I can see home from here…

I’ve been in the States this week, for the Liberty Alliance plenary meetings and also to start setting up a Privacy Steering Group for the organisation, so we can gather expert external stakeholder advice as we define Liberty’s privacy strategy for the coming months and years.

Travel broadens the mind, they say – but they don’t always add that the resulting perspective may not be that comfortable.

This morning over breakfast, I watched President Obama’s Chief of Staff, Rahm Emmanuel being interviewed on “Face the Nation”, and the transatlantic parallels were interesting to draw. Not surprisingly, the interview centred around two topics: the economy (and the fiscal stimulus measures currently going through Congress), and US troop commitments overseas. In both cases, the American people are left in no doubt as to what the President wants. They know how much money he wants to pump into the US economy, and they know how much of it is destined for specific projects such as healthcare and electronic patient records. They know what the President’s aim is for troop levels in Iraq, when the combat troops are due to leave, and when the support troops will follow.

It’s interesting, too, that these policy statements are being made by the President and his Chief of Staff. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton can leave the country on diplomatic business, without leaving behind a conspicuous silence on foreign policy. I have not yet seen or heard any news coverage in which the economic recovery plan – the single most pressing policy topic in the country – was left to the Treasury Secretary: it is all coming right from the top.

Looking East (well, at the BBC News site, anyway), I see that the UK Government is squaring up for a fight over whether privatisation is the only way to bail out the Royal Mail’s pension scheme. Frankly (and I’ve said this before, I know), as a loss-making pension investor in Equitable Life, I have every sympathy for Royal Mail employees, but yet again see the taxpayer being asked to bail out an organisation which could and should have managed its pension arrangements better. And yet again, the sums which would have been required to provide equivalent redress for those who were let down so badly by the regulator on Equitable Life are, as they would put it over here, ‘vending-machine change’ when set against the other bills for which the next tax-paying generation’s future is being mortgaged.

Meanwhile, an old Iraq story has come back to haunt the Government: Defence Secretary John Hutton has had to admit that captives taken by UK forces were indeed handed over to the US authorities back in 2004, despite serial denials by cabinet ministers that the UK had participated in ‘extraordinary rendition’. This week’s admission ‘only’ concerned two detainees, but given the categoric nature of the Government’s denials at the time, that is not much of a mitigation.

According the BBC site, Mr Hutton says that the two men

“are still being held in Afghanistan, where they are classified as “unlawful enemy combatants”.
Mr Hutton said there was no “substantiated evidence” that they had been mistreated or subjected to abuse there”.

Apart, of course, from the mistreatment of extraordinary rendition, and the abuse of being kept beyond legal process for five years with no prospect of a fair trial.

As I say, the perspective afforded by foreign travel may be a broader one, but it is not always edifying.