01/17/2014 archive

The President Flops on NSA Reform

President Barack Obama once again fell short of taking any meaningful action on reining in the NSA surveillance programs or assuring that American’s right to privacy under the Fourth Amendment be protected. He made one of his predictable speeches that attempted to placate both critics and defenders, failing to actually do anything significant, all the while lecturing the public on history and expressing his offense that anyone would think that he had done an inadequate job or had enabled surveillance state policies. FDL’s Kevin Gosztola contrasted today’s speech with NSA director Gen. Keith Alexander’s statements to Congress and his inaugural address last year:

The narrative that Obama promoted in the part of his speech building up to announcement of reforms was starkly similar to what NSA director Gen. Keith Alexander has said when addressing members of Congress at hearings held in the aftermath of Snowden’s first disclosures. The narrative he used should make Americans even more skeptical of how substantive the changes to surveillance will be. [..]

One might remember that just about one year ago Obama gave an inaugural speech after his re-election where he said a “decade of war is now ending” and later described how Americans believe there is no need for “perpetual war.” But the very premise of Obama’s speech involved a demand to recognize the value of militarized surveillance and this militarization keeps the US on a permanent war footing putting civil liberties of Americans at risk so long as this footing is maintained.

Since there were such low expectations, Mike Masnick at Techdirt thought the announced reforms were more significant than expected but stopped short of fixing the actual problems:

  • A judge will have to approve each query for data on the metadata collection from Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act.
  • The “three hop” dragnet will be reduced down to two hops. That does, in fact, limit how far the NSA can search by quite a bit. That last hop is quite big.
  • The NSA should no longer hold all of the data, meaning that the telcos will be expected to hold onto it (though, he leaves it up to Congress and the DOJ to figure out how to do this). He calls this a “transition” away from the Section 215 program, but that’s hardly clear.
  • National Security Letters (NSLs) will no longer have an unlimited gag order on them. The Attorney General will need to set up guidelines for a time in which gag orders expire, with the possibility of extending them for investigations that are still ongoing.
  • Companies will be given slightly more freedom to reveal data on the NSLs they get (though I don’t think he indicated the same thing for Section 702 orders…. which is a big concern).
  • The Attorney General and the Director of National Intelligence will review annually FISC rulings to figure out what can be declassified.
  • He promises to “work with Congress” to look at changes to the FISA court
  • He is adding some very limited restrictions on spying on people overseas. It should only be used for actual counterterrorism/crime/military/real national security efforts.
  • A State Department official will be in charge of handling “diplomacy issues” related to these changes on foreign spying.
  • An effort will be started with technologists and privacy experts over how to handle “big data and privacy” in both the public and private sectors.

Marcy Wheeler at emptywheel addressed what the president does not consider abuse:

  • The NSA spied on the porn and phone sex habits of ideological opponents, including those with no significant ties to extremists, and including a US person.
  • According to the NSA in 2009, it had a program similar to Project Minaret – the tracking of anti-war opponents in the 1970s – in which it spied on people in the US in the guise of counterterrorism without approval. We still don’t have details of this abuse.
  • When the NSA got FISC approval for the Internet (2004) and phone (2006) dragnets, NSA did not turn off features of Bush’s illegal program that did not comply with the FISC authorization. These abuses continued until 2009 (one of them, the collection of Internet metadata that qualified as content, continued even after 2004 identification of those abuses).
  • Even after the FISC spent 9 months reining in some of this abuse, the NSA continued to ignore limits on disseminating US person data. Similarly, the NSA and FBI never complied with PATRIOT Act requirements to develop minimization procedures for the Section 215 program (in part, probably, because NSA’s role in the phone dragnet would violate any compliant minimization procedures).
  • The NSA has twice – in 2009 and 2011 – admitted to collecting US person content in the United States in bulk after having done so for years. It tried to claim (and still claims publicly in spite of legal rulings to the contrary) this US person content did not count as intentionally-collected US person content (FISC disagreed both times), and has succeeded in continuing some of it by refusing to count it, so it can claim it doesn’t know it is happening.
  • As recently as spring 2012, 9% of the NSA’s violations involved analysts breaking standard operating procedures they know. NSA doesn’t report these as willful violations, however, because they’ve deemed any rule-breaking in pursuit of “the mission” not to be willful violations.
  • In 2008, Congress passed a law allowing bulk collection of foreign-targeted content in the US, Section 702, to end the NSA’s practice of stealing Internet company data from telecom cables. Yet in spite of having a legal way to acquire such data, the NSA (through GCHQ) continues to steal data from some of the same companies, this time overseas, from their own cables. Arguably this is a violation of Section 702 of FISA.
  • NSA may intentionally collect US person content (including Internet metadata that legally qualifies as content) overseas (it won’t count this data, so we don’t know how systematic it is). If it does, it may be a violation of Section 703 of FISA.

No, Mr. President, this is not enough.

Fall Out

At the dawn of our Republic, a small, secret surveillance committee borne out of the “The Sons of Liberty” was established in Boston. The group’s members included Paul Revere, and at night they would patrol the streets, reporting back any signs that the British were preparing raids against America’s early Patriots.

First Impressions, Obama’s Speech

By: emptywheel

Friday January 17, 2014 12:16 pm

Obama used the example of Paul Revere as an example of the importance of intelligence over the life of “our country.” Of course, Paul Revere is actually a better example that, if the Brits had done metadata analysis akin to what he preserved today, we would still be eating Kidney pies under British rule.

Obama made no mention, at all, of NSA’s weakening encryption and hoarding zero days. None.

With the sole exception of consulting with Congress on how to resolve the Section 215 dragnet (something that will happen during next year’s PATRIOT Act Reauthorization if not before) these changes are all Executive Branch self-limitations. Even the role of a FISC advocate fell by the wayside. In other words, while Obama did call for some useful changes (limiting the gag order on NSLs, adding limits on the way back door searches can be used for criminal investigations), they’re all self-limitations that can’t be enforced or overseen.

At one point, Obama justified our dragnet by saying we have special responsibilities as the only Superpower. Now, China is getting big enough they might object to that whole claim. More importantly, it demonstrates the degree to which a presumption of exceptionalism underlies our entire approach to spying.

ps. Should you not get the admittedly obscure reference, Fall Out is the title of the last episode of The Prisoner.

Punting the Pundits

“Punting the Pundits” is an Open Thread. It is a selection of editorials and opinions from around the news medium and the internet blogs. The intent is to provide a forum for your reactions and opinions, not just to the opinions presented, but to what ever you find important.

Thanks to ek hornbeck, click on the link and you can access all the past “Punting the Pundits”.

Follow us on Twitter @StarsHollowGzt

Paul Krugman: Scandal in France

I haven’t paid much attention to François Hollande, the president of France, since it became clear that he wasn’t going to break with Europe’s destructive, austerity-minded policy orthodoxy. But now he has done something truly scandalous.

I am not, of course, talking about his alleged affair with an actress, which, even if true, is neither surprising (hey, it’s France) nor disturbing. No, what’s shocking is his embrace of discredited right-wing economic doctrines. It’s a reminder that Europe’s ongoing economic woes can’t be attributed solely to the bad ideas of the right. Yes, callous, wrongheaded conservatives have been driving policy, but they have been abetted and enabled by spineless, muddleheaded politicians on the moderate left.

Mark Weisbrot: Why the European Economy Has Done So Much Worse Than That of the United States

If we compare the economic recovery of the United States since the Great Recession with that of Europe — or more specifically the eurozone countries — the differences are striking, and instructive. The U.S. recession technically lasted about a year and a half — from December 2007 to June 2009. (Of course, for America’s 20.3 million unemployed and underemployed, and millions of others, the recession never ended — but more on that below.) The eurozone had a similar-length recession from about January 2008 to April 2009; but then it fell into a longer recession in the third quarter of 2011 that lasted for about another two years; it may be exiting that recession currently. [..]

All this is not to hold up the U.S. recovery as an example; it is disgraceful that we have fewer people employed than we did six years ago, and a lower proportion of employed workers than we had at any time going back to the 1980s. And unnecessary: The media are filled with nonsense about cutting deficits and debt, and our government is also slowing growth with unnecessary budget cuts. And all this when our federal debt has a net interest burden of less than 1 percent of our national income, about as low as it has been in the post-World War II era. But the eurozone experience shows how much worse it can be when people lose most of their control over their government’s most important economic policies.

Richard (RJ) Eskow: For the GOP, an Abyss Instead of Ideas

When you look too long into the Abyss, said Nietzsche, the Abyss looks into you. “And,” adds comedian Brother Theodore, “neither one of us likes what we see.”

That’s what the economic pronouncements of Republican politicians are like nowadays. Instead of a governing philosophy, all one sees is a yawning intellectual abyss. Their core ideas are so unpopular and discredited that party leaders only express them in passing. But, without them, the party is reduced to a set of rhetorical and ideological tics in search of a host organism.

The newly negotiated budget agreement is a perfect example of this process in action. The GOP got some giveaways to its wealthy patrons. But instead of acting on principle, their other demands were merely a series of poses and stances with no unifying theme.

Amy Goodman: Fukushima Is the World’s Ongoing Warning Against Nuclear Energy

The impact of nuclear disasters can last for generations. Such man-made devastation offers a lesson to all of us

“I write these facts as dispassionately as I can in the hope that they will act as a warning to the world,” wrote the journalist Wilfred Burchett from Hiroshima. His story, headlined, “The Atomic Plague” appeared in the London Daily Express on 5 September 1945. Burchett violated the US military blockade of Hiroshima, and was the first Western journalist to visit that devastated city. He wrote: “Hiroshima does not look like a bombed city. It looks as if a monster steamroller had passed over it and squashed it out of existence.” [..]

Prime Minister Abe, leading the most conservative Japanese administration since World War II, wants to restart his country’s nuclear power plants, despite overwhelming public opposition. Public protests outside Abe’s official residence in Tokyo continue.

“It gives you an empty feeling in the stomach to see such man-made devastation,” Wilfred Burchett wrote, sitting in the rubble of Hiroshima in 1945. The two US atomic-bomb attacks on the civilian populations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki have deeply impacted Japan to this day. Likewise, the triple-edged disaster of the earthquake, tsunami and ongoing nuclear disaster will last for generations. The dangerous trajectory from nuclear weapons to nuclear power is now being challenged by a popular demand for peace and sustainability. It is a lesson for rest of the world as well.

Marjorie Cohn: Will Court Beat Back NSA’s Police State Desires?

Metadata collection as Fourth Amendment violation

Edward Snowden, who worked for the National Security Agency (NSA), revealed a secret order of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC), that requires Verizon to produce on an “ongoing daily basis … all call detail records or ‘telephony metadata’ created by Verizon for communications (i) between the United States and abroad; or (ii) wholly within the United States, including local telephone calls.”

The government has admitted it collects metadata for all of our telephone communications, but says the data collected does not include the content of the calls.

In response to lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of the program, two federal judges issued dueling opinions about whether it violates the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition on unreasonable searches and seizures. [..]

This issue is headed to the Court of Appeals. From there, it will likely go the Supreme Court. The high court checked and balanced President George W. Bush when he overstepped his legal authority by establishing military commissions that violated due process, and attempted to deny constitutional habeas corpus to Guantanamo detainees. It remains to be seen whether the court will likewise refuse to cower before President Barack Obama’s claim of unfettered executive authority to conduct dragnet surveillance. If the court allows the NSA to continue its metadata collection, we will reside in what can only be characterized as a police state.

John Robbins: Is the USDA Really Dumb Enough To Approve Agent Orange Corn?

Could this be the dumbest thing the USDA has ever done?

The Obama administration announced last week that it expects to approve corn and soybeans that have been genetically engineered by Dow Chemical company to tolerate the toxic herbicide – 2,4-D. They are planning this approval despite the fact that use of this herbicide is associated with increased rates of deadly immune system cancers, Parkinson’s disease, endocrine disruption, birth defects, and many other serious kinds of illness and reproductive problems.

Weed ecologists are unanimous in warning that approval of these crops will lead to vast increases in the use of this poisonous chemical. Researchers at Penn State say that in soybeans alone, planting of crops resistant to 2,4-D would increase the amount of 2,4-D sprayed on American fields to 100 million pounds per year – four times the current level. The researchers predict a cascade of negative environmental impacts, and add that the increasing use of the herbicide would actually worsen the epidemic of superweeds it is intended to address, by causing weeds to become resistant to multiple herbicides.

On This Day In History January 17

This is your morning Open Thread. Pour your favorite beverage and review the past and comment on the future.

Find the past “On This Day in History” here.

January 17 is the 17th day of the year in the Gregorian calendar. There are 348 days remaining until the end of the year (349 in leap years).

On this day in 1961, President Dwight D. Eisenhower delivers his farewell address to the nation warning the American people to keep a careful eye on what he calls the “military-industrial complex” that has developed in the post-World War II years.

A fiscal conservative, Eisenhower had been concerned about the growing size and cost of the American defense establishment since he became president in 1953. In his last presidential address to the American people, he expressed those concerns in terms that frankly shocked some of his listeners.

Eisenhower began by describing the changing nature of the American defense establishment since World War II. No longer could the U.S. afford the “emergency improvisation” that characterized its preparations for war against Germany and Japan. Instead, the United States was “compelled to create a permanent armaments industry” and a huge military force. He admitted that the Cold War made clear the “imperative need for this development,” but he was gravely concerned about “the acquisition of unwarranted influence…by the military-industrial complex.” In particular, he asked the American people to guard against the “danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.”

Military-industrial complex (MIC) is a concept commonly used to refer to policy relationships between governments, national armed forces, and the industrial sector that supports them. These relationships include political approval for research, development, production, use, and support for military training, weapons, equipment, and facilities within the national defense and security policy. It is a type of iron triangle.

The term is most often played in reference to the military of the United States, where it gained popularity after its use in the farewell address speech of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, though the term is applicable to any country with a similarly developed infrastructure.

It is sometimes used more broadly to include the entire network of contracts and flows of money and resources among individuals as well as institutions of the defense contractors, The Pentagon, and the Congress and executive branch. This sector is intrinsically prone to principal-agent problem, moral hazard, and rent seeking. Cases of political corruption have also surfaced with regularity.

A similar thesis was originally expressed by Daniel Guerin, in his 1936 book Fascism and Big Business, about the fascist government support to heavy industry. It can be defined as, “an informal and changing coalition of groups with vested psychological, moral, and material interests in the continuous development and maintenance of high levels of weaponry, in preservation of colonial markets and in military-strategic conceptions of internal affairs”.

Two Years Left For America

Glen Ford: U.S. Imperialism Hopping on Just One Leg

Glen Ford of Black Agenda Reports speaks at Trinity College (Hartford) March 2013….

Although Ford, whose program airs on the Progressive Radio Network, was slated to speak about “Black Politics, Obama and Foreign Policy,” President Barack Obama was largely a footnote at the end of his talk. Instead, he spoke mostly about European and American imperialism and exploitation of what used to be called Third World Countries but today are more commonly described as developing nations.


About two-thirds of the way through his lecture, Ford got around to discussing Obama; he was no more complimentary of his policies than of his predecessors. Ford described Obama’s foreign policy as “insidious,” and alleged that the administration doesn’t view war as the last resort but as a “good thing to do” if it’s perceived to be in the country’s best interest. And he said Obama has waged war in the name of “humanitarianism.”

Listen to the first two minutes, and you may find that want to listen to the full hour.

The Democrats Who Want a War

These are the 16 Democrats who are supporting a senate bill that if passed could undermine the current negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program but commits the United States to a war should Israel decide to attack Iran:

Sen. Begich, Mark [D-AK]; Sen. Bennet, Michael F. [D-CO]; Sen. Blumenthal, Richard [D-CT]; Sen. Booker, Cory A. [D-NJ]; Sen. Cardin, Benjamin L. [D-MD]; Sen. Casey, Robert P., Jr. [D-PA]; Sen. Coons, Christopher A. [D-DE]; Sen. Donnelly, Joe [D-IN]; Sen. Gillibrand, Kirsten E. [D-NY]; Sen. Hagan, Kay [D-NC]; Sen. Landrieu, Mary L. [D-LA]; Sen. Manchin, Joe, III [D-WV]; Sen. Menendez, Robert [D-NJ]; Sen. Pryor, Mark L. [D-AR]; Sen. Schumer, Charles E. [D-NY]; and Sen. Warner, Mark R. [D-VA].

It’s clear why there are 43 Republicans since opposition to this administration is their default position, even start another Middle East War, but Democrats supporting for no other reason than cuddling up to  the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which is pushing hard for these new sanctions and the commitment to support an Israeli strike on Iran.

On Tuesday, Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, forcefully voiced her opposition on the senate floor

“I sincerely believe the P5+1 negotiations with Iran would end and, with it, the best opportunity in more than 30 years to make a major change in Iranian behavior,” Feinstein argued, if the bill passes and sustains the promised Presidential veto.

The California Democrat also argued that passing the bill will embolden hard-liners in Tehran who want to see talks fail and demonstrate to American partners and the Iranians that if the U.S. can’t live up to the first-step agreement in passing a new round of sanctions – the U.S. agreed that it would not impose new sanctions while a final deal is worked out – then “it will never lift sanctions after a final agreement is reached” and thus scuttle this historic opportunity for a deal with Iran. She said later:

   I deeply believe that a vote for this legislation will cause negotiations to collapse. The United States, not Iran, then becomes the party that risks fracturing the international coalition that has enabled our sanctions to succeed in the first place.

   It says to the U.K., China, Russia, France, and Germany that our country cannot be trusted to stand behind our diplomatic commitments. That is a very big statement.

“Above all,” Feinstein said, if the bill passes, the Iranians “will argue that the United States is not interested in nuclear diplomacy” and instead “we are interested in regime change.”

Last night, Chris Hayes, host of MSNBC’s All In, called out the Democratic sponsors of the bill accusing them of political cowardice and betraying the president due to the influence of the AIPAC.

Noting that Senate Dems were scheduled to meet with President Obama Wednesday night, Hayes said that if he were the president, he would ask these 16 co-sponsors, “Why are you trying to get us into another war? And why are you sabotaging my presidency to do it?” [..]

Focusing particularly on Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and Sen. Cory Booker, both of whom are believed to have presidential ambitions, Hayes next appealed to these senators’ political self-interest, noting that Hillary Clinton and John Kerry came to regret their early support of the war in Iraq. “[I]f we end up in a war with Iran,” Hayes warns, “the public will hate it – rightly – and it will be seen as a disaster, and you will be condemned by history and public opinion for your role in bringing it about.”

So far Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and the Democratic leadership have held the line that there will be no vote and as The Washington Posts‘s Greg Sargent notes there is has been little push from the Democratic sponsors of the bill to bring it to the floor. As of Tuesday, one of the co-sponsors, Sen. Blumenthal (D-CT), has publicly stated that he is having second thoughts about the agreement with the announcement of an agreement on inspections.

“At the moment, there’s no rush to put the bill on the floor,” says this Senator, who asked for anonymity to be candid about the real state of play on the measure. “I’m not aware of any deadline in anyone’s head.” [..]

And there is clearly more movement behind the scenes. The Senator who spoke to me today allowed it could become “harder” for the pro-bill forces to demand a vote down the line, in the weeks and months ahead, if negotiations are proceeding with Iran.

Pres. Obama met Wednesday night with the Senate Democrats to discuss legislative strategy and the issue of Iran sanctions

On Wednesday evening, Obama delivered a “strong message” that the Senate must continue to hold off on new sanctions while negotiations continue and a six-month interim agreement is implemented, a source briefed on the meeting said. The source added that the back and forth on Iran was “not contentious.”

“The president did speak passionately about a way to seize this opportunity that we have,” said Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) after the meeting. “If Iran isn’t willing in the end to make the decisions necessary to make it work, he’ll be ready to sign a bill to tighten those sanctions. But we’ve got to give this six months.”

Merkley described the general mood as “quite supportive” of Obama’s position, even with powerful Senate Democrats in the room pressing for new sanctions.

Besides the 10 chairs of the Senate committees, who have already come out against the bill and Senators Merkley, Blumenthal and Chris Murohy (D-CT), Tim Kaine (D-VA) and Bill Nelson (D-FL) announced their opposition Tuesday.

Take action to stop this diplomacy killing sanction bill once and for all.  Send a letter and make a call to your Senators’ offices here.