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Has America Changed Since Edward Snowden’s Disclosures?

Two years ago this month, a 29-year-old government contractor named Edward Snowden became the Daniel Ellsberg of his generation, delivering to journalists a tranche of secret documents shedding light on the government’s national security apparatus. But whereas Ellsberg released the Pentagon Papers detailing one specific military conflict in Southeast Asia, Snowden released details of the U.S. government’s sprawling surveillance machine that operates around the globe.

On the second anniversary of Snowden’s historic act of civil disobedience, it is worth reviewing what has changed — and what has not.

On the change side of the ledger, there is the politics of surveillance. For much of the early 2000s, politicians of both parties competed with one another to show who would be a bigger booster of the NSA’s operations, fearing that any focus on civil liberties risked their being branded soft on terrorism. Since Snowden, though, the political paradigm has dramatically shifted.

The most illustrative proof that came last month, when the U.S. Senate failed to muster enough votes to reauthorize the law that aims to allow the NSA to engage in mass surveillance. Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul’s prominent role in that episode underscored the political shift — a decade after the GOP mastered the art of citing 9/11-themed arguments about terrorism to win elections, one of the party’s top presidential candidates proudly led the fight against one of the key legislative initiatives of the so-called war on terror.

There has also been a shift in public opinion, as evidenced by a new ACLU-sponsored poll showing that almost two thirds of American voters want Congress to curtail the NSA’s mass surveillance powers. The survey showed that majorities in both parties oppose renewing the old PATRIOT Act.

Monumental as those congressional and public opinion shifts are, though, far fewer changes are evident in the government’s executive branch.

For example, the Obama administration is celebrating the two-year anniversary of Snowden’s disclosures by intensifying its crackdown on government whistleblowers. After prosecuting more such whistleblowers than any previous administration, Obama’s appointees are specifically moving forward a rule that the nonpartisan Project On Government Oversight says would deny “federal employees in ‘sensitive’ positions the right to appeal a termination or demotion” when they expose wrongdoing. In practice, writes POGO’s Elizabeth Hempowicz, the rule would make “whistleblowers who hold these positions particularly vulnerable to retaliation.”

The Obama administration has also not stopped its selective enforcement of laws against those who mislead Congress or leak classified government information.

Take the issue of perjury. After prosecuting pitcher Roger Clemens for allegedly lying to Congress, the Obama administration has not similarly prosecuted National Intelligence Director James Clapper for insisting to Congress in 2013 that the government does not collect data on Americans. Clapper’s claim was wholly debunked by Snowden’s documents.

The Obama administration has also continued to promise to bring harsh charges against Snowden, even as the same administration has not brought similarly harsh charges against its own employees who give journalists classified information that makes the government look good.

For instance, a draft Inspector General report found that CIA Director Leon Panetta disclosed such information about the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound. Similarly, former CIA director David Petraeus provided classified information to his biographer. Panetta was never charged, and Petraeus was let off with a misdemeanor.

Snowden, meanwhile, sits in exile — a fugitive for exposing his own government’s unprecedented system of surveillance. While Snowden’s critics say he should come back to the United States to air out his grievances in open court, journalist Glenn Greenwald notes: “He’s barred under the Espionage Act even from arguing that his leaks were justified; he wouldn’t be permitted to utter a word about that.”

Things have certainly changed in two years — but not yet so much that America’s government embraces those who blow the whistle.

David Sirota is a senior writer at the International Business Times and the best-selling author of the books Hostile Takeover, The Uprising and Back to Our Future. Email him at, follow him on Twitter @davidsirota or visit his website at Copyright 2015

Photo: Abode of Chaos via Flickr

Congress Curbs NSA Access To Phone Records While Resurrecting Spying Powers

By Sean Cockerham and William Douglas, McClatchy Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — Congress approved a sweeping overhaul of the government’s access to Americans’ phone records on Tuesday, two days after Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul’s opposition to the bill forced National Security Agency surveillance powers to go dark.

The Senate overwhelmingly passed the USA Freedom Act, which would renew Patriot Act provisions that expired on Sunday night but start a six-month process of taking phone records from the government and leaving them with the phone companies. The NSA could access the data on a case-by-case basis with a secret court order.

“It’s extremely significant, that for the first time since 9/11, Congress is enacting legislation that would actually limit intelligence authorities rather than dramatically expanding them, which has been the trend,” said Elizabeth Goitein, a national security expert at New York University Law School’s Brennan Center for Justice.

The 67-32 vote comes two years after whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed the existence of the government’s phone data collection program. Several senators called him a traitor on Tuesday, but the changes to the NSA’s bulk collection of phone records wouldn’t have happened without him.

Jameel Jaffer, the American Civil Liberties Union’s deputy legal director, called the bill “a testament to the significance of the Snowden disclosures” but said it’s just a start.

“The bill leaves many of the government’s most intrusive and overbroad surveillance powers untouched, and it makes only very modest adjustments to disclosure and transparency requirements,” he said.

The bill already passed the House of Representatives and now goes to the president to be signed into law. White House press secretary Josh Earnest said the president would quickly sign the bill “and give our law enforcement professionals, once again, tools that they say are critical to their efforts to keep the country safe.”

Paul, who is running for the Republican nomination for president, and other privacy advocates argued the bill didn’t go far enough to keep the NSA from accessing Americans’ phone records, including the numbers, time, and duration of calls.

Paul released a fundraising television ad on Tuesday in which a voice declares that “when government illegally collected our phone records, Rand Paul took a stand, defended our rights, and stopped them.”

His delaying tactics angered other Republican senators, though, and only succeeded in making the NSA surveillance program lapse for a couple of days.

Earnest took a swipe at Paul, saying there are “members of the United States Senate who look for an opportunity to build a political advantage, to gain a political advantage, and they apparently concluded that the risk was worth it.” The bill was sold as a compromise, with President Barack Obama and Republican House leaders telling the Senate to pass it without any changes.

But hawks in the Senate, led by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) made a final attempt Tuesday to change the bill, pushing to delay the transition to the new phone record collection system and remove a requirement that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court make some surveillance orders public.

The Senate voted down each of McConnell’s amendments, another major defeat for the powerful majority leader, who was first outmaneuvered by Paul into letting the NSA spy powers lapse and then forced to accept a bill he didn’t like.

“It does not enhance the privacy protections of American citizens. And it surely undermines American security by taking one more tool from our war fighters at exactly the wrong time,” McConnell said.

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House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) disagreed, saying in a statement that “this legislation is critical to keeping Americans safe from terrorism and protecting their civil liberties.”

Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said in a written statement that the bill was necessary to pass.

“The vote I cast today wasn’t on the basis that this bill was perfect, but that this bill was the best opportunity to quickly get these programs back up and running,” she said. “I believe we can make further changes to the program, but also think the Senate was right in preserving this program.”

Denise Zheng, deputy director of the Strategic Technologies Program at the Center for Strategic & International Studies, a Washington think tank, predicted this week’s congressional action and said the debate is only the beginning when it comes to national security and surveillance issues.

“I think it’s going to lead to more reform,” Zheng said. “There’s still a lot of surveillance issues, both domestic and foreign, that still need to be addressed.”

One is so-called end-to-end encryption. Major technology companies and civil liberties groups are pressing the White House to back end-to-end encryption — a system of communication in which only the sender and receiver can read messages — on electronic devices.

“A lot of companies are deploying end-to-end encryption,” Zheng said. “There’s no prohibition on end-to-end encryption.”
But FBI Director James Comey has been a critic of stronger encryption, saying it makes it more difficult to track potential terrorists and other lawbreakers.

And Congress will have to deal with FISA again. Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act — which allows the NSA to collect information on non-U.S. citizens located abroad — is set to expire in June 2017.

“I think that the current debate Congress has engaged in has been healthy,” Zheng said. “Do I think that some of the tactics by a couple of people on the Hill make sense? I wouldn’t say that.”

(Anita Kumar contributed to this report.)

(c)2015 McClatchy Washington Bureau. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: Rand Paul for U.S. Senate, via Flickr

Congress Curbs NSA Surveillance, Sends Bill To Obama

Washington (AFP) – The Senate passed landmark legislation Tuesday that ends the government’s bulk telephone data dragnet, reining in the most controversial surveillance program since the 9/11 attacks of 2001.

The House of Representatives has already passed the measure, which also reauthorizes key national security programs that had lapsed early this week. With the Senate rejecting Republican attempts to modify the bill, it now goes to President Barack Obama for his signature.

Photo: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell heads to to his office at the US Capitol on June 1, 2015 in Washington, DC (Getty/AFP / Chip Somodevilla)

This story is breaking and is being updated.