Edward Snowden On Putin, Obama, Trump And Questioning Power

With the high level of McCarthyism coming from pro-Clinton Democrats in recent months, it has been commonplace recently for such Democrats to falsely attack those they disagree with as being pro-Russia. They fail to understand that people can be opposed to Clinton, Trump, and Putin–with all three actually sharing many characteristics with their mutual lack of respect for the norms of liberal democracy. This week several blogs on the left have pointed out that Edward Snowden has joined others in posting videos exposing ballot box stuffing in the recent Russian election:

Snowden posted the video with this caption: “The ballot stuffing seen today in Moscow and elsewhere in the Russian election is an effort to steal the influence of 140+ million people. Demand justice; demand laws and courts that matter. Take your future back.”

Glenn Greenwald retweeted this and said, “How many days will elapse until we see the next tweets claiming that Snowden never criticizes Putin or Russia – something he in fact does with great vigor and frequency?”

Stefania Maurizi recently interviewed Edward Snowden for La Repubblica. The first question was about the Democrats who joined with Republicans to support mass surveillance:

Five years have passed since you revealed the NSA’s mass surveillance activities, and we have just seen dozens of US Democrats voting with the Trump Administration to renew the NSA’s surveillance powers, we’ve seen Italy approve a law which extends mandatory data retention to six years, but we’ve also seen a UK Court ruling that the UK’s mass surveillance regime is unlawful. The debate is still ongoing and the picture is mixed. In the long run, will mass surveillance be downsized in our democracies, or will it continue to flourish?

“That’s a big question…(he smiles). For one it’s certainly a real shame, I think, for the Democratic party, and unfortunately this has become quite routine, that the party that is presenting itself as a progressive force is so often joining in to limit the rights that the public enjoys. I don’t think this is unique to the Democratic Party, we see this happening even in countries that don’t share the same dynamics. What we are seeing is a new kind of creeping authoritarianism spreading across the globe.

Having said that, we have made some limited progress: in the United States, of course, we had the passage of the USA Freedom Act, which is the first surveillance law in 40 years that limited the powers of intelligence agencies rather than expanding them, but it is not guaranteed that this progress will continue, and in fact we see laws like the section 702 of the FISA [the NSA’s surveillance powers reauthorized by the U.S. Congress]…

He was later asked about Obama and Trump:

We saw that President Obama, who was an outsider to the US military-intelligence complex, initially wanted to reign in the abuses of agencies like the CIA and the NSA, but in the end he did very little. Now we see a confrontation between president Trump and so-called Deep State, which includes the CIA and the NSA. Can a US president govern in opposition to such powerful entities?

“Obama is certainly an instructive case. This is a president who campaigned on a platform of ending warrantless wiretapping in the United States, he said “that’s not who we are, that’s not what we do”, and once he became the president, he expanded the program.  He said he was going to close Guantanamo but he kept it open, he said he was going to limit extrajudicial killings and drone strikes that has been so routine in the Bush years. But Obama went on to authorize vastly more drone strikes than Bush. It became an industry.

As for this idea that there is a Deep State, now the Deep State is not just the intelligence agencies, it is really a way of referring to the career bureaucracy of government. These are officials who sit in powerful positions, who don’t leave when presidents do, who watch presidents come and go, they influence policy, they influence presidents and say: this is what we have always done, this is what we must do, and if you don’t do this, people will die. It is very easy to persuade a new president who comes in, who has never had these powers, but has always wanted this job and wants very, very badly to do that job well. A bureaucrat sitting there for the last twenty years says: I understand what you said, I respect your principles, but if you do what you promised, people will die. It is very easy for a president to go: well, for now, I am going to set this controversy to the side, I’m going to take your advice, let you guys decide how these things should be done, and then I will revisit it, when I have a little more experience, maybe in a few months, maybe in a few years, but then they never do.

This is what we saw quite clearly happen in the case of Barack Obama: when this story [of Snowden exposing the NSA’s mass surveillance] came forward in 2013, when Obama had been president for five years, one of the defences for this from his aides and political allies was: oh, Obama was just about to fix this problem!  And sure enough, he eventually was forced from the wave of criticism to make some limited reforms, but he did not go far enough to end all of the programs that were in violation of the law or the constitution of the United States.

That too was an intentional choice: he could have certainly used the scandal to advocate for all of the changes that he had campaigned on, to deliver on all of his promises, but in those five years he had become president, he discovered something else, which is that there are benefits from having very powerful intelligence agencies, there are benefits from having these career bureaucrats on your side, using their spider web over government for your benefit.

Imagine you are Barack Obama, and you realise – yes, when you were campaigning you were saying: spying on people without a warrant is a problem, but then you realise: you can read Angela Merkel’s text messages. Why bother calling her and asking her opinion, when you can just read her mind by breaking the law? It sounds like a joke, but it is a very seductive thing. Secrecy is perhaps the most corrupting of all government powers, because it takes public officials and divorces them from accountability to the public.

When we look at the case of Trump, who is perhaps the worst of politicians, we see the same dynamic occurring. This is a president who said the CIA is the enemy, it’s like Nazi Germany, they’re listening to his phone calls, and all of these other things, some claims which are true, some claims which are absolutely not.  A few months later, he is authorizing major powers for these same agencies that he has called his enemies.

And this gets to the central crux of your question, which is: can any president oppose this?  The answer is certainly. The president has to have some familiarity going in with the fact that this pitch is going to be made, that they are going to try to scare him or her into compliance. The president has to be willing to stand strongly on line and say: ‘I was elected to represent the interests of the American people, and if you’re not willing to respect the constitution and our rights, I will disband your agency, and create a new one’. I think they can definitely be forced into compliance, because these officials fear prison, just like every one of us.”

He was asked about attacks claiming that he only exposes problems with  the United States:

How do you reply to those critics who attack you for “only” exposing the US mass surveillance and saying that the Chinese and the Russian surveillance complexes are no less threatening?

“This is an easy one: I am not Chinese, I am not Russian, I didn’t work for the Chinese secret services or Russian secret services, I worked for the US ones, so of course my information would be about the US”.

Critics say we should also expose the Russians and the Chinese…

“Yes, if I could, I would. We need more Chinese whistleblowers, we need more Russian whistleblowers, and unfortunately that becomes more difficult to make that happen when the United States is itself setting a precedent that whistleblowers get persecuted and attacked, rather than protected”.

How do you see this serious diplomatic crisis between the UK and Russia?
“I haven’t followed it that closely, but the idea that political violence is being used in any form is reprehensible, it needs to be condemned. If the UK allegations are correct, poisoning people, particularly people who are long out of their service, and in a different country, is contemptible”.

Snowden did subsequently have the opportunity to help expose problems in Russia with the video in the tweet at the start of this post.

The interview concluded with Snowden’s being asked for his advice for young and talented people who want to do the right thing:

“Question power. I don’t want people to trust me, I want people to doubt me, but I want them to take that experience and apply that to the real powers of society, not just isolated, exiled whistleblowers. Think about politicians, business leaders, the people who shape your society. Shouldn’t it be that the ones who wield the most power in society are the ones who are held to the highest standard of behaviour?

And look at the way the system works in your country, around you today, and ask if in fact the most powerful people in society are being held to the highest standards, or if you see cases where if the ordinary person breaks the smallest law, they’re going to jail, but if the most powerful people in society are engaged in criminal activity on the grandest scales, they can simply apologize and face no consequences. If that is the case, think about what you can do to fix that. The first step is always to question if this is the way things should be, and if it’s not, it’s time to change it”.

Collaborators, Not Resistance: Eighteen Senate Democrats Vote To Support Restrictions On Civil Liberties

After the House, with the support of fifty-five Democrats including Nancy Pelosi and Debbie Wasserman Schultz, blocked attempts to reform the FISA Act, Rand Paul and Ron Wyden attempted to filibuster FISA renewal in the Senate. They wrote this letter describing the civil liberties violations in the bill to renew and expand the FISA act for six years. The vote was close, with sixty votes required for the cloture vote. Cloture passed on a vote of 60 to 38, with  Democrat Claire McCaskill casting the deciding vote. Once again several Democrats voted to betray the Constitution and vote against civil liberties.

Eighteen Democratic Senators, along with independent Angus King of Maine, vote for cloture. The Democrats voting for cloture were: Tom Carper (Del.), Bob Casey (Pa.), Catherine Cortez Masto (Nev.), Joe Donnelly (Ind.), Tammy Duckworth (Ill.), Dianne Feinstein (Calif.), Maggie Hassan (N.H.), Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.), Doug Jones (Ala.), Amy Klobuchar (Minn.), Joe Manchin (W.V.), Claire McCaskill (Mo.), Bill Nelson (Fla.), Gary Peters (Mich.), Jack Reed (R.I.), Jeanne Shaheen (N.H.), Mark Warner (Va.), Sheldon Whitehouse (R.I.).

The following Republican Senators voted to support the filibuster, which would have provided an opportunity to debate and offer amendments to reform the law: Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, Mike Lee, Steve Daines, Cory Gardner, Dean Heller, Jerry Moran, and Lisa Murkowski. Yes, Ted Cruz was on the right side of this while eighteen Democrats were not.

The American Civil Liberties Union Tweeted this response: “Members of both parties who voted in favor of this legislation should be sharply rebuked for supporting a bill that is in flagrant violation of the rights enshrined in the Constitution.”

The final bill is expected to pass the Senate this week.

Reason described how the bill expands violations of civil liberties in the FISA Act:

This bill doesn’t just renew Section 702 for six years; it also codifies permission for the FBI to access and use data secretly collected from Americans for a host of domestic federal crimes that have nothing to do with protecting America from foreign threats. It has added some unusually worded warrant requirements that will protect some people—but only when they’re actually suspected and are being investigated for criminal activities.

Furthermore the bill will give the NSA permission to attempt to restart what are known as “about” searches, access to communications that merely reference a foreign target, not just communications to and from that target. The NSA voluntarily ended these types of searches once it became clear they were gaining access communications that they had no authority to be viewing. This bill will allow them to attempt to restart it unless Congress acts separately to stop it.

Once again many Democrats have acted as collaborators rather than as the resistance. Democrats who claim that Trump is a tyrant in cahoots with Putin have not been able to unite to oppose giving him increased powers to spy on Americans. Although they are a minority in both Houses of Congress, the presence of some Republicans supporting privacy rights, along with the requirement for sixty votes in the Senate, provided Democrats with the power to force changes.  A swing of one vote in the Senate or twenty-six Democrats in the House could have forced reforms to the law which allows warrantless surveillance of Americans as well as foreigners.

SciFi Weekend: Star Trek Discovery Returns; The X-Files; Runaways Concludes First Season; The Handmaid’s Tale Season Two; Krypton

Star Trek: Discovery returned last week with Despite Yourself, directed by Jonathan Frakes. The episode immediately provided the answers to two points which were widely predicted: Ash Tyler is Voq and the Discovery is in the Mirror universe. Of course there were new twists to keep things interesting.

As I had been discussing late in the fall season, the only way to make sense of Ash Tyler’s actions was that if he was Voq he was a sleeper agent and did not realize it. This turned out to be true, but in addition something went wrong when L’Rell tried to restore his memories. This leaves Ash/Voq in a situation where we cannot predict what he will do in the future, and we have seen that at times either could dominate.

The procedure used for Voq was quite sophisticated, initially fooling medical exams. (The Tribble was back on Lorca’s desk so perhaps it can expose Voq–except both are off the Discovery.) Ultimately Culber did figure it out, and appears to have been killed to keep him quiet. This resulted in Discovery taking heat for providing another case of part of a same-sex couple getting killed, such as on The 100 a couple of years ago. This led to quick assurances that we will see Culber again. There are many possibilities including that he can still recover (with the help of future medicine) from having his neck snapped, Stamets using time travel or other aspects of the mycelial network to reverse what happened, or the replacement of Culber with a version from the Mirror universe or another universe. It is a bit strange that there was nobody else around either sickbay or the brig when Ash was letting L’Rell out of the brig or attacking Culber.

Finding that Ash Tyler is actually a sleeper Klingon has the potential for further ramifications now that he is one of only three from the Discovery crew on the ISS Shenzhou. This came about due to a poor decision from Burnham to keep quiet about him, but it was established early that Burnham is capable of making really bad decisions. Fortunately we saw that Burnham is very capable of defending herself.

It was also revealed very early in the episode that they were in the Mirror universe from Mirror, Mirror. The data recovered from a destroyed rebel ship quickly provided them with quite detailed information about not only the Empire but about the roles of the crew on their own ship. While somewhat unrealistic that they could have received this much information, it did allow them to quickly get into the story without wasting time searching out this information. This also provided a good way to bring viewers new to Star Trek up to date without boring long time viewers. Tying this into the events of an episode of Enterprise, In a Mirror, Darkly, was also rewarding for long time Star Trek fans, while new viewers could still follow what is going on. (A synopsis of In a Mirror, Darkly can be found here).

While Captain Lorca reviewed the information they retrieved, it also felt like this was for the benefit of others, and Lorca was already aware of what was going on, having appeared to have intentionally caused the Discovery to wind up in the Mirror universe. Having learned that the Lorca of the Mirror universe has disappeared raises suspicion that possibly the Lorca we know is actually the Mirror counterpart. This would explain much of his behavior, including sleeping with a weapon. If so, Lorca is more sophisticated than Mirror Kirk, who could not keep fit in and keep his identity secret when he crossed over to our universe in Mirror, Mirror. There is also the question of what is going on with the Mirror Discovery after it crossed over into our universe.

It was entertaining to see the USS Discovery quickly convert to the ISS Discovery. Seeing a replicator-like process for making Burnham’s uniform in a previous episode makes it more plausible that they could quickly make the needed uniforms (even if not entirely consistent with the original show). As on previous Mirror universe stories, the elevator was one of the preferred places for an assassination attempt (other than the bedroom), and we got the obligatory attempted murder scene. As was foreshadowed in Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum with Stamets calling Tilly “Captain,” Tilly (or Killy) is the Captain of the Mirror Discovery. I do like how this is truly a continuing, serialized series, with little events in one episode providing a payoff in future episodes. Having Lorca portray the Engineer with a Scottish accent was also an amusing homage to the original show.

While the recovered data provided far more information than was realistic, the one missing piece of information was the identity of the Emperor. As they made a point of this, it is very likely that this will be revealed in a future episode, and it will also provide a payoff to viewers. If this was fan fiction, I might guess that it was a very old Empress Sato. While that would be satisfying to fans who remember In A Mirror, Darkly, it would mean little to newer fans, so I doubt that this will be the case. My bet is that it will be Philippa Georgiou, especially after there was no sign of her on the Shenzhou. Burnham already had a fight to the death with the Mirror version of someone she knew from the Shenzhou, and I bet she will also have to confront the Mirror Georgiou. (A confrontation with Tyler/Voq is also very likely.)

While previous Mirror universe stories were one or two episodes, it appears that the entire second half of the season will be a longer Mirror story. As I quoted in an interview with the producers last week, Discovery is gradually moving towards showing the vision of the Federation we are accustomed to from the original series. Taking place in the Mirror universe does now allow Discovery to portray what is good about the Federation through contrast with the Empire, even if we did not see it at its greatest in the first half of the season.

The same interview mentioned second chances. Being in the Mirror universe has provided a second chance for Lorca, who appears to have wanted to go there with his future uncertain in our universe. Bringing the Discovery from our universe might also be part of a bigger plan if he is really the Mirror Lorca. Bernham might also be tempted to remain now that she is the Captain of her own ship in the Mirror universe, and faces a possible return to prison in our universe. Ultimately both will have big decisions about what is important to them. The xenophobia of the Mirror universe also resonates in our present with the presidency of Donald Trump, years after the idea was first shown on the original show. It is sad that we have not progressed more since the 1960’s.

TV Line interviewed the Discovery show runners about the episode:

TVLINE | The mirror universe is a huge part of Trek mythology, dating back to the original series. How early on in the writing process did you know you wanted to go there?
GRETCHEN J. BERG | I think pretty much from the beginning.

AARON HARBERTS | Yeah, the biggest thing, frankly, was when we were going to do it. Initially, plans had been hatched to go over there in Episode 5, and we realized as we were talking about it: The mirror universe only works when you can care about the characters enough in the prime universe, so you can uncover the discovery of who people are in the alternate universe. So we realized that the mirror universe really needed to play in the back half of the [season], that it really needed to anchor the last several episodes…

TVLINE | So the crew needs to find a way out of this mirror universe with the Terrans. Is that the overriding mission for the next few weeks? Does it run through the season finale?
HARBERTS
 | We will be in the mirror universe for a little while. Episode 10 is simply the introduction. We felt like we could tell quite a bit of story in this mirror universe — not only about the mirror universe, but about our characters. Things come out about our characters in the mirror universe that wouldn’t come out in the prime universe. So we really felt like it was a great crucible for storytelling.

TVLINE | Is it giving away too much to ask if we’ll see a mirror Georgiou?
BERG
 | I find your question very interesting, but that’s a “no comment.” [Laughs]

TVLINE | Making Tilly the captain was such an inspired stroke of storytelling. How much did Mary Wiseman enjoy that twist?
HARBERTS | [Laughs] The thing that was fun is, we always knew we were going to do it. The gift that we’ve been given from CBS All Access was to allow this to be so serialized. So Tilly says “I’m going to be a captain someday” the first time we meet her. So we knew: “Mary, guess what? In the mirror universe, you’re going to be a captain!” Mary is super-dry and super-sassy, so whenever she would cop a little ‘tude — and I mean that in the most playful of ways, because we have fun and just go at each other — it would just be like, “Yeah, that’s really mirror-universe Tilly. Save that for the mirror universe!” I think she had a ball. When she takes charge of that bridge, it’s just a testament to how great she is as an actor. She can go from comedic to downright scary to fighting both instincts. She’s just truly gifted.

TVLINE | We did witness Dr. Culber’s death as well, when Tyler’s alternate personality came out. What’s the fallout going to be from that when the crew returns to the ship? 
BERG | There are so many things that are set off or started in Episode 10… there are ramifications for every action. It is a huge thing. And it’s heartbreaking, and horrifying.

HARBERTS | One of the early bits of feedback about Discovery is that it’s very dark, and very bleak. And I don’t necessarily believe that that’s true, because we know where the show is going. But I do think that scenes of forgiveness and atonement and redemption are really important in Star Trek, and we’re going to have to take that journey. On our show, no one is ever truly a villain, and no one is ever truly a perfect person. And what’s beautiful about Shazad [Latif]’s performance is, you see just how shocked and horrified he is by his actions…

TVLINE | What else is coming up in the rest of this season? Is Tyler’s alternate personality kind of the ticking time bomb that could derail this entire mission?
BERG
 | It’s looming pretty large, and it’s a huge complication to what is going on, not only personally with Burnham and everybody else.

HARBERTS | If your psyche is hanging by a thread, maybe the last thing you want to do is go on an away mission to the Terran Empire. [Laughs] What you don’t need is more stress.

BERG | Where is the couch and afghan you can climb under? They don’t have one! I would say, also, as shocking as the death of Culber is that you just witnessed at the hands of Tyler, Culber and Stamets have been in a relationship that… sort of represents the epic love story of our series. And, you know, love overcomes all. I think you can count on that it won’t be the last we see Culber. You’ll see him again.

HARBERTS | This relationship between Stamets and Culber… this death is but the first chapter. The trope of “Bury Your Gays,” which is running rampant through our television landscape, that is not something that Star Trek has ever been interested in doing. I think we’ve shown by now that we’re not interested in tropes, and that we love our characters, and we love our actors. When you’re given the gift of Wilson Cruz and Anthony Rapp, and you’ve got several gay writers on staff, you don’t just throw that away. You will see Dr. Culber again. This is a love story that’s going to transcend death, and there is much more story to tell for those two. And the science that [the real-life mycologist] Paul Stamets has provided as a backdrop for our fictional Paul Stamets, and for our show… if the audience is concerned about what’s going to happen to Culber, dig deeper into the science of the mycelial network. There are so many clues in there.

This (as with last week’s episode) has me optimistic that we are in store for a much better season of The X-Files than the previous. While much of the story might not hold up if looked at too critically (which can be said of the original run of the show), it was very entertaining. It provided, as a revival should, both something of the past (Richard Langly of The Lone Gunmen) along with an updated twist. The idea of consciousness being uploaded after death is an idea which Steven Moffat has used several times, although this was handled much more like Black Mirror than Doctor Who.

The episode also played on modern paranoia and conspiracy theories, from the use of the Russians to this exchange:

Skinner: “The bureau is not in good standing to the White House these days.”

Mulder: ‘The FBI finally found out what it’s like to be looked upon a little spooky.”

While the alien threat was potentially eliminated last week, there is a new threat. We were warned that, “life on this earth, all human life, most animal life, is about to be crushed. Burnt to the ground.” They also had to enter something very close to a real life NSA facility.

Runaways concluded its first season last week, and was an excellent origin story setting up their situation. By the end of the first season, we have learned quit a bit about the characters and their situation. Nothing really got resolved in the finale, but fortunately Hulu has renewed the series for a second season. They also renewed Future Man. I have not seen this yet, but have heard good things about the series.

Hulu has turned into a major player in streaming with The Handmaid’s Tale, including with a Golden Globe win last week. It will be interesting to see what happens when it returns on April 25 now that they are beyond the book. Reportedly the second season will go beyond the events in Gilead and show the Colonies. The above trailer was recently released.

Syfy has released the first official trailer for Krypton, which premiers March 21.

Democrats, Including Nancy Pelosi, Help Republicans Block Civil Liberties Protections

The House has voted to renew the NSA’s warrantless surveillance program after previously failing to pass an amendment to place limitations on the program to help protect the rights of Americans. The New York Times reports:

The House of Representatives voted on Thursday to extend the National Security Agency’s warrantless surveillance program for six years with minimal changes, rejecting a yearslong effort by a bipartisan group of lawmakers to impose significant new privacy limits when it sweeps up Americans’ emails and other personal communications.

The vote, 256 to 164, centered on an expiring law that permits the government, without a warrant, to collect communications of foreigners abroad from United States firms like Google and AT&T — even when those targets are talking to Americans. Congress had enacted the law in 2008 to legalize a form of a once-secret warrantless surveillance program created after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

The legislation approved on Thursday still has to go through the Senate. But fewer lawmakers there appear to favor major changes to spying laws, so the House vote is likely the effective end of a debate over 21st-century surveillance technology and privacy rights that broke out in 2013 following the leaks by the intelligence contractor Edward J. Snowden…

Before approving the extension of the law, known as Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act, the House voted 233 to 183 to reject an amendment that proposed a series of overhauls. Among them was a requirement that officials get warrants in most cases before hunting for and reading emails and other messages of Americans swept up under the program.

Daniel Schuman of Demand Progress tweeted a list of the fifty-five Democrats, including Nancy Pelosi and Intelligence Committee Democratic Ranking Member Adam Schiff, who voted against the amendment introduced by Republican Justin Amash.

Schuman noted that the USA Rights amendment could have passed if twenty-six of these Democrats had supported it.

The Intercept described the effects of the bill which was passed:

The law serves as the legal backing for two mammoth NSA programs revealed by Edward Snowden: Upstream, which collects information from the internet junctions where data passes into and out of the country, and PRISM, which collects communications from U.S.-based internet companies like Google, Microsoft, Apple, and Yahoo.

The programs rest on the notion that they are “targeting” foreigners, but they collect massive amounts of data on Americans as well, including wholly domestic communications. Amazingly, the intelligence community has never disclosed how much. Numerous members of Congress have requested an estimate since 2011, but both the Obama and Trump administrations have refused to provide one.

The bill also consolidates the FBI’s legal authority to search those communications without a warrant. Under current rules, the NSA shares certain kinds of information it collects under Section 702 with the FBI, whose agents can then search it in the course of investigating crimes unrelated to national security. In a secret court hearing in 2015, a lawyer for the Justice Department compared the frequency of those searches to the use of Google.

The American Civil Liberties Union issued this statement:

The House voted today to give President Trump and his administration more spying powers. The government will use this bill to continue warrantless intrusions into Americans’ private emails, text messages, and other communications.

No president should have this power. Yet, members of Congress just voted to hand it to an administration that has labeled individuals as threats based merely on their religion, nationality, or viewpoints. The Senate should reject this bill and rein in government surveillance powers to bring Section 702 in line with the Constitution.

Of course there is little chance of stopping this in the Senate either.  Rand Paul and Ron Wyden have sponsored a Senate version of the USA Rights Act.

There was one amusing aspect of this with Donald Trump again showing he has no understanding of the legislation before Congress. Trump initially put out a tweet opposing the bill after someone on Fox and Friends had said that the FISA Act had been used to justify surveillance of him based upon the Steele Dossier. He later reversed this after someone explained the position of his administration to him regarding the legislation.

This turned out to be only the second most stupid thing said by Donald Trump today. Later in the day this president with a shithole for a brain referred to Haiti and African countries as shithole countries.

Quote of the Day: Jimmy Fallon On Trump

Last week, President Trump announced the United States will withdraw from the Paris climate agreement. Trump said he wants the entire country to be the same temperature as a Florida golf course. –Jimmy Fallon

Bonus Quote:

The NSA contractor who leaked the document is a woman named Reality Winner. When he was asked if he had any contact with the leaker, Trump said, “Nope, I’m TOTALLY out of touch with Reality.” –Jimmy Fallon

The Intercept On NSA Report Of Russian Hacking Attempt Prior To The Election

Previously claims of Russians “rigging” the election were primarily based upon the belief that Russia was responsible for release of the Wikileaks emails. This was also extended to still unsubstantiated claims of collusion with the Trump campaign. The Intercept now reports that there is evidence that Russia also attempted to hack computers connected to voter registration. From their report:

Russian military intelligence executed a cyberattack on at least one U.S. voting software supplier and sent spear-phishing emails to more than 100 local election officials just days before last November’s presidential election, according to a highly classified intelligence report obtained by The Intercept.

The top-secret National Security Agency document, which was provided anonymously to The Intercept and independently authenticated, analyzes intelligence very recently acquired by the agency about a months-long Russian intelligence cyber effort against elements of the U.S. election and voting infrastructure. The report, dated May 5, 2017, is the most detailed U.S. government account of Russian interference in the election that has yet come to light.

While the document provides a rare window into the NSA’s understanding of the mechanics of Russian hacking, it does not show the underlying “raw” intelligence on which the analysis is based. A U.S. intelligence officer who declined to be identified cautioned against drawing too big a conclusion from the document because a single analysis is not necessarily definitive…

The NSA analysis does not draw conclusions about whether the interference had any effect on the election’s outcome and concedes that much remains unknown about the extent of the hackers’ accomplishments. However, the report raises the possibility that Russian hacking may have breached at least some elements of the voting system, with disconcertingly uncertain results.

The NSA and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence were both contacted for this article. Officials requested that we not publish or report on the top secret document and declined to comment on it. When informed that we intended to go ahead with this story, the NSA requested a number of redactions. The Intercept agreed to some of the redaction requests after determining that the disclosure of that material was not clearly in the public interest.

The report adds significant new detail to the picture that emerged from the unclassified intelligence assessment about Russian election meddling released by the Obama administration in January. The January assessment presented the U.S. intelligence community’s conclusions but omitted many specifics, citing concerns about disclosing sensitive sources and methods. The assessment concluded with high confidence that the Kremlin ordered an extensive, multi-pronged propaganda effort “to undermine public faith in the US democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency.”

That review did not attempt to assess what effect the Russian efforts had on the election, despite the fact that “Russian intelligence obtained and maintained access to elements of multiple US state or local electoral boards.” According to the Department of Homeland Security, the assessment reported reassuringly, “the types of systems we observed Russian actors targeting or compromising are not involved in vote tallying.”

The NSA has now learned, however, that Russian government hackers, part of a team with a “cyber espionage mandate specifically directed at U.S. and foreign elections,” focused on parts of the system directly connected to the voter registration process, including a private sector manufacturer of devices that maintain and verify the voter rolls. Some of the company’s devices are advertised as having wireless internet and Bluetooth connectivity, which could have provided an ideal staging point for further malicious actions…

The full report has far more information on how the hacking was allegedly attempted. Of course note the tremendous number of qualifiers in this report, casting doubt as to whether we can believe a single report.

Shortly after the report was posted, the FBI arrested a contractor who allegedly released the report to The Intercept. The Daily Caller portrays the leaker as “A Bernie Supporter Who ‘Resists’ Trump.” I’m sure we will continue to see many attempts to politicize the news, but what is needed is the facts as to what Russia actually did, and whether there was any collusion from the Trump campaign, without using this to promote any political agendas.

It is premature to come to any conclusions, but so far there is a lot of suggestion of a cover-up from the Trump administration, including the firing of James Comey, but far less conclusive evidence of any initial crimes which they might be covering up. I have suspected that in the end this very well might come down to financial dealings on the part of Trump and his associates. Along these lines, NBC News is reporting that Congressional committees are looking into whether Jared Kushner was seeking a back channel with Russia in order to obtain a bailout for a Manhattan building he owns.

Such a reason makes more sense than the theories that this was tied into alleged collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign to rig the election. If there was really such collusion, there would have presumably been some sort of back channels already present prior to the election.

Update: The original post has been revised, primarily to clarify that the alleged hacking attempt was directed towards computers involved with voter registration, not voting machines themselves.

NSA Surveillance Data To Become Available To More Agencies

While civil liberties advocates worry about the incoming Trump administration, with some urging the Obama administration to curtail surveillance prior to Trump’s inauguration, The New York Times report that instead the NSA is being given increased latitude to share intercepted communications:

In its final days, the Obama administration has expanded the power of the National Security Agency to share globally intercepted personal communications with the government’s 16 other intelligence agencies before applying privacy protections.

The new rules significantly relax longstanding limits on what the N.S.A. may do with the information gathered by its most powerful surveillance operations, which are largely unregulated by American wiretapping laws. These include collecting satellite transmissions, phone calls and emails that cross network switches abroad, and messages between people abroad that cross domestic network switches.

The change means that far more officials will be searching through raw data. Essentially, the government is reducing the risk that the N.S.A. will fail to recognize that a piece of information would be valuable to another agency, but increasing the risk that officials will see private information about innocent people.

The American Civil Liberties Union did not accept the Obama administration’s justification for this change:

…Patrick Toomey, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union, called the move an erosion of rules intended to protect the privacy of Americans when their messages are caught by the N.S.A.’s powerful global collection methods. He noted that domestic internet data was often routed or stored abroad, where it may get vacuumed up without court oversight.

“Rather than dramatically expanding government access to so much personal data, we need much stronger rules to protect the privacy of Americans,” Mr. Toomey said. “Seventeen different government agencies shouldn’t be rooting through Americans’ emails with family members, friends and colleagues, all without ever obtaining a warrant.”

Techdirt comments that “All of this means the NSA is now officially a domestic surveillance agency, even if a majority of its exploration of Americans’ data/communications is being done by proxy.”

The Verge adds:

The change also raises unavoidable privacy concerns. While the relevant data is collected overseas, it inevitably includes phone calls, emails, and other messages between US citizens. Without any form of filtering, the raw data includes everything that passed through a given network switch, without any form of reasonable suspicion or probable cause.

The new rule bears on all data collected under Executive Order 12333, which many believe to be responsible for the bulk of the NSA’s collection efforts. Issued by President Reagan, the order did not require a congressional vote, and has been subject to only minimal oversight by the legislature. Collection efforts under the order are not subject to court approval, as long as they occur outside the United States.

Presumably this is one executive order from Obama which Donald Trump will not reverse.

While I doubt he will take me up on this suggestion, as Obama is a centrist who often tries to please both sides, he should at least balance this by doing the right thing before leaving office and pardon Edward Snowden, who we have to thank for letting the American people know about the existence of this surveillance, and how the NSA had been breaking the law.

Bernie Sanders Presents Welcome Alternative To Hillary Clinton’s Conservative Record On Civil Liberties

LANHAM, MD - MAY 5:  U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) speaks at a town hall meeting at the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local Union 26 office May 5, 2015 in Lanham, Maryland. Sanders, who announced announced his candidacy for president on April 30, discussed a range of issues and took questions from the audience. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

While economic differences between Hillary Clinton and her more liberal challengers for the Democratic nomination have received the most attention, Clinton’s poor record on civil liberties issues is another reason why many liberals find her to be an unacceptable candidate. While Clinton has supported the Patriot Act, Bernie Sanders has voted against it. He has also opposed the abuses in NSA surveillance, and written the following forTime in response to the appeals court ruling that the surveillance is not legal:

I welcome a federal appeals court ruling that the National Security Agency does not have the legal authority to collect and store data on all U.S. telephone calls. Now Congress should rewrite the expiring eavesdropping provision in the so-called USA Patriot Act and include strong new limits to protect the privacy and civil liberties of the American people.

Let me be clear: We must do everything we can to protect our country from the serious potential of another terrorist attack. We can and must do so, however, in a way that also protects the constitutional rights of the American people and maintains our free society.

Do we really want to live in a country where the NSA gathers data on virtually every single phone call in the United States—including as many as 5 billion cellphone records per day? I don’t. Do we really want our government to collect our emails, see our text messages, know everyone’s Internet browsing history, monitor bank and credit card transactions, keep tabs on people’s social networks? I don’t.

Unfortunately, this sort of Orwellian surveillance, conducted under provisions of the Patriot Act, invades the privacy of millions of law-abiding Americans…

Hillary Clinton has supported the Patriot Act and, in contrast to Sanders, has been evasive when asked about abuses by the NSA–most likley waiting to see which position polls the best. Clinton has had a terrible record on First Amendment and civil liberties issues even beyond her support for the Patriot Act. As I’ve discussed previously, Clinton’s poor record regarding civil liberties and separation of church and state includes her support for the Workplace Religious Freedom Act , a bill introduced by Rick Santorum and opposed by the American Civil Liberties Union for promoting discrimination and reducing access to health care, leading a campaign to censor video games and introducing a bill making flag burning a felony.

Rand Paul Flip Flopping Away From Libertarianism As He Enters Republican Race

Rand Paul Conservative

Rand Paul has a problem much like Mitt Romney did, even though the details are different. Mitt Romney took many liberal positions when a politician in Massachusetts, and then had to flip flop on them to claim to be have been severely conservative to win the Republican nomination in 2012. Rand Paul has developed his base as sort of being a libertarian, and now is trying to fit more into the Republican mold to campaign for the 2016 presidential nomination.

Much of Rand Paul’s support has come from his opposition to foreign intervention, but he has been sounding more and more like a traditional Republican over the past  several months. and wrote:

…Paul is a candidate who has turned fuzzy, having trimmed his positions and rhetoric so much that it’s unclear what kind of Republican he will present himself as when he takes the stage….

There are at least two areas where Paul has moved more in line with the conservative Republican base, somewhat to the consternation of the purists in the libertarian movement: adopting a more muscular posture on defense and foreign policy, and courting the religious right.

Where he once pledged to sharply cut the Pentagon’s budget, for instance, Paul late last month proposed a $190 billion increase over the next two years — albeit one that would be paid for by cutting foreign aid and other government programs. His tour following the announcement of his candidacy will include an event at Patriots Point in South Carolina’s Charleston Harbor, with the World War II-era aircraft carrier USS Yorktown as a backdrop.

BuzzFeed News describes this as Rand Paul’s Bid To Be Everything To Every Republican Voter Politico reported on Paul being confronted on his changing views in a Today Show interview. Time recently described Paul’s new views on defense spending:

Just weeks before announcing his 2016 presidential bid, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul is completing an about-face on a longstanding pledge to curb the growth in defense spending…

The move completes a stunning reversal for Paul, who in May 2011, after just five months in office, released his own budget that would have eliminated four agencies—Commerce, Housing and Urban Development, Energy and Education—while slashing the Pentagon, a sacred cow for many Republicans. Under Paul’s original proposal, defense spending would have dropped from $553 billion in the 2011 fiscal year to $542 billion in 2016. War funding would have plummeted from $159 billion to zero. He called it the “draw-down and restructuring of the Department of Defense.”

But under Paul’s new plan, the Pentagon will see its budget authority swell by $76.5 billion to $696,776,000,000 in fiscal year 2016.

The boost would be offset by a two-year combined $212 billion cut to funding for aid to foreign governments, climate change research and crippling reductions in to the budgets of the Environmental Protection Agency, and the departments of Housing and Urban Development, Commerce and Education.

Paul’s endorsement of increased defense spending represents a change in direction for the first-term lawmaker, who rose to prominence with his critiques of the size of the defense budget and foreign aid, drawing charges of advocating isolationism. Under pressure from fellow lawmakers and well-heeled donors, Paul in recent months has appeared to embrace the hawkish rhetoric that has defined the GOP in recent decades. At the Conservative Political Action Conference in February Paul warned of the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS). “Without question, we must now defend ourselves and American interests,” he said. Asked about federal spending, he added, “for me, the priority is always national defense.”

While Paul is sounding more like a Republican on defense spending and foreign policy, like many Republican “libertarians,” Paul has never been all that libertarian on social issues. While Rand Paul might not share all the faults of Ron Paul, I have discussed at length in the past how this brand of “libertarianism” does not promote individual liberty. The New York Times found that libertarian Republicans are 1) rare, and 2) not all that libertarian:

In one sense, you could argue that the libertarian wing of the Republican Party barely exists at all. According to a large Pew Research survey in 2014 of 10,000 respondents, 11 percent of Americans and 12 percent of self-identified Republicans considered themselves libertarian. They met a basic threshold for knowing what the term meant. But there wasn’t much “libertarian” about these voters; over all, their views were startlingly similar to those of the public as a whole.

The likeliest explanation is that “libertarianism” has become a catchall phrase for iconoclasts of all political stripes. “Libertarian” seems to have become an adjective for the liberal millennials who are more skeptical of regulations and assistance for the poor than their Democratic contemporaries. The same holds for the deeply conservative college students who may want to, for example, signal socially acceptable views about homosexuality. These “libertarians” have little resemblance to the true believers who might scare everyone else out of the room with their views on a flat tax, the Civil Rights Act and a return to the gold standard.

If we take a different tack and use issue positions, rather than self-identification, to identify libertarian voters, we still find only a small number of Republicans who consistently agree with Mr. Paul’s libertarian views. Only 8 percent of self-identified Republican-leaners in the Pew data take the libertarian position on four issues that he emphasizes: disapproval of the National Security Agency’s surveillance program; support for a more restrained American role in the world; skepticism of the efficacy of military intervention; and a relaxation on drug sentencing.

Paul has been especially conservative as opposed to libertarian on social issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage. He has been repeating a common line of right wing revisionist historians who deny the establishment of separation of church and state:

Paul also has been trying to find common cause with evangelical Christian voters, who have been skeptical of and even hostile toward the energized libertarian element of the GOP.

“The First Amendment says keep government out of religion. It doesn’t say keep religion out of government,” he told a group of pastors at a private breakfast on Capitol Hill on March 26.

Many contemporary writers, such as here and here, have already taken Paul to task for botching the meaning of the First Amendment. For further explanation, I’ll turn to someone who not only was around at the time the First Amendment was written, but is also a hero to many libertarians–Thomas Jefferson:

“Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man & his god, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, thus building a wall of separation between church and state.” —Thomas Jefferson, January 1, 1802

Paul has recently been having difficulty answering questions as to whether he would permit any exceptions in laws he supports prohibiting abortion rights. He tried to throw back the question to the Democratic National Committee, and Debbie Wasserman Schultz quickly responded:

“Here’s an answer,” said Schultz. “I support letting women and their doctors make this decision without government getting involved. Period. End of story. Now your turn, Senator Paul. We know you want to allow government officials like yourself to make this decision for women — but do you stand by your opposition to any exceptions, even when it comes to rape, incest, or life of the mother? Or do we just have different definitions of ‘personal liberty’? And I’d appreciate it if you could respond without ’shushing’ me.”

That is a far better response than what we have been accustomed to from Hillary Clinton, who has repeatedly undermined liberal proponents of  abortion rights with calls for abortion to be safe, legal, and rare, stigmatizing women who do seek abortions. Still, while many liberals are unhappy with the prospect that the Democrats will nominate someone as conservative as Hillary Clinton, her views (and the likely views of any Supreme Court justices she would appoint) are far preferable to Paul’s views on social issues, while Paul’s views on national security issues are rapidly moving to be as far right as the views of both Clinton and the other Republican candidates. On the other hand, I do welcome seeing Paul challenge Clinton on other civil liberties issues, such as NSA surveillance–assuming he doesn’t also flip flop on this.

Republican Minority Blocks Bill To Curtail NSA; Democrats To Take Over Role Of Blocking What They Oppose

Not very long ago it was common for bipartisan coalitions to accomplish things in Congress. That was largely before the current realignment in which Democratic southern conservatives have either joined the Republicans or been voted out of office, and Republican moderates and liberals have been driven away. Theoretically even a totally conservative Republican Party might have members finding common ground with some Democrats at times.  Traditionally there have been some conservative Republicans who have been strong advocates of civil liberties.

Curtailing NSA surveillance would seem to be an area where liberal Democrats and some conservative Republicans might work together. In our bizarre system where a majority does not rule and sixty votes are needed in the Senate,Patrick Leahy’s bill to end the NSA’s bulk data collection died due to only receiving a 58 to 42 majority. This died due to solid Republican opposition, led by Mitch McConnell who felt the bill went to far, and Rand Paul who rationalized voting with the rest of the Republicans by saying the bill did not go far enough.

Libertarians at Reason’s Hit & Run blog were disappointed in Paul, writing that, “Paul and the rest of his fellow citizens may well come to rue the day that he allowed the perfect to get in the way of the merely better.” Regardless of his justifications, Rand Paul has shown that he cannot be counted upon in promoting civil liberties issues. I fear that as Rand Paul tries to position himself as a serious contender for the presidential nomination, he will increasingly align himself with McConnell and become indistinguishable from other Republicans from the authoritarian right. I have often pointed out how his father, Ron Paul, was also hardly the defender of liberty which his fans made him out to be.

There is some small consolation that the Republican minority which has concentrated on blocking Democratic legislation will now replaced by a Democratic minority which can also act to block the disastrous Republican agenda. In describing the Democrats who blocked the Keystone XL pipeline, Politco reported on what they are calling the “hell no” caucus:

..red-state Democrats like Mark Pryor of Arkansas and Mark Begich of Alaska are on their way out, and liberals like Jeff Merkley, Bernie Sanders and Sheldon Whitehouse — with Elizabeth Warren leading the way on messaging — may cause as many headaches for Senate Republicans as tea partyers caused Democrats in the past four years…

Asked if he could ever envision himself performing a Rand Paul-style talking filibuster in the Republican Senate, Whitehouse of Rhode Island replied: “Oh, of course. We will have more tools in the minority than we had in the majority.”

Progressives are girding for battle with Republicans over campaign finance law, consumer protections and women’s health care. But the early battle lines appear increasingly drawn around environmental policy, where Democratic centrists may defect from leadership in next year’s Senate and help Republicans pass legislation strongly opposed by liberal senators…

Even as they vow to fight Republicans at every turn on issues that fundamentally divide liberals and conservatives, left-leaning Democrats insist that they will not do so seeking retaliation against a Republican minority that stymied their economic, environmental and social priorities for so long with filibusters and delay. Those days, they insist, are gone — leaving liberals to somehow find a balance between fighting for their convictions and not drawing the same charges of obstruction that have dominated Democratic messaging for years.

“The best news about a Republican majority in the Senate is that the Republican minority is now gone,” Whitehouse said. “They were just a god-awful minority.”

Maybe this will free up liberal Democrats to more strongly articulate their views on the issues, while allowing more people to see what the Republican agenda really is.