Later On

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Archive for the ‘Obama administration’ Category

Trying to rein in NSA when NSA is determined not to be reined in

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Kevin Drum has a good post this morning:

Sen. Patrick Leahy says that his USA FREEDOM bill will stop the NSA’s bulk collection of phone data. H.L. Pohlman says it’s not quite that easy:

In Presidential Policy Directive (PPD-28) issued in January 2014, the Obama administration defined “bulk collection” as the acquisition “of large quantities of signals intelligence data which . . . is acquired without the use of discriminants (e.g., specific identifiers, selection terms, etc.).” Thus, as long as the government uses a “discriminant,” a selection term, no matter how broad that term might be, the government is not engaged in a “bulk collection” program.

….The USA FREEDOM Act does not guarantee, then, that the government’s database of telephone metadata will be smaller than it is now. It all depends on the generality of the selection terms that the government will use to obtain metadata from the telephone companies. And we don’t know what those terms will be.

This is a longstanding issue that’s been brought up by lots of people lots of times. It’s not some minor subtlety. If the government decides to look for “all calls from the 213 area code,” that’s not necessarily bulk collection even though it would amass millions of records. It would be up to a judge to decide.

If and when we get close to Congress actually considering bills to rein in the NSA—about which I’m only modestly optimistic in the first place—this is going to be a key thing to keep an eye on. As the ACLU and the EFF and others keep reminding us, reining in the NSA isn’t a . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

29 October 2014 at 11:14 am

Another player in the Snowden drama talks about how it went down

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Fascinating article by Micah Lee at Motherboard:

Late on the evening of January 11, 2013, someone sent me an interesting email. It was encrypted, and sent from the sort of anonymous email service that smart people use when they want to hide their identity. Sitting at the kitchen table in the small cottage where I lived in Berkeley with my wife and two cats, I decrypted it.

The anonymous emailer wanted to know if I could help him communicate securely with Laura Poitras, the documentary filmmaker who had repeatedly cast a critical eye on American foreign policy.

From: anon108@■■■■■■■■■
To: Micah Lee
Date: Fri, 11 Jan 2013


I’m a friend. I need to get information securely to Laura Poitras and her alone, but I can’t find an email/gpg key for her.

Can you help?

I didn’t know it at the time, but I had just been contacted by Edward Snowden, the National Security Agency contractor who was then preparing a momentous leak of government data.

A month earlier, Snowden had anonymously emailed Glenn Greenwald, aGuardian journalist and chronicler of war-on-terror excesses, but Greenwald didn’t use encryption and didn’t have the time to get up to speed, so Snowden moved on. As is now well known, Snowden decided to contact Poitras because she used encryption. But he didn’t have her encryption key, as is necessary to send someone encrypted email, and the key wasn’t posted on the web. Snowden, extraordinarily knowledgeable about how internet traffic is monitored, didn’t want to send her an unencrypted email, even if just to ask for her key. So he needed to find someone he thought he could trust who both had her key and used encrypted email.

That was me.

And as it turned out, several months later I was drawn more deeply into the whole thing, when Snowden got back in touch and asked me to work with him to launch an online anti-surveillance petition.

Until now, I haven’t written about my modest role in the Snowden leak, but with the release of Poitras’s documentary on him, “Citizenfour,” I feel comfortable connecting the dots. I think it’s helpful to show how privacy technologists can work with sources and journalists to make it possible for leaks to happen in a secure way. Securing those types of interactions is part of my job now that I work with Greenwald and Poitras at The Intercept, but there are common techniques and general principles from my interactions with Snowden that could serve as lessons to people outside this organization. . .

Continue reading. It’s a fascinating account.

Written by LeisureGuy

28 October 2014 at 12:08 pm

Hillary Clinton’s Continuity Government Versus Elizabeth Warren’s Voice for Change

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Hilllary Clinton is Wall Street’s pick for Democratic candidate for president. They loved Bill, who pretty much gave away the nation to Wall Street, and Hillary is going the same route. Pam Martens and Russ Martens write at Wall Street on Parade:

The contrast between Wall Street’s continuity government in Washington under another Clinton in the White House and the charismatic populist voice of Senator Elizabeth Warren as she stumps for Democrats in the midterms, is awakening millions of Americans to the idea that there may be choices after all in the 2016 presidential election.

Columnist Eugene Robinson said it best last Monday in the Washington Post, writing that Senator Warren’s “swing through Colorado, Minnesota and Iowa to rally the faithful displayed something no other potential contender for the 2016 presidential nomination, including Hillary Clinton, seems able to present: a message.”

What Robinson really means is “a message of hope” – that Wall Street’s wealth transfer system, institutionalized under a protection racket by members of Congress who keep their seats using Wall Street’s campaign dough, could come under serious challenge with Warren in the White House.

In a Wall Street Journal article last Friday, Peter Nicholas reports that Ben Cohen, co-founder of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream and a large donor to Democrats, summed up Hillary as follows: “I see Hillary as part of the middle-of-the-road mainstream government that is essentially in bed with these corporations.”

Where would such an idea come from? The Center for Responsive Politics reports that four of the top six donors to Hillary’s failed bid to capture the Democratic nod for the Presidency in 2008 were employees, family members or PACs of major Wall Street firms: JPMorgan Chase, Goldman Sachs, Citigroup and Morgan Stanley.

When the Democrats gave the nod to Barack Obama instead, JPMorgan Chase, Goldman Sachs and Citigroup show up among his top seven donors for his 2008 campaign, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. (As indicated above, the corporations do not give directly; it’s their PACS, employees or family members of employees.)

The idea that Wall Street is running a continuity government in Washington stems from the fact that it was President Bill Clinton who repealed the Glass-Steagall Act, a goal Wall Street and its legions of lobbyists had advanced for decades. This breathtaking deregulation of Wall Street did not happen under a Republican presidency but under one styling itself as progressive. The repeal allowed commercial banks holding insured deposits to merge with investment banks, brokerage firms and insurance companies to become vast gambling casinos, looters of the little guy, and to crash the economy in 1929 style fashion just nine years after Clinton signed the repeal legislation in 1999.

The Wall Street sycophants in the Bill Clinton administration who pushed through the repeal of this legislation that had protected the country for seven decades included Treasury Secretary, Robert Rubin, and the man who would step into the Treasury post, Lawrence Summers, after Rubin headed for Citigroup to collect $120 million in compensation over the next eight years. Both men turned up as advisors to Obama once he took his seat in the Oval Office.

Last year, Obama attempted to push through the nomination of Summers, then on the payroll of Citigroup as a consultant, to become the Chairman of the Federal Reserve Board of Governors. It took heavy backlash from members of his own party to advance Janet Yellen’s nomination over Summers.

With the exception of retiring Senator Carl Levin, Senator Warren uniquely demonstrates a comprehensive knowledge of how Wall Street firms like Citigroup maintain their stranglehold on the levers of power in Washington. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

27 October 2014 at 3:34 pm

Interesting development: Peace Prize Laureates Urge Disclosure on U.S. Torture

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Charlie Savage reports in the NY Times:

A dozen Nobel Peace Prize laureates are urging President Obama to make “full disclosure to the American people of the extent and use of torture” by the United States, including the release of a long-delayed Senate report about the C.I.A.’s torture of terrorism suspects after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

The laureates told Mr. Obama, who was awarded the Peace Prize himself in 2009, that the report’s prospective release has brought the United States to a “crossroads,” and that he must do more to bring closure to an era when the United States set an example that “will be used to justify the use of torture by regimes around the world.”

“It remains to be seen whether the United States will turn a blind eye to the effects of its actions on its own people and on the rest of the world, or if it will take the necessary steps to recover the standards on which the country was founded, and to once again adhere to the international conventions it helped to bring into being,” they wrote.

The joint letter was organized by two of the laureates, Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa and former President José Ramos-Horta of East Timor, and is part of a broader online petition campaign at, whose chairman is Mr. Ramos-Horta. An advance copy was provided to The New York Times.

The appeal comes as the White House continues to wrestle with how much of a 480-page executive summary of the report should be declassified, an issue that pits the C.I.A. against the mostly Democratic members of the Senate Intelligence Committee. . .

Continue reading.

In related news Obama is reversing his earlier anti-torture stand—Obama does a lot of reversing of his various stances—as reported earlier in the NY Times by Charlie Savage. I don’t think Obama has any firm principles regarding torture (or much of anything else, so far as I can see). That story begins:

When the Bush administration revealed in 2005 that it was secretly interpreting a treaty ban on “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment” as not applying to C.I.A. and military prisons overseas, Barack Obama, then a newly elected Democratic senator from Illinois, joined in a bipartisan protest.

Mr. Obama supported legislation to make it clear that American officials were legally barred from using cruelty anywhere in the world. And in a Senate speech, he said enacting such a statute “acknowledges and confirms existing obligations” under the treaty, the United Nations Convention Against Torture.

But the Obama administration has never officially declared its position on the treaty [and indeed President Obama has resolutely ignored the provisions of the treaty that legally require the investigation of credible allegations of torture and prosecution of those responsible---Obama, for example, allowed the CIA to destroy all the video records of their torture sessions and has constantly said that we must not "look back" at the crimes committed before he became president, because.... {unclear} - LG]. . .  [N]ow, President Obama’s legal team is debating whether to back away from his earlier view. It is considering reaffirming the Bush administration’s position that the treaty imposes no legal obligation on the United States to bar cruelty outside its borders, according to officials who discussed the deliberations on the condition of anonymity. [No torture in the US, but the US can torture anywhere else in the world---they just have to transport the victim to another country or into international waters, and then (in Obama's view) torture is perfectly legal and acceptable. - LG]

The administration must decide on its stance on the treaty by next month, when it sends a delegation to Geneva to appear before the Committee Against Torture, a United Nations panel that monitors compliance with the treaty. That presentation will be the first during Mr. Obama’s presidency.

State Department lawyers are said to be pushing to officially abandon the Bush-era interpretation. Doing so would require no policy changes, since Mr. Obama issued an executive order in 2009 that forbade cruel interrogations anywhere and made it harder for a future administration to return to torture.

But military and intelligence lawyers are said to oppose accepting that the treaty imposes legal obligations on the United States’ actions abroad. They say they need more time to study whether it would have operational impacts. They have also raised concerns that current or future wartime detainees abroad might invoke the treaty to sue American officials with claims of torture, although courts have repeatedly thrown out lawsuits brought by detainees held as terrorism suspects. [To be clear courts have thrown out those lawsuits because Obama and Bush should "National security!!" as loud as they can, and the DOJ pleads with the courts to throw out the cases lest the US fall. That's how the US can kidnap innocent people, torture them for months, and there are no repercussions, no investigations, and no lawsuits allowed. The CIA is a Mafia, and the President is the don. - LG]

The internal debate is said to have been catalyzed by a memo that the State Department circulated within an interagency lawyers’ group several weeks ago. On Wednesday, lawyers from the State Department, the Pentagon, the intelligence community and the National Security Council met at the White House to discuss the matter, but reached no consensus.

Bernadette Meehan, a National Security Council spokeswoman, said Mr. Obama’s opposition to torture and cruel interrogations anywhere in the world was clear, separate from the legal question of whether the United Nations treaty applies to American behavior overseas.

“We are considering that question, and other questions posed by the committee, carefully as we prepare for the presentation in November,” Ms. Meehan said. “But there is no question that torture and cruel treatment in armed conflict are clearly and categorically prohibited in all places.”

In Mr. Obama’s first term, his top State Department lawyer, Harold H. Koh, began a push to reverse official government interpretations that two global rights treaties — the torture convention and a Bill of Rights-style accord — imposed no obligations on American officials abroad.

Both treaties contain phrases that make it ambiguous whether they apply to American-run prisons on foreign territory. For example, the provision barring cruelty that falls short of torture applies to a state’s conduct “in any territory under its jurisdiction.” . . .

Continue reading.

UPDATE: The first story above, which discusses at some length the prohibitions specified in the Convention Against Torture but is completely silent on the requirements of that law, prompted me to send this letter to the editors:

Charlie Savage’s report, “Peace Prize Laureates Urge Disclosure on U.S. Torture,” discusses the prohibitions of the Convention Against Torture (cruelty, torture), but is oddly silent on what the Convention requires: that credible allegations of torture MUST be investigated, and if evidence is found, those responsible for torture must be prosecuted.

President Obama has ignored this law with his childish “Look forward, not back.” And yet we routinely investigate and prosecute crimes that have already occurred (i.e., all crimes). Why not these? Because powerful people in the US can do whatever they want?

In fact, the Obama Administration does not even allow innocent people the US has kidnapped and tortured to have a day in court. When lawsuits are brought, the Obama Administration cries, “State secrets!” to get the cases thrown out.

This behavior is so contemptible, and so violates the Convention Against Torture, that I found it astonishing that Savage’s article doesn’t even mention it—until the penny dropped.

Of course: this silence is another instance in which the NY Times is obeying a request/demand from the White House, just as the NY Times (as an accessory after the fact) helped the White House conceal the completely illegal warrantless wiretapping program.

So it’s business as usual for you: helping the government hide its criminality, just as before.

Written by LeisureGuy

26 October 2014 at 6:25 pm

Q&A with Laura Poitras on Edward Snowden and Citizen Four

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Astra Taylor has a good interview of Laura Poitras in The Nation, pointed out by Kevin Drum. It begins:

When Laura Poitras helped Edward Snowden turn thousands of classified documents into headline news, word spread that he would be the focus of the third installment of her trilogy of documentaries about post-9/11 America. Citizenfour captures Snowden and a small group of intrepid journalists, including Poitras behind the camera, as the NSA scandal breaks. The heroism and resolve required to act under the government’s gaze drive the film. Poitras herself was a surveillance target well before Snowden, detained in US airports some forty times between 2006 and 2012. The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

—Astra Taylor

Astra Taylor: When Snowden first contacted you last year, you took an amazing leap of faith. Why did you trust that these messages weren’t entrapment?

Laura Poitras: My gut told me it was legitimate, but I was very cautious in our correspondence. At some point I actually asked him, “How do I know that you’re legitimate, that you’re not trying to entrap me, that you’re not crazy?” And his response was, well, you’ll know when you ask officials for comment on these documents—their response will show that I’m legitimate. You’ll know it’s not entrapment because I’m never going to ask anything of you. I’m just going to tell you things.

But other journalists were afraid to work with Snowden.

There’s a strong culture of fear among journalists right now, because the government is cracking down on both journalists and sources. We see this, for example, with [New York Times reporter] James Risen being subpoenaed and pressured to give up confidential sources. We involved [Washington Post journalist] Bart Gellman when Snowden wanted to release one document early, and Gellman used the Snowden archive to break the PRISM story about mass electronic surveillance. He was going to come with me to Hong Kong to meet Snowden, and the Post became very nervous and pulled out. They told me not to go. I felt like I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t go, so I went.

Why did Snowden meet you in Hong Kong and agree to be filmed? . . .

Continue reading.

I think it’s important to recognize the fear among journalists, another sign of the direction the US is going (along with the increasing bold civil asset forfeiture, the militarization of the police, the way some police departments (NYPD) defy the authority supposedly controlling them, etc.). For example, later in the article,

The NSA is supposed to be focused on foreign threats. Does the fact that they’re spying on everyone mean that we’re effectively the enemy?

[Whistleblower and former NSA official] William Binney talks about how dictatorships have surveilled their populations. When the government starts monitoring its own population, there’s a chilling effect; people become afraid. But there are other types of intelligence-gathering being deployed that’s not NSA. Look at Occupy—you have the NYPD, who have IMSI catchers [devices for intercepting cellphone calls]. Activists and journalists are going to be the canaries in the coal mine. They’ll feel the impact of state surveillance first.

Emphasis added. Who feels first the authoritarian wind? Activists and journalists: dissenters and those who write about them. If you can silence the latter, you can then have a free hand in mopping up the former.

Written by LeisureGuy

26 October 2014 at 12:50 pm

The IRS has its own version of civil asset forfeiture

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Shaila Dewan reports in the NY Times:

ARNOLDS PARK, Iowa — For almost 40 years, Carole Hinders has dished out Mexican specialties at her modest cash-only restaurant. For just as long, she deposited the earnings at a small bank branch a block away — until last year, when two tax agents knocked on her door and informed her that they had seized her checking account, almost $33,000.

The Internal Revenue Service agents did not accuse Ms. Hinders of money laundering or cheating on her taxes — in fact, she has not been charged with any crime. Instead, the money was seized solely because she had deposited less than $10,000 at a time, which they viewed as an attempt to avoid triggering a required government report.

“How can this happen?” Ms. Hinders said in a recent interview. “Who takes your money before they prove that you’ve done anything wrong with it?”

The federal government does.

Using a law designed to catch drug traffickers, racketeers and terrorists by tracking their cash, the government has gone after run-of-the-mill business owners and wage earners without so much as an allegation that they have committed serious crimes. The government can take the money without ever filing a criminal complaint, and the owners are left to prove they are innocent. Many give up.

“They’re going after people who are really not criminals,” said David Smith, a former federal prosecutor who is now a forfeiture expert and lawyer in Virginia. “They’re middle-class citizens who have never had any trouble with the law.”

On Thursday, in response to questions from The New York Times, the I.R.S. announced that it would curtail the practice, focusing instead on cases where the money is believed to have been acquired illegally or seizure is deemed justified by “exceptional circumstances.” . . .

Continue reading. And do read it all: it will make your blood boil.

It was theft, pure and simple. The IRS stole the money from Carole Hinders bank account even though she had followed the law. The fact that her cash deposits were less than $10,000 at a time is certainly not a crime—if it is, I am in big trouble, because all my cash deposits are below $10,000 at a time—and not breaking a law should not be grounds for simply taking the money. Apparently (according to the story), depositing cash amounts of less than $10,000 is a crime if the intention is to evade the reporting requirements for cash deposits of $10,000 or more—-but surely that intention must be proven in a court of law. One would think that the government cannot simply assume that a cash deposit of $9,000 was made to evade the law. It might be suspicious and warrant investigation, but to simply take the money without ever accusing the person of a crime much less getting a conviction? That is very like an authoritarian government feeling that it can do what it wants to citizens without bothering with things like a trial or court proceedings.

Back in the day, if you hadn’t done anything wrong, the government wouldn’t simply take your money, and if you had done something wrong, the government had to prove it.

Under the new, authoritarian government the US seems to be moving toward, the government can simply do what it wants without really having to prove anything.

The IRS says that they will stop, but there really needs to be some accountability—and if they simply stop voluntarily, they can resume the practice after the kerfuffle dies down. We need a law to absolutely preclude this kind of high-handed and unjustified government taking. This is the sort of thing that triggered the American Revolution.

We need a law against civil asset forfeiture, and we need it now. I have written to both my US Senators and to my Representative asking that (a) civil asset forfeiture be made illegal; and (b) that the persons in the IRS responsible for these seizures be identified and immediately sent to prison in a Federal prison. Once they prove they are innocent, they can be released, but that might take years. Still, I don’t see that they would have any room to complain, given their own actions.

Really, civil asset forfeiture acts as incentive program for government to take your money and your possessions whenever it wants and make you have to pay tens of thousands of dollars to get it back.

It’s hard to grasp what sort of country the US has now become that this sort of thing is regularly done.

Read that entire article. It’s worse than you would believe. For example, later in the article:

Banks are not permitted to advise customers that their deposit habits may be illegal or educate them about structuring unless they ask, in which case they are given a federal pamphlet, Ms. Van Steenwyk said. “We’re not allowed to tell them anything,” she said.

Of course the government doesn’t want people to know the law, because then they might obey it and the government couldn’t take their money. Criminals, of course, doubtless know the law. It’s innocent civilians who get caught.

Keeping laws secret is a favored tactic of authoritarian government (since people can then break a law without realizing it, and then the government has them at its mercy). We are seeing more and more secret laws in the US, along with secret courts and secret court decisions. Not a good sign.

Written by LeisureGuy

26 October 2014 at 4:09 am

When Abu-Ghraib is on the other foot

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I wonder how much of this is driven by well-known US atrocities such as Abu-Ghraib, the sergeant who went on a massacre of Afghan civilians, the total destruction of the two anti-Taliban town councils, the number of civilians (including wedding parties) killed in drone attacks, the well-known examples of torture by the US (183 waterboardings for one prisoner, for example),  the entire Iraq War and aftermath, and on and on. Certainly those do not in any way justify what ISIS is doing, but it perhaps can explain the source (and origin) of some of their anger. It’s not as though actions do not have consequences. The US cannot go around the world, conducting itself in such a fashion, and not expect pushback. That would be, IMO, unrealistic.

Written by LeisureGuy

25 October 2014 at 3:45 pm


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