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“The Civil-Liberties Freak-Out”: Caught Up In The Conspiracy

Unaccustomed as I am to agreeing with Marc Thiessen, hell has frozen over and he’s on the right track about the National Security Agency–leaks nonscandal.

First of all, we pretty much knew everything that has “broken” in the past week. The NSA has been involved in a legal data-mining operation for almost a decade. Its legality was clarified in the renewal of the Patriot Act, which I supported. It has been described, incorrectly, as electronic eavesdropping. What is really happening is that phone and Internet records are being scanned for patterns that might illuminate terrorist networks. If there is a need to actually eavesdrop, the government has to go to the FISA court for permission.

Those who see the federal government as a vast corporate conspiracy or a criminal enterprise — in other words, paranoids of the left and right — are concerned about this. More moderate sorts should also have cause for concern — especially if a rogue government, like Nixon’s, were in power. We have to remain vigilant that the snooping stays within reasonable bounds; that’s why we have congressional oversight committees. And that’s where the paranoid tinge comes in: the FISA court, the congressional committees, the President and journalists like me are obviously incompetent or caught up in the conspiracy. Of course, there has been absolutely no evidence presented that the current parameters are unreasonable. Yes, I expect that some of my phone and e-mail traffic has been picked up in the data trawling. I travel fairly frequently to places like Iran, Afghanistan, Egypt, the West Bank and the rest of the region; part of my job is to talk to partisans on all sides — and also to talk to sources in the U.S. military and intelligence communities. I have no problem with the government knowing that I’m doing my job.

I do have a problem with individuals like Bradley Manning divulging secrets that may well put lives in danger; his reckless actions require criminal sanction. I also have a problem with sources within the government who leak news that endangers the lives of U.S. intelligence assets overseas — the leaker or leakers who gave the Associated Press the story about the second undie bomber, for example. That leak compromised a highly sensitive operation that involved the Saudi bombmaker our government considers the most dangerous man in the world. (I think that the Department of Justice hounding the Fox News reporter, or any other journalist, was well over the line, though.)

This is a difficult issue and will become even more difficult in the future as technology becomes more sophisticated. I applaud civil libertarians like Glenn Greenwald who draw our attention to it. But it is important to keep it in perspective. Far too many people get their notions of what our government is all about from Hollywood; the paranoid thriller is a wonderful form of entertainment, but it’s a fantasy. The idea that our government is some sort of conspiracy, that it’s a somehow foreign body intent on robbing us of our freedoms, is corrosive and dangerous to our democracy. This remains, and always will be, an extremely libertarian country; it’s encoded in our DNA. We now face a constant, low-level terrorist threat that needs to be monitored. A great many lives are potentially at stake … and our national security is more important than any marginal — indeed, mythical — rights that we may have conceded in the Patriot Act legislation. In the end, the slippery-slope, all-or-nothing arguments advanced by extreme civil libertarians bear an uncomfortable resemblance to the slippery-slope, all-or-nothing arguments advanced by the National Rifle Association.

 

By: Joe Klein, Time Magazine,  June 10, 2013

June 14, 2013 Posted by | Civil Liberties, National Security | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“The Scandal Is In What’s Legal”: Holding Congress Accountable For National Security Agency Excesses

It didn’t generate much attention at the time, but in the closing days of 2012, while most of the political world was focused on the so-called “fiscal cliff,” Congress also had to take the time to reauthorize the government’s warrantless surveillance program. A handful of senators — Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Pat Leahy (D-Vt.), Rand Paul (R-Ky.) — proposed straightforward amendments to promote NSA disclosure and add layers of accountability, but as Adam Serwer reported at the time, bipartisan majorities rejected each of their ideas.

In effect, every senator was aware of dubious NSA surveillance — some had been briefed on the programs in great detail — but a bipartisan majority was comfortable with an enormous amount of secrecy and minimal oversight. Even the most basic of proposed reforms — having the NSA explain how surveillance works in practice — were seen as overly intrusive. The vast majority of Congress was comfortable with NSA operating under what are effectively secret laws.

With this in mind, Jonathan Bernstein asked a compelling question over the weekend and provided a persuasive answer: “If you don’t like the revelations this week about what the NSA has been up to regarding your phone and Internet data, whom should you blame?”

There is, to be sure, plenty of blame to go around. The NSA has pushed the limits; federal courts approved the surveillance programs; George W. Bush got this ball rolling; President Obama kept this ball rolling; and telecoms have clearly participated in the efforts.

But save plenty of your blame — perhaps most of your blame — for Congress.

Did you notice the word I used in each of the other cases? The key word: law. As far as we know, everything that happened here was fully within the law. So if something was allowed that shouldn’t have been allowed, the problem is, in the first place, the laws. And that means Congress.

It’s worth pausing to note that there is some debate about the legality of the exposed surveillance programs. Based on what we know at this point, most of the legal analyses I’ve seen suggest the NSA’s actions were within the law, though we’re still dealing with an incomplete picture, and there are certainly some legal experts who question whether the NSA crossed legal lines.

But if the preliminary information is accurate, it’s hard to overstate how correct Bernstein is about congressional culpability.

Towards the end of the Bush/Cheney era, there was a two-pronged debate about surveillance. On the one hand, there were questions about warrantless wiretaps and NSA data mining. On the other, there was the issue of the law: the original FISA law approved in 1978 was deemed by the Bush administration to be out of date, so officials chose to circumvent it, on purpose, to meet their perceived counter-terrorism needs.

In time, bipartisan majorities in Congress decided not to hold Bush/Cheney accountable, and ultimately expanded the law to give the executive branch extraordinary and unprecedented surveillance powers.

In theory, Obama could have chosen a different path after taking office in 2009, but the historical pattern is clear: if Congress gives a war-time president vast powers related to national security, that president is going to use those powers. The wiser course of action would be the legislative branch acting to keep those powers in check — limiting how far a White House can go — but our contemporary Congress has chosen to do the opposite.

This is, by the way, a bipartisan phenomenon — lawmakers in both parties gave Bush expansive authority in this area, and lawmakers in both parties agreed to keep these powers in Obama’s hands. What’s more, they not only passed these measures into law, they chose not to do much in the way of oversight as the surveillance programs grew.

OK, but now that the NSA programs are causing national controversies again, perhaps Congress will reconsider these expansive presidential powers? Probably not — on the Sunday shows, we heard from a variety of lawmakers, some of whom expressed concern about the surveillance, but most of whom are prepared to allow the programs continue untouched.

Indeed, for many lawmakers on the right, the intended focus going forward won’t be on scaling back NSA efforts, but rather, will be on targeting the leaks that exposed the NSA efforts.

Conservatives, in particular, seem especially eager to leave these powers in the president’s hands — even though they have nothing but disdain for this particular president. And as Jon Chait explained, support for the NSA programs from the right will matter a great deal: “The Republican response is crucial, because it determines whether the news media treats the story as a ‘scandal’ or as a ‘policy dispute.'”

Michael Kinsley, referencing campaign-finance laws, once argued that in Washington, the scandal isn’t what’s illegal; the scandal is what’s legal. I’ve been thinking a lot about this adage in recent days.

If the reports are accurate and the NSA is acting within the law, but you nevertheless consider the surveillance programs outrageous, there is one remedy: Congress needs to redraw the legal lines. At least for now, the appetite for changes among lawmakers appears limited, which only helps reinforce the thesis about who’s ultimately responsible for this mess.

 

By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, June 10, 2013

June 13, 2013 Posted by | Congress | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Osama bin Laden Vanquished: Can We Have Our Country Back Now?

Eight years to the day after President Bush stood before a banner announcing “Mission Accomplished” in Iraq, prematurely declaring the end of combat operations there, President Obama announced Sunday night that an operation he authorized had killed al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden. The spoiled son of privilege, who thought it his birthright to dispatch thousands of innocents to their death for the crime of not sharing his twisted vision of Islam, is dead.

After more than 7,000 American deaths and tens of thousands of casualties in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the move against bin Laden seems to have been accomplished by a small group of American military special forces. It is too early to say what role the massive American military operations in the region played; we’ll be asking that question for a long time.

We’ll be asking a lot of questions: Are we safer? Or, at least in the short term, does bin Laden’s killing make retaliation more likely? We’re set to draw down forces in Afghanistan soon: Will that happen; will it happen more quickly; or will there be a local backlash that keeps us there longer?

It’s my job to think about all those consequences of this stunning news, which came near midnight Eastern time on a Sunday night. I also couldn’t help noticing it came roughly 24 hours after the president had dispatched his bizarro-world enemy, Donald Trump, another spoiled son of privilege, coincidentally. How strange was that? The contrast between the general idiocy of 24/7 American politics, and what’s really at stake in all of Obama’s decisions, had never been so stark.

For his part, the president used the event to reinforce his view of America and its place in the world. He began with the personal, talking about the way “the images of 9/11 are seared into our national memory,” while noting “the worst images are those that were unseen by the world, the empty seat at the dinner table … 3,000 citizens taken from us, leaving a gaping hole in our hearts.” He reaffirmed what he noted was also President Bush’s stance: “The United States is not, and never will be, at war with Islam: bin Laden was not a Muslim leader; he was a mass murderer of Muslims.” He urged Americans to “think back to the sense of unity that prevailed on September 11. We reaffirmed our ties to each other, and our love of community and country. No matter what God we prayed to, or what race or ethnicity we were, we were united as one American family.” And he closed with a rededication to his version of American exceptionalism: “We can do these things not just because of wealth and power, but because of who we are: One nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

After Obama’s remarks, pundits were quick to score his achievement politically. NBC’s Chuck Todd called it “the most significant accomplishment for the president in this term.” And it may be. A crowd assembled, chanting and singing, outside the White House. There was a spontaneous gathering on Sixth Avenue in New York; up in the Bronx, students at Fordham University clustered in the main campus green to celebrate the news and remember those who died. For the families of victims, it’s a long wait for closure; I can’t presume to know how anyone who lost a loved one on 9/11 feels about bin Laden’s killing. I hope it helps.

After years of Catholic school, I am constitutionally unable to feel joyous about anyone being killed, but I got close tonight with bin Laden. He killed thousands of innocent people — and again, it was that incomparable American tableau: Muslims, Jews, Catholics; waiters, firefighters, investment bankers; gays and straights; mothers and fathers of every race. For months, reading the New York Times “Portraits of Grief” felt like a responsibility of American citizenship; every day you’d find someone almost exactly like you, but also as different from you as possible — except they also loved Bruce Springsteen (a lot of them did) or had a child your age or were born on your father’s birthday. We saw the beauty and bravery and diversity of America in that tragedy, and I wish it didn’t take a tragedy for us to do so.

I also wish this achievement could mean we get our country back, the one before the Patriot Act, before FISA, before rendition and torture and Guantánamo; before we began giving up the freedom and belief in due process that makes us Americans, out of our fear of totalitarians like bin Laden. It won’t happen overnight, but I’m going to choose to think this could be a first step.

It’s not a night for political gloating: President Bush issued this gracious (I guess) statement, which Laura Bush, kind of bizarrely, or maybe not, posted on Facebook:

Earlier this evening, President Obama called to inform me that American forces killed Osama bin Laden, the leader of the al Qaeda network that attacked America on September 11, 2001. I congratulated him and the men and women of our military and intelligence communities who devoted their lives to this mission. They have our everlasting gratitude. This momentous achievement marks a victory for America, for people who seek peace around the world, and for all those who lost loved ones on September 11, 2001. The fight against terror goes on, but tonight America has sent an unmistakable message: No matter how long it takes, justice will be done.

A victory “for those who seek peace around the world.” Hmmm. I hope so. I’m going to take the former president at his word, and pray that’s our direction from here.

By: Joan Walsh, Editor at Large, Salon, May 1, 2011

May 2, 2011 Posted by | 911, Islam, Military Intervention, National Security, Politics, President Obama, Press, Pundits | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

   

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