Afghanistan Planning To Resume Public Stoning As Punishment For Adultery

Attacking Afghanistan made far more sense than to attack Iraq as George Bush did following the 9/11 attack. * I could see an attack to disrupt al Qaeda and was happy to see bin Laden killed, but questioned if we would see any long-term benefits from installing a government there. This somewhat confirms my skepticism–Afghanistan is now planning to restore the Taliban policy of stoning women for adultery:

Afghanistan is planning to reintroduce public stoning as punishment for adultery 12 years after the Taliban was ousted from power, according to a new draft penal code.

The move has shocked human rights campaigners and will dismay donors who have poured billions of pounds into the country for reconstruction.

It will be viewed as another backwards step at the end of a year that has seen women’s rights undermined, with a slew of legislation and murders of prominent women.

Human Rights Watch called for international donors to withhold funding if the government goes ahead with the plan.

“It is absolutely shocking that 12 years after the fall of the Taliban government, the Karzai administration might bring back stoning as a punishment,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at HRW…

As repulsive as both groups are, stoning is far worse than the forced vaginal probes and restrictions on reproductive rights which are supported by the American Taliban.

(* I would hope that by now the whole Truther line that 9/11 was an inside job by the Bush administration instead of a terrorist act by al Qaeda has been forgotten. In case anyone is still interested in that nonsense, Noam Chomsky has recently joined many others in debunking that conspiracy theory. Chomsky mocked “people around who spend an hour on the Internet and think they know a lot physics.” On the other hand, that is how the Internet works. How many other people on the far right with no knowledge of biology or climate science are coming up with arguments against evolution and global warming?)

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Detention of Glenn Greenwald’s Parter Results In Further Questions Of Government Secrecy

Airports have become a zone where we have less rights and are more at the mercy of government intrusion. Over the weekend, Glenn Greenwald’s partner, David Miranda, was detained for nine hours (the maximum allowed under British law). For Andrew Sullivan, this tipped the balance:

Readers know I have been grappling for a while with the vexing question of the balance between the surveillance state and the threat of Jihadist terrorism. When the NSA leaks burst onto the scene, I was skeptical of many of the large claims made by civil libertarians and queasily sympathetic to a program that relied on meta-data alone, as long as it was transparent, had Congressional buy-in, did not accidentally expose innocent civilians to grotesque privacy loss, and was watched by a strong FISA court.

Since then, I’ve watched the debate closely and almost all the checks I supported have been proven illusory. The spying is vastly more extensive than anyone fully comprehended before; the FISA court has been revealed as toothless and crippled; and many civilians have had their privacy accidentally violated over 3000 times. The president, in defending the indefensible, has damaged himself and his core reputation for honesty and candor. These cumulative revelations have exposed this program as, at a minimum, dangerous to core liberties and vulnerable to rank abuse. I’ve found myself moving further and further to Glenn’s position.

What has kept me from embracing it entirely has been the absence of any real proof than any deliberate abuse has taken place and arguments that it has helped prevent terror attacks. This may be too forgiving a standard. If a system is ripe for abuse, history tells us the only question is not if such abuse will occur, but when. So it is a strange and awful irony that the Coalition government in Britain has today clinched the case for Glenn.

A disclosure upfront: I have met David Miranda as part of a my friendship with Glenn Greenwald. The thought of his being detained by the British police for nine hours because his partner embarrassed the American government really sickens me at a gut level. I immediately think of my husband, Aaron, being detained in connection to work I have done – something that would horrify and frighten me. We should, of course, feel this empathy with people we have never known – but the realization is all the more gob-smacking when it comes so close to home. So of course my instinct is to see this exactly as Glenn has today.

This was more of an emotional response than a fact-based one, yet it is a response which many feel sympathy with, along with many in the news media. Technically the use of a law in the U.K. (which many there agree needs to be reformed) says nothing about NSA abuses by the United States. Looking at just the law, and not questions as to whether Snowden did the right thing in releasing this specific classified information, there does appear to be some justification for investigating Miranda (even if handled in an excessive and abusive manner). The New York Times reports:

Mr. Miranda was in Berlin to deliver documents related to Mr. Greenwald’s investigation into government surveillance to Ms. Poitras, Mr. Greenwald said. Ms. Poitras, in turn, gave Mr. Miranda different documents to pass to Mr. Greenwald. Those documents, which were stored on encrypted thumb drives, were confiscated by airport security, Mr. Greenwald said. All of the documents came from the trove of materials provided to the two journalists by Mr. Snowden. The British authorities seized all of his electronic media — including video games, DVDs and data storage devices — and did not return them, Mr. Greenwald said.

Despite the attention this detention has received, the real issue remains the abuses by the United States government regarding surveillance, and the failure of those bodies entrusted to provide oversight. The detention of Miranda is a side issue. However on an emotional level seeing someone detained for nine hours and having their property seized is a more tangible warning of the dangers of government abusing its power, for many easier to understand than the evidence released to date.

Updates: The White House had advanced notification but denies having any role in the detention. Glenn Greenwald is threatening to release UK secrets in retaliation.

Update II: It looks like Reuter’s took Greenwald’s statement out of context in their interview and a better summation might be that Greenwald said he would not let this deter him from continuing to release documents.

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Barack Obama Responds To Questions Regarding NSA Surveillance

Barack Obama has responded to some of the civil liberties concerns raised recently in an interview with Charlie Rose. He did provided two proposals to respond to the questions raised about the surveillance programs.  Here is a partial transcript via Buzzfeed:

Barack Obama: Well, in the end, and what I’ve said, and I continue to believe, is that we don’t have to sacrifice our freedom in order to achieve security. That’s a false choice. That doesn’t mean that there are not tradeoffs involved in any given program, in any given action that we take. So all of us make a decision that we go through a whole bunch of security at airports, which when we were growing up that wasn’t the case…. And so that’s a tradeoff we make, the same way we make a tradeoff about drunk driving. We say, “Occasionally there are going to be checkpoints. They may be intrusive.” To say there’s a tradeoff doesn’t mean somehow that we’ve abandoned freedom. I don’t think anybody says we’re no longer free because we have checkpoints at airports.

Charlie Rose: But there is a balance here.

Barack Obama: But there is a balance, so I’m going to get to your — get to your question. The way I view it, my job is both to protect the American people and to protect the American way of life, which includes our privacy. And so every program that we engage in, what I’ve said is “Let’s examine and make sure that we’re making the right tradeoffs.” Now, with respect to the NSA, a government agency that has been in the intelligence gathering business for a very long time —

Charlie Rose: Bigger and better than everybody else.

Barack Obama: Bigger and better than everybody else, and we should take pride in that because they’re extraordinary professionals; they are dedicated to keeping the American people safe. What I can say unequivocally is that if you are a U.S. person, the NSA cannot listen to your telephone calls, and the NSA cannot target your emails … and have not. They cannot and have not, by law and by rule, and unless they — and usually it wouldn’t be “they,” it’d be the FBI — go to a court, and obtain a warrant, and seek probable cause, the same way it’s always been, the same way when we were growing up and we were watching movies, you want to go set up a wiretap, you got to go to a judge, show probable cause….

So point number one, if you’re a U.S. person, then NSA is not listening to your phone calls and it’s not targeting your emails unless it’s getting an individualized court order. That’s the existing rule. There are two programs that were revealed by Mr. Snowden, allegedly, since there’s a criminal investigation taking place, and they caused all the ruckus. Program number one, called the 2015 Program, what that does is it gets data from the service providers like a Verizon in bulk, and basically you have call pairs. You have my telephone number connecting with your telephone number. There are no names. There is no content in that database. All it is, is the number pairs, when those calls took place, how long they took place. So that database is sitting there. Now, if the NSA through some other sources, maybe through the FBI, maybe through a tip that went to the CIA, maybe through the NYPD. Get a number that where there’s a reasonable, articulable suspicion that this might involve foreign terrorist activity related to Al-Qaeda and some other international terrorist actors. Then, what the NSA can do is it can query that database to see did any of the — did this number pop up? Did they make any other calls? And if they did, those calls will be spit out. A report will be produced. It will be turned over to the FBI. At no point is any content revealed because there’s no content that —

Charlie Rose: So I hear you saying, I have no problem with what NSA has been doing.

Barack Obama: Well, let me — let me finish, because I don’t. So, what happens is that the FBI — if, in fact, it now wants to get content; if, in fact, it wants to start tapping that phone — it’s got to go to the FISA court with probable cause and ask for a warrant.

Charlie Rose: But has FISA court turned down any request?

Barack Obama: The — because — the — first of all, Charlie, the number of requests are surprisingly small… number one. Number two, folks don’t go with a query unless they’ve got a pretty good suspicion.

Charlie Rose: Should this be transparent in some way?

Barack Obama: It is transparent. That’s why we set up the FISA court…. The whole point of my concern, before I was president — because some people say, “Well, you know, Obama was this raving liberal before. Now he’s, you know, Dick Cheney.” Dick Cheney sometimes says, “Yeah, you know? He took it all lock, stock, and barrel.” My concern has always been not that we shouldn’t do intelligence gathering to prevent terrorism, but rather are we setting up a system of checks and balances? So, on this telephone program, you’ve got a federal court with independent federal judges overseeing the entire program. And you’ve got Congress overseeing the program, not just the intelligence committee and not just the judiciary committee — but all of Congress had available to it before the last reauthorization exactly how this program works.

Now, one last point I want to make, because what you’ll hear is people say, “Okay, we have no evidence that it has been abused so far.” And they say, “Let’s even grant that Obama’s not abusing it, that all these processes — DOJ is examining it. It’s being renewed periodically, et cetera — the very fact that there is all this data in bulk, it has the enormous potential for abuse,” because they’ll say, you know, “You can — when you start looking at metadata, even if you don’t know the names, you can match it up, if there’s a call to an oncologist, and there’s a call to a lawyer, and — you can pair that up and figure out maybe this person’s dying, and they’re writing their will, and you can yield all this information.” All of that is true. Except for the fact that for the government, under the program right now, to do that, it would be illegal. We would not be allowed to do that.

Charlie Rose: So, what are you going to change? Are you going to issue any kind of instructions to the Director of National Intelligence, Mr. Clapper, and say, “I want you to change it at least in this way”?

Barack Obama: Here’s what we need to do. But before I say that — and I know that we’re running out of time, but I want to make sure I get very clear on this. Because there has been a lot of mis-information out there. There is a second program called the 702 program. And what that does is that does not apply to any U.S. person. Has to be a foreign entity. It can only be narrowly related to counter-terrorism, weapons proliferation, cyber hacking or attacks, and a select number of identifiers — phone numbers, emails, et cetera. Those — and the process has all been approved by the courts — you can send to providers — the Yahoos or the Googles, what have you. And in the same way that you present essentially a warrant. And what will happen then is that you there can obtain content. But again, that does not apply to U.S. persons. And it’s only in these very narrow bands. So, you asked, what should we do? …What I’ve said is — is that what is a legitimate concern — a legitimate critique — is that because these are classified programs — even though we have all these systems of checks and balances, Congress is overseeing it, federal courts are overseeing it — despite all that, the public may not fully know. And that can make the public kind of nervous, right? Because they say, “Well, Obama says it’s okay — or Congress says it’s okay. I don’t know who this judge is. I’m nervous about it.” What I’ve asked the intelligence community to do is see how much of this we can declassify without further compromising the program, number one. And they are in that process of doing so now so that everything that I’m describing to you today, people, the public, newspapers, etc., can look at because frankly, if people are making judgments just based on these slides that have been leaked, they’re not getting the complete story.

Number two. I’ve stood up a privacy and civil liberties oversight board, made up of independent citizens including some fierce civil libertarians. I’ll be meeting with them. And what I want to do is to set up and structure a national conversation, not only about these two programs, but also the general problem of data, big data sets, because this is not going to be restricted to government entities.

Charlie Rose: Let me just ask you this. If someone leaks all this information about NSA surveillance, as Mr. Snowden did…. Did it cause national security damage to the United States, and therefore, should he be prosecuted?

Barack Obama: I’m not going to comment on prosecution…. The case has been referred to the DOJ for criminal investigation… and possible extradition. I will leave it up to them to answer those questions.

Obama Also Cited a Prosecution in Defense of the Programs

This defense has been widely dismissed:

The one thing people should understand about all these programs though is they have disrupted plots, not just here in the United States but overseas as well. And, you know, you’ve got a guy like Najibullah Zazi, who was driving cross country trying to blow up a New York subway system. Now, we might have caught him some other way. We might have disrupted it because a New York cop saw he was suspicious. Maybe he turned out to be incompetent and the bomb didn’t go off. But at the margins we are increasing our chances of preventing a catastrophe like that through these programs. And then the question becomes, “Can we trust all the systems government enough as long as they’re checking each other that our privacy is not being abused, that we are able to prevent some of the tragedies that unfortunately there are people out there who are going to continue to try to — try to strike against us.

Obama’s two proposals, declassifying some of the information so that the public can better evaluate the surveillance programs and setting up a privacy and civil liberties advisory board, are steps in the right direction. We will need to see how much is really declassified and how effective this board turns out to be. While the system has not been as transparent as Obama suggests in this interview, the system has been more transparent under Obama than under George Bush.

I am not reassured by his response to the question on the FISA courts when Obama responded, “the number of requests are surprisingly small… number one. Number two, folks don’t go with a query unless they’ve got a pretty good suspicion.” The number of requests would be expected to be lower when such massive amounts of data are being requested in a single request. Requesting all phone records, even if only metadata, is not indicative of a query with a good suspicion.

I do consider it a point in Obama’s favor that he is not commenting on prosecution of Snowden other than referring it to the Department of Justice. This is far preferable to people like John Boehner, Dick Cheney, and even Diane Feinstein calling him a traitor. I am not very worried about abuses occurring under Barack Obama (not that we can be certain they haven’t occurred). I am more concerned that we are building a infrastructure for a police state which could be misused by people like Dick Cheney or John Boehner

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Quote of the Day

“The National Security Agency has been collecting the phone records of Verizon customers since April. That explains Verizon’s new ad campaign: ‘They can hear you now.'” Jimmy Fallon

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Bush NSA Director Describes Greater Transparency Under Obama Than Bush

General Michael Hayden, director of the NSA under George Bush, is happy to see that upon taking office Barack Obama has continued many of the surveillance programs initiated under George Bush. There are some differences. Obama has utilized the FISA Courts while surveillance under Bush was often outside the law. Hayden also states that the programs have been more transparent under Obama:

Gen. Michael Hayden, NSA director under former president George W. Bush, defended the legality of the agency’s massive phone and internet data surveillance programs on Wednesday, calling them important and suggesting that opponents didn’t understand what was actually going on.

Speaking with CNN’s Jake Tapper, Hayden downplayed criticism of the data collection effort as governmental overreach by claiming President Barack Obama’s administration had actually been more forthcoming than Bush’s on the issue.

“Frankly, the Obama administration was more transparent about this effort than we were in the Bush administration,” he said. “I mean, they made this metadata collection activity available to all the members of Congress. Not just all the members of the intelligence committees.”

Some lawmakers have admitted that they were aware of the NSA’s activities before the string of reports last week, which has led many to defend the programs as vital and standard procedures. Others have spoken outagainst them in the wake of the recent disclosures, arguing that the reports held details that they hadn’t been told about and wouldn’t have supported.

This does help demonstrate the hypocrisy of conservatives who supported the surveillance under Bush but now attack Obama. What’s their complaint–that Obama is allowing judicial oversight and is more transparent? Somehow this doesn’t seem to be what they are saying.

Unfortunately, even if Obama is acting more within the law, and with greater transparency, he continues to allow a massive accumulation of data which many question whether is Constitutional and which carries risks to liberty. Obama has also shown an understanding which George Bush lacked of the need to consider issues of security versus liberty, which will hopefully lead to a change in policy.

 

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Orwellian and Kafkaesque Aspects Of NSA Surveillance

The revelations regarding NSA surveillance has led to a boom in sales of 1984. Further exposure to Orwell’s work is one good outcome of the recent leaks, showing the ultimate results of a totalitarian surveillance state. As I’ve pointed out before, to actually compare our current situation to 1984 is a tremendous act of hyperbole. The problem is not that we are experiencing anything as severe as the society portrayed in 1984 but that the NSA surveillance program is one step on the road towards developing the infrastructure which might make such a society possible. Those who run the intelligence programs should remain servants of the people in a free society, not masters. While we expect accept a certain degree of secrecy, this does not justify outright lies by leaders of the intelligence community such as James Clapper,director of national intelligence, in speeches and testimony before Congress.

Orwell provides many things to think about beyond surveillance. Consider his concepts of “War is Peace, ” “Freedom is Slavery,” or facts disappearing down the memory hole. The NSA surveillance program poses a serious threat to liberty, but to keep things in perspective, there are far more Orwellian threats to liberty which we face, such as Fox News. Promoting such propaganda as news is quite hazardous to a free society where we want self-rule by people who vote based upon facts, while living in a free society prevents any action against such anti-freedom propagandists beyond aggressively exposing their tactics. To the right wing, “Ignorance is Strength.”

1984 is the obvious classic to read when considering the risks of slipping into totalitarianism. There are many others worth reading, such as Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here. There might also be novels which are more pertinent to what we are facing. Yesterday Rebecca Rosen quoted Daniel J. Solove in describing why another novel might be more applicable:

I suggested a different metaphor to capture the problems: Franz Kafka’s The Trial, which depicts a bureaucracy with inscrutable purposes that uses people’s information to make important decisions about them, yet denies the people the ability to participate in how their information is used. The problems captured by the Kafka metaphor are of a different sort than the problems caused by surveillance. They often do not result in inhibition or chilling. Instead, they are problems of information processing–the storage, use, or analysis of data–rather than information collection. They affect the power relationships between people and the institutions of the modern state. They not only frustrate the individual by creating a sense of helplessness and powerlessness, but they also affect social structure by altering the kind of relationships people have with the institutions that make important decisions about their lives.

The surveillance can certainly be called Orwellian. The laws which try to hide the very existence of surveillance are more Kafkaesque.

This debate over security versus privacy and liberty has been needed since September 12, 2001 but I suspect that most of the country was not ready for it until now. The first poll taken on this subject by Pew showed that 56 percent supported the NSA program of tracking phone records. Gallup now has  slightly more recent poll out, which includes the revelations regarding both telephone data and the more recently revealed inclusion of internet communications. Gallup found that fifty-three percent disapprove and only thirty-seven percent approve of these programs.

Barack Obama has been quiet on this subject, frustrating many of his supporters. I hope that this means that another debate is going on, between the views of candidate Obama and those of President Obama. We have seen Obama’s views evolve on other issues, such as support for same sex marriage. Obama discussed the issue of privacy rights versus security before the recent leaks. I am hoping that the current public debate prompts further evolution on this issue, or devolution back to the views he expressed as a candidate.

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Let The Debate Commence: Calls For End To NSA Surveillance

Eighty-six civil liberties organizations and internet companies have called for an end to the NSA surveillance in the following letter:

Dear Members of Congress,

We write to express our concern about recent reports published in the Guardian and the Washington Post, and acknowledged by the Obama Administration, which reveal secret spying by the National Security Agency (NSA) on phone records and Internet activity of people in the United States.

The Washington Post and the Guardian recently published reports based on information provided by a career intelligence officer showing how the NSA and the FBI are gaining broad access to data collected by nine of the leading U.S. Internet companies and sharing this information with foreign governments. As reported, the U.S. government is extracting audio, video, photographs, e-mails, documents, and connection logs that enable analysts to track a person’s movements and contacts over time. As a result, the contents of communications of people both abroad and in the U.S. can be swept in without any suspicion of crime or association with a terrorist organization.

Leaked reports also published by the Guardian and confirmed by the Administration reveal that the NSA is also abusing a controversial section of the PATRIOT Act to collect the call records of millions of Verizon customers. The data collected by the NSA includes every call made, the time of the call, the duration of the call, and other “identifying information” for millions of Verizon customers, including entirely domestic calls, regardless of whether those customers have ever been suspected of a crime. The Wall Street Journal has reported that other major carriers, including AT&T and Sprint, are subject to similar secret orders.

This type of blanket data collection by the government strikes at bedrock American values of freedom and privacy. This dragnet surveillance violates the First and Fourth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution, which protect citizens’ right to speak and associate anonymously and guard against unreasonable searches and seizures that protect their right to privacy.

We are calling on Congress to take immediate action to halt this surveillance and provide a full public accounting of the NSA’s and the FBI’s data collection programs. We call on Congress to immediately and publicly:

1. Enact reform this Congress to Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act, the state secrets privilege, and the FISA Amendments Act to make clear that blanket surveillance of the Internet activity and phone records of any person residing in the U.S. is prohibited by law and that violations can be reviewed in adversarial proceedings before a public court;

2. Create a special committee to investigate, report, and reveal to the public the extent of this domestic spying. This committee should create specific recommendations for legal and regulatory reform to end unconstitutional surveillance;

3. Hold accountable those public officials who are found to be responsible for this unconstitutional surveillance.

Thank you for your attention to this matter.

Sincerely,

Access

Advocacy for Principled Action in Government

American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression

American Civil Liberties Union

American Civil Liberties Union of California

American Library Association

Amicus

Association of Research Libraries

Bill of Rights Defense Committee

BoingBoing

Breadpig

Calyx Institute

Canvas

Center for Democracy and Technology

Center for Digital Democracy

Center for Financial Privacy and Human Rights

Center for Media and Democracy

Center for Media Justice

Competitive Enterprise Institute

Consumer Action

Consumer Watchdog

CorpWatch

CREDO Mobile

Cyber Privacy Project

Daily Kos

Defending Dissent Foundation

Demand Progress

Detroit Digital Justice Coalition

Digital Fourth

Downsize DC

DuckDuckGo

Electronic Frontier Foundation

Entertainment Consumers Association

Fight for the Future

Floor64

Foundation for Innovation and Internet Freedom

4Chan

Free Press

Free Software Foundation

Freedom of the Press Foundation

FreedomWorks

Friends of Privacy USA

Get FISA Right

Government Accountability Project

Greenpeace USA

Institute of Popular Education of Southern California (IDEPSCA)

Internet Archive

isen.com, LLC

Knowledge Ecology International (KEI)

Law Life Culture

Liberty Coalition

May First/People Link

Media Alliance

Media Mobilizing Project, Philadelphia

Mozilla

Namecheap

National Coalition Against Censorship

New Sanctuary Coalition of NYC

Open Technology Institute

OpenMedia.org

Participatory Politics Foundation

Patient Privacy Rights

People for the American Way

Personal Democracy Media

PolitiHacks

Privacy and Access Council of Canada

Public Interest Advocacy Centre (Ottawa, Canada)

Public Knowledge

Privacy Activism

Privacy Camp

Privacy Rights Clearinghouse

Privacy Times

reddit

Represent.us

Rights Working Group

Rocky Mountain Civil Liberties Association

RootsAction.org

Samuelson-Glushko Canadian Internet Policy & Public Interest Clinic

Sunlight Foundation

Taxpayers Protection Alliance

TechFreedom

The AIDS Policy Project, Philadelphia

TURN-The Utility Reform Network

Urbana-Champaign Independent Media Center

William C. Velasquez Institute (WCVI)

World Wide Web Foundation

A bipartisan group of Senators introduced a bill to declassify FISA Court decisions:

Today, Oregon’s Senator Jeff Merkley and Senator Mike Lee (R-UT), accompanied by Senators Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Dean Heller (R-NV), Mark Begich (D-AK), Al Franken (D-MN), Jon Tester (D-MT), and Ron Wyden (D-OR), introduced a bill that would put an end to the “secret law” governing controversial government surveillance programs.  This bill would require the Attorney General to declassify significant Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) opinions, allowing Americans to know how broad of a legal authority the government is claiming to spy on Americans under the PATRIOT Act and Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

“Americans deserve to know how much information about their private communications the government believes it’s allowed to take under the law,” Merkley said. “There is plenty of room to have this debate without compromising our surveillance sources or methods or tipping our hand to our enemies.  We can’t have a serious debate about how much surveillance of Americans’ communications should be permitted without ending secret law.”

“This bipartisan amendment establishes a cautious and reasonable process for declassification consistent with the rule of law,” Lee said. “It will help ensure that the government makes sensitive decisions related to surveillance by applying legal standards that are known to the public. Particularly where our civil liberties are at stake, we must demand no less of our government.”

meanwhile takes the opposite viewpoint, and calls Edward Snowden a traitor. Diane Feinstein, Chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee agrees, but then she also agreed with George Bush on invading Iraq and has been a strong supporter of the Patriot Act.

At least we are now getting the debate over security versus liberty which both Edward Snowden and Barack Obama want.

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Building The Infrastructure For A Police State

The government has accumulated and is storing massive amounts of data on Americans but is keeping this information secure and promises not to use this to spy on individual Americans not connected to terrorism. What could possibly go wrong?

Yeah, obviously that is a sarcastic rhetorical question. One good answer to this question is found in an op-ed by Daniel Ellsberg, who knows a bit about whistle blowers:

Obviously, the United States is not now a police state. But given the extent of this invasion of people’s privacy, we do have the full electronic and legislative infrastructure of such a state. If, for instance, there was now a war that led to a large-scale anti-war movement – like the one we had against the war in Vietnam – or, more likely, if we suffered one more attack on the scale of 9/11, I fear for our democracy. These powers are extremely dangerous.

Unfortunately this is run under the title Edward Snowden: saving us from the United Stasi of America. Yet another example of hyperbole seen on this issue, like another example I gave here. Fortunately Ellsberg acknowledges that this is not a police state, and is warning about a potential threat as opposed to exaggerating about the current situation. I certainly don’t see any sign that anyone fears discussing this issue, as would be the case in a true police state. On the other hand, would anyone trust John McCain, who has never seen a war he didn’t like. to have this information about people who might protest whatever wars he got us into if elected? Would you trust Mitt Romney, who seems to be devoid of any principles? In a two party system, who knows what type of Republican might manage to win an election in the near future (and not all Democrats can be trusted either).

There are a number of answers I’m hearing which aren’t very good, ranging from paranoia to the opposite reaction of denying the problem. I have received an answer that “Bush did it.” Is George W. Bush the standard by what is right? Yes, as I pointed out last week, this is an ongoing problem, not a new issue, and not a question of whether you like Bush or Obama better. Look at the issue independent of political personalities. Besides, if you want to blame politicians, as Steve Benen pointed out you can also blame Congress:

With this in mind, Jonathan Bernstein asked a compelling question over the weekend and provided a persuasive answer: “If you don’t like the revelations this week about what the NSA has been up to regarding your phone and Internet data, whom should you blame?”

There is, to be sure, plenty of blame to go around. The NSA has pushed the limits; federal courts approved the surveillance programs; George W. Bush got this ball rolling; President Obama kept this ball rolling; and telecoms have clearly participated in the efforts.

“But save plenty of your blame — perhaps most of your blame — for Congress.

“Did you notice the word I used in each of the other cases? The key word: law. As far as we know, everything that happened here was fully within the law. So if something was allowed that shouldn’t have been allowed, the problem is, in the first place, the laws. And that means Congress.”

It’s worth pausing to note that there is some debate about the legality of the exposed surveillance programs. Based on what we know at this point, most of the legal analyses I’ve seen suggest the NSA’s actions were within the law, though we’re still dealing with an incomplete picture, and there are certainly some legal experts who question whether the NSA crossed legal lines…

In theory, Obama could have chosen a different path after taking office in 2009, but the historical pattern is clear: if Congress gives a war-time president vast powers related to national security, that president is going to use those powers. The wiser course of action would be the legislative branch acting to keep those powers in check — limiting how far a White House can go — but our contemporary Congress has chosen to do the opposite.

This is, by the way, a bipartisan phenomenon — lawmakers in both parties gave Bush expansive authority in this area, and lawmakers in both parties agreed to keep these powers in Obama’s hands. What’s more, they not only passed laws these measures into law, they chose not to do much in the way of oversight as the surveillance programs grew.

We cannot expect any president to voluntarily give up powers present upon taking office, but at least there have been favorable signs that Obama is starting to ask the right questions. Under normal circumstances we need Congress to do their job. Unfortunately many Democrats were afraid to do this under Bush, and the Republicans are preoccupied by matters which are more important to them, from restricting reproductive rights to voting to repeal Obamacare thirty-seven times.  We also need the courts to do more than rubber stamp requests. Even under the best of circumstances, we cannot count on government to reveal its sins. If not for whistle blowers, we would not know much of what we know about Viet Nam, mistreatment of prisoners at places such as Abu Ghraib, CIA rendition, and the use of drones.

I’m seeing far too many cases of liberals playing down this issue, seeing it as an attack on Obama, when most opposed these provisions of the Patriot Act under George Bush. I’m also seeing some making this about Glenn Greenwald (who says more revelations are coming). I agree that at times he has gone overboard in attacks on Obama, but this is about the facts he is reporting, not his personal views.  Meanwhile the right is divided between those want to attack Obama and big government, contradicting their previous support for big government under George Bush, and those who are such big proponents of an authoritarian surveillance state that they will even overlook the fact, just this one time, that Obama is involved.

Another poor response I’m seeing is a comparison to all the information we give up when we go shopping, or post on Facebook. There is absolutely no comparison to information which is given voluntarily and to a retail store as opposed to information being secretly obtained by a government. When Google was accused of possessing too much information they initiated action to notify users of the information they have and offer ways to opt out. This might not be completely satisfying, but it is far preferable to a government system where it is illegal to even discuss requests for information.

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NSA Whistle Blower Speaks Out

The former CIA employee who released the NSA surveillance to The Guardian has gone public with his actions and has gone to Hong Kong (which is rather ironic considering what I wrote about comparisons to China yesterday).

The individual responsible for one of the most significant leaks in US political history is Edward Snowden, a 29-year-old former technical assistant for the CIA and current employee of the defence contractor Booz Allen Hamilton. Snowden has been working at the National Security Agency for the last four years as an employee of various outside contractors, including Booz Allen and Dell…

On May 20, he boarded a flight to Hong Kong, where he has remained ever since. He chose the city because “they have a spirited commitment to free speech and the right of political dissent”, and because he believed that it was one of the few places in the world that both could and would resist the dictates of the US government.

In the three weeks since he arrived, he has been ensconced in a hotel room. “I’ve left the room maybe a total of three times during my entire stay,” he said. It is a plush hotel and, what with eating meals in his room too, he has run up big bills.

He is deeply worried about being spied on. He lines the door of his hotel room with pillows to prevent eavesdropping. He puts a large red hood over his head and laptop when entering his passwords to prevent any hidden cameras from detecting them.

Though that may sound like paranoia to some, Snowden has good reason for such fears. He worked in the US intelligence world for almost a decade. He knows that the biggest and most secretive surveillance organisation in America, the NSA, along with the most powerful government on the planet, is looking for him.

Since the disclosures began to emerge, he has watched television and monitored the internet, hearing all the threats and vows of prosecution emanating from Washington.

And he knows only too well the sophisticated technology available to them and how easy it will be for them to find him. The NSA police and other law enforcement officers have twice visited his home in Hawaii and already contacted his girlfriend, though he believes that may have been prompted by his absence from work, and not because of suspicions of any connection to the leaks.

“All my options are bad,” he said. The US could begin extradition proceedings against him, a potentially problematic, lengthy and unpredictable course for Washington. Or the Chinese government might whisk him away for questioning, viewing him as a useful source of information. Or he might end up being grabbed and bundled into a plane bound for US territory.

“Yes, I could be rendered by the CIA. I could have people come after me. Or any of the third-party partners. They work closely with a number of other nations. Or they could pay off the Triads. Any of their agents or assets,” he said.

“We have got a CIA station just up the road – the consulate here in Hong Kong – and I am sure they are going to be busy for the next week. And that is a concern I will live with for the rest of my life, however long that happens to be.”

The article also provides his arguments for why he released this information and information on his background.

An interview with Snowden has also been published. Much of the interview rehashes what we have already read and discusses the question of whistle blowing. Edward Snowden also discussed the CIA’s general attitude towards situations such as this and due process:

In Dulles UAL lounge listening to 4 US intel officials saying loudly leaker & reporter on #NSA stuff should be disappearedrecorded a bit

— Steve Clemons (@SCClemons) June 8, 2013

Q: Washington-based foreign affairs analyst Steve Clemons said he overheard at the capital’s Dulles airport four men discussing an intelligence conference they had just attended. Speaking about the leaks, one of them said, according to Clemons, that both the reporter and leaker should be “disappeared”. How do you feel about that?

A: “Someone responded to the story said ‘real spies do not speak like that’. Well, I am a spy and that is how they talk. Whenever we had a debate in the office on how to handle crimes, they do not defend due process – they defend decisive action. They say it is better to kick someone out of a plane than let these people have a day in court. It is an authoritarian mindset in general.”

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NSA Surveillance: Not Really News To Those Paying Attention, Not Illegal, But Still A Matter of Concern

The major topic of discussion today has clearly been the data mining of cell phone records on numerous blogs and news sites. On the one hand, I share in the opposition to the concept of a government program which we cannot even evaluate because of the secrecy surrounding it. On the other hand, did anyone really think that their cell phone call records were secret items which the government couldn’t review with ease? This is exactly the type of thing which many of us blogged about during the Bush years. From May 11, 2006 USA Today reported:

The National Security Agency has been secretly collecting the phone call records of tens of millions of Americans, using data provided by AT&T, Verizon and BellSouth, people with direct knowledge of the arrangement told USA TODAY.

The NSA program reaches into homes and businesses across the nation by amassing information about the calls of ordinary Americans — most of whom aren’t suspected of any crime. This program does not involve the NSA listening to or recording conversations. But the spy agency is using the data to analyze calling patterns in an effort to detect terrorist activity, sources said in separate interviews.

“It’s the largest database ever assembled in the world,” said one person, who, like the others who agreed to talk about the NSA’s activities, declined to be identified by name or affiliation. The agency’s goal is “to create a database of every call ever made” within the nation’s borders, this person added.

There’s one difference between the program under Obama compare to Bush. Obama is using the FISA courts and following the law, while Bush did not:

Months after the Sept. 11 attacks, President Bush secretly authorized the National Security Agency to eavesdrop on Americans and others inside the United States to search for evidence of terrorist activity without the court-approved warrants ordinarily required for domestic spying, according to government officials.

Under a presidential order signed in 2002, the intelligence agency has monitored the international telephone calls and international e-mail messages of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people inside the United States without warrants over the past three years in an effort to track possible “dirty numbers” linked to Al Qaeda, the officials said. The agency, they said, still seeks warrants to monitor entirely domestic communications.

The previously undisclosed decision to permit some eavesdropping inside the country without court approval was a major shift in American intelligence-gathering practices, particularly for the National Security Agency, whose mission is to spy on communications abroad. As a result, some officials familiar with the continuing operation have questioned whether the surveillance has stretched, if not crossed, constitutional limits on legal searches.

“This is really a sea change,” said a former senior official who specializes in national security law. “It’s almost a mainstay of this country that the N.S.A. only does foreign searches.”

Of course being legal does not mean it is right. While I do prefer to see judicial oversight, there is a huge difference between true oversight and a rubber stamp.

In theory there is also Congressional oversight. The top Senators on the Intelligence Committee say this is to protect America:

The top two senators on the Intelligence Committee on Thursday defended the National Security Agency’s collection of Americans’ phone records after it was reported in The Guardian.

“It is lawful. It has been briefed to Congress,” Senate Intelligence Chair Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) told reporters at an impromptu news conference in the Capitol. “This is just meta data. There is no content involved. In other words, no content of a communication. … The records can only be accessed under heightened standards.”

“I read intelligence carefully. And I know that people are trying to get to us,” Feinstein said. “This is the reason we keep TSA doing what it’s doing. This the reason the FBI now has 10,000 people doing intelligence on counter-terrorism. This is the reason for the national counter-terrorism center that’s been set up in the time we’ve been active.”

“And it’s to ferret this out before it happens,” she said. “It’s called protecting America.”

Senate Intelligence Vice Chair Saxby Chambliss (R-GA) backed up Feinstein, saying, “This is nothing particularly new. This has been going on for seven years under the auspices of the FISA authority, and every member of the United States Senate has been advised of this.”

I guess we can discuss this in thirty years when the information is declassified.

Personally I have no problem with the government seeking a warrant to obtain phone records (and more) regarding individual who they have reasonable cause to suspect of plotting acts of terrorism. Maybe there is even a chance that having these records did put them on the trail of a potential terrorist who they otherwise did not suspect. In a free society it is necessary to place limits on what information the government can obtain and it is necessary to have some degree of transparency about how the information is used, even if we must give up having one-hundred percent security to maintain liberty.

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