Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Syria Doesn't Want America's Bombing

Syrian Rebels Don't Want America's “Neutral” Bombings (updated 9/4/13)

Obama says that his attacks will be in opposition to the Syrian government's use of gas weapons, but will not be pro-Assad or pro-rebels. Here is what the Koran has to say about actions such as that:

I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were cold or hot!
because you are lukewarm, I will spew you out of my mouth.” -- Qur'an 41.51.

Syrians don't trust our government in general, and they don't trust Obama in particular. They feel that he has sided with Israel over Arab nations in the past, including Syria, and continues to do so. During his campaign in 2008, Obama made promises that brought Syrians hope. He called for new policies in dealing with the Middle East. However, he readily backed down from his earlier demands for an end to increased Israeli settlements on Palestinian land Instead of bringing the two sides together, he drove an even bigger wedge between them, and made himself a person whose word cannot be trusted. They now see him as someone who says what appeals to people, but actually acts based upon what his advisors tell him to do.

Syrians probably scoffed when Obama said in a recent speech that America has a "moral responsibility" to punish the Syrian government or military for gas weapons against civilians, which has caused somewhere between 1,000 and 1,800 deaths, depending upon the source. Where was our “moral responsibility” when Assad forces killed more than 100,000 people, leaving more than six million Syrians homeless, and more than two million refugees fleeing for their lives? In essence, they see America's message to the Syrian regime as, “It is okay to massacre hundreds of thousands of civilians by ground attack, air attack, and Scud missiles, just as long as you don't use gas on the population. What kind of stand is that?

Obama also accused Assad as being in violation of “international norms” as a basis for his bombing. What kind of contorted justification is this? Norms are nothing more than expected modes of behavior based upon prior actions or agreements. They have no legal status. And, even it they did, who gave us the right to police international norms, and take action whenever a country deviates from them, as perceived by us?

And, what if we don't bomb Syria after the Obama-defined red line has been crossed? Our government seems to be afraid that we will be viewed as being weak in the eyes of the rest of the world, solely on the basis of not following up on the threats of its ill-advised leader. Who cares about appearances, when it comes to saving lives? The rest of the world certainly knows that we still have the biggest and most powerful armaments in the entire world which is a lot more than people's opinions. Besides, if our government were truly interested in our image, we would never have invade Iraq – probably the greatest military blunder in this country's history. If we came clean with an admission that the red line was a mistake, I think the world would view us in a much better light than following through with a violent reaction.

So, what should we do? Very simply, we should openly support the rebels in any way possible, short of any direct military involvement. If our government is so concerned about our global image,
that would probably greatly improve our image in the eyes of the rebels and other nations throughout the world (except Russia). This could, and probably should, be our response to the Assad' regime's use of gas (if they really did), rather than promising more bloodshed and tears for the Syrian people. If we do intervene with bombs, then Russia might feel it's “moral responsibility” is to defend Syria by attacking our country in return, and then where would we be – the beginning of the Third World War?

An Alternative Action. If our country's leaders believe that a show of force is truly necessary, why sacrifice human lives to prove that point? Why not pick some isolated targets away from any cities or otherwise populated areas and annihilate them? That could be interpreted as a warning shot across the bow of a ship. It should be adequate warning to Assad and his supporters that we mean business. If they are blind to these implications and continuing to conduct business as usual, then we could supply the rebels with the means not just to counter the Assad regime, but to overthrow it.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act

What It Is And Why It Doesn't Work

"The complexity of the problem must not be underestimated. Electronic surveillance can be a useful tool for the Government’s gathering of certain kinds of information; yet, if abused, it can also constitute a particularly indiscriminate and penetrating invasion of the privacy of our citizens. My objective over the past six years has been to reach some kind of fair balance that will protect the security of the United States without infringing on our citizens’ human liberties and rights." – Chief Bill Sponsor, Senator Edward Kennedy (emphasis added)

It All Started in the Seventies. In the early 1970s, under Presidents Nixon and Ford, massive abuses of surveillance by the FBI, the CIA, the U.S. Military, and the White House were exposed. In response to these abuses, Congress passed the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) which, in turn, established the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC or FISA Court). Congress set up this Court to provide a system of judicial review and approval (or denial) of the government's proposed surveillance actions, along with necessary safeguards against abuse whenever the surveillance might involve an American citizen. Because foreign intelligence surveillance requires certain measures of secrecy, the details of surveillance requests and the FISA Court's actions are classified.

Why We Need Control Over Government Surveillance. Working behind closed doors, the FISA Court has the authority to approve or deny government requests for accessing and searching business or personal information – and not just telephone metadata. 

They can also gather specific information from e-mails chat sessions, and text messages, and any attachments. These items can include privileged attorney-client communication, sensitive communication between you and your doctor, and even communication between you and your accountant, tax preparer, financial adviser, etc. 

They can also collect information from sites visited, uploads and downloads made, on-line shopping and purchases – you name it: if it is digital they can access it.  That includes user IDs and passwords for protected sites you visit, including your credit card and bank accounts. They can get such a broad array of information that they can get to know you and your pattern of living better than your closest friends. Anything a hacker can do, they can do, too -- only better.  And they are able to do all this behind a shroud of secrecy, without your even suspecting that they are doing it to you. That is why we need control over such surveillance. It is too dangerous otherwise.

The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 (FISA). This law was enacted in response to allegations of abuse by the federal government in conducting electronic surveillance. It was recognized that some kind of judicial warrant should be required for such surveillance to protect citizens' rights guaranteed by the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution. This law required the government to obtain a judicial warrant authorizing the surveillance.

The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC or FISA Court) This court was authorized by FISA to review and approve or deny surveillance requests. It consists of a pool of eleven judges, all of whom are appointed by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.

Submission of Surveillance Requests. These are usually originated by one of our security agencies, such as the CIA or FBI who sends them to the NSA where warrant applications are prepared and forwarded to the Office of the Attorney General, where they are certified that the proposed surveillance targets are either a foreign power or an agent of a foreign power. (“Agent of a foreign power" is defined as meaning any person, other than a United States person, who acts in the United States as an officer or an employee of a foreign government or any component thereof, whether or not recognized by the United States.) If the target is a U.S. Citizen or a resident alien, he or she must reasonably be believed to be involved in the planning or commission of a crime that poses a threat to our national security.

Secret Hearings with Secret Decisions. Warrant applications are then assigned on a rotating basis to one of the FISA Court judges, who evaluates the requests and either approves or rejects them, based entirely on the statements of government officials. There is nobody to represent the other side of the issue or to protect the people from potentially overreaching requests or decisions. Because of the sensitive nature of this surveillance, the Court's work is performed in secret, so we never know what specific decisions are made and why, or what impact they may have on our Constitutional rights.

Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court of Review (FISCR). FISA also established this court to serve somewhat like an appellate court for decisions made the the FISA Court. This body consists of three judges, also appointed by the Chief Justice, to review, upon request, decisions made by the FISA Court. Because no no opposing counsel is allowed in the FISA Court cases, the only appeals that are normally allowed are those from the government. From 1978 to 2002, no cases were brought to this Court, and only two are known to have been brought before it since then.

FISCR Rules. The first FISA Court of Review ruling came in 2002. The FISA Court had granted a warrant to the FBI, but made it subject to certain restrictions, most notably of which was that the FBI was not to use evidence gathered under the warrant to prosecute criminal cases. The Court of Review ruled that there was no constitutional basis for the restrictions.

FISCR Rules Again. Six years later, the Court of Review delved into another questionable area when it ruled on and affirmed the constitutionality of the Protect America Act of 2007.

A Second (But Secret) Supreme Court? In ruling on these two issues, the FISA Court of Review made rulings based upon its interpretations of the Constitution, which, at the national level, is the normally considered to be the realm of the Supreme Court. In so doing, the Court of Review may have muddied the line between the role of the two courts and lent credence to the notion that the FISA Court of Review is becoming a second (but secret) Supreme Court.

Disorder in the Court. In 2002, the Justice Department asked the FISA Court to grant them broad new powers, but the Court refused, saying that the government had misused the law and misled the court dozens of times. The court released an opinion alleging that FBI and Justice Department officials had supplied erroneous information to the court in more than 75 applications for search warrants and wiretaps, including one that had been signed by the Director of the FBI at the time.

Bush Administration Ignored Court. Apparently, the Bush administration decided to ignore the FISA Court and the procedures for obtaining approval for surveillance. Three years later, The New York Times reported that the Bush administration had been conducting illegal surveillance of U.S. citizens without the knowledge or approval of the FISA Court since 2002. Four days later, Judge James Robertson abruptly resigned his position as a member of the FISA Court.  Congress later passed legislation making Bush's actions legal and made the law retroactive, to prevent prosecution for illegal search, and to grant immunity to the companies who provided the information to the administration.

Need for Advocate Counsel in the FISA Court.  Former FISA Court Judge Robertson has been quoted as saying, "Anyone who has been a judge will tell you that a judge needs to hear both sides of a case."  He went on to say that, since the government presents instances where it wants to use its powers under FISA to go to the FISA Court without an advocate for the other side, the Court is not well placed to act in an unbiased manner and judge the merits of the case, because the Court hears only one side of the case. He said that the system is flawed because of its failure to allow adversarial counsel to question the government's actions. Robertson said the system needed the presence of a legal adversary to act as a check on the government's programs. 

Another former judge who served on the FISA Court, James Carr, has proposed that the judges themselves could appoint independent lawyers as special counsels on a case-by-case basis. He suggests the advocate should also have the power to appeal FISA decisions to higher courts; something only the government can do at this time.
Without an opposing counsel, Robertson says that when the government presents its case to the FISC without adversarial counsel, the process becomes more like administrative approval process than a court hearing with true judgment on the merits of the case.
Some Food for Thought. How would you feel if eleven people, without any meaningful oversight by, or responsibility to, a higher authority, rotated decision-making among the individual members, one at a time, and ruled secretly on matters that could adversely affect your everyday life, eat away at your democracy, and destroy Constitutional rights that deal with privacy, unreasonable search and seizure, due process, and self-incrimination? Yet, that is exactly we have under FISA.
And Even Worse . . . Those eleven judges on the FISA Court were all appointed by one person (a political partisan who espouses a particular ideology), who is also without any meaningful oversight by, or responsibility to, a higher authority, and without any confirmation hearings, any examination of nominees' philosophies and prior rulings on matters likely to come before the Court, without any public input, and without confirmation or rejection of the nominees by a government body that is elected to represent the welfare and defend the rights of the American people?
But, Worst of All … All of the judges who have ever served on the FISA Court and the FISA Court of Review since it was established in 1978 have been appointed solely by conservative Chief Justices of the Supreme Court, and the present one could continue to do so for a combined total of 25 to 30 years. The sad part is that of all these things are true. Through 2012, FISA Courts have approved 99.97% of the 33,949 requests submitted to them. Does this sound like a good system of checks and balances that should continue indefinitely?
Heading Away from Diversity – and Away from Democracy. If a country allowed all appointments to such powerful positions to be made by one person who is an established partisan politician (and who is accountable to no one), and if these Court appointees operate in secrecy, allowing only one side to present its case with no advocates for the other side, could you honestly view this process as being democratic? Overtly, we claim we live in a democracy, but covertly we we give many indications of creeping more and more toward a totalitarian form of government. And FISA is a major example of this.
Opinions from Law Professionals. Stephen Vladeck, Law Professor at American University's Washington College of Law says:
"Since FISA was enacted in 1978, we've had three chief justices, and they have all been conservative Republicans, so I think one can worry that there is insufficient diversity,"
Penn Law Professor, Theodore Ruger says,
The judges are hand-picked by someone” (presently Chief Justice Roberts), “who, through his votes on the Supreme Court, has demonstrated his particular view on civil liberties and law enforcement,. The way FISA is set up, it gives him unchecked authority to put judges on the court who feel the same way he does."
Wouldn't our country would be better served if these judges represented a broader spectrum of political views?
Which Party Is Most Likely to Support Civil Liberties? In the last 30 years, Supreme Court justices appointed by Democratic presidents support civil liberties claims approximately 74 percent of the time, while those appointed by Republican presidents support civil liberty claims only about 38 percent of the time. This is just one example of how the justices appear to arrive at their legal opinions -- largely along party lines. I am sure that our founding fathers would be very disappointed if they knew that any appearance of unbiased and nonpolitical findings and rulings seems to have all but vanished from the Supreme Court.
How does that Apply to the FISA Courts? Over their 35-year history, we find that 91% of the judges for these courts were appointed by Republicans and only 9% were appointed by Democrats. Out of 13 currently-filled positions, only one is occupied by a Democrat. (One position on the three-person FISA Court of Review has been vacant for more than a year.) Because the FISA Court deals largely with issues involving civil liberties, and because 10 of its 11 members are Republicans, that might explain why the FISA Court seems to be more receptive to issuing warrants that might impact civil liberties.
A Little Help from Your Friends. Because of an extremely high rate of approval, the FISA Court has been perceived as being a rubber stamp for the government's surveillance requests. Apparently, there have been more than 500 requests that were not acceptable as submitted, so the FISA Court rulings essentially told the submitters what they needed to change to get those requests accepted. Apparently, that helped the government get its approval rate at 99.97%
FISA Secrecy Attacked. A 2003 Senate Judiciary Committee Interim Report on FBI Oversight in the 107th Congress by the Senate Judiciary Committee: FISA Implementation Failures, cited the "unnecessary secrecy" of the court among its "most important conclusions":
"The secrecy of individual FISA cases is certainly necessary, but this secrecy has been extended to the most basic legal and procedural aspects of the FISA, which should not be secret. This unnecessary secrecy contributed to the deficiencies that have hamstrung the implementation of the FISA. Much more information, including all unclassified opinions and operating rules of the FISA Court and Court of Review, should be made public and/or provided to the Congress."
Allegations of Bias. Elizabeth Gotein, a co-director of the Liberty and National Security Program of the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law, has criticized the court as being too compromised to be an impartial tribunal that oversees the work of the NSA and other U.S. intelligence activities. She says:

"Like any other group that meets in secret behind closed doors with only one constituency appearing before them, they're subject to capture and bias."

Julian Sanchez
, a scholar at the Cato Institute, has described the near certainty of the polarization or group think of the judges of the court. Because all of the judges are appointed by the same person (the Chief Justice of the United States) and, because nearly all the judges are of the same political party (the Republican Party), and because these judges hear no opposing testimony and feel no pressure from colleagues or the public to moderate their rulings, group polarization is almost a certainty. He says:

"There's the real possibility that these judges become more extreme over time, even when they had only a mild bias to begin with."

Court Approves Requests, but Not Surveillance Programs.
Stephen Vladeck has argued that the FISA Court reviews requests merely to ensure that they comply with various statutory requirements, including court-approved policies allow the NSA to:

  • keep data that could potentially contain details of U.S. persons for up to five years, and
  • retain and make use of "inadvertently acquired" domestic communications if they contain usable intelligence, information on criminal activity, threat of harm to people or property, are encrypted, or are believed to contain any information relevant to cybersecurity.
However, the Court does not approve the specific surveillance plan. Without having to seek Court approval of the specifics of their plan, the U.S. Attorney General and the Director of National Intelligence can apparently engage in sweeping programmatic surveillance at their discretion.

According to The Guardian:

"The broad scope of the court orders, and the nature of the procedures set out in the documents, appear to clash with assurances from President Obama and senior intelligence officials that the NSA could not access Americans' calls or email information without warrants."

The Most Revealing and Damaging Insight.
Glenn Greenwald, who published details of the PRISM surveillance program in The Guardian , explained:
“… (T)his entire process is a fig leaf, "oversight" in name only. It offers no real safeguards. That's because no court monitors what the NSA is actually doing when it claims to comply with the court-approved procedures. Once the FISA Court puts its approval stamp on the NSA's procedures, there is no external judicial check on which targets end up being selected by the NSA analysts for eavesdropping. The only time individualized warrants are required is when the NSA is specifically targeting a US citizen or the communications are purely domestic.”
When it is time for the NSA to obtain FISA Court approval, the agency does not tell the court whose calls and emails it intends to intercept. It instead merely provides the general guidelines which it claims are used by its analysts to determine which individuals they can target, and the FISA Court judge then issues a simple order approving those guidelines. “
The court endorses a one-paragraph form order stating that the NSA's process 'contains all the required elements' and that the revised NSA, FBI and CIA minimization procedures submitted with the amendment 'are consistent with the requirements of [50 U.S.C. §1881a(e)] and with the fourth amendment to the Constitution of the United States.”
As but one typical example, The Guardian has obtained an August 19, 2010, FISA Court approval from Judge John Bates which does nothing more than recite the statutory language in approving the NSA's guidelines. Once the NSA has this court approval, it can then target anyone chosen by their analysts, and can even order telecoms and internet companies to turn over to them the emails, chats and calls of those they target.”
The FISA Court plays no role whatsoever in reviewing whether the procedures it approved are actually complied with when the NSA starts eavesdropping on calls and reading people's emails. The guidelines submitted by the NSA to the Fisa court demonstrate how much discretion the agency has in choosing who will be targeted.
The only oversight for monitoring whether there is abuse comes from the executive branch itself: from the DOJ and Director of National Intelligence, which conduct "periodic reviews … to evaluate the implementation of the procedure."
At a hearing before the House Intelligence Committee , deputy attorney general James Cole testified that every 30 days, the FISA Court is merely given an "aggregate number" of database searches on US domestic phone records. The decisions about who has their emails and telephone calls intercepted by the NSA is made by the NSA itself, not by the FISA Court, except where the NSA itself concludes the person is a US citizen and/or the communication is exclusively domestic. But even in such cases, the NSA often ends up intercepting those communications of Americans without individualized warrants, and all of this is left to the discretion of the NSA analysts with no real judicial oversight.”
What's Wrong with FISA?
  1. It's poorly worded, with terms that are either ambiguous or too broad to be meaningful.
  2. The Court sometimes issues warrants or subpoenas without valid cause.
  3. Along with a FISA subpoena comes a gag order that bars recipients from ever discussing it with anyone except their lawyer(s).
    What's wrong with the FISA Court?
  1. There is entirely too much secrecy. Meaningful information could be shared without revealing vital secrets.
  2. Secrecy can be used to cover up malfeasance. Yet, because of the secrecy, it might never be revealed.
  3. FISA Court members are appointed by one person – the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. The present Chief Justice could do this for a total of 30-40 years, continually appointing people who share his ideologies.
  4. Ever since FISA was implemented, all Chief Justices have been Republicans, and 91% of the FISA Court members have been Republicans. As a result, Republican Chief Justices have appointed all of the members of both the FISA Court and the FISA Court of Review – almost 50 appointments in total.
  5. Democrats tend to support civil liberties issues by almost a 2 to 1 margin over Republicans. If Republicans on the FISA Court follow suit, we cannot trust them to fully protect our civil liberties.
  6. The FISA Court hears only one side of a case, so they are more likely to rule in favor of that side. As of 2012, the FISA Court ruled in favor of the government 33,938 times out of 33,949 cases.
  7. Requests for warrants or court orders are heard by only one of the seven judges, who serve on a rotating basis. They meet as a group only about six times a year.
What's wrong with the FISA Court of Review?
  1. This body consists of three members, and functions somewhat like an appellate court. However, because 99.97% of the cases in the FISA Court are decided in the favor of the government, there have been very few cases for them to review.
  2. At least twice, this court has overstepped its authority in making rulings on constitutionality, which are normally reserved for the Supreme Court.
Conclusion. Connecticut Senator, Richard Blumenthal, summed things up very concisely:

The FISA court . . . in its current form — unaccountable, secretive, one-sided — is broken. It not only lacks any genuine transparency and accountability, but it also deprives the entire system of trust and credibility in the eyes of the American people. The FISA court is exactly the type of secret tribunal that fanned the flames of revolution we celebrate each July 4. It’s time to change that.”

What Next?
  We will see ongoing debate on these issues to give the impression that Congress as a whole really cares about protecting the privacy of the American people.  They don't want to risk their chances of getting re-elected by not showing proper concern.  However, I have seen little movement toward anything but token legislative changes that will do very little to address these problems.  I hope I am wrong.

<<  Where secrecy prevails, democracy fails.  >>

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Congress Speaks on Surveillance Program

Bipartisan Backlash Grows Against Domestic Surveillance

Response to an article by James Risen
New York Times, July 18, 2013

Is there really a Congressional backlash against domestic surveillance? And, if so, what are its chances of success in reforming this surreptitious practice? Here are some responses to major parts of this New York Times report. The Italicized text is from the NYT article.

The Obama administration faced a growing Congressional backlash against the National Security Agency’s domestic surveillance operations . . . as lawmakers from both parties called for the vast collection of private data on millions of Americans to be scaled back.”

Is this backlash real? Or is it a just public display of pseudo-concern to assuage the concerns of their constituents?

Senator Al Franken, Democratic of Minnesota, said in an interview that he planned to introduce legislation mandating public disclosure of programs.”

How much public disclosure? We already have some disclosure, thanks to whistleblowers, who had to break the law to make some things public. Besides, it is not just disclosure we need, but rigid controls, strict oversight, ongoing auditing of procedures and practices; and objective, unbiased reports from the Inspector General on at least a quarterly basis, with monthly status and progress reports.

. . . Republicans and Democrats told administration officials that they believed the government had exceeded the surveillance authorities granted by Congress, and warned that they were unlikely to be reauthorized in the future.” (emphasis added)

Believed? Isn't there enough evidence to prove they exceeded their authority? Warned? A warning isn't action or even a guarantee that there will be action taken. Unlikely? Another weasel word. That means only that they don't want to commit to any specific action. And, why wait for reauthorization in 2015? If what they are doing is bad enough to deny reauthorization, two years form now, why isn't that sufficient to revoke their privileges now?

Representative Jim Sensenbrenner, Republican of Wisconsin, said that no one in Congress believed that the counterterrorism laws enacted since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks were meant to allow for the collection of phone records of virtually everyone in America.”

If that were true, then why didn't the specifically exclude it in the laws? Before the Computer Age, phone tapping was a primary way of gathering intelligence. Why wouldn't it occur to them that collecting everybody's phone records could become a valuable source of information as well? And, why didn't they write their legislation to specifically exclude collecting phone call information? There are so many loopholes and vague terms in that legislation that different people can interpret it in different ways.

“”The government is stockpiling sensitive personal data on a grand scale,' said Representative Ted Deutch, Democrat of Florida.”

And they are doing it in secret. Much of the information they collect is of no meaningful value at the present time. But they hold onto it for five years, just in case there may be some future use for it.

Intelligence officers, contractors and personnel only need a rubber-stamp warrant from the FISA court to then learn virtually everything there is to know about an American citizen.”

Members of the FISA Court deny the rubber-stamp procedure, but what is an intelligent person to conclude, when only 11 requests were denied in the 34-year period ending in 2012, while 33,938 requests were approved?

. . . several lawmakers said that the data collection was unsustainable, and that Congress would move to either revoke the legislative authorization for the bulk collection now or at least refuse to renew it when it expires in 2015.“

At least someone is thinking somewhat along the right lines. However, I still have to ask this question: If they truly believe that the government is doing something untenable and want to do something about it, why would they even consider waiting another two years and let the government continue “business as usual” during that time? Are they perhaps thinking that the issue won't seem as important then, so they won't have to do anything?

Mr. Sensenbrenner interrupted James Cole, a deputy attorney general, to say, 'Unless you realize you’ve got a problem, that is not going to be renewed.'”

Realizing you've got a problem is not sufficient. You have to rectify the problem, or it will persist. We need corrective action, and strict oversight now and rigid processes to prevent abuses in the future.

Much of the controversy involves the agency’s bulk collection of telephone data, which includes which numbers have called other numbers and time and length of calls, but not the content.”

It is my opinion that the primary emphasis is on the telephone metadata because that is the easiest to defend, as long as they record only what they say they do, and never gather or search content. However, I think the other collections are far more invasive and, therefore, more important. This includes items with specific content that is open to damaging misinterpretation and violations of Constitutional rights of unreasonable search and seizure, as well as immunity from self-incrimination.

Government requests include accessing and searching business or personal information – and not just telephone metadata. They also gather specific information from e-mails and text messages, and any attachments. These can include privileged attorney-client communication, sensitive communication between you and your doctor, and even communication between you and your accountant, tax preparer, financial advisor, bankers, etc. They can also collect information from sites visited, uploads and downloads made, on-line shopping and purchases –- you name it: if it is digital they can access it, including IDs and passwords for your credit cards and bank accounts. They can get such a broad array of information that they can get to know you and your pattern of living better than your closest friends. And they are able to do all this behind a shroud of secrecy, without your even suspecting that they are doing it to you. That is why we need strict control over such surveillance, access, and analysis It is too dangerous otherwise.

In a letter to top administration officials, the group will ask that the government start opening up the surveillance process by allowing companies to publicly disclose the number of secret requests for data they receive from the N.S.A., the number of individuals the requests cover, and whether the requests involve the content of communications or other data, according to a draft of the letter and interviews with officials from the companies and organizations involved.”

What would this accomplish? Just reporting gross numbers is virtually meaningless and does nothing whatsoever to control the intrusive capture and usage of information.

The group, which includes Apple, Google, Facebook and Twitter, and organizations including the Center for Democracy and Technology, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the American Civil Liberties Union, urge in their letter that the government publish the same information, and that Congress should enact new legislation mandating greater openness in the surveillance process.” (emphasis added)

What constitutes “greater openness?” Publishing raw numbers would probably be greater openness, but it does nothing to protect hundreds of millions of people from having their private information collected in the first place, or having it exposed to illegitimate or undesirable usage.

The letter does not demand an end to the domestic surveillance.”

It might not have to if it had a high level of justification, some rigid controls and close oversight.

But it is still significant because it allies the corporations that are directly involved with the government’s surveillance collection with some of the most vocal critics of the administration’s efforts to keep the N.S.A. domestic spying program in the shadows.“

To me, this appears to be more of a public relations ploy on the part of Microsoft, Apple, Google, Facebook and Twitter. They can make this a win-win case for them if they can create the impression that they are on their customers' side, not big government, even if big government prevails in the end..

Representative Jerrold Nadler, a New York Democrat and member of the Judiciary Committee, said in an interview. 'I think the situation is extremely fluid, but I know a lot of people are interested in doing something.'”

Being “interested in doing something” and actually doing something worthwhile can often be two totally different things.

Senator Al Franken, Democrat of Minnesota, said in an interview that he planned to introduce legislation mandating public disclosure along the same lines as the recommendations in the coalition’s letter, while Representative Rick Larsen, a Washington Democrat, said in an interview that he was planning to introduce similar legislation in the House on Thursday.”

If “public disclosure” means just publishing a bunch of total numbers, as mentioned above, this is meaningless.

On Tuesday, Mr. Sensenbrenner and Representative Zoe Lofgren, the California Democrat who is the ranking minority member on the judiciary panel, sent a letter to Mr. Holder and James R. Clapper Jr., the director of national intelligence, also asking that the companies be allowed to disclose more information publicly about government demands for data.” (emphasis added)

“Be allowed?” How about “be required?” “More information?” How much is more?”

Mr. Sensenbrenner released a letter Wednesday from the Justice Department, defending the scope and the legality of the government’s surveillance operations. The department said that it was necessary for the N.S.A. to collect such large volumes of domestic telephone data to perform the analysis necessary to identify suspected terrorist activity.”

Just saying it is necessary may reflect that letter writer's opinion, but it doesn't make it a fact. It also does not establish any legality for such collection, while the Constitution does establish rights for Americans to protect them against such invasions of privacy.

"Mr. Franken said that he believed the administration now agreed that there needed to be greater public debate and disclosure, even though the White House has continued to defend the secret programs. “I think that if there were greater transparency, Americans would have a better understanding of these programs,” he said." (emphasis added)

They might have a better understanding, but that doesn't mean they would approve of them.

"While prominent Internet companies are pushing for fuller disclosure, some of the nation’s largest telecommunications firms were not willing to sign on, according to several people involved in the coalition. Some of those businesses have previously received legal immunity from Congress for their involvement with the Bush administration’s warrantless wiretapping program, and have close and longstanding ties to the N.S.A."

These companies actually are paid by the government for providing this information. I would also be suspicious of any company who has “close and longstanding ties to the N.S.A.”

But the Silicon Valley Internet firms that did sign did so because they are increasingly concerned that the N.S.A. controversy that erupted in the wake of Mr. Snowden’s disclosures could damage their credibility, particularly with customers overseas.” (emphasis added)

I am sorry, but I think their credibility has already been damaged. They would be better off if they backed less surveillance that is highly restrictive, with more stringent control, to ease the damage they have already incurred.

'The commercial issue is whether people around the world are going to trust American Internet companies with their data,' said Andrew McLaughlin, the chief executive of Digg, a social news Web site, and a former White House Internet policy adviser in the Obama administration. 'If you are in the government in Germany, you might think twice about using an American company as your cloud partner. You might see American companies not winning those kinds of contracts.'”

And well they should think twice about using a company that is open to divulging any and all private information their citizens may have revealed, both directly through actual communications or indirectly through metadata.

We still have a long way to go, but I don't think Congress is even going in the right direction on this issue. I still think they might be decoying us in the wrong direction to divert our attention from the real issues in this controversy.  Then, I believe they will make a few cosmetic changes, declare victory for the people, and the government will move on with little or no change.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Focus on Our Government -- Not on Snowden

What to Look for from Our Government and the News

Watch Out for Diversionary Tactics. Why is so much attention being directed at Edward Snowden? Is he really a traitor – an enemy of the State? Why is he being castigated by massive numbers of Republicans and Democrats in Congress and members of the present administration for his recent actions? The answer is simple. It is to divert attention away from the very thing Snowden has protested – our government's malfeasance and disregard for the Constitutional rights of our citizens. As long as they can keep Snowden in the headlines, and as long as they can keep the conversation fixed on him, they can keep themselves and their own misdeeds out of sight.

Don't Believe Everything You Hear. Most of what we have heard from government officials and spokespeople has been very carefully worded to make things revealed by Snowden are more devastating that the really are. They say that the safety and security of our people has been compromised by the release of secret information. Here are just a few examples:
Rep. Mike Rogers Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee warned “It’s dangerous to our national security and it violates the oath that person took.”
John Boehner, Speaker of the House, claimed, The disclosure of this information puts Americans at risk.”
James Clapper, Director of National Intelligence, complained that recent leaks could "render great damage to our intelligence capabilities." In addition, when asked whether or not the NSA collects “any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans.” He responded, “No, sir. Not wittingly.” He has since admitted that his testimony was “the least untrue” statement he could make, whatever that means. But, regardless, it means that he was lying to Congress and the American people under oath and should be charged with perjury.
Jay Carney, White House Press Secretary, recently stated, “Leaks of classified information that cause harm to our national security interests are a problem, a serious problem …”

But, where's the damage? This litany of fault-finding and blame permeates much of our federal government. However, nobody has yet described in a meaningful way just what damage has been done other than to embarrass our government and its elected representatives.

Jay Carney Went a Step Further. He added “... and they’re classified for a reason…” He is absolutely right in this statement. They are classified for a reason – and that reason is to hide the government's actions in a cloud of secrecy from the American people, not our enemies. Our enemies most likely already know about our spying on their citizens because they are most likely doing the same to us. So, when our government wants to do something that is illegal or not in the best interests of our country and its people, all they have to do is just classify it as top secret, to prevent the public from knowing what they are really doing.

Privacy Compromised Without Consent. Our government's secret acts of espionage were conducted without the knowledge and consent of the people whose privacy was invaded. We, the people, had no say in the matter. Our government took it upon themselves to determine for us which rights are important to us and what are not. We were not consulted. They made those decisions on their own in privacy and cloaked them in secrecy to keep them from learning about them under penalty of imprisonment. The American people have a right to know when and why their privacy is being invaded. Our freedoms are being eroded, our Constitutional rights are being trampled, and our government is destroying our democracy. America is becoming a surveillance state and, in certain circumstances, takes on the demeanor of a police state. The lack of oversight and protection against the potential misuse of data collected is a severe indictment of both previous and present administrations, as well as Congress itself.

Bush's Bad Behavior. In 2005, George Bush admitted publicly that he had ordered the National Security Agency to eavesdrop on Americans without ever seeking constitutionally-required court-approved warrants – an impeachable offense -- but Congress chose not to pursue that route, which lets us know just how important our freedom and rights are to them. At least, the United States Supreme Court did step in. They ruled that the President does not have that kind of power within the Constitution. Bush had the power to protect the nation, but his surveillance actions went beyond that.

How Things Have Changed. Our present government is doing some of the same things on an even broader scale, but with the tacit approval of the feckless Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC), a body set up specifically to provide oversight for foreign intelligence surveillance, to approve or disallow the issuance of warrants, and whose rulings and opinions are kept top secret.

About the FISC. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court consists of eleven judges. Three of them are in Washington, D.C., and the other eight are spread out in eight different states across the county. Appointments are made by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, with no apparent review, oversight, or approval process for these appointments. Oddly enough, the four most populous states (California, Texas, New York and Florida), which have 1/3 of the country's population, do not have any representation on this court. California alone has a greater population that the bottom 21 states added together, but that's beside the point.

The Express Lane for Surveillance Warrants. Whenever the administration wants a warrant, it contacts one of the eleven judges – frequently, if not usually, by phone – and presents its case to them. It is entirely a one-sided presentation representing the administration's best interests, with no legal counsel to represent the other side. And the administration cannot always be relied upon to make an accurate presentation of facts. At one point, the Court charged that the FBI and Justice Department officials had submitted “erroneous” information to the court in more than 75 applications for search warrants and wiretaps.

Rubber Stamped Warrants. In most cases, the one judge makes the determination, not the entire “court.” And here's the shocker: Out of 33,949 requests for warrants in the Court's history, only 11 have been declined. That has given credence to the claim by Russell Tice, a former NSA analyst, who said "It is a kangaroo court with a rubber stamp." To indicate that this body maintains credible oversight over the issuing of surveillance warrants is somewhats laughable. My personal perception is that the FISC is a court in name only, and that it functions more to streamline the process of securing warrants than evaluating their purpose and value relative to the rights of the people.

The FISC Has Lower Standards. Keep in mind that the FISC operates at a lower standard of scrutiny than a “real” court.
Under the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution, a warrant must be based on probable cause to believe that a crime has been or is being committed. However, the FISC does not abide by this Constitutional stipulation, Instead, it makes its rulings based on a finding of probable cause that the surveillance target is a foreign power or an agent of a foreign power, regardless of whether or not the target is suspected of actually engaging in any criminal activity.

However, if the target is a "U.S. person,”
the FISC judge has to find probable cause that one of four conditions has been met:
(1) the target knowingly engages in clandestine intelligence activities on behalf of a foreign power which may or may not involve a criminal law violation;
(2) the target knowingly engages in other secret intelligence activities on behalf of a foreign power under the direction of an intelligence network and his (or her) activities involve or are about to involve criminal violations;
(3) the target knowingly engages in sabotage or international terrorism or is preparing for such activities; or
(4) the target knowingly aids or abets another who acts in at least one of the above ways. (Source:Electronic Privacy Information Center)
Please note that a recurrent keyword in each of these conditions is “knowingly.” How many of the hundreds of millions of people caught up in the tide of communications surveillance in the U.S. are likely to fit any of these descriptions? And yet, these hundreds of millions are being forced to give up totally private or sensitive information about themselves without their knowledge or informed consent. This could include privileged communication between lawyers and their clients, or doctors and their patients, as well as various other types of very personal information.

The Final Question. Now that I have stated my case, I present this final question to the reader: Which is more reprehensible:
    a huge government apparatus that breaks (or stretches) the law, tramples on the
        rights of millions, and covers it up with a blanket of secrecy, or
     – one private citizen who broke his oath of silence and risked his entire future to 
        expose clandestine actions that could be harmful to the public?

    Or, to put it another way:

    Which is worse?

    A secret surveillance program,
         with secret submissions
              to a secret court,  

                   for secret data searches 
                        of secret targets,
                             with secret (rubber-stamp) rulings,  

                                  secret justification for the rulings, and  
                                       subsequent secret actions  
                                            that violate our Constitutional rights?

    Or . . .

    Breaking an oath of secrecy
         by revealing those secret practices
              that violate our Constitutional rights?

    We are now living in a high-level surveillance state.
              What's next -- a police state?

Sunday, May 26, 2013

The Road to Social Cohesion

It's the Same the Whole World Over.” The ever-widening gap between the “haves” and the “have-nots” continues to inflame and infuriate people around the world and stands strongly in the way of social cohesion and the benefits it can bring.  This gap has been with us for centuries, but it is rearing its ugly head right now because the gap is increasing at an alarming rate. The social division caused by this gap is even documented in this old folk song:

"It's the same the whole world over,
It's the poor what gets the blame,
It's the rich what gets the pleasure,
Isn't it a blooming shame?"

Obligation of the Rich.  First of all, I want to go on record as saying that I have no harsh feelings for rich people in general. However, when their tremendous wealth comes either directly or indirectly from the sweat and labor of others, then I believe they have a moral obligation to help those people who helped them make their billions.

Our Protectors of Society.  When the elite in our countries fail to to live up to their obligations to society, then society itself must do something about it. Government was founded to preserve, protect and defend our society. They pass laws (presumably for the good of society), administer those laws (presumably in an equitable manner), they punish offenders (also presumably in an equitable manner (although they do not always succeed, and it is usually the wealthy who get the breaks).

Privileged Advantage. I daresay advance the notion that many of the rich have accumulated their massive wealth by enjoying a privileged advantage over the lower socioeconomic groups. In doing so, they have exacted a toll on these groups that is not unlike that of servitude and dependency and, in some cases, have even come close to enslavement.
Formula for Success? With that as a background, here is the basis of my proposal for narrowing the socioeconomic gap and opening the doors to a more cohesive society.

  1. Education leads to better communication among socioeconomic groups.
  2. Communication leads to better understanding among socioeconomic groups
  3. Understanding leads to better cooperation among socioeconomic groups.
  4. Cooperation leads to better results that benefit all socioeconomic groups.

While that might sound simple enough, it may take some stretching of the imagination to swallow the medicine for a cure.

Free Education. There should be equal educational opportunities for all. Government-sponsored scholarships should be awarded to anybody seeking an education that will lead to the student being trained to make worthwhile contributions to society. These scholarships would be based upon need in such a way that those families who have annual earnings above a certain level would be ineligible for these scholarships, inasmuch as they would already have the means to fund education without relying on the rest of society. In addition, these scholarships would allow students to compete for the schools of their choice, and not just the local community or junior colleges. They would be required to take aptitude tests and plan a curriculum around those aptitudes.

Even if they choose a craft or trade, they would still benefit from a general college curriculum that could supplement and be integrated with their career goals.

Communication. By having socio-economic integration within the schools, we should benefit from an increase in communication between the different groups. Indeed, even those students who choose a craft or trade would benefit, not just in their chosen field, could also from courses that increase their communication skills in the outside world.

Understanding. Only through educational integration and social interaction can we hope to have a compelling understanding of how the other socio-economic groups truly live their lives. Our country used to be a melting pot for immigrants. Our educational system can now become our melting pot for the different socio-economic groups. By securing a meaningful education and communication skills, we have the basis for productive interaction among the various groups.

Cooperation. When people of different groups get to know one another, communicate at similar language levels, and get to understand one another, barriers are broken down. Stereotypes are demolished. People of disparate interests and backgrounds will begin to work together as a more cohesive unit to produce desired results.

Results. When they work side by side with one another in a mutually cooperative, cohesive and productive environment, that should also carry over to their private lives as well. Instead of living lives of desperation in a society where the odds are stacked against them from their first breath of life, they will be able to look toward the future with purpose and optimism, and a drive to succeed.

Education + Jobs = Results. Beyond their education, our government should also provide employment for any qualified job prospect. Reliance on private industry to create jobs is totally dependent on making a profit, and not on what is best for one's country. For those who have difficulty in gaining experience to make them more valuable to prospective employers, the government should fund public works projects (roads, highways, bridges, transportation systems, schools, libraries, museums, parks and recreational centers, and other infrastructure projects that have been neglected for many decades).

Show Me the Money. All of this will undoubtedly cost a great deal of money . There is not way I could cost this out for any country – even my own. But I do know the resources are out there and can be made available. Where there is a will, there is a way.

Increased Taxes and Reduced Costs. I see two major sources of revenue as being increased taxation – primarily at the highest levels – and cost reduction – in our social programs (welfare, unemployment compensation, law enforcement, courts, prisons, rehabilitation programs, and many, many others). In our American past, we have had maximum income tax rates as high as 90%, and our economy and society prospered during these times. I would not be averse to a ten-year progressive increase in taxation across the board, even up to the rates implemented in the US in the late 1940s, to give this plan a chance to succeed. If it does not, then we pull the plug on it and go back to what we had before – huge socio-economic gaps, increased tension between groups, social unrest, serious crime rates, a deteriorating infrastructure, and all the kinds of problems that go with social division, as compared to social cohesion.

Additional Benefits.  The country would benefit greatly from having more money put back into the economy from the salaries of the people working on federal projects. And society would benefit from the greatly improved and safer infrastructure.

It would take a far better economic analyst than I could ever be to determine the costs and the offsetting cost savings of these two programs. However, until one comes along to provide such figures, I will remain a cockeyed optimist that it can be and should be done.