The Senate just voted down cloture on the USA Freedom Act, 58-42. Even while we disagreed on the bill, I extend sincere condolences to civil liberties allies who worked hard to pass this in good faith. I know you all have worked hard in good faith to pass something viable.
Several things about the vote were predictable (in fact, I predicted them in June). Just as one example, I noted to allies that if Jeff Flake — who had a great record on civil liberties while he was still in the House — did not support the effort, it would fail. Four Senators — cosponsors Mike Lee, Ted Cruz, and Dean Heller, plus Lisa Murkowski voted for cloture; Rand Paul did not. Bill Nelson voted against cloture as well (there are reports he is claiming it was a mistake, but given how closely this bill was whipped that would be … telling).
Equally predictable was the fear-mongering. GOP Senator after GOP Senator got up and insisted if the phone dragnet ended, ISIL would attack the country. None noted, of course, that the phone dragnet had never succeeded in preventing a terrorist attack. Pat Leahy made that point but it’s one opponents of the dragnet need to make in more concerted fashion.
Then there was a piece of news that neither side — supporter or opponent — seemed to want to mention. Dianne Feinstein revealed that at first 2 of 4 providers (presumably the fourth is T-Mobile though it could even be Microsoft, given that Skype is a more important phone carrier for international traffic) had refused to keep phone records, but that they had voluntarily agreed to do so for a full two years (this is at least a 6 month extension for Verizon, though may be significantly longer for cell calls).
The most dramatic part of the debate came after everyone left, when a frustrated Pat Leahy made the case for defending the Constitution. He recalled the anthrax letter addressed to him, on September 18, 2001, that killed a postal worker who processed it (
another letter killed a Tom Daschle aide see Meryl Nass’ correction). “13 years ago this week, a letter was sent to me, addressed to me. It was so deadly, with the antrax in it that one person who touched the envelope–addressed to me, that I was supposed to open–They died!” Leahy reminded that the FBI had still not caught all the culprits for the attack. (That he believes that was first reported here in 2008; I believe FBI has, in fact, caught none of the culprits.) That attack targeting him personally, Leahy noted, did not convince him he had to abrogate the Constitution. “This nation should not let our liberties to be set aside by passing fears.” Leahy said. “If we do not protect our Constitution we do not deserve to be in this body.”
Senators like Marco Rubio got up and screamed about terrorists. But unless I’m mistaken, Pat Leahy is the only one remaining in the Senate who was personally targeted by a terrorist.
Maybe we ought to highlight that point?
Updated w/additions from Leahy’s comments.
One of my friends, who works in a strategic role at American Federation of Teachers, is Iranian-American. I asked him a few weeks ago whom he called in Iran; if I remember correctly (I’ve been asking a lot of Iranian-Americans whom they call in Iran) he said it was mostly his grandmother, who’s not a member of the Republican Guard or even close. Still, according to the statement that Dianne Feinstein had confirmed by NSA Director Keith Alexander, calls “related to Iran” are fair game for queries of the dragnet database of all Americans’ phone metadata.
Chances are slim that my friend’s calls to his grandmother are among the 300 identifiers the NSA queried last year, unless (as is possible) they monitored all calls to Iran. But nothing in the program seems to prohibit it, particularly given the government’s absurdly broad definitions of “related to” for issues of surveillance and its bizarre adoption of a terrorist program to surveil another nation-state. And if someone chose to query on my friend’s calls to his grandmother, using the two-degrees-of-separation query they have used in the past would give the government — not always the best friend of teachers unions — a pretty interesting picture of whom the AFT was partnering with and what it had planned.
In other words, nothing in the law or the known minimization rules of the Business Records provision would seem to protect some of the AFT’s organizational secrets just because they happen to employ someone whose grandmother is in Iran. That’s not the only obvious way labor discussions might come under scrutiny; Colombian human rights organizers with tangential ties to FARC is just one other one.
When I read labor organizer Louis Nayman’s “defense of PRISM,” it became clear he’s not aware of many details of the programs he defended. Just as an example, Nayman misstated this claim:
According to NSA officials, the surveillance in question has prevented at least 50 planned terror attacks against Americans, including bombings of the New York City subway system and the New York Stock Exchange. While such assertions from government officials are difficult to verify independently, the lack of attacks during the long stretch between 9/11 and the Boston Marathon bombings speaks for itself.
Keith Alexander didn’t say NSA’s use of Section 702 and Section 215 have thwarted 50 planned attacks against Americans; those 50 were in the US and overseas. He said only around 10 of those plots were in the United States. That works out to be less than 20% of the attacks thwarted in the US just between January 2009 and October 2012 (though these programs have existed for a much longer period of time, so the percentage must be even lower). And there are problems with three of the four cases publicly claimed by the government — from false positives and more important tips in the Najibullah Zazi case, missing details of the belated arrest of David Headley, to bogus claims that Khalid Ouazzan ever planned to attack NYSE. The sole story that has stood up to scrutiny is some guys who tried to send less than $10,000 to al-Shabaab.
While that doesn’t mean the NSA surveillance programs played no role, it does mean that the government’s assertions of efficacy (at least as it pertains to terrorism) have proven to be overblown.
Yet from that, Nayman concludes these programs have “been effective in keeping us safe” (given Nayman’s conflation of US and overseas, I wonder how families of the 166 Indians Headley had a hand in killing feel about that) and defends giving the government legal access (whether they’ve used it or not) to — among other things — metadata identifying the strategic partners of labor unions with little question.
And details about the success of the program are not the only statements made by top National Security officials that have proven inaccurate or overblown. That’s why Nayman would be far better off relying on Mark Udall and Ron Wyden as sources for whether or not the government can read US person emails without probable cause than misstating what HBO Director David Simon has said (Simon said that entirely domestic communications require probable cause, which is generally but not always true). And not just because the Senators are actually read into these programs. After the Senators noted that Keith Alexander had “portray[ed] protections for Americans’ privacy as being significantly stronger than they actually are” — specifically as it relates to what the government can do with US person communications collected “incidentally” to a target — Alexander withdrew his claims.
Nayman says, “As people who believe in government, we cannot simply assume that officials are abusing their lawfully granted responsibility and authority to defend our people from violence and harm.” I would respond that neither should we simply assume they’re not abusing their authority, particularly given evidence those officials have repeatedly misled us in the past.
Nayman then admits, “We should do all we can to assure proper oversight any time a surveillance program of any size and scope is launched.” But a big part of the problem with these programs is that the government has either not implemented or refused such oversight. Some holes in the oversight of the program are:
The Senate Judiciary Committee is holding a hearing today to review the results of the Schuelke report on the prosecutorial misconduct in the Ted Stevens case and to entertain the Lisa Murkowski bill requiring disclosure. In response, DOJ submitted a statement for the record, opposing any legislation enforcing its discovery obligations.
When concerns were first raised about the handling of the prosecution of Senator Stevens, the Department immediately conducted an internal review. The Attorney General recognized the importance of ensuring trust and confidence in the work of Department prosecutors and took the extraordinary step of moving to dismiss the case when errors were discovered. Moreover, toensure that the mistakes in the Stevens case would not be repeated, the Attorney General convened a working group to review discovery practices and charged the group with developing recommendations for improving such practices so that errors are minimized. As a result of the working group’s efforts, the Department has taken unprecedented steps, described more fully below, to ensure that prosecutors, agents, and paralegals have the necessary training and resources to fulfill their legal and ethical obligations with respect to discovery in criminal cases. These reforms include a sweeping training curriculum for all federal prosecutors and the requirement–for the first time in the history of the Department of Justice–that every federal prosecutor receive refresher discovery training each year.
In light of these internal reforms, the Department does not believe that legislation is needed to address the problems that came to light in the Stevens prosecution. Such a legislative proposal would upset the careful balance of interests at stake in criminal cases, cause significant harm to victims, witnesses, and law enforcement efforts, and generate substantial and unnecessary litigation that would divert scarce judicial and prosecutorial resources.
In short, DOJ is saying, “trust us. We don’t need a law requiring us to do what case law says we need to.”
Right off the bat, I can think of 5 major problem with this statement:
No one has been held accountable
We are three years past the time when Stevens’ case was thrown out. Yet none of the prosecutors involved have been disciplined in any meaningful way.
No doubt DOJ would say that it will hold prosecutors responsible if and when the Office of Professional Responsibility finds they committed misconduct. But in the interim three years, DOJ as a whole has sent clear messages that it prefers protecting its case to doing anything about misconduct. And–as Chuck Grassley rightly pointed out at the hearing–thus far no one has been held responsible.
This statement may claim DOJ is serious about prosecutorial misconduct. But its actions (and inaction) says the opposite.
Even after this training, discovery problems remain
As the DOJ statement lays out, in response to the Stevens debacle, DOJ rolled out annual training programs for prosecutors to remind them of their discovery obligations.
And yet, last year, Leonie Brinkema found that prosecutors in the Jeff Sterling case had failed to turn over critical evidence about prosecution witnesses–one of the problems with the Stevens prosecution. The prosecutor involved? William Welch, whom Schuelke accused of abdicating his leadership role in the Stevens case (note, DOJ says the CIA is at fault for the late discovery; but Welch is, after all, the prosecutor who bears responsibility for it).
If William Welch can’t even get discovery right after his involvement in this case and, presumably, undergoing the training DOJ promises will fix the problem, then training is not enough to fix the problem.
Eric Holder won’t run DOJ forever
The statement focuses on Holder’s quick decision to dismiss the case against Stevens, as if that, by itself, guards against any similar problems in the future. But before Holder was AG, Michael Mukasey was–and Judge Emmet Sullivan grew so exasperated with Mukasey’s stonewalling on this case, he ordered him to personally respond to questions about the case.
As I noted last week, every single Catholic Senator save Susan Collins who voted for the Blunt Amendment last week appears likely to have relied on the birth control their Church prohibits to limit the size of their families. Lisa Murkowski, who has just 2 kids, was among the 10 Catholics who was using her position to help the Catholic Church enforce a doctrine she herself has ignored.
What Lisa Murkowski told me I already suspected. She’s a moderate. She supports abortion rights and contraception coverage. She also doesn’t line up completely with the Catholic Church when it comes to birth control. She regretted her recent vote.
I pointed out that her support for birth control conflicts with the Catholic mandate against it.
“You know, I don’t adhere to all of the tenets of my faith.
Now, she’s still spinning her vote (and her letter opposing Obama’s rule on contraception) as one in favor of religious freedom.
She’d meant to make a statement about religious freedom, she said, but voters read it as a vote against contraception coverage for women.
But it is not “religious freedom” to craft laws to help the Church enforce mandates that almost none of its adherents–and probably few, if any, of the Catholic Senators supporting the law–abide by. It is an improper use of government to aid a religious institution.
Not to mention, rank hypocrisy.