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Eleven (or Thirteen) Senators Are Cool with Using Section 702 to Spy on Americans

The Senate Intelligence Committee report on its version of Section 702 “reform” is out. It makes it clear that my concerns raised here and here are merited.

In this post, I’ll examine what the report — particularly taken in conjunction with the Wyden-Paul reform — reveals about the use of Section 702 for domestic spying.

The first clue is Senator Wyden’s effort to prohibit collection of domestic communications — the issue about which he and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats have been fighting about since June.

By a vote of four ayes to eleven noes, the Committee rejected an amendment by Senator Wyden that would have prohibited acquisition under Section 702 of communications known to be entirely domestic under authority to target certain persons outside of the United States. The votes in person or by proxy were as follows: Chairman Burr—no; Senator Risch—no; Senator Rubio—no; Senator Collins—no; Senator Blunt—no; Senator Lankford—no; Senator Cotton—no; Senator Cornyn—no; Vice Chairman Warner—no; Senator Feinstein—aye; Senator Wyden—aye; Senator Heinrich— aye; Senator King—no; Senator Manchin—no; and Senator Harris—aye.

It tells us that the government collects entirely domestic communications, a practice that Wyden tried to prohibit in his own bill, which added this language to Section 702.

(F) may not acquire communications known to be entirely domestic;

This would effectively close the 2014 exception, which permitted the NSA to continue to collect on a facility even after it had identified that Americans also used it. As I have explained is used to collect Tor (and probably VPN) traffic to obtain foreigners’ data. I suspect that detail is what Wyden had in mind when, in his comments in the report, he said the report itself “omit[s] key information about the scope of authorities granted the government” (though there are likely other things this report hides).

I have concerns about this report. By omitting key information about the scope of authorities granted the government, the Committee is itself contributing to the continuing corrosive problem of secret law

As the bill report lays out, Senators Burr, Risch, Rubio, Collins, Blunt, Lankford, Cotton, Cornyn, Warner, King, and Manchin are all cool using a foreign surveillance program to spy on their constituents, especially given that Burr has hidden precisely the impact of that spying in this report.

Any bets on whether they might have voted differently if we all got to know what kind of spying on us this bill authorized.

That, of course, is only eleven senators who are cool with treating their constituents (or at least those using location obscuring techniques) like foreigners.

But I’m throwing Feinstein and Harris in with that group, because they voted against a Wyden amendment that would have limited how the government could use 702 collected data in investigations.

By a vote of two ayes to thirteen noes, the Committee rejected an amendment by Senator Wyden that would have imposed further restrictions on use of Section 702-derived information in investigations and legal proceedings. The votes in person or by proxy were as follows: Chairman Burr—no; Senator Risch—no; Senator Rubio—no; Senator Collins—no; Senator Blunt—no; Senator Lankford—no; Senator Cotton—no; Senator Cornyn—no; Vice Chairman Warner—no; Senator Feinstein—no; Senator Wyden— aye; Senator Heinrich—aye; Senator King—no; Senator Manchin— no; and Senator Harris—no.

While we don’t have the language of this amendment, I assume it does what this language in Wyden’s bill does, which is to limit the use of Section 702 data for purposes laid out in the known certificates (foreign government including nation-state hacking, counterproliferation, and counterterrorism — though this language makes me wonder if there’s a Critical Infrastructure certificate or whether it only depends on the permission to do so in the FBI minimization procedures, and the force protection language reminds me of the concerns raised by a recent HRW FOIA permitting the use of 12333 language to do so).

(B) in a proceeding or investigation in which the information is directly related to and necessary to address a specific threat of—

(i) terrorism (as defined in clauses (i) through (iii) of section 2332(g)(5)(B) of title 18, United States Code);

(ii) espionage (as used in chapter 37 of title 18, United States Code);

(iii) proliferation or use of a weapon of mass destruction (as defined in section 2332a(c) of title 18, United States Code);

(iv) a cybersecurity threat from a foreign country;

(v) incapacitation or destruction of critical infrastructure (as defined in section 1016(e) of the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism (USA PATRIOT ACT) Act of 2001 (42 U.S.C. 5195c(e))); or

(vi) a threat to the armed forces of the United States or an ally of the United States or to other personnel of the United States Government or a government of an ally of the United States.

Compare this list with the one included in the bill, which codifies the use of 702 data for issues that,

“Affects, involves, or is related to” the national security of the United States (which will include proceedings used to flip informants on top of whatever terrorism, proliferation, or espionage and hacking crimes that would more directly fall under national security) or involves,

  • Death
  • Kidnapping
  • Serious bodily injury
  • Specified offense against a minor
  • Incapacitation or destruction of critical infrastructure (critical infrastructure can include even campgrounds!)
  • Cybersecurity, including violations of CFAA
  • Transnational crime, including transnational narcotics trafficking
  • Human trafficking (which, especially dissociated from transnational crime, is often used as a ploy to prosecute prostitution; the government also includes assisting undocumented migration to be human trafficking)

[snip]

Importantly, the bill does not permit judicial review on whether the determination that something “affects, involves, or is related to” national security. Meaning Attorney General Jeff Sessions could decide tomorrow that it can collect the Tor traffic of BLM or BDS activists, and no judge can rule that’s an inappropriate use of a foreign intelligence program.

The bill report’s description of this section makes it clear that — in spite of its use of the word “restriction,” — this is really about providing affirmative “permission.”

Section 6 provides restrictions on the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI’s) use of Section 702-derived information, so that the FBI can use the information as evidence only in court proceedings [my emphasis]

That is, Wyden would restrict the use of 702 data to purposes the FISC has affirmatively approved, rather than the list of 702 purposes expanded to include the most problematic uses of Tor: all hacking, dark markets, and child porn.

So while Feinstein and Harris voted against the use of 702 to collect known domestic communications, they’re still okay using domestic Tor commuincations they say they don’t want to let NSA collect to prosecute Americans (which is actually not surprising given their past actions on sex workers).

Again, they’re counting on the fact that the bill report is written such that their constituents won’t know that this is going on. Unless they read me.

Look, I get the need to collect on Tor traffic to go after its worst uses. But if you’re going to do that, stop pretending this is a foreign surveillance bill, and instead either call it a secret court bill (one that effectively evades warrant requirements for all Tor wiretapping in this country), or admit you’re doing that collection and put review of it back into criminal courts where it belongs.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including Vice, Motherboard, the Nation, the Atlantic, Al Jazeera, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse in Grand Rapids, MI.

Senate Intelligence Committee Tried to Say WikiLeaks Constituted — Not Just Resembled — A Spy

The bill report for the Intelligence Authorization is out. Among other things, it provides more details on the Senate Intelligence Committee’s efforts to get WikiLeaks treated as a non-state hostile intelligence service. It reveals that the original language of the bill

By voice vote, the Committee adopted a second-degree amendment by Senator King to an amendment by Senator Wyden that would have stricken Section 623 of the bill. Section 623 originally provided a Sense of Congress that WikiLeaks and its senior leadership constitute a non-state hostile intelligence service.

By a vote of 13 ayes to 2 noes, the Committee adopted the amendment by Senator Wyden that would have stricken Section 623 of the bill, as modified by the second-degree amendment by Senator King, to provide a Sense of Congress that WikiLeaks and its senior leadership resemble a non-state hostile intelligence service. The votes in person or by proxy were as follows: [my emphasis]

Chairman Burr–aye;

Senator Risch–aye;

Senator Rubio–aye;

Senator Collins–aye;

Senator Blunt–aye;

Senator Lankford–aye;

Senator Cotton–aye;

Senator Cornyn–aye;

Vice Chairman Warner–aye;

Senator Feinstein–aye;

Senator Wyden–no;

Senator Heinrich–aye;

Senator King–aye;

Senator Manchin–aye;

Senator Harris–no.

As you can see, Kamala Harris is the only one, besides Ron Wyden, who voted against this troubling amendment.

Here’s her statement from the report:

In particular, I have reservations about Section 623, which establishes a Sense of Congress that WikiLeaks and the senior leadership of WikiLeaks resemble a non-state hostile intelligence service. The Committee’s bill offers no definition of “non-state hostile intelligence service” to clarify what this term is and is not. Section 623 also directs the United States to treat WikiLeaks as such a service, without offering further clarity.

To be clear, I am no supporter of WikiLeaks, and believe that the organization and its leadership have done considerable harm to this country. This issue needs to be addressed. However, the ambiguity in the bill is dangerous because it fails to draw a bright line between WikiLeaks and legitimate journalistic organizations that play a vital role in our democracy.

I supported efforts to remove this language in Committee and look forward to working with my colleagues as the bill proceeds to address my concerns.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including Vice, Motherboard, the Nation, the Atlantic, Al Jazeera, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse in Grand Rapids, MI.

Are Trump’s Associates Forgoing Lawyers because They Expect Pardons?

One of the numerous topics over which Attorney General Jeff Sessions invoked non-executive executive privilege when he testified earlier this month was whether the Trump Administration has started discussing pardoning those who might be criminally exposed for their ties with Russia.

WARNER: To your knowledge, have any Department of Justice officials been involved with conversations about any possibility of presidential pardons about any of the individuals involved with the Russia investigation?

SESSIONS: Mr. Chairman, I’m not able to comment on conversations with high officials within the white house. That would be a violation of the communications rule that I have to —

WARNER: Just so I can understand, is the basis of that unwilling to answer based on executive privilege?

SESSIONS: It’s a long standing policy. The department of justice not to comment on conversations that the attorney general had with the president of the united States for confidential reasons that rounded in the coequal branch.

WARNER: Just so I understand, is that mean you claim executive privilege?

SESSIONS: I’m not claiming executive privilege because that’s the president’s power and I have no power there.

WARNER: What about conversations with other Department of Justice or White House officials about potential pardons? Not the president, sir.

SESSIONS: Without in any way suggesting I had any conversations concerning pardons, totally apart from that, there are privileges of communication within the department of justice that we share all of us do. We have a right to have full and robust debate within the Department of Justice and encourage people to speak up and argue cases on different sides. Those arguments are not — historically we have seen they shouldn’t be revealed.

WARNER: I hope you agree since you recused yourself that if the president or others would pardon someone during the midst of this investigation while our investigation or Mr. Mueller’s investigation, that would be problematic.

After I watched this testimony I predicted Trump would pardon someone — probably Mike Flynn — within three months of the day I made the prediction (which was roughly June 14).

I said that, in part, because of Sessions’ sheer arrogance when he was providing obviously false answers (most especially to Kamala Harris). Sessions had the giddy look of someone who knew he’d get away with whatever he was pulling, even beyond the kind of a look you’d expect from a southern white man talking to a woman of color.

But I also say that because some of the people most exposed in this affair have had at least initial conversations with the FBI without a lawyer. That’s true of Mike Flynn in his first interview with the FBI at the White House. (Flynn has since retained Robert Kelner.)

WHITEHOUSE: Do you know where that interview took place or under what circumstances?

YATES: I believe it took place at the White House.

WHITEHOUSE: The Flynn interview?

YATES: Yes.

WHITEHOUSE: OK. Do you know if Flynn was represented by council at the time?

YATES: I don’t believe he was.

And — according to a new WaPo story — that’s true of the 10 hours of questioning that Carter Page underwent in March.

Over a series of five meetings in March, totaling about 10 hours of questioning, Page repeatedly denied wrongdoing when asked about allegations that he may have acted as a kind of go-between for Russia and the Trump campaign, according to a person familiar with Page’s account.

The interviews with the FBI are the most extensive known questioning of a potential suspect in the probe of possible Russian connections to associates of President Trump. The questioning of Page came more than a month before the Russian investigation was put under the direction of Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III.

Page confirmed Monday that the interviews occurred, calling them “extensive discussions.” He declined to say if he’s spoken to investigators since the March interviews.

[snip]

Because it is against the law for an individual to lie to FBI agents about a material issue under investigation, many lawyers recommend their clients not sit for interviews with the bureau without a lawyer present. Page said he spoke without a lawyer and wasn’t concerned about the risks because he told the truth.

Now, it may be that after getting these men to incriminate themselves, the FBI encouraged them to lawyer up so they could be flipped. Certainly, Sheldon Whitehouse appears to believe Flynn has done just that.

Still, the kind of arrogance that would lead men as exposed as they are to forgo a lawyer makes me wonder whether they’ve already been promised pardons?

Update: Meanwhile, the most likely Trump associate to get a pardon, father of his grandchildren Jared Kushner, just hired Abbe Lowell, while still retaining Jamie Gorelick.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including Vice, Motherboard, the Nation, the Atlantic, Al Jazeera, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse in Grand Rapids, MI.

Sessions Recusal: Election And/Or Russia?

Back when Jeff Sessions recused from the investigation into Trump, I noted that it was actually fairly narrow. He recused from election-related issues, but said nothing about Russia.

[T]he only thing he is recusing from is “existing or future investigations of any matters related in any way to the campaigns for President of the United States.”

There are two areas of concern regarding Trump’s ties that would not definitively be included in this recusal: Trump’s long-term ties to mobbed up businessmen with ties to Russia (a matter not known to be under investigation but which could raise concerns about compromise of Trump going forward), and discussions about policy that may involve quid pro quos (such as the unproven allegation, made in the Trump dossier, that Carter Page might take 19% in Rosneft in exchange for ending sanctions against Russia), that didn’t involve a pay-off in terms of the hacking. There are further allegations of Trump involvement in the hacking (a weak one against Paul Manafort and a much stronger one against Michael Cohen, both in the dossier), but that’s in no way the only concern raised about Trump’s ties with Russians.

Which is why I was so interested that Jim Comey emphasized something else in his testimony (see this post on this topic) — issues pertaining to Russia. [my emphasis throughout]

We concluded it made little sense to report it to Attorney General Sessions, who we expected would likely recuse himself from involvement in Russia-related investigations. (He did so two weeks later.)

This came up in his hearing yesterday, as well. First Wyden asked why Sessions was involved in Comey’s firing if he got fired for continuing to investigate Mike Flynn’s ties to Russia.

WYDEN: Let me turn to the attorney general. In your statement, you said that you and the FBI leadership team decided not to discuss the president’s actions with Attorney General Sessions, even though he had not recused himself. What was it about the attorney general’s interactions with the Russians or his behavior with regard to the investigation that would have led the entire leadership of the FBI to make this decision?

COMEY: Our judgment, as I recall, is that he was very close to and inevitably going to recuse himself for a variety of reasons. We also were aware of facts that I can’t discuss in an opening setting that would make his continued engagement in a Russia-related investigation problematic. So we were convinced — in fact, I think we’d already heard the career people were recommending that he recuse himself, that he was not going to be in contact with Russia-related matters much longer. That turned out to be the case.

WYDEN: How would you characterize Attorney General Sessions’s adherence to his recusal? In particular, with regard to his involvement in your firing, which the president has acknowledged was because of the Russian investigation.

COMEY: That’s a question I can’t answer. I think it is a reasonable question. If, as the president said, I was fired because of the Russia investigation, why was the attorney general involved in that chain? I don’t know.

Then Kamala Harris asked whether there had been any official guidance on recusal.

HARRIS: Thank you. As a former attorney general, I have a series of questions in connection with your connection with the attorney general while you were FBI director. What is your understanding of the parameters of Attorney General Sessions’ recusal from the Russia investigation?

COMEY: I think it’s described in a written release from DOJ which I don’t remember sitting here but the gist is he will be recused from all matters relating to Russia or the campaign. Or the activities of Russia and the ’16 election or something like that.

HARRIS: So, is your knowledge of the extent of the recusal based on the public statements he’s made?

COMEY: Correct.

HARRIS: Is there any kind of memorandum issued from the attorney general to the FBI outlining the parameters of his recusal?

COMEY: Not that I’m aware of.

In every comment, Comey emphasized the Russian aspect. Indeed, most of his comments only mention Russia; just one instance mentions the election.

Indeed, yesterday’s hearing made it clear that Comey believed Sessions should be recused from Russia-related issues because of unclassified issues that include his undisclosed two (now three) conversations with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.

After yesterday’s hearing, DOJ issued a statement (reproduced in its entirely below), and also released an email that appears to serve as the written guidance on Sessions’ recusal. Yesterday’s statement makes the limitation to election-related issues even more explicit.

Given Attorney General Sessions’ participation in President Trump’s campaign, it was for that reason, and that reason alone, the Attorney General made the decision on March 2, 2017 to recuse himself from any existing or future investigations of any matters related in any way to the campaigns for President of the United States.

So while the email directive does state Sessions’ recusal “extends to Department responses to Congressional and media inquiries related to any such investigations,” not a single thing from DOJ ever mentions the word Russia.

There are actually many important potential implications of this.

It may mean, for example, that Sessions feels he had every right to help Trump fire Comey for his aggressive investigation in Russian issues — even in spite of the fact that his own actions may be reviewed in the Russian investigation — because the Flynn investigation pertained to issues that happened after the election.

More alarmingly, it may mean that there will be a squabble about the scope of Robert Mueller’s special counsel investigation, which has already started digging into matters of Russian corruption that go back years, because Rod Rosenstein overstepped the scope of his own authority based on the limits of Sessions’ recusal.

Jim Comey thinks that as soon as February 14, it was clear that Sessions had to recuse from Russian related issues. Instead (all the evidence suggests) he recused only from election related issues.

The difference in understanding here is troubling.

Update: A friend notes that Jeff Sessions basically relied on Rod Rosenstein’s letter in recommending Trump fire Comey.

[F]or the reasons expressed by the Deputy Attorney General in the attached memorandum, I have concluded that a fresh start is needed at the leadership of the FBI.

The friend suggested that because Comey’s actions implicated the election, that means Sessions intervened in matter pertaining to the election (albeit for Trump’s opponent).

I’m not so sure. The phrasing of Rosenstein’s letter here is critical. Democrats may be angry at Comey for reopening the investigation (and sending a sure-to-leak letter to a stable of GOP Committee Chairs) days before the election. So to Democrats, Comey’s handing of the Hillary investigation pertains to the election.

But Rosenstein frames the issue in terms of “usurp[ing] the Attorney General’s authority” and “supplant[ing] federal prosecutors and assum[ing] control of the Justice Department.” While Rosenstein cites Eric Holder and Donald Ayer describing how Comey’s actions violated long-standing policies pertaining to comments in advance of elections, the Deputy Attorney General himself pitches it as insubordination.

Update: On Twitter Charlie Savage suggested the scope of the recusal could be taken from the language of Comey’s confirmation of the investigation in a HPSCI hearing on March 20, arguing that on March 2, when Sessions recused, the investigation and its ties to campaign members who spoke to Russians had not yet been disclosed.

I have been authorized by the Department of Justice to confirm that the FBI, as part of our counterintelligence mission, is investigating the Russian government’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election and that includes investigating the nature of any links between individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government and whether there was any coordination between the campaign and Russia’s efforts. As with any counterintelligence investigation, this will also include an assessment of whether any crimes were committed.

Except this statement says nothing about Jeff Sessions’ recusal, and in Thursday’s testimony, Comey said he was unaware of a memo aside from Sessions public statement. As noted above, the email that DOJ has now pointed to says nothing about Russia.

Plus, even if the recusal originally intended to include the secret Russia investigation, the statement written on Thursday, very clearly in response to Comey’s testimony and repeated claims that Sessions had to recuse from Russia-related issues, said the only reason Sessions recused was because of the campaign tie. And as I noted in my original post on the scope of Sessions’ recusal, he played games in his admission of conversations with Sergey Kislyak as to whether they pertained to Russia.

Update: In a March 6 letter to SJC claiming he didn’t need to correct his false testimony on conversations with Sergey Kislyak, Sessions said that his recusal should cover Russian contacts with the Trump transition and administration.

The March 3, 2017, letter also asked why I had not recused myself from “Russian contacts with the Trump transition team and administration.” I understand the scope of the recusal as described in the Department’s press release would include any such matters.

This would seem to conflict with Thursday’s statement.

______________________________________________________________________________

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

THURSDAY, JUNE 8, 2017

DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE ISSUES STATEMENT ON TESTIMONY OF FORMER FBI DIRECTOR JAMES COMEY

 

WASHINGTON – In response to testimony given today by former FBI Director James Comey, Department of Justice Spokesman Ian Prior issued the following statement:

  • Shortly after being sworn in, Attorney General Sessions began consulting with career Department of Justice ethics officials to determine whether he should recuse himself from any existing or future investigations of any matters related in any way to the campaigns for President of the United States.

Those discussions were centered upon 28 CFR 45.2, which provides that a Department of Justice attorney should not participate in investigations that may involve entities or individuals with whom the attorney has a political or personal relationship. That regulation goes on to define “political relationship” as:

“[A] close identification with an elected official, a candidate (whether or not successful) for elective, public office, a political party, or a campaign organization, arising from service as a principal adviser thereto or a principal official thereof ***”

Given Attorney General Sessions’ participation in President Trump’s campaign, it was for that reason, and that reason alone, the Attorney General made the decision on March 2, 2017 to recuse himself from any existing or future investigations of any matters related in any way to the campaigns for President of the United States.

  • In his testimony, Mr. Comey stated that he was “not *** aware of” “any kind of memorandum issued from the Attorney General or the Department of Justice to the FBI outlining the parameters of [the Attorney General’s] recusal.” However, on March 2, 2017, the Attorney General’s Chief of Staff sent the attached email specifically informing Mr. Comey and other relevant Department officials of the recusal and its parameters, and advising that each of them instruct their staff “not to brief the Attorney General *** about, or otherwise involve the Attorney General *** in, any such matters described.”
  • During his testimony, Mr. Comey confirmed that he did not inform the Attorney General of his concerns about the substance of any one-on-one conversation he had with the President. Mr. Comey said, following a morning threat briefing, that he wanted to ensure he and his FBI staff were following proper communications protocol with the White House. The Attorney General was not silent; he responded to this comment by saying that the FBI and Department of Justice needed to be careful about following appropriate policies regarding contacts with the White House.
  • Despite previous inaccurate media reports, Mr. Comey did not say that he ever asked anyone at the Department of Justice for more resources related to this investigation.
  • In conclusion, it is important to note that after his initial meeting with career ethics officials regarding recusal (and including the period prior to his formal recusal on March 2, 2017), the Attorney General has not been briefed on or participated in any investigation within the scope of his recusal.

# # #

17-631

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including Vice, Motherboard, the Nation, the Atlantic, Al Jazeera, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse in Grand Rapids, MI.

The SCOTUS Merrygoround: Is Ginsburg Shuffle Coming?

The UPI has an article up with the startling headline “Ruth Bader Ginsburg stepping down in 2015”. The article, which is really more of a pondering question, is bylined today by Michael Kirkland and paints the scenario of a Ruth Bader Ginsburg retirement in 2015 so that Obama has sufficient time left in his second term to appoint and confirm a successor.

Although referenced rather obliquely in his article, Kirkland’s basis is premised entirely on the thoughts and predictions of SCOTUS, AND SCOTUSblog, longtime pro Tom Goldstein in a SCOTUSblog post he did last Tuesday, February 14th. Goldstein may be only one voice thinking out loud, but he carries the bona fides to warrant serious consideration here.

Goldstein points to the confluence of Ginsburg’s age, health, and personal career tracking with that of Justice Louis Brandeis. And the thought that Ginsburg will want to see that her replacement is chosen by a Democratic President. Goldstein’s thought process, originally laid out in the comprehensive February 14th entry at SCOTUSblog, is worth reading. Assuming Obama is reelected, which is still a pretty decent bet at this point (certainly capable of changing though), it is hard to find fault with Goldstein’s logic; in fact, it is rather compelling. I also agree with Tom that none of the current conservative bloc, including swing man Tony Kennedy, are going anywhere anytime soon.

Where I do differ from Goldstein, however, is in his prediction for what would transpire upon the theorized Ginsburg tactical retirement:

Assuming that President Obama is re-elected and that Justice Ginsburg does retire at some point in the next Administration, who will be the next nominee? One thing is certain: it will be a woman. It is inconceivable that a Democratic administration with any reasonable choice would cause the gender balance of the Supreme Court to revert to seven men and two women. Relatedly, appointing three women in a row to the Court is excellent politics.

President Obama will also have a strong desire to pick an ethnically or racially diverse nominee. It would be disappointing for the nation’s first African-American President to make two white appointments, leaving the Court with seven white members. A more diverse Court is a better legacy. Given that the President already appointed the first Latina Justice, most likely is an African-American or Asian-American nominee. That said, I think race and ethnicity are plus factors, rather than an imperative like gender.

I am not sure I buy Goldstein’s certainty of yet another female Supreme Court nominee from Barack Obama. I am just not convinced Obama appoints a third woman in a row, color or not. It sure makes it easier that it would be to fill a “female seat”, Ginsburg’s, I guess, and Obama clearly wanted to see three women justices on the court. But he crossed said threshold, and knowing one of them may not be there so long into the future likely played into the strength of his desire to appoint a second woman after Sonia Sotomayor. Such is quite a different thing from having an abiding determination to insure there are always three women on the Supreme bench.

Further, it really restricts the pool of potential nominees and plays into a plethora of counter Read more

Bmaz is a rather large saguaro cactus in the Southwestern Sonoran desert. A lover of the Constitution, law, family, sports, food and spirits. As you might imagine, a bit prickly occasionally. Bmaz has attended all three state universities in Arizona, with both undergraduate and graduate degrees from Arizona State University, and with significant post-graduate work (in physics and organic chemistry, go figure) at both the University of Colorado in Boulder and the University of Arizona. Married, with both a lovely child and a giant Sasquatch dog. Bmaz has been a participant on the internet since the early 2000’s, including active participation in the precursor to Emptywheel, The Next Hurrah. Formally joined the Emptywheel blog as an original contributing member at its founding in 2007. Bmaz grew up around politics, education, sports and, most significantly, cars; notably around Formula One racing and Concours de Elegance automobile restoration and showing. Currently lives in the Cactus Patch with his lovely wife and beast of a dog, and practices both criminal and civil trial law.

What Do You Call a “Cornhusker Kickback” for California?

Remember the “Cornhusker Kickback“? That was the $45 million in expanded Medicaid funding Ben Nelson demanded from the Obama Administration before he’d support Health Insurance Reform. The special treatment for Nebraska gave the reform effort a tawdry feel.

And just as importantly, it did nothing to improve Nelson’s popularity in his own state. When he announced he would not run for reelection in December, reporters pointed to the Cornhusker Kickback as one issue that was making his reelection increasingly unlikely.

Nelson obtained a huge controversial provision in that legislation — derisively called the “Cornhusker Kickback” by GOP opponents — that called for the federal government to pay Nebraska’s costs for Medicaid expansion, potentially saving the state tens of millions of dollars annually. The provision was ultimately killed, but Nelson still paid a political price. Nelson adamantly denied that he traded his support for the Democratic health plan in exchange for the special provision, yet his standing back home took a big hit. Nelson proved to be the 60th and deciding vote for the Democratic health-care package.

Yet it seems like Obama’s trying something similar in his effort to get CA’s Kamala Harris to join in his foreclosure settlement, with $10 billion in aid slated for CA’s struggling homeowners.

Banks and government negotiators have cleared a big hurdle in efforts to resolve allegations of widespread mortgage-related misdeeds, agreeing on terms for a settlement that are being circulated to the 50 US states for approval, state officials and a bank representative say.

The proposed pact would potentially reduce mortgage balances and monthly payments by more than $25bn for distressed US homeowners, these five people said.

The tentative agreement still must be approved by all 50 state attorneys-general, and negotiators have previously missed proposed deadlines. Participants described the proposal terms as set, meaning the states will be asked either to agree to them or decline to participate.

The amount of potential aid is contingent on state participation and would decrease significantly if big states do not sign the agreement. New York and California are among several states that have voiced concerns about the terms of the proposed deal with Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo, Citigroup and Ally Financial. New York and California are particularly concerned with the part of the deal that would absolve the banks of civil liability for allegedly illegal mortgage-related conduct.

California borrowers would be eligible to receive more than $10bn in aid if the state were to agree to the terms, according to several people involved in the talks.

Don’t get me wrong. In this case, there’s good reason to give CA a disproportionate part of the settlement funds. Read more

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including Vice, Motherboard, the Nation, the Atlantic, Al Jazeera, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse in Grand Rapids, MI.

Why Blame the Failure of the 50-State Settlement Solely on Tom Miller?

Yesterday, CA Attorney General Kamala Harris announced she was withdrawing from the 50-state foreclosure fraud settlement.

California Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris will no longer take part in a national foreclosure probe of some of the nation’s biggest banks, which are accused of pervasive misconduct in dealing with troubled homeowners.

Harris removed herself from talks by a coalition of state attorneys general and federal agencies investigating abusive foreclosure practices because the nation’s five largest mortgage servicers were not offering California homeowners relief commensurate to what people in the state had suffered, a person familiar with the matter said.

The big banks were also demanding to be granted overly broad immunity from legal claims that could potentially derail further investigations into Wall Street’s role in the mortgage meltdown, the person said.

With CA–the largest state and the one with the greatest foreclosure exposure–this effectively kills the settlement. See DDay for more on why Harris made this decision and what it means going forward.

But Harris’ letter announcing her decision makes something else (which had become increasingly obvious in recent weeks) clear.

Harris gives US Associate Attorney General Thomas Perrelli, not IA Attorney General Tom Miller, top billing on her letter.

This failure has become Perrelli’s baby as much as it is Miller’s.

When they held their last ditch attempt to save this meeting last week, they met in DC, not in IA or some other central location. And the settlement reportedly discussed at that meeting was heavily skewed towards giving the same people who fucked up HAMP another shot at trying to solve the housing situation.

About 80 per cent of the settlement figure, earmarked for the federal government, could be used to fund another round of debt and payment reductions for struggling US homeowners, people with knowledge of the Illinois document said. That would be split between principal reductions on first-lien mortgages and junior liens; payment forbearance for unemployed borrowers; and short sales, blight remediation and transition assistance for homeowners to move into rentals.

The remainder, about $4bn-$4.4bn in cash, could be designated for the states, which then would divide the proceeds to fund a variety of programmes, including assistance to borrowers. About half that amount could be used to pay up to $2,000 to an estimated 1.1m aggrieved borrowers who allege they were harmed by improper practices. [my emphasis]

So when Harris wrote…

California is hurting. We have the most homes and most home borrowers in default. During the period we have been negotiating, more than 560,000 additional homes in California have fallen into the foreclosure process. When we began this process 11 months ago, five of the ten cities hardest hit nationally by foreclosures were in California. Today, eight of those ten hardest-hit cities are here. And, recently, at the same time that we have been negotiating in good faith, foreclosures in California have surged again.

[snip]

Last week, I went to Washington, D.C. in hopes of moving our discussions forward. But it became clear to me that California was being asked for a broader release of claims than we can accept and to excuse conduct that has not been adequately investigated. In return for this broad release of claims, the relief contemplated would allow far too few California homeowners to stay in their homes.

What she was saying, politely but nevertheless saying, is that giving a state like CA that has been devastated by foreclosures perhaps $500 million to deal with the aftermath, and in the process let the banks off the legal hook for abuses beyond just robo-signing just won’t fly.

The Obama Administration may have been offering Harris less than $1,000 per each new homeowner who has fallen into default (to say nothing of all the previous foreclosures), whereas in a state settlement, NV Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto was able to get about $57,000 per affected homeowner in a Morgan Stanley settlement.

That tells you two things. First, the Obama Administration still doesn’t understand the extent of the damage the banksters they are trying to protect have done. They don’t understand the scale of the challenges facing states and towns and homeowners affected by the banks’ crimes. And second, the “Department of Justice” was ready to sign away justice for scraps with which to fund another ineffectual Treasury-run program without, first, having forced the banks to face the full consequences of what will happen if they don’t offer principal write-downs.

In other words, if you didn’t already know it, DOJ was (and presumably still is) actively looking for ways not just to ignore the banksters’ crimes, but to help them avoid the non-legal consequences of those crimes, too. Which sort of explains the vitriol directed at Eric Schneiderman of late. Two prosecutors, after all, can conduct a national investigation of the banksters’ crimes, DOJ, and the NY Attorney General. And by refusing to go along with the criminally stupid deal Perrelli was negotiating, Schneiderman has made it a lot harder for for DOJ to sponsor yet more injustice.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including Vice, Motherboard, the Nation, the Atlantic, Al Jazeera, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse in Grand Rapids, MI.

How Would States Divvy Up the Foreclosure Settlement?

For the record, I still doubt the 50-State-Less-the-Rule-of-Law-AGs Settlement will happen. A year in, they haven’t even agreed on the underlying guidelines for the settlement, like what they do with MERS.

But this line in the LAT’s coverage made me think of another issue that could kill that settlement.

New York and Delaware have more than a dozen attorneys working full time on their effort. They have subpoenaed or requested information from 13 financial firms, including Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and JPMorgan Chase. [Kamala] Harris would be a key addition to the investigation because California was the location of a vast number of the mortgages and foreclosures that fed into the crisis. She met with Schneiderman in San Francisco last month to discuss participating in the probe.

Harris is weighing whether she would sign on to the 50-state settlement if it gave banks immunity. The main consideration is how much money would go to California homeowners, according to a person familiar with her thinking. [my emphasis]

At least at the moment, the public explanation CA’s Attorney General is giving for her indecisiveness about which side to join is a concern over CA homeowners getting enough out of the settlement.

Now that may just be a convenient excuse to cover political indecision, but it’s a significant point. CA has a tenth of the country’s population, and it was very hard hit by the foreclosure crisis … two years ago.

As the Calculated Risk chart above shows, while California at its worst had the sixth highest percentage of homes in default, it is now 22nd (out of 42 states plus DC) on the list of current percentage of homes in default. So while CA has had the most number of residents go through this shitty process, going forward it might appear to be in much better shape than a lot of other states that weren’t as hard hit by the foreclosure crisis.

But that’s not the entire story. Note, first of all, the reason CA no longer has so many delinquencies:

Some states have made progress: Arizona, Michigan, Nevada and California. Other states, like New Jersey and New York, have made little or no progress in reducing serious delinquencies.

Arizona, Michigan, Nevada and California are all non-judicial foreclosure states. States with little progress like New Jersey, New York, Illinois and Florida are all judicial states.

That is, CA has worked through its delinquencies because its residents (like those of AZ, MI, and NV), have been subjected to the full brunt of the servicer abuses that this settlement is supposed to address, without the opportunity to challenge a foreclosure in court. So if we could measure this quantitatively (precisely what Tom Miller is trying to avoid) CA’s residents would like be even more screwed by the servicer abuses, because no one had an easy way to push back against obvious abuses.

Now look at who–at least as of the first quarter of this year–remains underwater on their house (from this Calculated Risk post). Those states most affected by foreclosures, including CA, still lead the list of states with the highest number of houses underwater, a key indicator for future defaults. The map from the New Bottom Line shows this even more graphically; put FL and CA’s population combined with their high negative equity rate, and they’ve got the largest number of potential foreclosures, over 2 million homes in each (compare that to worst hit on a percentage basis, NV, with 358,241 houses underwater, or IA, with 31,077). Finally, add in the much higher median home price in CA, and it’s clear that Harris ought to be demanding a significant chunk of the settlement funds perhaps in the 15-20% range (nevermind that even that–optimistically $4B–would do proportionately very little in CA).

I originally thought the banks would get to decide how to divvy up the settlement money (which would be prone to abuse in any case). But if the 40-45 AGs who might participate in this settlement plan to decide how the paltry $20B gets split up, then one of the only fair solutions would be for most of those states to give up the right to sue while giving CA and FL the great bulk of the settlement money. That is, a fair solution would have about 20 AGs grant immunity in exchange for little for their own residents.

Is Tom Miller willing to boast of a great settlement only to tell his own constituents (well, his nominal constituents, anyway) they will get nothing?

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including Vice, Motherboard, the Nation, the Atlantic, Al Jazeera, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse in Grand Rapids, MI.