Flash back to 2009

In 2009, Barack Obama was newly installed in the White House. At that time, according to the AP, internal NSA employees challenged the telephone metadata collection program that had been operated since 9/11. Discussions were held, but no changes were made.

By 2009, several former officials said, concern about the “215 program,” so-called for the authorizing provision of the USA Patriot Act, had grown inside NSA’s Fort Meade, Maryland, headquarters to the point that the program’s intelligence value was being questioned. That was partly true because, for technical and other reasons, the NSA was not capturing most mobile calling records, which were an increasing share of the domestic calling universe, the former officials said.

The dissent prompted NSA leaders to examine whether the agency could stop gathering and storing domestic landline calling records and instead access the records as needed from the telephone companies, Alexander said. The NSA consulted with the Justice Department, Congress and the White House, newly occupied by President Barack Obama.

But the government ultimately decided against changing what most officials still view as a necessary bulwark against domestic terror plots, Alexander and other former officials said. The program collects and stores so-called metadata on every landline phone call made in America — the phone number called from, the phone number called and the duration of the call. Some estimates have said the program collects records on up to 3 billion calls a day.

Good job, Mr. President. If you had acted then, Edward Snowden would probably not disclosed much of what he did.

Editorial cartoon of the day

Gary Varvel created the following cartoon which was published in the Indianapolis Star on Friday, heading into Thanksgiving week.


Apparently Mr. Varvel was not able to see the irony in his cartoon, which he intended as an attack on Obama’s recent immigration changes. Imagine, if you will, that the family seated at the table were drawn as native Americans, and the people coming in through the window were drawn as (undocumented) pilgrims. Clear enough?

The Indianapolis Star, apparently in response to widespread criticism, first removed the mustache from the man coming in the window (to make him look less “ethnic”?), and then later removed the cartoon entirely.

The “most transparent administration ever”?

The Obama administration fancies itself the “most transparent ever.” I call bullshit.

Exhibit A: White House chief of staff Denis McDonough met with Senate Democrats on Thursday afternoon to discuss the release of the Senate Intelligence Committee report on torture. McDonough’s position was that the report (and even the executive summary of the report) cannot possibly be released until the Committee agrees to black out the pseudonyms of those who perpetrated the torture. That is, it is not enough to use pseudonyms to protect the individuals, but even the pseudonyms cannot be revealed.

Of course, if even the pseudonyms are hidden, then it becomes impossible for a reader to follow which unidentified person did what during the torture program. It effectively destroys any ability for a reader to understand what is going on in the report.

The Huffington Post reports the following:

. . . The White House’s briefing to Democrats on immigration Thursday erupted instead into a confrontation over the Senate’s classified torture report, Senate sources told The Huffington Post.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, waited for the immigration discussion to end and then pulled out a prepared speech that she read for five or six minutes, making the case for the release of the damning portrayal of America’s post-9/11 torture program.

“It was a vigorous, vigorous and open debate — one of the best and most thorough discussions I’ve been a part of while here,” said Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.).

Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), who served as intelligence committee chair before Feinstein, was furious after the meeting, and accused the administration of deliberately stalling the report.

“It’s being slow-walked to death. They’re doing everything they can not to release it,” Rockefeller told HuffPost.

“It makes a lot of people who did really bad things look really bad, which is the only way not to repeat those mistakes in the future,” he continued. “The public has to know about it. They don’t want the public to know about it.”

Of course, once the Republicans take over the Senate, they have made clear they will not release the report or its summary, which was undertaken to help insure that the US will never again use torture as a legitimate tool.

Andrew Sullivan succinctly describes Obama as a “phony on torture“:

The Obama administration, it is now beyond dispute, is in thrall to the CIA. The president, through his chief-of-staff, Denis McDonough, has been doing all he can to render the Senate Intelligence Committee Report on torture unintelligible, if he cannot prevent its publication entirely. And he is not giving an inch in his now two-years’ war against the transparency and accountability he once said he favored. Readers know I’ve almost given up on them, and am deeply concerned that next year, a Republican-run Senate will bury the report for ever. That’s clearly John Brennan’s strategy, as it has been from the start. It’s also, clearly, Obama’s.

I once saw Obama as a way out of our torture shame. If he was never going to investigate and prosecute, as is demanded of any signatory to Geneva, I never thought he would actively prevent even some small measure of accountability. How wrong I was.

So much for transparency.

Udall should speak truth to power

Conor Friedersdorf, writing in The Atlantic, calls on lame-duck Senator Mark Udall to use the “Speech or Debate privilege,” to expose the violations of the NSA and the details of the torture program operated for years by the Bush administration.

Using the Speech or Debate privilege to reveal abuses could be costly for a sitting senator, who’d risk being stripped of his or her clearance to see classified information or even expelled from the Senate for violating its rules. Udall is a lame duck, so his calculus is simpler. He only needs to ask himself what is right. What fulfills his obligations to his constituents, his country, and the oath of office he took to support and defend the Constitution? Preserving his ability to fight for civil liberties another day is no longer an option.

That frame is clarifying: He is now obligated to speak out. I do not reach that conclusion lightly. As a general rule, I believe legislators should be wary of revealing classified information, but the abuses being covered up are clear, radical and corrosive to a democratic society. Consider the details of the torture issue alone:

  • The crime is heinous.
  • The Obama administration is in clear, flagrant, longstanding breach of its legal obligation to investigate torture and to refer torturers for prosecution.
  • The Department of Justice employee tapped to look into the matter didn’t even interview many torture victims.
  • The Senate Intelligence Committee spent millions of taxpayer dollars and years of its staffers’ time producing a 6,300-page report on CIA torture that is being suppressed years after being completed as the CIA itself influences it.
  • The current head of the CIA was himself a high-ranking staffer at the agency during the torture years.
  • CIA employees spied on the Senate oversight committee as it completed the report.

Until and unless the report is released, the prevailing narrative on torture will remain influenced by the misleading propaganda of torture proponents, increasing the chance that the U.S. will adopt immoral, ineffective, illegal interrogation techniques in a future war or national emergency.

Friedersdorf is right. Udall should take to the Senate floor and forthrightly present to American citizens the abuses executed in their names. I hope he does so.

Justice Department scoops up cell-phone data using airplanes (updated)

From The Wall Street Journal:

The Justice Department is scooping up data from thousands of mobile phones through devices deployed on airplanes that mimic cellphone towers, a high-tech hunt for criminal suspects that is snagging a large number of innocent Americans, according to people familiar with the operations.

The U.S. Marshals Service program, which became fully functional around 2007, operates Cessna aircraft from at least five metropolitan-area airports, with a flying range covering most of the U.S. population, according to people familiar with the program.

The Wall Street Journal has learned of a new federal law enforcement program that uses planes and cell signals to track criminal suspects.

Planes are equipped with devices—some known as “dirtboxes” to law-enforcement officials because of the initials of the Boeing Co. unit that produces them—which mimic cell towers of large telecommunications firms and trick cellphones into reporting their unique registration information.

The technology in the two-foot-square device enables investigators to scoop data from tens of thousands of cellphones in a single flight, collecting their identifying information and general location, these people said.

People with knowledge of the program wouldn’t discuss the frequency or duration of such flights, but said they take place on a regular basis.

So another secret surveillance program targeting Americans is revealed. The dragnet surveillance program using so-called “dirtboxes” scoops up all calls and there is no evidence that innocent people don’t have their data stored indefinitely.  The technique cuts out telecom providers who don’t even know the data is being collected by the government. No permissions for such collections are sought.

It is yet another abusive instance of the “collect it all” mentality of law enforcement in America. How can this be legal?

Updated: See the earlier post from James that I missed myself this morning for a graphic showing how this all works.

US challenged on torture practices

Does this surprise you?

A United Nations panel that monitors compliance with an antitorture treaty expressed skepticism Thursday about American law enforcement and national security practices.

Who can blame the panel? The quote is from an article in today’s New York Times that details the skepticism of the United Nations panel that the US no longer tortures people and has fully reviewed its past practices of torture during the George W. Bush administration.

Of course, the Senate Intelligence Committee report on torture may never be released to the US public, and its summary portion alone is being held up by both Republicans and the Obama administration. Bring out the truth. Cauterize the wound.

Pew Research survey on privacy and security

Pew Research has announced some details of a recently completed survey focused on privacy and security concerns in the US. It paints a picture of citizens’ fears of both commercial and governmental surveillance. It is well worth a full review.

Here are some of the take-aways that I found most interesting:

The overall tenor of the full report indicates that US citizens would like to more fully protect their communications, but feel unable to do so.  If legislation was ever proposed to allow (and encourage) end-to-end encryption, the voters would love it.

Rosetta Mission live feed

The Rosetta Mission is an attempt to land a craft on a comet for the first time. The separation of the lander from the main probe has been confirmed. The landing is expected to occur around 11 am Eastern time.  If you are interested, you can watch a live feed of mission control here. And more information is available here at the Mission headquarters.

Update: There may have been a misfire in the harpoons that hold the lander to the comet.

Another call for Mark Udall to read Senate torture report into record

The Intercept is reporting on another call for Colorado Senator Mark Udall to read the Senate Intelligence report on US torture programs into the public record.

Article 1, Section 6 of the Constitution establishes an absolute free-speech right for members of Congress on the floor or in committee, even if they are disclosing classified material. It states that “for any Speech or Debate in either House, they shall not be questioned in any other Place.”

Within hours of Colorado Senator Mark Udall losing his reelection bid last week, transparency activists were talking about how he should go out with a bang and put the Senate intelligence committee’s torture report into the congressional record.  The report is said to detail shockingly brutal abuse of detainees by the CIA during the George W. Bush administration, as well as rampant deception about the program by top officials. But the Obama White House is refusing to declassify even a summary of the report without major redactions. And Republicans take over the Senate in January.

Udall is one of two senators — along with fellow Intelligence Committee member Ron Wyden — who have consistently demanded greater transparency from the intelligence community. If he made the report public on the Senate floor or during a hearing, he couldn’t be prosecuted.

The last time any senator did anything nearly so grand was in 1971, when Mike Gravel, two years into his 12 years representing the state of Alaska, entered 4,000 pages of the Pentagon Papers into the congressional record just before the U.S. Supreme Court lifted an injunction on publishing them in the press.

Now, Gravel is urging Udall to join the club.

“If Udall wants to call me, I can explain this to him,” Gravel, pictured above, said in a phone interview from his home in Burlingame, Calif.

This would be a huge win for public disclosure of the blatant torture programs put in place by the Bush administration. Udall would be a hero if he does this.

Your NSA: putting the dumb in freedom