-profile security breaches at the airport.

Since then, the TSA says it has implemented steps designed to improve performance: a supervisory mentoring program; explosive detection drills; and implementation of risk-based programs including PreCheck and Known Crew Member expedited screening programs.

The TSA said the six-month lag time between October, when the proposed disciplinary measures were announced, and this week’s word that final determinations had been made in all but one case was an indication of what the agency said was its “commitment to its due process procedures and demonstrates the agency’s dedication to treating employees in a fair and just manner.”

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Social worker pleads guilty to health care fraud

GREENBELT, Md. (AP) — A former social worker who prosecutors say continued to submit insurance claims after her license was suspended has pleaded guilty to health care fraud.

Fifty-nine-year-old Rosemary McDowall of Silver Spring entered the plea in federal court in Greenbelt on Friday. She will be required to pay restitution and faces up to 10 years in prison at sentencing July 8.

According to her plea agreement, McDowall was licensed in 1996 and became a participating provider with Blue Cross Blue Shield of Maryland.

Prosecutors say in 2005, the Maryland State Board of Social Work Examiners suspended McDowall’s license. However, she continued to see patients and caused claims to be submitted to BCBS. The insurer stopped paying claims from McDowall in 2010.

McDowall admitted that her fraudulent claims total at least $120,000.

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2 Maryland men arrested, indicted for manufacturing fake identification documents

BALTIMORE – Special agents of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) arrested two men in Maryland Wednesday morning after both were indicted on document fraud related charges.

Antonio Abraham Cruz-Cruz, 26, a Mexican citizen residing in Adelphi, Md., and Henry Ramos Agustin, 37, a Guatemalan citizen residing in Cambridge, Md., were indicted by a federal grand jury on charges relating to the sale and transfer of fraudulent identification documents. The superseding indictment was returned on March 20 and unsealed Wednesday upon the arrest of the defendants.

“Document fraud poses a threat to national security and puts the security of our communities at risk because it creates a vulnerability that may enable terrorists, criminals and illegal aliens to gain entry to and remain in the United States,” said HSI Baltimore Special Agent in Charge William Winter.

“This investigation resulted in the arrest and indictment of an alleged document mill leader and co-conspirator operating out of Maryland. Homeland Security Investigations will move aggressively to investigate and bring to justice those who potentially compromise the integrity of America’s legal immigration system.”

The 13-count indictment alleges that from Oct. 17, 2012 through Feb. 19, Cruz-Cruz and Agustin conspired to manufacture and transfer fraudulent identification documents. According to the indictment, Cruz-Cruz manufactured documents, including permanent resident cards and social security cards, which he sold to customers, and which he provided to Agustin for sale to customers.

The indictment alleges that the defendants solicited and took orders for false identification documents from customers who provided the defendants with photographs and personal information. Agustin allegedly provided the photographs and personal information to Cruz-Cruz, who manufactured the requested fake documents, which he then delivered to Agustin in exchange for a portion of the sales price. The indictment alleges that Cruz-Cruz sold such manufactured fake documents to his own customers as well.

The defendants face up to 15 years in prison for the conspiracy and for each count of transfer of false identification documents; 10 years in prison for each count of fraud and misuse of immigration documents; five years in prison for each count of social security number fraud and a mandatory two years in prison, consecutive to any other sentence, for aggravated identity theft. An initial appearance and arraignment was held Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Baltimore. Cruz-Cruz and Agustin are detained pending trial.

The case was investigated by HSI Baltimore and HSI Ocean City with the assistance of the Anne Arundel County Police Department and Baltimore County Police Department.

The case is being prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Tamera L. Fine for the District of Baltimore.

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Homicides down, police overtime way up in Chicago

CHICAGO (AP) — Hundreds of Chicago police officers are hitting the streets on overtime every night in dangerous neighborhoods, the latest tactic by Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration to reduce killings in a city dogged by its homicide rate and heartbreaking stories about honor students and small children caught in the crossfire.

The decision by Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy last month to put small armies of officers working overtime in specific “hot zones” corresponds with a notable drop in homicides in the nation’s third-largest city in February and March. But the latest “Violence Reduction Initiative” raises concerns about whether the policy is sustainable for the financially struggling city and whether it could further strain officers working long hours at a stressful and dangerous job.

If it continues, the tactic would cost millions of dollars each month — putting the one initiative on pace to exceed the department’s entire overtime budget by fall.

Some Chicago officials even wonder if the decline in violence has less to do with the extra officers and more to do with colder weather compared to last winter, when a spike in murders generated national attention.

McCarthy is careful not to say the increased patrols directly caused the drop in a homicide rate that climbed past the 500 mark last year and spiked again in January higher than 40 for the first time in more than a decade.

“This is not a cure for cancer, not the salvation,” he said in an interview with The Associated Press. “It is another tactic we are using to address violent crime.”

Aldermen who represent the worst afflicted neighborhoods are openly questioning whether the overtime effort will work. Some wonder whether the city can keep it going through the hotter summer months when gang violence tends to spike.

“I don’t know if this is sustainable. What happens in May, June and July?” said Alderman Howard Brookins, Jr., who has grown increasingly critical of police efforts since the city suffered more than 40 homicides in January, including the slaying of a 15-year-old honor student about a mile from President Barack Obama’s Chicago home.

McCarthy said he was pleased with the efforts of the 200 officers working nightly on overtime to patrol what police have identified as crime “hot zones.” He said he hoped to expand it to 400 officers and 40 sergeants a day and members of the department say the number of officers working extra shifts is now approaching that number.

The city recorded 14 homicides last month, half the number from February 2012 and the lowest monthly total since the 12 homicides in January of 1957, McCarthy said. That trend has continued, with the number of homicides between Feb. 1 and March 19 totaling 23 compared to 57 for the same period last year.

McCarthy said the overtime effort was patterned after what was done in New York with uniformed foot patrols when he was a high-ranking member of that city’s police department. It is designed to deploy officers to specific spots where computer analysis shows a high percentage of the city’s violent crimes have occurred in the last three years.

Just what all this is costing Chicago is unclear, since neither the police department nor City Hall has released the overtime tab. But Brookins said officers have told him they are earning $350 for every shift they work. That means that if 400 officers a night are working overtime, the tab for the city is just under $1 million a week. And that means that this single initiative could eat the equivalent of the department’s entire $32 million overtime budget by the fall.

When asked about the figure, the police department didn’t dispute it but declined to provide other numbers.

The NATO summit last year provides a glimpse at how much police overtime can add up. Officers earned an extra $14 million in overtime that weekend alone, though the federal government reimbursed it.

City officials believe it is worth whatever cost. Since the spike in murders, the city also has demolished dozens of abandoned buildings believed to be gang hangouts and signed a $1 million contract with a group that uses convicted felons to mediate gang conflicts. Although it has previously spent extra money on officer overtime, it was at a far lower scale than the current effort.

“Right now one of the biggest priorities is to change the appearance of the city of Chicago,” said Alderman Willie Cochran, a former police officer. “We have to change the news stories.”

Others express doubt that the overtime initiative is mainly responsible for success on the streets. Some officers quietly talk about the recent weeks of snow, rain and frigid temperatures, jokingly thanking “Officer Weather” for keeping people off the streets.

“I hope the number (of homicides) is real and not based on worse weather in February than we had in January,” Brookins said. “If it is a real number, kudos to the superintendent.”

McCarthy said the initiative makes sense both financially and tactically.

“It’s cheaper to pay a cop overtime than to hire a fully loaded cop with health benefits,” he said. “Second, we can do it right now; we don’t have to hire somebody and wait” several months for the officers to be trained.

As to the idea of burning through his overtime budget far before the end of the year, McCarthy said Emanuel has assured him money will be there for him to protect the city.

“I have an overtime budget, but the mayor freed up other moneys to do this,” he said.

The $32 million allotted for police overtime is $3 million more than was allotted for overtime the year before but more than $1.7 million less than what was spent in 2011. Emanuel has not spelled out where the money would come from if and when the department burns through its own overtime budget.

What it all is costing the officers themselves is also a question that’s being asked, with some on the force quietly expressing concerns about officers burning themselves out before the summer.

“Working long hours takes a toll on one’s body,” said Mike Shields, the president of the Chicago Fraternal Order of Police, who has been calling on the city to hire more officers.

Brookins said many officers are signing up for as much overtime as they can.

“They’re loving this,” he said.

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30 APD officers fail firearms exam in last year

ATLANTA -FOX 5 has learned that 30 officers from the Atlanta Police Department have failed to pass a tough firearms exam. That means their weapons were pulled and those officers can’t patrol the streets for at least 45 days.

Each year, each of more than 1900 police officers in Atlanta must re-qualify with their guns in order to keep their jobs. Major Jeff Glazier of the Atlanta Police Academy said that in 2012, Chief George Turner signed a new directive that stated officers who fail the test get their weapon taken away.

The officers said that the city has changed the exam without allowing them to train on the new procedure.

“What it does is it turns the targets faster so it adds a little bit of a time crunch to the officers, a little more pressure when they go out there,” Glazier said.

Glazier said the test now has two targets.

“So as an officer goes down range, he is moving and shooting to the left and shooting to the right from his lane, which makes it a little more difficult,” Glazier said.

Buckhead Zone 2 has been hit hard after having to sideline a number of officers for 45 days, including a recognized rifle shot who could not pass the test with the handgun. A Zone 2 sergeant with 25 years on experience also failed the test.

Officers said that the department does not allow them to simulate practice with the new procedure.

Glazier said that “in 2012, we started raising the bar,” when asked by Atlanta City Councilmember Howard Shook about the lack of a chance to practice the test.

Officers are allowed to retake the test after 45 days. If they don’t make the grade that time, they must go back through recruit class.

Most of the 30 officers have returned to patrols after initially failing the tougher test.

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Spy Moms: How Parents Use Technology to Monitor Kids

The proliferation of technology comes with a host of unintended consequences, and one of those consequences playing out in the homes of average American families is parental spying.

Long gone are the days of a parent listening in on the other line of a teenager’s phone conversation. Modern parents are now equipped with GPS monitoring technology, keylogging software, fake Internet identities, and mobile tracking apps. Indeed, parental monitoring technology could turn many well-meaning parents into calculating secret agents.

Here is a look at some of the more devious ways parents keep tabs on their little ones:

Parental Control Software

On June 25th, 2012, McAffee, a security software company, released findings that claimed 70% of teenagers hide some form of Internet activity from their parents. And with the spread of social media services such as Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest and more, it’s becoming increasingly difficult for parents to keep track of that activity in an efficient way.

To solve this problem, several companies have now begun selling parental control software.

One such service, offered by the company Mobistealth, advertises itself as “a 21st Century solution for monitoring and protecting children from potential threats.” In a video presented on the company’s website, a woman claims that their software is “an important new tool to help you look out for your VIPs—Very Important People.”

According to Mobistealth, their service allows a parent to invisibly install the software on a computer or cellphone, then logon to the service’s website and view screenshots of activity, gain access to contacts and text messages, and even listen in to phone calls. Other features, such as the ability to log keystrokes, are a throwback to the early days of hacking, now bundled and gift-wrapped for the 21st century parent.

And with the service pricing starting at as little as 50 cents a day, what parent wouldn’t be tempted to gain a glimpse into their children’s secret world?

GPS Tracking Devices

For some parents, monitoring what the kids say or type isn’t enough; they must know where they are as well. After all, teens still occasionally venture away from their keyboards to interact in the real world, and when they do, GPS tracking devices come in handy.

As if ripped from the latest Jason Bourne film, GPS tracking devices can be installed on cars or slipped into backpacks, providing live tracking of one’s kid. Once activated, a parent can logon to a PC or smartphone and gain access to a sleek interface that displays geographical location, time stamps, and even the speed that the device is moving, effectively allowing a parent to see if their teen is driving above the speed limit—while also fulfilling long-hidden desires to play traffic cop.

Facebook

A report published by CNN on August 3rd, 2012 reported that there are roughly 83 million fake accounts registered on Facebook, amounting to roughly 9% of the service’s entire user base. Although most of these are simply duplicates or throwaway accounts, there are also a number of fake identities which Facebook calls “undesirables.”

Some “undesirable” accounts are used for spamming, but others are used for more malicious purposes. Some are even set up by parents to monitor their kids. For instance, a September, 2012 article published on the UK news site the Daily Mail reported on two parents that used a fake Facebook account to conduct a sting operation on their daughter’s boyfriend—a registered sex offender.

A week after the above report, another story in the Times of India detailed the new trend for schoolteachers to create fake Facebook accounts in order to spy on students, which in itself was reminiscent of an earlier report from 2012 of a US school principal who was busted for keeping tabs on students with a fake Facebook profile.

However, even without creating fake accounts, recent reports have suggested that as many as 50% of parents join social networking sites such as Facebook for the explicit purpose of spying on their kids, prompting the creation of several popular Facebook pages in protest, such as the page MY PARENTS SPY ON MY PROFILE!!!!, which has more than 3,500 likes.

There are also now a slew of apps to help make parents’ jobs easier, such as SocialShield, which will automatically alert parents if their kids use profanity, or Piggyback, which monitors kids’ activity in a number of social media games, such as Whyville. Because who knows what those kids do when the sun sets in Whyville.

Nanny Cameras

Finally, the last and perhaps most controversial of technologies parents use to spy on kids comes in the form of a “Nanny Cam.” Originally developed in order to secretly monitor babysitters for abusive or inappropriate behavior, these cameras in reality have a much wider range of uses due to their discrete design, often concealed as a digital clock, tissue box, speaker set, or even an electrical outlet. And one of these usages could easily be to spy on one’s kid when (s)he’s home alone.

Momnipotent Powers

The combined effect of all of these technologies is that the tech-savvy parent can now be endowed with an almost omnipotent level of knowledge of their child’s activity, but it does come at a cost. Spying on kids without their knowledge, or using underhanded tricks such as logging onto their Facebook page, can create issues of trust and unfair power dynamics in a parent-child relationship which can prove damaging later in life.

Therefore, many experts recommend being upfront with kids, so that they can prove their responsibility and parents can earn their trust.

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US hands prison over to Afghans

BAGRAM, Afghanistan (AP) — The U.S. military gave control of its last detention facility in Afghanistan to Kabul on Monday, a year after the two sides initially agreed on the transfer.

The handover of Parwan Detention Facility ends a bitter chapter in American relations with Afghanistan’s mercurial president, Hamid Karzai, who demanded control of the prison as a matter of national sovereignty.

It took place just a few hours before U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry flew into Afghanistan on an unannounced visit to see Karzai amid concerns the Afghan president may be jeopardizing progress in the war against extremism with anti-American rhetoric.

The dispute over the detention facility fueled acrimony between the two countries in recent months and also threw a pall over the ongoing negotiations for a bilateral security agreement that would govern the presence of U.S. forces in Afghanistan after 2014.

Top U.S. commander in Afghanistan Gen. Joseph Dunford handed over Parwan, located near the U.S.-run Bagram military base north of Kabul, at a ceremony there after signing an agreement with Afghan Defense Minister Bismullah Khan Mohammadi.

“The transfer of the detention facility is an important part of the overall transition of security lead to Afghan National Security Forces. This ceremony highlights an increasingly confident, capable, and sovereign Afghanistan,” Dunford said.

An initial agreement to hand over Parwan was signed a year ago, but efforts to follow through on it constantly stumbled over American concerns that the Afghan government would release prisoners that it considered dangerous.

A key hurdle was a ruling by an Afghan judicial panel holding that administrative detention, the practice of holding someone without formal charges, violated the country’s laws. The U.S. argued that international law allowed administrative detentions and also argued that it could not risk turning over some high-value detainees to the notoriously corrupt Afghan court system.

An initial deadline for the full handover passed last September and another earlier this month.

The formula for how the two sides resolved this dilemma has not been made public. Officials say that the Afghan government will be able to invoke a procedure that ensures prisoners considered dangerous will not be released from the detention center. According to a senior U.S. official in Washington, the agreement also includes a provision that allows the U.S. and Kabul to work together to resolve any differences. The official lacked authorization to discuss the details of the agreement publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.

Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, who heads the Afghan transition commission and helped broker the deal, said the “transfer is an outcome of a long and sustained dialogue between the government of Afghanistan and the international community. A year ago we reached agreement in principle on the transfer but intense discussion in the last month is culminated in a principled agreement.”

He said Karzai had made “transferring authority form international forces to our national forces as a key marker” of his administration.

The detention center houses about 3,000 prisoners and the majority are already under Afghan control. The United States had not handed over about 100, and some of those under American authority do not have the right to a trial because the U.S. considers them part of an ongoing conflict.

There are also about three dozen non-Afghan detainees, including Pakistanis and other nationals that will remain in American hands. The exact number and nationality of those detainees has never been made public.

“They are not the priority of the Afghan government so the Americans can keep them for the time being. Our priority are the Afghan detainees,” Afghan Defense Ministry spokesman Gen. Zahir Azimi said.

He added that under the agreement, the U.S.-led military coalition has 96 hours to hand over any new detainees it picks up on the battlefield to Afghan authorities.

A new agreement, or memorandum of understanding, was signed at the ceremony by Dunford and Khan, but the U.S. military said it will not be made public. The agreement supplants one signed last March, which had been made public.

The U.S. military said in a statement that the new agreement “affirms their mutual commitment to the lawful and humane treatment of detainees and their intention to protect the people of Afghanistan and coalition forces,” an apparent reference to the release of detainees deemed to be dangerous.

The handover should also open the way for a resumption of talks for a bilateral security agreement that would govern the presence of U.S. forces in Afghanistan after 2014.

It is part of an ongoing effort to gradually shift control of the country’s security to the Afghans as the U.S. and allies move toward the full withdrawal of combat troops by the end of 2014.

There are about 100,000 coalition troops in Afghanistan, including about 66,000 from the United States. American officials have made no final decision on how many troops might remain in Afghanistan after 2014, although they have said as many as many as 12,000 U.S. and coalition forces could remain.

The U.S. started to hold detainees at Bagram Air Field in early 2002. For several years, prisoners were kept at a former Soviet aircraft machine plant converted into a lockup.

In 2009, the U.S. opened a new detention facility next door. The number of detainees incarcerated at that prison, renamed the Parwan Detention Facility, went from about 1,100 in September 2010 to more than 3,000.

After Monday’s handover, it was renamed the Afghan National Detention Facility at Parwan and the U.S. military said it would provide the Afghan army with advisers and $39 million in funding.

The United States has spent about a quarter of a billion dollars to build the Bagram facility along with Kabul’s main prison located in the capital.

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Former El Paso County Judge Sentenced to Federal Prison for Role in Conspiracy to Embezzle Federal Program Funds

ALBUQUERQUE—Former El Paso County Judge Dolores Briones, 61, was sentenced this morning in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas to 30 months in federal prison for conspiring to embezzle federal program funds, announced U.S. Attorney Kenneth J. Gonzales for the District of New Mexico and Special Agent in Charge Mark Morgan of the El Paso Division of the FBI.

Briones, who currently resides in Austin, Texas, will be on supervised release for three years after completing her prison sentence. She also is required to pay $36,000 in restitution.

In December 2011, Briones pled guilty to conspiracy to commit theft or embezzlement of federal program funds. In entering her guilty plea, Briones admitted that, from June 2005 through December 2006, she conspired with Ruben “Sonny” Garcia, Jr., then president of L.K.G. Enterprises Inc. (LKG), and Cirilo “Chilo” Lara Madrid to accept bribes in exchange for her assistance to LKG involving a federal program grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), an agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The SAMHSA grant included an evaluation component requiring that data related to the services provided by the Border Children’s Mental Health Collaborative (BCMHC), a health care program for severely mentally handicapped and emotionally disturbed children in El Paso County, be reported to SAMHSA. In November 2005, El Paso County contracted with LKG to collect the necessary data. Subsequently, Garcia and Madrid agreed to pay $3,000 a month to Briones, who was serving as the principal investigator for the SAMHSA grant, to assist and help LKG’s efforts to maintain and keep the contract. Thereafter, Garcia and Madrid, through LKG, made 12 monthly payments of $3,000 to an intermediary, who forwarded $2,000 a month to Briones pursuant to her illegal agreement with Garcia and Madrid. Briones illegally obtained $24,000 through this scheme.

“Today’s sentencing of Briones sends a strong message regarding the FBI’s continued commitment to aggressively pursue individuals who have violated the public’s trust through their own greed, personal gain, and total abdication of the duties they were sworn to up-hold,” said Mark Morgan, Special Agent in Charge of the El Paso Division of the FBI. “Briones, holding one the highest positions of trust within our justice system, shattered the very essence of core values by her actions and has left a city questioning their confidence in the very officials they rely on to provide them protection and safety—this cannot be tolerated.”

This case was investigated by the El Paso Division of the FBI and was prosecuted by Steven C. Yarbrough, First Assistant U.S. Attorney in the District of New Mexico, and Assistant U.S. Attorneys William F. Lewis, Jr. and Juanita Fielden in the Western District of Texas.

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When the Whole World Has Drones

A slim aircraft glided through Israeli airspace, maintaining low altitude and taking a winding path to avoid detection. It flew over sensitive military installations and was beginning its approach to the Dimona nuclear reactor when it was blown from the sky by the Israel Defense Forces. The plane was pilotless, directed by agents elsewhere, and had been attempting to relay images back home. Whether they were successfully transmitted, Israelis won’t say, perhaps because they don’t know. But here’s what’s certain: It wasn’t American. It wasn’t Russian or Chinese. It was an Iranian drone, assembled in Lebanon and flown by Hezbollah.

The proliferation of drone technology has moved well beyond the control of the United States government and its closest allies. The aircraft are too easy to obtain, with barriers to entry on the production side crumbling too quickly to place limits on the spread of a technology that promises to transform warfare on a global scale. Already, more than 75 countries have remote piloted aircraft. More than 50 nations are building a total of nearly a thousand types. At its last display at a trade show in Beijing, China showed off 25 different unmanned aerial vehicles. Not toys or models, but real flying machines.

It’s a classic and common phase in the life cycle of a military innovation: An advanced country and its weapons developers create a tool, and then others learn how to make their own. But what makes this case rare, and dangerous, is the powerful combination of efficiency and lethality spreading in an environment lacking internationally accepted guidelines on legitimate use. This technology is snowballing through a global arena where the main precedent for its application is the one set by the United States; it’s a precedent Washington does not want anyone following.

America, the world’s leading democracy and a country built on a legal and moral framework unlike any other, has adopted a war-making process that too often bypasses its traditional, regimented, and rigorously overseen military in favor of a secret program never publicly discussed, based on legal advice never properly vetted. The Obama administration has used its executive power to refuse or outright ignore requests by congressional overseers, and it has resisted monitoring by federal courts.

To implement this covert program, the administration has adopted a tool that lowers the threshold for lethal force by reducing the cost and risk of combat. This still-expanding counterterrorism use of drones to kill people, including its own citizens, outside of traditionally defined battlefields and established protocols for warfare, has given friends and foes a green light to employ these aircraft in extraterritorial operations that could not only affect relations between the nation-states involved but also destabilize entire regions and potentially upset geopolitical order.

Hyperbole? Consider this: Iran, with the approval of Damascus, carries out a lethal strike on anti-Syrian forces inside Syria; Russia picks off militants tampering with oil and gas lines in Ukraine or Georgia; Turkey arms a U.S.-provided Predator to kill Kurdish militants in northern Iraq who it believes are planning attacks along the border. Label the targets as terrorists, and in each case, Tehran, Moscow, and Ankara may point toward Washington and say, we learned it by watching you. In Pakistan, Yemen, and Afghanistan.

This is the unintended consequence of American drone warfare. For all of the attention paid to the drone program in recent weeks—about Americans on the target list (there are none at this writing) and the executive branch’s legal authority to kill by drone outside war zones (thin, by officials’ own private admission)—what goes undiscussed is Washington’s deliberate failure to establish clear and demonstrable rules for itself that would at minimum create a globally relevant standard for delineating between legitimate and rogue uses of one of the most awesome military robotics capabilities of this generation.

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The Touch-Screen Generation

On a chilly day last spring, a few dozen developers of children’s apps for phones and tablets gathered at an old beach resort in Monterey, California, to show off their games. One developer, a self-described “visionary for puzzles” who looked like a skateboarder-recently-turned-dad, displayed a jacked-up, interactive game called Puzzingo, intended for toddlers and inspired by his own son’s desire to build and smash. Two 30‑something women were eagerly seeking feedback for an app called Knock Knock Family, aimed at 1-to-4-year-olds. “We want to make sure it’s easy enough for babies to understand,” one explained.

The gathering was organized by Warren Buckleitner, a longtime reviewer of interactive children’s media who likes to bring together developers, researchers, and interest groups—and often plenty of kids, some still in diapers. It went by the Harry Potter–ish name Dust or Magic, and was held in a drafty old stone-and-wood hall barely a mile from the sea, the kind of place where Bathilda Bagshot might retire after packing up her wand. Buckleitner spent the breaks testing whether his own remote-control helicopter could reach the hall’s second story, while various children who had come with their parents looked up in awe and delight. But mostly they looked down, at the iPads and other tablets displayed around the hall like so many open boxes of candy. I walked around and talked with developers, and several paraphrased a famous saying of Maria Montessori’s, a quote imported to ennoble a touch-screen age when very young kids, who once could be counted on only to chew on a square of aluminum, are now engaging with it in increasingly sophisticated ways: “The hands are the instruments of man’s intelligence.”

What, really, would Maria Montessori have made of this scene? The 30 or so children here were not down at the shore poking their fingers in the sand or running them along mossy stones or digging for hermit crabs. Instead they were all inside, alone or in groups of two or three, their faces a few inches from a screen, their hands doing things Montessori surely did not imagine. A couple of 3-year-old girls were leaning against a pair of French doors, reading an interactive story called Ten Giggly Gorillas and fighting over which ape to tickle next. A boy in a nearby corner had turned his fingertip into a red marker to draw an ugly picture of his older brother. On an old oak table at the front of the room, a giant stuffed Angry Bird beckoned the children to come and test out tablets loaded with dozens of new apps. Some of the chairs had pillows strapped to them, since an 18-month-old might not otherwise be able to reach the table, though she’d know how to swipe once she did.

Not that long ago, there was only the television, which theoretically could be kept in the parents’ bedroom or locked behind a cabinet. Now there are smartphones and iPads, which wash up in the domestic clutter alongside keys and gum and stray hair ties. “Mom, everyone has technology but me!” my 4-year-old son sometimes wails. And why shouldn’t he feel entitled? In the same span of time it took him to learn how to say that sentence, thousands of kids’ apps have been developed—the majority aimed at preschoolers like him. To us (his parents, I mean), American childhood has undergone a somewhat alarming transformation in a very short time. But to him, it has always been possible to do so many things with the swipe of a finger, to have hundreds of games packed into a gadget the same size as Goodnight Moon.

In 2011, the American Academy of Pediatrics updated its policy on very young children and media. In 1999, the group had discouraged television viewing for children younger than 2, citing research on brain development that showed this age group’s critical need for “direct interactions with parents and other significant care givers.” The updated report began by acknowledging that things had changed significantly since then. In 2006, 90 percent of parents said that their children younger than 2 consumed some form of electronic media. Nonetheless, the group took largely the same approach it did in 1999, uniformly discouraging passive media use, on any type of screen, for these kids. (For older children, the academy noted, “high-quality programs” could have “educational benefits.”) The 2011 report mentioned “smart cell phone” and “new screen” technologies, but did not address interactive apps. Nor did it broach the possibility that has likely occurred to those 90 percent of American parents, queasy though they might be: that some good might come from those little swiping fingers.

I had come to the developers’ conference partly because I hoped that this particular set of parents, enthusiastic as they were about interactive media, might help me out of this conundrum, that they might offer some guiding principle for American parents who are clearly never going to meet the academy’s ideals, and at some level do not want to. Perhaps this group would be able to articulate some benefits of the new technology that the more cautious pediatricians weren’t ready to address. I nurtured this hope until about lunchtime, when the developers gathering in the dining hall ceased being visionaries and reverted to being ordinary parents, trying to settle their toddlers in high chairs and get them to eat something besides bread.

I fell into conversation with a woman who had helped develop Montessori Letter Sounds, an app that teaches preschoolers the Montessori methods of spelling.

She was a former Montessori teacher and a mother of four. I myself have three children who are all fans of the touch screen. What games did her kids like to play?, I asked, hoping for suggestions I could take home.

“They don’t play all that much.”

Really? Why not?

“Because I don’t allow it. We have a rule of no screen time during the week,” unless it’s clearly educational.

No screen time? None at all? That seems at the outer edge of restrictive, even by the standards of my overcontrolling parenting set.

“On the weekends, they can play. I give them a limit of half an hour and then stop. Enough. It can be too addictive, too stimulating for the brain.”

Her answer so surprised me that I decided to ask some of the other developers who were also parents what their domestic ground rules for screen time were. One said only on airplanes and long car rides. Another said Wednesdays and weekends, for half an hour. The most permissive said half an hour a day, which was about my rule at home. At one point I sat with one of the biggest developers of e-book apps for kids, and his family. The toddler was starting to fuss in her high chair, so the mom did what many of us have done at that moment—stuck an iPad in front of her and played a short movie so everyone else could enjoy their lunch. When she saw me watching, she gave me the universal tense look of mothers who feel they are being judged. “At home,” she assured me, “I only let her watch movies in Spanish.”

By their pinched reactions, these parents illuminated for me the neurosis of our age: as technology becomes ubiquitous in our lives, American parents are becoming more, not less, wary of what it might be doing to their children. Technological competence and sophistication have not, for parents, translated into comfort and ease. They have merely created yet another sphere that parents feel they have to navigate in exactly the right way. On the one hand, parents want their children to swim expertly in the digital stream that they will have to navigate all their lives; on the other hand, they fear that too much digital media, too early, will sink them. Parents end up treating tablets like precision surgical instruments, gadgets that might perform miracles for their child’s IQ and help him win some nifty robotics competition—but only if they are used just so. Otherwise, their child could end up one of those sad, pale creatures who can’t make eye contact and has an avatar for a girlfriend.

Norman Rockwell never painted Boy Swiping Finger on Screen, and our own vision of a perfect childhood has never adjusted to accommodate that now-common tableau. Add to that our modern fear that every parenting decision may have lasting consequences—that every minute of enrichment lost or mindless entertainment indulged will add up to some permanent handicap in the future—and you have deep guilt and confusion. To date, no body of research has definitively proved that the iPad will make your preschooler smarter or teach her to speak Chinese, or alternatively that it will rust her neural circuitry—the device has been out for only three years, not much more than the time it takes some academics to find funding and gather research subjects. So what’s a parent to do?

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