The Week of January 23rd, 2012

32 Leaving Congress, Newt Gingrich surges to Florida, France and Turkey spar, Libyan government cant find legitimacy, Supreme Court decides privacy case, and Anonymous takes down some websites.

5. Unusually Large Number of House Members Leaving Office
A surprising number of Congressmen have been throwing in the towel for re-election in 2012. Names like Gabrielle Giffords and Barney Frank have dominated the headlines, but the number of retirements and resignations, 32 total, is newsworthy in itself. Some, like Giffords, are leaving because of understandable age or health-related concerns, but this explanation does not extend to every one of the 32 congressmen who have announced that they will not run again. Political scientists have long noted the high re-election rate for members of the House of Representatives; incumbents have recently boasted an approximately 90% re-election rate. This is both because they have a network of supporters and money, and because they are simply more well-known than their challengers. While Congress’s approval rating is in the doldrums, low approval of the body as a whole rarely attaches itself to individual members. No one likes Congress, but they still like their own Congressman, and that logic has kept many in the House and Senate for years.

One possible reason for such a large increase in the number of Congressional retirements is the recent completion of the national census and the redistricting which has followed in many states. More Democrats are retiring than Republicans, which holds true to the 2010 census that showed population growth in the more Republican Sun-Belt and South compared to the Democratic strongholds in the Midwest and Northeast. Reports show however,  that redistricting might come out even for both parties in the end as Democratic gains in Illinois and California make up for losses in the South. The freshmen class of congressmen from the 2010 midterms, primarily Republican, had an immediate impact on how Congress operated. With such a large amount of seats up for grabs in Congress, it seems that there will be a lot more to the 2012 elections than just the race for the White House. 

4. Gingrich Surges Out of South Carolina
The Republican primary in South Carolina this past Saturday offered up a surprise: former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich won a sizable victory over former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, besting him by 12 percentage points. This primary was the first of this cycle to be held in the South, home to the base of the modern Republican Party. After a campaign collapse this summer, most observers wrote off Gingrich’s campaign, but this win has revitalized his campaign for the nomination. The next contest will take place on January 31st in the ever-dramatic swing state of Florida.

The high-stakes contest in Florida will have a huge effect on the Republican primary race going forward, especially for Newt Gingrich. A Gingrich loss would be a potentially lethal blow for his resurgent campaign and would clear Romney’s path to the nomination. A win on the other hand, could give Gingrich a solid chance to beat Romney. Unlike the other primaries thus far, Florida awards all of its delegates to the top vote recipient, so Gingrich would not need to win by a commanding margin for the victory to be meaningful. In addition to its influence on the delegate count, a win could also allay fears that Gingrich cannot win in more moderate states. Without a doubt, the upcoming primary will alter the trajectory of the race.

3. French Government Criminalizes Genocide Denial
The French Senate voted 127-86 on Monday to pass a bill criminalizing the denial of all officially recognized genocides, including the Armenian genocide in the Ottoman Empire. The move threatens to undermine Franco-Turkish relations at a time when France is attempting to maintain a strong relationship with the Muslim nation on issues such as the Syrian regime’s crackdown against opposition and Iran’s nuclear program. In response to the law, Turkey suspended military cooperation with France and ceased bilateral political agreements and economic contracts. Although the bill was favored by French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s party as well as some members of the opposition, many others were against what they perceived to be an attempt at dictating historical perspectives.

Between 1915 and 1923, the Ottoman empire killed between 600,000 and 1.5 million ethnic Armenians. The International Association of Genocide Scholars and more than twenty states refer to the episode as a genocide or holocaust but the contemporary Turkish government believes the label is inappropriate. Laws in Turkey prohibit public affirmation of the genocide and several Turkish scholars have been jailed after publishing works which use the word. Similar laws are in place in several European countries. In Germany, it is a crime to commit genocide denial that involves the Holocaust while in Austria, the maximum penalty can be up to twenty years depending on the circumstances. In France, with a population of more than 500,000 Armenians and a presidential election just around the corner, some opposition members have questioned whether the bill is just mere election pandering. What isn’t under question is the row which has ensued between Turkey and France since the bill’s passage. The conflict could create a strong regional opponent to Western interests regarding Syria and Iran.

2. Libyan Government Struggles to Establish Legal Authority
The honeymoon period may be over for the precarious rebel alliance that has now become the Libyan interim government. Monday saw forces loyal to the National Transitional Council, which formed after the death of Muammar Qadhafi, forced out of Bani Walid, a town that benefited from years of Qadhafi’s rule and provided shelter for his son during the revolution. While those in the government claim that this was a local issue over minor concerns, this represents only a portion of the story. After expelling the NTC-allied forces, the powerful and previously Qadhafi-supporting Warfalla tribe moved in and claimed control of the town, setting up their own local government.

This council was recognized by the NTC on Wednesday, creating clear competition for local governance. This event also comes a week after a crowd pillaged the local government’s office in Benghazi, the former rebel capital. Since taking power, the NTC has struggled with criticism and authority issues, proving unable to provide basic services to much of the country and tainted by its alleged links to the Qadhafi regime. With numerous factious tribes across the country and a leadership with questionable authority, there are serious concerns about the future of Libya, as the giant political vacuum created by Qadhafi’s death remains unfilled.

1. Supreme Court Rules on 4th Amendment Case
This week, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled in US v. Jones (2012) that installing a tracker for GPS surveillance of vehicles without a judicial warrant violates the Fourth Amendment. The Government had argued that installing a tracking device on the underbody of a car in a public parking lot does not encroach upon a person’s “reasonable expectation of privacy” and therefore evidence obtained through GPS surveillance should be admissible in court. The Supreme Court rejected this view and in the majority opinion--written by Justice Scalia and joined by Justices Roberts, Thomas and Kennedy--argued that the government had violated the Fourth Amendment by trespassing upon private property and had therefore committed an illegal search.

The majority declined to evaluate whether an invasion of a “reasonable expectation of privacy” had occurred, arguing that the trespass was sufficient to rule in favor of Jones. However, the concurring opinions, written and joined by the five other justices, argue that “reasonable expectation of privacy” should have been used to rule in this case. This is a strange situation; while the case was decided unanimously, there was actually a majority of support for the concurring opinion which urged a broader decision. Justices sometimes write such concurring opinions to articulate more nuanced positions but are rarely joined by more than one or two of their peers. This ruling has limited implications for future cases involving new informational technology and personal privacy due to its use of trespassing as the basis for its ruling. However if some of the justices get their way, in the next few years perhaps the Supreme Court will define “reasonable expectation of privacy” in regards to the newest surveillance technologies, a ruling that the court backed away from in this case, but which would have a very wide ranging effect.

0. Anonymous Launches Symbolic Take Down Attacks
In response to the seizure of MegaUpload by the U.S. government, the internet hacktivist group Anonymous launched a campaign to shut down several media and government-related websites. Anonymous is a loose collection of hackers and associated individuals who have actively opposed attempts to control or censor the internet. The targeted sites included those of the Department of Justice, FBI, Universal Music, MPAA, and RIAA. Anonymous took down these sites using a distributed denial of service (DDOS) attack which is a relatively uncomplicated way of shutting down a website by overwhelming it with traffic from thousands of different computers at once. DDOS attacks can be organized quickly and are easy for anyone to participate in; Anonymous even distributes a software program called the Low Orbit Ion Cannon (LOIC) that allows those unskilled with the technology to participate.

Taking a site offline in this manner is very public but only temporary and does nothing to affect the underlying functionality of the website. As such, taking down sites using a DDOS attack is more of a symbolic act. The homepages of the FBI and DoJ aren’t very popular and their loss would likely go unnoticed by most internet users if it weren’t for the media attention. The risk for those who participate in such attacks is often greater than the payoff; American and British law enforcement agencies have arrested individuals who have participated in DDOS attacks before, and will likely do so again. The tactic of taking down websites is a way to grab media attention, but little else.