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NSA Surveillance Bill Defeated In Senate

By Timothy M. Phelps, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — Legislation to keep most Americans’ phone records out of government hands was defeated in the Senate on Tuesday, dooming at least for now prospects of national security reforms that supporters said would protect the privacy of law-abiding citizens.

A motion failed to get the necessary 60 votes needed to cut off debate on the bill sponsored by Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., with most Republicans voting against. The final vote was 58 in favor to 42 against.

One of its most outspoken foes was incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who said stopping the National Security Agency from collecting telephone dialing records “would end one of our nation’s critical capabilities to gather significant intelligence on terrorist threats.”

Citing the recent beheadings of U.S. citizens in Syria, McConnell said, “This is the worst possible time to be tying our hands behind our backs.”

Born of whistleblower Edward Snowden’s revelations that the NSA was secretly archiving data from virtually every telephone call made in the United States, the Leahy bill, dubbed the USA Freedom Act, would have required the NSA to request such records from telephone companies rather than collect and store the information itself.

Except in emergencies, U.S. intelligence agencies and the FBI would have had to seek approval from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to access and use the data, and only in cases involving suspected terrorism or espionage. A similar procedure is used now to access the NSA database, but critics say that current system is open to abuse.

“The bill contains key reforms to safeguard Americans’ privacy by prohibiting the indiscriminate collection of their data,” Leahy argued. “It also provides for greater accountability and transparency of the government’s surveillance programs.”

At issue are telephone company records of customers and the phone numbers they have dialed, including date, time and duration of calls, but not the conversations themselves.

Privacy advocates vowed to keep fighting to limit government access to telephone records. Some key provisions of the USA Patriot Act _ the post 9-11 law that authorized collection of the phone records — expire in June, when the congressional fight over privacy is likely to resume.

After Republicans take control of the Senate in January, it will be difficult to make changes as broad as those proposed by Leahy. But House Republicans have been more favorable to privacy concerns, and advocates hope they will continue to push.

Republican opposition came from both sides of the debate. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., who is expected to seek the GOP presidential nomination in 2016, voted against the bill because he said it did not do enough to protect individuals’ privacy.

But former CIA Director Michael V. Hayden and former Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey, who both served under President George W. Bush, wrote in Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal that Leahy’s bill was “exquisitely crafted to hobble the gathering of electronic intelligence.”

After the House passed a weaker version in May, Leahy organized negotiations that brought together the intelligence agencies and civil liberties groups. They produced a compromise bill in July that had the support of the Obama administration and technology companies.

After the defeat, Leahy vowed to try again. “This lifelong Vermonter will not give up the fight,” he said. He went on to castigate opponents who he said “went at this issue by fomenting fear and doing it at the last minute.”

With his voice rising in emotion, Leahy recalled that someone had died from touching mail addressed to him in the anthrax-laced letter attacks of 2001. But the constitution is worth more than the life of one person or one senator, he said.

“This is more than one senator, more than one person. This is the Constitution of the U.S. and if we do not protect our Constitution we do not protect our country,” Leahy said.

Photo via Talk Radio News Service/Flickr

First Ladies’ Key Role In Presidential Libraries

By Dahleen Glanton, Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO — In just over a century and a half, the concept of a presidential library has evolved from a small room in a home where first lady Sarah Polk kept her late husband’s letters and mementos into multimillion-dollar complexes that house thousands of official records from the presidents’ years in office.

But presidential libraries are no longer just a means of preserving the legacy of the men who have occupied the Oval Office. Modern-day libraries are designed to highlight the partnership between the president and first lady. And increasingly, it is the first lady who leads the charge in making sure her husband’s vision for his library comes to fruition.

“There has been a trend away from the traditional museum approach, in which the first lady is treated in a separate, boxy space filled with dresses and perhaps some images from her travels and state dinners,” said Richard Norton Smith, a presidential scholar who has served as director of several presidential libraries. “As an alternative, her story is being more fully integrated with that of her spouse — just like in real life.”

In that way, Smith said, their partnership is conveyed more honestly, and the first lady herself is acknowledged for substantive contributions beyond the narrow range traditionally associated with the role.

Part of the reason for that, according to Smith and others, is that the first ladies have become more involved in the development of presidential libraries and museums. In doing so, Smith said, the first lady tends to humanize history.

“It’s not just the causes they espouse but the character they display that makes first ladies connect with the American people, earning them a historical place quite apart from whatever their spouse may or may not achieve,” Smith said. “We buy their books and speculate about their influence because we see them as more authentic or at least less imprisoned in the political bubble.”

Like first ladies before her, Michelle Obama will play an integral role in choosing where the library will go, raising private funds to build it, and deciding what it will look like after it is completed. It will be up to her to decide how involved she wants to be in the day-to-day planning and how much of a footprint she leaves on the library.

A spokeswoman for the Obama foundation said Michelle Obama’s public service “will be prominently featured in the library.”

The first lady’s involvement in presidential libraries varies from president to president, just as the extent and manner in which she is represented differs from one library to the next.

For example, close observers of the development of the Clinton library and museum said President Bill Clinton took a hands-on approach in overseeing it, leaving little for Hillary Rodham Clinton to do. But with her then-new job as a U.S. senator and her eye on her own future presidential bid, there wasn’t much time to devote to a presidential library even if her husband had wanted her to.

The first lady, however, is featured in at least two permanent exhibits in the Little Rock, Arkansas, library. An exhibit called “Putting People First” highlights her role spearheading the Clinton administration’s unsuccessful effort to reform health care. Another exhibit focusing on the president’s education initiatives includes awards given to the first lady.

First lady Laura Bush was a driving force behind President George W. Bush’s library, doing everything from chairing the design committee to developing the exhibit while he focused on the center’s policy institute. She was instrumental in selecting Southern Methodist University in Dallas for the site. She and the president both have offices at the center and are there on a regular basis, library officials said.

Being a former librarian with a master’s degree in library science, Laura Bush stepped naturally into the leadership role, according to Sally McDonough, formerly her press secretary at the White House and currently vice president of external affairs at the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum. As first lady, Laura Bush once invited the directors of the various presidential libraries to Camp David to brainstorm ideas.

“The first lady is a strategic partner to the president, not only in helping him get into office but in managing their time together in Washington. She has a unique perspective and a filter that she brings to the library,” McDonough said. “It’s hard to look at the presidential center and not think of the touches she was involved in, from the location on campus to the landscape surrounding it. It’s the first library in the 21st century where technology is an important part of the design.”

When things needed tweaking, Laura Bush was the one to do it. For example, she found it jarring to leave the No Child Left Behind section and go straight into an exhibit focusing on the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, especially for children. So she added a reading nook stocked with some of her favorite books so the children could stay behind and read as their parents went through.

Presidential libraries have come a long way since 1939, when President Franklin Roosevelt donated his personal and presidential papers to the federal government and formed a nonprofit corporation to raise money to build a place to house them on his estate at Hyde Park. It was not until 1955 that Congress passed the Presidential Libraries Act, establishing a system of privately built libraries that are later handed over to the federal government to manage and maintain.

According to Jeremy Mayer, an associate political science professor at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, the role of first ladies in the presidential library system reflects their growing policy role, but it also is part of a natural evolution.

“Given the life span of women versus men, women are typically outliving the presidents,” Mayer said. “And in most cases, no one is more interested in the president’s legacy than his wife.”

AFP Photo/Alex Wong

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Music Is More Mobile Than Ever, But Convenience Comes At A Price

By Greg Kot, Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO — Need any more proof that smartphones have taken over our lives? You know it’s true when artists start writing songs about losing their lovers to them.

These pocket-size computers have made everyone’s ability to stay in touch with music — and the world — more convenient, more portable and more distracting than ever. The notion that any piece of music you can possibly crave is just a click away, anywhere, anytime, is getting more refined with each new iteration from tech companies that have in many ways usurped the role of record companies, radio stations, video channels and record stores.

“The paradise of infinite storage,” as McGill University professor (and former Clash producer) Sandy Pearlman once rhapsodized, has arrived.

It’s indisputably paradise for music fans. It has empowered them to an unprecedented degree, not only granting them immediate access to just about every piece of music ever recorded, but allowing them to play with, remix and distribute it, then discard it as soon as the next musical bauble comes along.

For artists, the results have been less idyllic. The downturn in physical media — compact disc sales have been cut in half the last decade — and the transition to online music have forced musicians to take at least a temporary pay cut on recording royalties. The transition to digital put new emphasis on individual songs over albums. So instead of paying $15 for a CD, listeners downloaded a favorite track at iTunes for 99 cents. Now they’re paying fractions of a penny to stream tracks at digital platforms such as Spotify, Beats Music and Pandora. And some aren’t paying at all to acquire music; a recent study by the NPD Group concludes that mobile applications have eclipsed file-sharing services as the most widely used source of free music downloads. About 27 million mobile users have downloaded at least one song in the past year, most from unauthorized sources.

Artists benefit by showcasing their music on an accessible platform that is less restrictive than commercial radio, but streaming revenue in general has lagged what artists once made selling CDs or downloads.

“As a consumer, I love (new platforms such as) Spotify,” says Norwegian singer Ane Brun. “They cover so much music. But as an artist, it’s still not there. The payment is really low for musicians. There are different options coming in all the time, more companies. Eventually if consumers have more choices, the competition could help artists. But we’re not there yet.”

For emerging artists, streaming services combined with relentless social networking can deliver much-needed exposure. Alexander Beggins of Texas-based Wild Child says the band owes its steadily growing following to building one-on-one relationships with fans that wouldn’t have been possible in the pre-digital era.

The smartphone culture “is absolutely the reason we’re doing as well as we are,” he says. “If you’re on Facebook or tweet us, we’re right back at you. We respond to people every day and have an ongoing dialogue with our fans. It’s so important to stay connected to the people who spend money and talk about you. With Spotify, we had 7 million plays on our first album, and that does translate into dollars that help us stay on the road. It’s such a wide net you can cast, reaching people in different countries that we never would be able to reach before.”

But there are deeper implications about what it all means. For some, the shifts in human behavior that have been promoted by the tech boom do not augur well for the quality of music.

“I have very dark, complex feelings about the way social media operates and the omnipresence of iPhones,” says California soul singer Nick Waterhouse. “It has become an appendage. It’s how people I care very much about interact with everything. And it’s (terrible). It’s no way to live. It’s just dark. This naive unleashing of an epidemic, to the point where it’s how people process everything. I used to think it was fine, like having an AM radio. But I know so many people who listen to music out of their iPhone speakers. It becomes background noise, part of the wash. It makes music not special anymore. If you eat pizza all the time, it doesn’t taste like pizza anymore.”

There’s no disputing that sound quality has been degraded in the digital era. MP3 files heard over tiny iPod or smartphone ear buds just can’t match the quality of CDs or vinyl, nor was that ever the intention. In recent weeks, one of digital sound’s biggest detractors — Neil Young — introduced a new digital player, Pono, that he contended rivals the fidelity of a phonograph playing a vinyl album.

Vinyl is a fetishized relic of the 20th century, a beautiful artifact celebrated by the crackle of sampled riffs and drum breaks on hip-hop tracks. It’s also a growing industry, particularly for indie bands and record stores; vinyl sales have skyrocketed in recent years (up 33 percent in 2013 from the previous year) but still represent a tiny fraction of overall music sales.

As frustrating as its limitations can appear to artists craving better sound, more attentive listeners and fairer compensation, the digital world is still in its awkward adolescence. The digital overhaul of intellectual property and entertainment media — not just music, but books, newspapers, magazines, video, movies and television — has just begun. The world will be radically different in 10 years. Smartphones will only become smarter. Relatively new innovations such as Instagram, Vine and Twitter will fade and be replaced by new digital fads, just as MySpace, Napster and Xanga once were.

“Five years from now, we’re going to be saying, ‘Can you believe we were obsessed with 140-character conversations?’” says Matador Records publicist Nils Bernstein. The next decade, he says, should be about how technology can facilitate deeper understanding and wider appreciation of music and culture. Because without an incentive to create — and artists have been creating under adverse conditions for centuries — all the technological innovations in the world won’t matter.

Photo: Patrik Moen via Flickr

The SEC’s Policy Of Destroying Records — And Letting Wall Street Get Away With Crimes

Ever wonder why exactly Wall Street seems to constantly avoid punishment for egregious violations and misdeeds? A new, explosive article in Rolling Stone tells how the Securities and Exchange Commission has been destroying records that could have led to further investigations of companies. The federal agency has been grossly neglecting its responsibility to monitor the financial sector by not maintaining older records of violations. As author Matt Taibbi puts it:

For the past two decades, according to a whistle-blower at the SEC who recently came forward to Congress, the agency has been systematically destroying records of its preliminary investigations once they are closed. By whitewashing the files of some of the nation’s worst financial criminals, the SEC has kept an entire generation of federal investigators in the dark about past inquiries into insider trading, fraud and market manipulation against companies like Goldman Sachs, Deutsche Bank and AIG. With a few strokes of the keyboard, the evidence gathered during thousands of investigations — “18,000 … including Madoff,” as one high-ranking SEC official put it during a panicked meeting about the destruction — has apparently disappeared forever into the wormhole of history.

All files are supposed to be maintained for at least 25 years, under a deal between the SEC and the National Archives and Records Administration. But that didn’t stop the SEC from directing staffers to destroy documents from preliminary inquiries, or “Matters Under Inquiry,” that did not receive approval from senior staff to become a formal investigation. The ramifications of this policy, as Taibbi notes, are serious: “Destroy the MUIs, and Wall Street banks can commit the exact same crime over and over, without anyone ever knowing.” He speculates that had the SEC been maintaining their records, they could have regulated Wall Street more effectively and consistently, possibly avoiding the 2008 economic collapse.

Last month, an SEC attorney named Darcy Flynn brought the issue to Congress’ attention, saying the SEC had been destroying records of preliminary investigations since at least 1993 and that more than 9,000 case files were destroyed in that time.

The enforcement division of the SEC even spelled out the procedure in writing, on the commission’s internal website. “After you have closed a MUI that has not become an investigation,” the site advised staffers, “you should dispose of any documents obtained in connection with the MUI.”

Many of the destroyed files involved companies and individuals who would later play prominent roles in the economic meltdown of 2008. Two MUIs involving con artist Bernie Madoff vanished. So did a 2002 inquiry into financial fraud at Lehman Brothers, as well as a 2005 case of insider trading at the same soon-to-be-bankrupt bank. A 2009 preliminary investigation of insider trading by Goldman Sachs was deleted, along with records for at least three cases involving the infamous hedge fund SAC Capital.

The destruction of records by the SEC, as outlined by Flynn, is something far more than an administrative accident or bureaucratic fuck-up. It’s a symptom of the agency’s terminal brain damage. Somewhere along the line, those at the SEC responsible for policing America’s banks fell and hit their head on a big pile of Wall Street’s money – a blow from which the agency has never recovered.

Many within the federal agency have close relationships with the Wall Street companies they are supposed to monitor — leading to policies such as allowing companies to investigate themselves in some instances. Many members of the SEC’s senior management work for Wall Street as soon as they leave the agency, commonly representing the companies in later investigations. Given this “revolving door” between the SEC and Wall Street, it is understandable that many of the MUIs are not approved by senior management to become full investigations. This conflict of interest at the upper levels makes the destruction of important MUIs even worse.

For a fledgling MUI to become a formal investigation, it has to make the treacherous leap from the lower rungs of career-level staffers like Flynn all the way up to the revolving-door level at the top, where senior management is composed largely of high-priced appointees from the private sector who have strong social and professional ties to the very banks they are charged with regulating. And if senior management didn’t approve an investigation, the documents often wound up being destroyed — as Flynn would later discover.

In response to the whistleblower’s revelations, the SEC’s inspector general plans to investigate and issue a report, but the agency is still trying to avoid punishment by claiming the documents related to MUIs don’t meet the “federal definition of a record.”

Meanwhile, Sen. Charles Grassley, who is quoted in the article, has sent a letter to SEC Chair Mary Schapiro, writing, “If [the whistleblower’s] allegations are correct, the intentional destruction of at least 9,000 MUIs would appear to greatly handicap the SEC’s ability to create patterns in complex cases and calls into question the SEC’s ability to properly retain and catalog documents.”

Of course, Sen. Grassley’s letter and corresponding press release received more media coverage than Taibbi’s piece. But his entire exposé — with its numerous dark revelations — is, as usual, well worth the look.