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The 2013 Top Ten List of Gifts (and Lumps of Coal) for World Leaders

Who was naughty, who was nice, and who isn't going to get what they want for Christmas this year.

It's Christmas time. It's that time of the year when Christians the world over stop to commemorate the birth of Jesus on a day on which he was almost certainly not born with rituals heavily drawn from Northern European paganism featuring a major role played by a Fourth Century Turkish bishop named Nicholas who over time has evolved into the patron saint of big seasonal discounts and deteriorating credit ratings. 

While it is an occasion almost a third of the planet finds rich with spiritual meaning, the other seven-tenths go along with it because, well, it's fun, and there's colorful lighting, fruitcakes, wrapping paper, catchy tunes, and it offers a distraction from the endless seasonal repeats of Love Actually

Even world leaders enjoy the Christmas season. Especially when their Secret Santa is kind to them and fills their stockings with just what they were wishing for. 

Thanks to a little help from Edward Snowden and his friends at the NSA, we have received a glimpse into just what that has meant for some of our favorite statesmen, dictators, strongmen, bad guys, and other foreign policy headliners.   

For example, for North Korea's Kim Jong Un, nothing says "family" like Christmas season. It is the time of year when you can get together with uncles, aunts, their henchmen, and have them put to death. Of course, that kind of thing can severely limit the number of relatives who actually want to come by and celebrate the holidays. Which can make even brutal dictators lonely. (That's what happened to his father. See the best documentary ever produced about his life, Team America World Police for the musical proof of this point.) That's why Kim is hoping his Secret Santa fills the hole in his heart (left by the holes he left in the heart of his late uncle Jang Song Thaek) with a new uncle who'll prove more durable and less threatening. Among the possible choices he was hoping would be considered were Uncle Jesse, Uncle Ben, Uncle Kracker, the Man from U.N.C.L.E., and Uncle Miltie. But Santa knows what's best. Which is precisely why if Kim keeps up his erratic, dangerous behavior, the replacement relative he is going to have to deal with is the one he can't seem to make go away, Uncle Sam.   

Elsewhere in Asia, North Korea's sometime protectors, frustrated with the rogue elf of Pyongyang, are likely to be doubly cranky with the little guy because this does not look to be a good Christmas for them. That's because too many of the leaders in Beijing and China's provinces are discovering that it really is better to give than to receive ... especially if what you have been receiving are non-holiday gifts, bribes, payoffs, and those other under-the-table payments on which President Xi Jinping is at least starting to crack down. The best they can hope for from their Secret Santas is that their boss continues to look the other way for a little bit longer.

Vladimir Putin has been so afraid that Santa was going to put him on the naughty list and that all he would get in his stocking was coal and a lousy turn out for the upcoming Sochi Olympics that he has turned over a new leaf. He released his former political rival, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, and days later let go the jailed punk protest band members of Pussy Riot. His secret hope, of course, is that if this change of heart lands him in Santa's better graces that maybe the old guy will throw in a little something extra ... like, say, Ukraine and who knows, maybe, if he's feeling generous, a Nobel Prize, for helping engineer an end to chemical weapons in Syria and a deal with Iran. (After all, Barack Obama got one for just taking the oath of office.)

Another last-ditch attempt to get on Santa's good side was made by Qassim al-Raimi, the head of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. The terrorist broke with al Qaeda's long-standing corporate culture of being merciless murderers of innocents to offer an actual apology for "accidentally" attacking a hospital in Yemen. Asserting the attack was in error and offering to pay "blood money" to the families of the victims, al-Raimi asserted the attack was "not of our religion or our morals." Given that al Qaeda's record elsewhere suggests that this is actually exactly what they're all about, our sources at the North Pole suggest that this year al-Raimi should not bother leaving out cookies and warm milk by his fireplace. That sound he hears whooshing over head is not reindeers or a sled, it is a Predator drone, and the only thing coming down his chimney is likely to be a Hellfire missile.

Elsewhere in the Middle East, for President Hassan Rouhani of Iran, Santa seems to have already prepared a gift. While Israel's Bibi Netanyahu has asserted this is not Santa's work but rather President Barack Obama who took the aforementioned holiday maxim that it is better to give than to receive too far, Santa seems to have adopted the view that a successful Iran nuclear deal is gift for Israel and for the region. Not to mention for Iran and the P5+1 negotiators who many believe are sincerely committed to making it happen.

But Santa is being doubly nice to Bibi, who does after all presides over the land that gave us Christmas in the first place, by offering him the gift of a possible peace with his Palestinian neighbors. As for the man who presides over the country that gave us St. Nicholas, Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Erdogan, he is actually being offered a choice this Christmas. It seems he can choose between gifts: He can either appreciate the gift that street protests and corruption scandals actually offer -- the message that the time for change is now, or he can opt for the alternative that ignoring them must bring -- the likelihood of early retirement.

Erdogan's one-time best bud, U.S. President Barack Obama, is already guaranteed to receive the gift he wants the most: an end to 2013, a year he is already trying to forget. But as a special bonus, he has a recovering U.S. economy likely to help make 2014 much better for him and his country, because nothing helps heal political wounds in the capital of holiday commercialism like the Christmasiest sound of all: ringing cash registers. (This probably won't be quite enough to motivate Obama to forgive Snowden and give him the gift he wants the most -- immunity from prosecution but in all likelihood, Santa, that civil libertarian, will give the world's most famous ex-NSA contractor the next best thing, a visa to some place nice and warm in Latin America ... just in time for the World Cup.)

Some have wondered that if Santa distinguishes so carefully between the naughty and the nice, whether those who were nicest in the past year might be entitled to something special. When they discovered that Pope Francis had, consistent with his simple lifestyle, requested and received nothing at all, they were confused. That is until they realized that in keeping with the true spirit of the season, the warm-hearted, tolerant Pontiff was not to be a recipient but rather, for a billion Catholics who until recently had been worried about the myriad trials facing their ancient church, he was actually the gift.

Of course, with so many leaders out there deserving so much, perhaps you have some other ideas about the gifts they deserve the most. Please don't hesitate to pass them along. We'll make sure they get right to Santa ... or to his helpers who can help make your Christmas wishes come true.

Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

David Rothkopf

It’s Not About Snowden -- It’s About Madison

The jig is up for anyone who argues that the Constitution doesn't cover metadata.

This is the text of the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States: "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized."

It is impossible to read this language and then conclude that the National Security Agency (NSA) has not violated this amendment willfully and wantonly. That U.S. District Judge Richard Leon finally declared that the agency's mass collection of metadata likely violates the Constitution should therefore not be surprising. What should be surprising is that many senior U.S. government officials including the constitutional scholar who is president of the United States could know of this behavior, sanction it, and enable it to go on unchecked.

Judge Leon demonstrated outrage, understatement, and a degree of flair in his decision -- which seems likely to be appealed. In his opinion, he asserted that the principal author of the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights James Madison would be "aghast" at the sweeping nature of the NSA programs targeting the personal data of U.S. citizens and that it was "indiscriminatory" and "arbitrary." Leon's flair and perhaps unintentional understatement came into play when he described the programs as "almost Orwellian." I would say these programs are Orwellian to the core, not Orwell-lite but Orwell-writ-large, precisely the kind of violations of personal privacy and human dignity that led the author to write 1984. These programs are Orwellian to the core, not Orwell-lite but Orwell-writ-large, precisely the kind of violations of personal privacy and human dignity that led the author to write 1984. In any event, the reference to Orwell and by extension to "Big Brother" was a welcome one, driving home the nature of society-wide violation of privacy in terms that would resonate far beyond the Beltway.

While the appellate process will take time, the Obama administration should accelerate its efforts to rein in the NSA as well as its overreaching and damaging international surveillance that has also violated the basic rights of not only Americans abroad but of allies and innocents around the planet. It is time for the team in the White House and the NSA to stop defending the indefensible. To restore trust overseas will require more than the soothing murmurs of high-level bilateral meetings and phone calls that the United States has been offering as a weak palliative to its violations around the world.

Internationally and at home, one strong step that the president should take that is long overdue is to remove Gen. Keith Alexander from his position atop the NSA. He is no doubt a good man doing work on behalf of the American people as best he can. But he has lost sight of the line between the threats terrorists may pose to Americans and those posed by an intrusive government. Whether or not he has misled Congress, he has made bad judgment calls and is now a symbol of the surveillance state, the unwitting face of Big Brother come to life. It is also time for the Obama team and the intelligence community to accept the core idea offered Monday by this Bush-appointed federal judge: The jig should be up for those who would argue that the Constitution does not cover metadata or other electronic forms of information it did not anticipate. Don't wait for appeals to make their way through the judiciary to do what is right.

The Fourth Amendment clearly refers to "persons, houses, papers and effects" in order to be comprehensive about all items in an individual's possession to which an intrusive government might seek access. Metadata records information about a person's activities that can actually be more telling (and personal) than other forms of information that might have been reasonably obtained by the government in the past -- with whom they are associating and when, for example. It is precisely the kind of information once contained in "papers." That metadata is being searched wholesale or warehoused so the government might later search it and that the vast majority of such collection is taking place without a warrant is further indictment of the legality of the program.

Leon went on to condemn the NSA's metadata warehousing programs because he had no evidence of their effectiveness at preventing terrorist attacks. While this strengthens his point about the ill-considered nature of these surveillance efforts, it should not be relevant. Even if the information gathered had stopped a major attack, it should not have been gathered absent a warrant "upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized."

There is no justification for the systematic abuses by the NSA or for the defense of those abuses by the president and his team. In America's panicked overreaction to the events of 9/11 and the consequent fear-mongering that became the stock in trade of both our political leaders and the Beltway bandit class who sought to line their pockets with overpriced programs based on absurd risk assumptions, the U.S. government has committed the most grotesque violation of the principles on which it was founded since its acceptance of the mechanisms of racism and sexism of the past century (since full rights were accorded citizens who were themselves overlooked and underserved by the Founders).

In the months and years since the 2001 attacks, we bought into the notion that since a small group of people had inflicted great damage to us that any small group of people or even an individual might do likewise or worse and therefore that all people were potentially enemies against which we must protect ourselves. We went from the bipolar, good vs. evil perceptions and realities of the Cold War to something new and more odious. It was not just us against a much bigger "them" located not just within the Soviet Union or among its allies but potentially everywhere. It was more than that. It was a few "patriots" at the center of our government against potential threats within and without the United States, a few bureaucrats and politicians super-empowered by the fear they engendered in their constituents to set aside our Constitution, international law, and our values.

This is precisely the kind of demagogically driven pernicious power grab that led Madison to push for passage of the Bill of Rights. He understood from firsthand experience the risks and costs of carefully rationalized government over-reach. He wrote of it often. His words uncomfortably resonate with the events of our era.

"If tyranny and oppression come to this land it will be in the guise of fighting a foreign enemy."

"The means of defence against foreign danger have been always the instruments of tyranny at home."

"No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare."

"All men having power ought to be distrusted to a certain degree."

"I believe there are more instances of the abridgement of the freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments by those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations."

This last Madison quotation was offered up at an event Foreign Policy held last week honoring our 100 Leading Global Thinkers by one of those on our list, Edward Snowden. His remarks, delivered by another of our leading thinkers, attorney Jesselyn Radack, were a bit self-congratulatory. He took time to acknowledge his own sacrifice in a way that should best have been left to others. He certainly did not address the moral ambiguity of his actions. (It is undeniably true that the means by which he gathered and disseminated the documents he collected from the U.S. government were themselves a violation of the law and of a trust that had been placed in him.)

That said, it is fair to ask if he had not done what he did, whether this week's court judgment would ever have been handed down. The absence of such a case would not, of course, have made the acts of the government any less a violation. Rather, they would have just continued because there is absolutely no evidence that any serious effort was being made by any of our elected advocates and overseers in the legislative, executive, or judicial branches to roll back these invasive, unconstitutional programs prior to Snowden's leaks.

Means aside, he therefore did the United States and the world a great service even as he did damage to others within the intelligence community and to material U.S. national interests. We have to be able to get our brains around both the good and the bad of his acts in order to understand how well-intentioned intelligence efforts made by good men and women can become too caught up in the excesses of an era and do very bad things.

Also disturbing was the outcome of a discussion at the Transformational Trends conference Foreign Policy sponsored last week just hours before the Snowden comments were read; a poll of several hundred attendees were asked what the most likely consequence of the Snowden revelations would be. The leading answer selected by them was that we would grow more accustomed to government programs like those revealed to have been violating our privacy.

It was a shockingly complacent response, perhaps what the average American might fear from a group of Washington insiders. We'll get used to this, the audience suggested. In other words, the Snowden revelations would not be, in their mind, the end of an era of abuses but rather were just a harbinger of things to come.

Judge Leon put a stake in the ground this week for an alternative view. But it is clear that America has yet to come to a decision about these revelations. It is not, however, a choice about whether one is for or against Snowden. Quite the contrary, as Snowden wrote to our group, it is really a choice about whether this generation stands for or against Madison, the Constitution, and the view of the rights of men and women and the limitations that ought to be placed on government power that he and the other Founders risked their lives to advocate.

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