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The Collective
Monday, August 6, 2007
By Dr. Steven Taylor

Via the NYT: Bush Signs Law to Widen Legal Reach for Wiretapping

The new law gives the attorney general and the director of national intelligence the power to approve the international surveillance, rather than the special intelligence court. The court’s only role will be to review and approve the procedures used by the government in the surveillance after it has been conducted. It will not scrutinize the cases of the individuals being monitored.

The law also gave the administration greater power to force telecommunications companies to cooperate with such spying operations. The companies can now be compelled to cooperate by orders from the attorney general and the director of national intelligence.

Ok, so we are going to empower specific individuals within the executive branch with the power to eavesdrop on Americans on American soil sans judicial oversight. Why it is so impossible to have a system in place that would allow for oversight of a power that could be easily abused continues to baffle me.

It isn’t that I do not understand that there might very well be good reasons for intercepting a phone call between a suspect and an innocent party. However, the notion that the right to so should rest with political appointees without some sort of check in the process is problematic and strikes me as an avenue to easy violation of the Fourth Amendment rights of American citizens.

While I do not want to make this issue solely about current occupants of the office, or even about this administration (as the changes that are being fashioned now will have long term consequences) but, can anyone watch the recent performance of Alberto Gonzales and say that he is someone you want to have this power? Or, if one wishes to expand the issue, how about Janet Reno with the power in question?

And I can’t help but think about Mr. Chertoff and his amazing gut. While the Secretary of Homeland Security is not empowered directly here, it is an office that would clearly be involved, at least in an advisory role, in the overall area of counter-terrorism. However, that isn’t the main reason I think of Chertoff’s gut. Rather, the very fact that someone in Chertoff’s very serious position would go around making such irresponsible and unanalytical statements (that even got wrong the notion of al Qaeda favoring summer attacks) should give us all pause when we look at the issue of empowering specific individuals to act without oversight.

It is always best to assume potential incompetence and/or abuse and design the institutions of the state accordingly, rather than assume the best and empower from there. However, in the current era of fear, this prudent line of thinking (which was key in the design of the US Constitution) appears to have been shelved.

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Sunday, August 5, 2007
By Dr. Steven Taylor

Jack Balkin, writing at Balkinization is rather unimpressed with the Congress’ behavior on the new FISA bill:

The passage of the new FISA bill by the Senate and now the House demonstrates that the Democrats stand neither for defending civil liberties nor for checking executive power.

They stand for nothing at all.

Conversely, the new bill shows that the Republican Party can get the Democrats to surrender almost any civil liberty- indeed, to give the President just as much unchecked power as he might obtain under a Republican controlled Congress- simply by playing the fear card repeatedly and without shame.

[…]

Whether controlled by Republicans or Democrats, Congress seems willing to bestow more and more unaccountable power to the President of the United States. The Democratic Party, which has long prided itself on its support for civil liberties, seems altogether to have lost its soul, and the Republican Party, which long contained a strong element of libertarianism and respect for individual freedom- particularly in economic matters- has given up any claims to providing a counterweight to a deluded and incompetent President.

Sadly, this assessment seems pretty much on target. It has long been clear that the Republicans in Congress have been utterly uninterested in curbing the expansion of executive power and have, in fact, contributed mightily to the notion that the only response to 9/11 is fear and fear mongering. Whatever element of the party that was actually fearful of expanded government powers of the lives of everyday citizens has clearly been subordinated to the faction that believes the notion that the only way we can be “safe” is to greatly empower the central government’s police and surveillance powers.

The Democrats, on the other hand, made it quite clear with this vote that they, too, have little real interest in curbing the expansion of executive power and are more concerned with whether or not they look weak on terrorism/national security than they are in adhering to their own supposed principles (at least the alleged principles that their rhetoric suggests they have). It would seem that they have spouted a great number of words about their concerns of an expanding executive branch which sees the needs to needlessly violate civil liberties, but really all they care about is how their actions will influence the next election. After all, they can fix it all when they get control of the White House and Congress, right? Hmm, where have I heard that one before?

It seems rather clear that the current mode of thinking in Washington is to forget about doing the hard work now and pretend like the next election will provide the mighty ability to finally really be able to do The Right Thing (this applies to both parties and their versions of The Right Thing). Instead, each election leads to yet another round of everyone’s favorite DC board game: Let’s Position Ourselves for the Next Election and everyone runs around pretending like they actually stand for something, when, in fact, they appear content only with trying to win the next election.

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Saturday, August 4, 2007
By Dr. Steven Taylor

Via WaPo: Senate Votes To Expand Warrantless Surveillance

The legislation, which is expected to go before the House today, would expand the government’s authority to intercept without a court order the phone calls and e-mails of people in the United States who are communicating with people overseas.

As currently written, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act already gives U.S. spies broad leeway to monitor the communications of foreign terrorism suspects, but the 30-year-old statute requires a warrant to monitor calls intercepted in the United States, regardless of where the calls begin or end.

At the White House, where officials had voiced concern about that requirement, a spokesman praised the Senate vote and called on House leaders to quickly follow suit. The legislation will “give our intelligence professionals the essential tools they need to protect our nation,” spokesman Tony Fratto said.

That is, of course, the catch-all explanation and justification for just about everything these days. And, of course, they can’t really explain how it works, who might get caught or if these kinds of programs have actually provided real, actionable or otherwise significant intelligence because that would tip off the enemy-as such we aren’t to worry our pretty little heads about such details. While I actually do understand that they can’t go into all the specifics, I am highly unconvinced that a) that there isn’t a way they couldn’t do a better job explaining to us what they are doing, and b) that these programs have been as successful as has been claimed. Sorry, but “trust us” has never been my favorite explanation and this administration in particular burned that bridge some time ago.

In regards to Democratic voters who thought they were getting change out of the new Congress, I suspect that the Majority Leader’s words will sound a tad hollow:

“My Republican colleagues chose to rubber-stamp a flawed administration proposal that fails to provide the accountability needed in the light of the administration’s past mismanagement of key tools in the war on terror,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.).

Last time I checked, Reid was the Leader and the Senate was in Democratic hands. I am not sure, therefore, that Reid can peg this on the Republicans, per se. Some of those 60 “yes” votes came from the Democrats-not to mention that if the majority really wanted to find a different solution, they could have worked a little harder at it.

In all honesty, it is rather stunning that they actually have voted here not just to continue a controversial program, but to expand it:

Privacy advocates accused the Democrats of selling out and charged that this bill gives the government more authority than it had under a controversial warrantless wiretapping program begun in secret after the 2001 terrorist attacks. Under that program, the government could conduct surveillance without judicial oversight only if it had a reason to believe that one party to the call was a member of or affiliated with al-Qaeda or a related terrorist organization. This bill drops that condition, they noted.

The only saving graces are that the legislation, as currently written, requires legislative review in six months and apparently does seek some controls over certain activities:

White House and intelligence officials have sought a broad overhaul of the act to allow spy agencies to listen in on terrorism suspects quickly, without having to apply for a court order, as is required for surveillance that targets U.S. residents. But Democratic leaders say the administration’s proposals could lead to broad searches of phone calls and e-mails by ordinary Americans without judicial review.

I know many of my readers, and many, many citizens will find any concerns about the government and surveillance to be unfounded. After all, this is just the government trying to keep us safe, right? However, I would submit to you all that in the grand scheme of things it is always more likely that human being are more likely to make mistakes and abuse powers than they are to do precisely what they ought. As such, the more we empower the federal government in these matters, the more we allow for some monumental errors to take place. This is, after all, the administration that held a US citizen, captured on US soil as an “enemy combatant” for years without charges and without basic legal rights just because it thought it needed to do so.

And to appeal to the Reagan Republicans in the audience, I would note his famous quip: “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are, ‘I’m here from the government and I’m here to help.’” He was there speaking mainly of things like fiscal policy. The matters we are discussing here go well beyond how the government might spend tax dollars, but to how it treats its citizens.

As a slight digression, and as I ponder the politics of the situation, I wonder what hardcore Second Amendment types think about this kind of behavior. After all, they typically argue that one of the main reasons why they ought to be allowed to keep whatever weaponry they wish is to protect against tyrannical or abusive government. As such, that is a segment of the population that one would think would be concerned about expanded police powers in the hands of the federal government. However, I suspect that they are unconcerned, as they tend to also be stronger pro-defense (which is ultimately rather ironic, actually, as a stronger defense mechanism means a more powerful state that could more easily disarm the even heavily armed citizen.)

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Thursday, August 2, 2007
By Dr. Steven Taylor

Via CNN: Gonzales to senators: ‘I may have created confusion’.

Apart from the obvious fact that Gonzales isn’t interested in being forthcoming and certainly seems to see his job as being protecting the President’s positions, not enforcing the law (he obvious still thinks he is White House Counsel-certainly that’s how he acts when he is before the Congress), the issue that is potentially far more disturbing is that it would appear that there are other domestic surveillance programs that have not been disclosed. Given the fact that this administration has an expansive notion of what a “war president” can do in the war on terror, I find the notion of a series of unknown programs to be problematic.

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Saturday, July 21, 2007
By Dr. Steven Taylor

Yesterday the President issued an Executive Order that defines what the CIA cannot do in regards to interrogations of prisoners believed to have information on terrorism (or, I suppose, anything else). Specifically the administration is attempting to address issues raised by the Supreme Court (via the AP):

The executive order is the White House’s first public effort to reach into the CIA’s five-year-old terror detention program, which has been in limbo since a Supreme Court decision last year called its legal foundation into question.

Several thoughts come to mind. First, as WaPo and the NYT, note this morning, the EO allows the program to resume (it has supposedly been on hold) and the guidelines in question are rather broad and vague. Still, as the NYT notes, it would seem that these rules do scale back what the CIA is allowed to do:

Several officials said the permitted techniques did not include some of the most controversial past techniques, among them “waterboarding,” which induces a feeling of drowning, and exposure to extremes of heat and cold.

I must confess as to having a hard time taking this all that seriously. For one, I concur with the following (via the WaPo story):

“All the order really does is to have the president say, ‘Everything in that other document that I’m not showing you is legal — trust me,’ ” said Tom Malinowski of Human Rights Watch.

That is standard operating procedure for the administration-they are big on the “trust me” mode of argumentation. And really, I have to say that I agree with Jeralyn Merritt:

This has all the earmarks of an order designed to continue rather than limit CIA abusive interrogation techniques.

However, beyond that, when the President does things like he did yesterday, i.e., basically say that he will not allow the DoJ to prosecute specific laws that he doesn’t like (at least if they challenge his executive prerogatives) or given his usage of signing statements, which basically say he will ignore the parts of the law he doesn’t like, how can we take seriously that the President will necessarily follow his own guidelines?

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Monday, July 16, 2007
By Dr. Steven Taylor

I noted this morning that a false alarm at the Miami airport caused an evacuation this morning.

Bill Jempty e-mails to note the cause: Bomb at MIA? Nope. Human cremains

A dead person in a box disrupted air travel at Miami International Airport Monday morning.

Concourse F was closed about 6 a.m. after a passenger tried to check a bag containing the ashes of a loved one. The luggage turned some heads while passing through a machine designed to check for explosives, Transportation Security Administration officials said.

‘’Our officers are highly trained to look for what we call IEDs, or improvised explosive devices,'’ said Sari Koshetz, a TSA spokeswoman. “A combination of items in the bag looked suspicious.'’

The items, Koshetz said, included ashes in a box.

It always seems to add up to humor for the TSA…

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By Dr. Steven Taylor

Via the BBC: Security alert at Miami airport

Miami airport was briefly evacuated after baggage screeners found a possible explosive device - but it turned out to be a false alarm.

Better safe than sorry, to be sure, but my word, what a mess for travel that situation has to be. Further false positives (and this isn’t the first) hardly inspire confidence in the TSA.

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Sunday, July 15, 2007
By Dr. Steven Taylor

Via the BBC: Manila terror law draws criticism

A tough new anti-terrorism law has come into effect in the Philippines.

The Human Security Act allows the government to detain suspects for up to three days without charge, use wiretaps and also seize suspects’ assets.

The government in Manila says the law will help it to tackle militant groups, such as Abu Sayyaf.

[…]

But critics, including the influential Roman Catholic Church, fear President Gloria Arroyo may be tempted to use the new powers to harass her political rivals.

They also say the law is being pushed through without clear implementing guidelines.

Opponents further worry that rogue elements in the army, accused of killing hundreds of mainly political activists over the past few years, will take the new law as a green light to step up their murderous activities, our correspondent says.

Yet another example of how anti-terrorism becomes an excuse for a government to expand its powers. And it is bad enough to have such powers, but even worse if the guidelines to use them are vague.

Further, it isn’t as if the Philippine government has a spotless human rights record-just surf over to HRW’s Philippines page and scan some recent headlines.

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Thursday, July 12, 2007
By Dr. Steven Taylor

Via the BBC: False alarm diverts US-UK flight

A flight from Los Angeles to London was diverted to New York City’s JFK airport after the crew reported a suspicious passenger, US officials have said.

Police boarded American Airlines Flight 136 after it made an emergency landing at 0352 (0752 GMT) and detained a man of Middle Eastern descent, CNN TV said.

US Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said the man was an employee who was flying in a private capacity.

Mr Chertoff told CNN it may have simply have been a “misunderstanding”.

“I think the good news here, of course, is an alert crew sees something that’s anomalous or seems questionable and they take action,” he said.

Hmm, must’ve been a false gut-check.

The suspicious activity in question:

A flight attendant was reportedly concerned that a passenger had used the employee shuttle bus at LAX to board the plane and bypass security controls.

[…]

However, after questioning, it emerged the man was an American Airlines employee who had purchased a legitimate return ticket to London.

Shouldn’t there be a way to find that out with landing the plane in NY and wasting all that time?

Meanwhile, via the AP: Bogus company gets radioactives license:

- Congressional investigators set up a bogus company with only a postal box and within a month obtained a license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission that allowed them to buy enough radioactive material for a small “dirty bomb.”

[…]

Nobody at the NRC checked whether the company was legitimate and an agency official even helped the investigators fill out the application form…

Spiffy.

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Tuesday, July 10, 2007
By Dr. Steven Taylor

“Reason can wrestle and overthrow terror.” — Euripides (Iphigenia in Aulis).

(I came across it this morning and it seemed an appropriate adage for our current age).

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