Thursday, October 25, 2012
Saturday, October 13, 2012
Europe pulls the plug on airport scanners
Full-body scanners fail another test
It's nice to see a government finally admit that the full-body scanners used in airports are pointless and dangerous — but don't get too excited here.
It's not our government, after all. (Did you really think it would be?)
It's the European Union, where they've pulled the plug on the invasive, intrusive, cancer-causing machines that use radiation to snap a naked photo of you for low-wage security goons to giggle over like kids at a junior high slumber party.
Well, the party's over — the last of the machines are being wheeled out of European airports as you read this, probably to begin a new life as a soda machine somewhere.
If it glows, don't drink it.
The Europeans didn't say why they're ditching the machines, but there's no shortage of reasons. Let's start with the obvious: They just don't work.
Full-body scanners have flunked every test thrown their way. They can't detect certain types of explosives… can't detect explosives carried a certain way… and in one shocking experiment, an undercover federal agent managed to sneak through with a gun FIVE TIMES IN FIVE TRIES.
But it's one thing to be simply invasive and ineffective. It's quite another to be dangerous — and while security officials in Washington claim the low doses of radiation used by the machines are safe, medical officials and common sense say otherwise.
One expert, Columbia University's Dr. David Brenner, says the doses delivered by the machines are 20 times higher than what the feds had claimed. Other experts have predicted that the widespread use of full-body scanners will cause hundreds of new cases of cancer every year.
And that's assuming they're working right.
No electronic device works right 100 percent of the time — but at least when your TV goes on the fritz, the worst that can happen is you miss the latest episode of Homeland. When a full-body scanner malfunctions, you get blasted with a higher — and potentially lethal — dose of radiation.
Throw in the fact that these machines are being maintained, calibrated, and operated by government employees with a fifth-grade education, and I say it's time to make like a European and scrap the scanners here — before it's too late.
Sieg Holle BS MBA
Wednesday, October 10, 2012
UBS Whistleblower Gets $104M for Shattering Swiss Banking Secrecy
After recent rumors of a turnaround for financial whistleblowers seeking rewards under the Internal Revenue Service's (IRS) whistleblower reward program, it is fitting that one of its rare financial awards goes to United Swiss Bank (UBS) whistleblower Bradley Birkenfeld.
Not only is Birkenfeld the biggest tax fraud whistleblower in history (who handed the IRS key information on a silver platter), but he is especially deserving as he is the only person to go to prison among the thousands of Swiss bank account tax cheats he exposed. (Easy to understand now that we have a presidential candidate who hides money in offshore tax havens.)
Birkenfeld was released from prison in August after an usually harsh sentence. Despite the fact that Birkenfeld shattered 75 years of Swiss bank secrecy when he approached investigators about a UBS tax evasion service involving thousands of illegal offshore accounts – held by some of your favorite actors, politicians, and sports figures – and billions of U.S. dollars.
Instead of targeting UBS kingpin Martin Liechti, the Justice Department turned on Birkenfeld. To add insult to injury, the prosecutor, Kevin Downing, is now in private practice at Miller & Chevalier defending the very tax cheats Birkenfeld turned in.
Until recently, to say the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) had been slow to implement the IRS whistleblower reward program would have been an understatement. The IRS' implementation (or lack thereof) was so extreme that this summer it caused longtime whistleblower supporter Charles Grassley (R-IA) to object to two Department of Treasury nominees.
The award for Birkenfeld marks a much-needed turnaround for the IRS' whistleblower office, and will hopefully encourage other financial whistleblowers to come forward.
I wrote extensively about Birkenfeld's case during his prosecution and sentencing (here, here, here, and here). After complaining internally to UBS for two years, in June 2007 Birkenfeld voluntarily met with Justice Department prosecutors and an IRS Special Agent during three full days in which he provided unprecedented and voluminous information about UBS's cross-border and offshore business activities, the UBS offices and private bankers that were directly involved, and the details of 19,000 UBS accounts for its American customers.
Birkenfeld had the potential to change an entire industry designed to evade U.S. taxes. Instead, the U.S. has been soft on UBS: letting bank kingpin Martin Liechti go free; under-fining the bank only $780 million for a multi-billion dollar fraud; settling for only 4,500 customer names of the 52,000 our government originally sought; and setting up an amateurish amnesty program that allowed the worst offenders to avoid criminal liability by paying fines.
But worse, the Justice Department's treatment of Birkenfeld is chilling would-be financial whistleblowers from coming forward, and will continue to do so for decades, to the detriment of the U.S. economy and all taxpayers – something that should be inconceivable during a global financial crisis.
The award for Birkenfeld is hopefully just the beginning for the burgeoning IRS whistleblower reward program, which, by encouraging disclosures from financial whistleblowers, will likely save the taxpayers billions.