Friday, May 17, 2013

Left Side of the Aisle #108 - Part 6

The real Obama scandal: government secrecy and surveillance

It is finally, it is at last, it is in fact long past time that we stopped believing the boldfaced lie that President Hopey-Changey has any commitment at all to the "transparency" in government that he promised. He came into office promising the most transparent administration ever only to prove himself more committed to government secrecy and domestic spying than anyone who preceded him.

For example, I've talked before about his unprecedented war on whistleblowers, prosecuting more of them under the 1917 Espionage Act than all previous presidents combined. That includes the persecution of Bradley Manning, the American hero who dared to tell the public the truth about Iraq and other parts of US foreign policy. He was held in solitary confinement for month after month - which is considered torture by international standards - in an attempt to break him and make him give false testimony against Julian Assange so that the White House could destroy WikiLeaks. When that failed, he is now in what increasingly looks like a kangaroo military court. The government is building a wall of secrecy around the trial, with secret witnesses testifying in disguise in secret locations, secret "dry runs" of future court proceedings, something even the prosecutors say is unprecedented, and the petty refusal of the government to release transcripts of the public parts of the proceedings, making accurate reporting difficult.

Now, just recently, we have scandal on scandal on scandal, or at least the appearance of them. I have to say, to be fair, and of course I am always scrupulously fair, some of them bother me a lot less than others.

For one, all the frothing about the "scrubbing of the talking points" in the wake of the attack on the consulate in Benghazi really fails to impress me. For one thing, the deaths of US diplomats is hardly unprecedented. Between January of 2002 and September of 2008, 60 US diplomats were killed, including 12 in Karachi in 2002 and 16 in Yemen in 2008, none of which, to my memory, produced the wailing and rending of garments and gnashing of teeth seen in this case. What's more, the memo itself was little more than typical political CYA and the "scrubbing" amounted to the State Department and the CIA each trying to preemptively blame the other for any screw-ups that might emerge later on.

It's clear the administration was, as the term of art goes, "less than forthcoming" about Benghazi and there are questions about the routine level of security available at the consulate, so there are legitimate concerns that can be raised - but this memo ain't one of them.

Another one, frankly, is the business about the IRS supposedly "targeting" teabagger groups. A few days ago, I would have condemned the IRS using political standards as strongly as anyone else, but the fact is, the more I learn about this, the less of an OMIGOD! it becomes.

First, these were not criminal investigations, they were investigations of eligibility for 501(c)3 and 501(c)4 tax-exempt status. Obtaining and maintaining that status requires that the primary focus of the organization is social welfare. Only limited political activity is allowed.

Second, there was no "targeting" of teabagger groups. The idea was that a group with "Tea Party" or "Patriot" in its name should get a closer look because that raised a reasonable possibility that they may well be engaged in political advocacy rather than social welfare and so be ineligible for 501(c)3 or (c)4 status.

Third, "tea party" and "patriot" were not the only triggers for closer examination. CBS News reports that according to Lois Lerner, who heads the IRS division that oversees tax-exempt organizations, only about 300 of the 3400 applications for 501(c)3 or (c)4 status in 2012 were given extra attention and only a quarter of those involved "tea party" or "patriot."

Finally, if this was an attempt "to punish political enemies," is was a damned inefficient one: Lerner says that 150 of those cases have been closed and while some groups withdrew their application, no group had its tax-exempt status revoked.

In reality, the whole thing was an attempt by the IRS to find a way to deal with the soaring number of applications. The method they chose - or, more accurately, this part of the method they chose - was surely not the best. Scratch that, it was stupid. But to turn it into some conspiracy (directed by who?) to attack political opponents is total nonsense.

A buzzword of fairly recent vintage is "optics," the idea that what something is, is less important than what one side or another can make it appear to be. This is definitely a case of that.

Which brings us to the third scandal of recent weeks, and this is the real one.

The Associated Press was just informed by the Justice Department that it had secretly obtained two months of telephone records of reporters and editors for AP. For the months of April and May of 2012, it got lists of all outgoing calls for both the work and personal phone numbers of individual reporters, for the general AP office numbers in New York, Washington, DC, and Hartford, Connecticut, and for the main number for the AP in the House of Representatives press gallery. In all, it covered 20 separate telephone lines assigned to AP and its journalists, including general office ones that might be used by any of about 100 reporters and an office-wide shared fax line.

AP President and CEO Gary Pruitt called it a "massive and unprecedented intrusion" into how news organizations gather the news that went far beyond anything that could be justified by any specific investigation.

He was hardly alone: The ACLU, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the New York Times' Editorial Page Editor, the Washington Post's Executive Editor, and a number of other journalists all used terms like "unacceptable abuse of power," "a terrible blow against the freedom of the press," "outrageous," and "shocking." Even Democratic stalwart Sen. Pat Leahy, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said: "I am very troubled by these allegations and want to hear the government's explanation." Even some GOPpers got in on it: Rep. Darrell Issa and Sen. Rand Paul both criticized the intrusion into the press. Lo, and the word "Nixonian" was heard in the land.

The government wouldn't say why it wanted the records, but the belief is that it was another whistleblower case, this one looking for the source of an AP story from May 7, 2012, which revealed some details of a CIA operation in Yemen that stopped an al-Qaida plot to detonate a bomb on an airplane bound for the US - a story which, by the way, the AP obtained and then held off from publishing at the request of the White House until the day before the administration itself was going to release it. Put more directly, it grew out of this White House's continuing drive to achieve complete control over what the public does and doesn't know about what the administration is doing and when it knows it. I wonder how long it will be before they finally just cut to the chase and propose a Ministry of Truth.

The thing is, the Obama gang can't even be trusted to obey their own rules. The Department of Justice has its own regulations about obtaining the telephone records of journalists, which require that "all reasonable attempts should be made to obtain information from alternative sources" and that "negotiations with the media shall be pursued in all cases in which a subpoena to a member of the news media is contemplated." What's more, a subpoena to the media must be "as narrowly drawn as possible" and "should be directed at relevant information regarding a limited subject matter and should cover a reasonably limited time period." None of that happened.

But that didn't matter to Eric Holder, the man who leaped to launch an investigation into the "inappropriate" behavior of the IRS in thinking that politically-oriented right-wing groups might actually be politically-oriented. In this case, he insisted that he knew everything was on the up and up and did it at the same press conference where he did his Sgt. Schultz impression and claimed that he had recused himself from the investigation and had chosen to "not be fully informed."

They can't even be trusted to obey their own rules. Not when their secrecy fetish is involved. And the other thing is, you have to bear in mind that the flip side of government secrecy is always, always, government knowledge: us knowing less and less about them and them knowing more and more about us.

You want to know how bad it's getting? I'll give you an idea.

In response to a Freedom of Information Act filing, the ACLU just this month obtained documents on FBI and Justice Department policies which show that the feds believe they can read your emails without a warrant - and were advising agents of that over two years after a federal court ruled that the Fourth Amendment requires warrants for all emails because their contents are just as private as our letters or phone calls.

But simply ignoring the courts is just a holding action. According to documents obtained in April by the Electronic Privacy Information Center, or EPIC, the Obama administration has authorized a new government program involving the interception of internet communications, part of which involves promising telcoms that the government will not prosecute them if they violate US wiretapping laws by illegally handing over the information the feds want without the legally-required warrants. That is, rather than even worrying about warrants one way or another, the government will simply "ask" for the information, the companies will hand it over - illegally - and the feds won't prosecute. How much more blatantly corrupt can it be?

And the surveillance authorization here - the legal basis for which is classified, of course - is quite broad, covering all "critical infrastructure sectors" including the military, energy, healthcare, and finance.

If you think I'm being paranoid, just remember that like the bumper sticker says, just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get you. The extent of government intrusion into what we would like to think remains our private - or at least our not overtly-public - lives has become astonishing:

Tim Clemente, a former FBI counterterrorism agent, has twice asserted on CNN in recent weeks that "no digital communication is secure," by which he means not only that the government can actively monitor any of our digital communications, including phone calls, emails, online chats, and all the rest, but that all such communications are automatically recorded and stored and available to the government after the fact.

If that sounds incredible, bear in mind it's not the first indication. Columnist Glenn Greenwald points to some: In 2007, former AT&T engineer Mark Klein revealed that AT&T and other telecoms had built a special network that allowed the National Security Agency, the NSA, full and unlimited access to the phone calls and emails of all of their customers.

In 2008, two NSA employees claimed to have witnessed and even participated in the interception of hundreds of personal, intimate calls from American service members and aid workers and that NSA employees routinely intercepted calls of individuals with no connection to terrorism.

In 2009, government intelligence officials told the New York Times that the NSA had been engaged in what they called significant and systemic “overcollection” of domestic communications of Americans.

In 2010, the Washington Post reported that the NSA was intercepting and storing 1.7 billion e-mails, phone calls, and other types of communications every day.

In 2012, NSA official-turned-whistleblower William Binney estimated that the agency has assembled 20 trillion records of phone calls, emails, and other forms of data from Americans, including copies of almost all of the emails sent and received from most people living in the United States. Also in 2012, Sens. Ron Wyden and Mark Udall said Americans would be "stunned" to learn what the administration thought it had the legal power to do under the Patriot Act.

Remember I said earlier about same-sex marriage that on that one, we're winning? Well, I have to say that on this one, we're losing. Badly. And we're running out of time.


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