Death of an angry, unhappy man

I know that many were happy with the news of Fred Phelps’ death but when I first heard, I wasn’t quite sure how I felt.  On one hand, a man who protested at the funerals of men and women who died in combat would no longer be able to do so.  On the other, one could feel sorry for a man who could never get over his anger.  He was once a noted civil rights lawyer in Kansas  and won an award from the local NAACP, but even back then there were signs he was troubled.  The obituary in the New York Times notes

He earned a law degree in 1964 from Washburn University School of Law in Topeka, but his legal career was troubled from the start. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which describes Westboro Baptist as “arguably the most obnoxious and rabid hate group in America,” Mr. Phelps struggled to find people to attest to his good character when he wanted to be admitted to the bar, was temporarily suspended for professional misconduct, and was even sued for failing to pay for candy his children sold door to door.

He succeeded in winning settlements in discrimination cases he filed as a civil rights lawyer.

“Most blacks — that’s who they went to,” the Rev. Ben Scott, president of the N.A.A.C.P.’s Topeka branch, said in an interview with CNN in 2010. “I don’t know if he was cheaper or if he had that stick-to-it-ness, but Fred didn’t lose many back then.”

Mr. Phelps, with his wife, Margie M. Phelps, left, and daughter Margie J. Phelps, at a demonstration in Baltimore in 2007.

Mr. Phelps, with his wife, Margie M. Phelps, left, and daughter Margie J. Phelps, at a demonstration in Baltimore in 2007.

Phelps was disbarred in 1979.  While he has said that his anti gay crusade began because a grandson was propositioned he showed a predilection for child abuse.  Amy Davidson writes in the New Yorker piece titled “The Two Freds” about Fred Rogers and Fred Phelps

One unpleasant thing about Fred Phelps was the way in which he and his church members brought children to their protests and had them hold placards like the ones that Roberts quoted, and repeat slogans slurring gay people and praising divine killings. They tended to be Phelps’s own children or grandchildren—how else would you find an eight-year-old to damn Mr. Rogers?—and the bulk of his parishioners were his relatives. The obituaries refer to complicated loyalties and estrangements, but then, those of some very good people do, too. But one can see, in the hanging of hateful signs on children, the very opposite of Fred Rogers’s life’s project, which was to treat young people both morally and as serious moral actors. Mr. Rogers spoke of the intense drama of one’s earliest years, Supreme Court cases or no, and the way that friendship, above all, was orienting. Of the two Freds, he’s the one who endures. Phelps, and all his vitriol, will spin away.

Phelps and his congregation at Westboro Baptist Church (composed primarily, if not entirely of family) demonstrated everywhere.  They spread Phelps angry message at thousands of funerals of the well known and of ordinary people as well as at many events.  Phelps represented an angry God.  The New York Time obituary again

In 1998, he explained his view of a wrathful God in an interview with The Houston Chronicle.

“You can’t believe the Bible without believing that God hates people,” he said. “It’s pure nonsense to say that God loves the sinner but hates the sin. He hates the sin, and he hates the sinner. He sends them to hell. Do you think he loves the people in hell?”

So in the end, I feel sorry for a man filled with so much hate and anger.  I hope he can find peace in another life.

Photograph:  Jed Kirschbaum/Baltimore Sun, via Associated Press

American defectors: life for Edward Snowden in Russia

Now that Edward Snowden has been granted temporary asylum in Russia (I suspect they mostly just wanted him gone from the airport.), it is not so certain he will have an easy life.  No matter how terrible you think surveillance is in the United States, I can guarantee that it is worse there.  And he likely has nothing more to trade to get better treatment.  NPR ran this story a few days ago.

If NSA leaker Edward Snowden is allowed to leave the Moscow airport and enter Russia, as some news reports suggest, he’ll join a fairly small group of Americans who have sought refuge there.

So how did it work out for the others?

In short, not so well. Some became disillusioned and left, like Lee Harvey Oswald. Others were sent to Josef Stalin’s gulags, where they served long sentences or were executed. Some lived out their days in an alcoholic haze.

“There’s little evidence from historical records that [Snowden] has anything good to look forward to,” says Peter Savodnik, a journalist and author of the upcoming book, The Interloper: Lee Harvey Oswald Inside the Soviet Union. “Essentially, nobody from the U.S. who has defected to Russia has gone on to think that’s a smart decision.”

In the 1920s and ’30s, hundreds of American leftists moved to what was then the Soviet Union, motivated by a desire to build socialism.

Alexander Gelver of Oshkosh, Wis., was taken there by his parents. But when the 24-year-old wanted to return to the U.S., he was stopped by Soviet police outside the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. He was arrested and disappeared. Only in the 1990s did his fate become clear: He was executed in 1938, one of Stalin’s many victims.

The Associated Press documented the case of Gelver and 14 other Americans who disappeared in the Soviet Union in the 1930s and ’40s. All were either imprisoned or executed. Dozens, perhaps hundreds of other Americans, met a similar fate during the rule of Stalin, who suspected that foreigners were spies.

A famous case in the Cold War era has parallels to Snowden. William Martin and Bernon Mitchell, cryptologists at the NSA, defected in 1960. But they came to regret their decision and became alcoholics. Martin died in Mexico in 1987. Mitchell died in Russia in 2001.

One defector who did return was Oswald. He left for the Soviet Union in 1959, returned to the U.S. three years later, and became infamous as the assassin of President Kennedy in 1963.

Edward Snowden, the NSA leaker seen here in a photo taken in July, has been granted temporary asylum in Russia. Thursday, he left Moscow's airport for the first time in more than a month.

Let’s hope that Snowden has better luck.  It will be tough not knowing many people and not speaking Russian.  Personally, I don’t think he made a good choice or got good advice.  I have never understood why he couldn’t go directly from Hong Kong to South American someplace.

Photograph:  Tatyana Lokshina/AP

Fixing FISA

Congress is beginning to have a debate about surveillance, oversight and secrecy – the one good thing to come out of  Edward Snowden’s continuing adventure.  Of course, it is hard to debate when you can’t talk about a lot of things in public or even to your fellow members, so I was very interesting in reading Judge James G. Carr’s op-ed in yesterday’s New York Times.  His suggestion is one that Congress and the Obama Administration should be able to debate and legislate without revealing anything that needs to be kept secret.  Judge Carr is identified as a senior federal judge for the Northern District of Ohio,[who] served on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court from 2002 to 2008.

CONGRESS created the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court in 1978 as a check on executive authority. Recent disclosures about vast data-gathering by the government have raised concerns about the legitimacy of the court’s actions. Congress can take a simple step to restore confidence in the court’s impartiality and integrity: authorizing its judges to appoint lawyers to serve the public interest when novel legal issues come before it.

The court is designed to protect individual liberties as the government protects us from foreign dangers. In 1972, the Supreme Court ruled that the Nixon administration had violated the Fourth Amendment by conducting warrantless surveillance on a radical domestic group, the White Panthers, who were suspected of bombing a C.I.A. recruiting office in Ann Arbor, Mich. In 1975 and 1976, the Church Committee, a Senate panel, produced a series of reports about foreign and domestic intelligence operations, including surveillance by the F.B.I. of suspected communists, radicals and other activists — including, notoriously, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

The Foreign Intelligence Service Act set up the FISA Court in response. To obtain authority to intercept the phone and electronic communications of American citizens and permanent residents, the government must only show probable cause that the target has a connection to a foreign government or entity or a foreign terrorist group. It does not have to show, as with an ordinary search warrant, probable cause that the target is suspected of a crime.

The problem is that the court only hears from one side.  I wrote recently that the real danger to our civil liberties is the FISA Court and I hoped that people will come up with ways to try to fix it.  Judge Carr has one suggestion at which Congress should take a serious look.

Critics note that the court has approved almost all of the government’s surveillance requests. Some say the court is virtually creating a secret new body of law governing privacy, secrecy and surveillance. Others have called for declassified summaries of all of the court’s secret rulings.

James Robertson, a retired federal judge who served with me on the FISA court, recently called for greater transparency of the court’s proceedings. He has proposed the naming of an advocate, with high-level security clearance, to argue against the government’s filings. He suggested that the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, which oversees surveillance activities, could also provide a check. I would go even further.

In an ordinary criminal case, the adversarial process assures legal representation of the defendant. Clearly, in top-secret cases involving potential surveillance targets, a lawyer cannot, in the conventional sense, represent the target.

Congress could, however, authorize the FISA judges to appoint, from time to time, independent lawyers with security clearances to serve “pro bono publico” — for the public’s good — to challenge the government when an application for a FISA order raises new legal issues.

Having lawyers challenge novel legal assertions in these secret proceedings would result in better judicial outcomes. Even if the government got its way all or most of the time, the court would have more fully developed its reasons for letting it do so. Of equal importance, the appointed lawyer could appeal a decision in the government’s favor to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court of Review — and then to the Supreme Court. No opportunity for such review exists today, because only the government can appeal a FISA court ruling.

A combination of a people’s advocate and public release of decision summaries would remove some of the mystery and secrecy.

One obvious objection: judges considering whether to issue an ordinary search warrant hear only from the government. Why should this not be the same when the government goes to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court?

My answer: the court is unique among judicial institutions in balancing the right to privacy against the president’s duty to protect the public, and it encounters issues of statutory and constitutional interpretation that no other court does or can.

For an ordinary search warrant, the judge has a large and well-developed body of precedent. When a warrant has been issued and executed, the subject knows immediately. If indicted, he can challenge the warrant. He can also move to have property returned or sue for damages. These protections are not afforded to FISA surveillance targets. Even where a target is indicted, laws like the Classified Information Procedures Act almost always preclude the target from learning about the order or challenging the evidence. This situation puts basic constitutional protections at risk and creates doubts about the legitimacy of the court’s work and the independence and integrity of its judges. To avert these dangers, Congress should amend FISA to give the court’s judges the discretion to appoint lawyers to serve not just the interests of the target and the public — but those of the court as well.

079 Capitol Hill United States Congress 1993

079 Capitol Hill United States Congress 1993 (Photo credit: David Holt London)

We are already deep in uncharted waters and we need to take steps to try to protect ourselves.  It serves no purpose if we lose our civil liberties while protecting them.  I don’t have a great deal of hope that Congress can actually get itself together enough to act, but there has been some glimmer of bipartisanship about this issue.  Let us hope someone writes Judge Carr’s ideas into a bill so it can be introduced.

The real danger: The FISA Court

Congress and the President can say all they want to that everything about the surveillance is approved by the FISA Court.  OK.  But what do we know about this secret court?  Some revelations this past weekend by the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times tell us a great deal that I, for one, didn’t know.  For example, did you know that Chief Justice John Roberts was in charge?

The Ezra Klein/Evan Soltas Wonkblog had a great summary this morning.

The laws we live by aren’t just the bills Congress passes and the president signs. It’s what the courts decide those bills actually mean.

We’re used to that. The Affordable Care Act, for instance, says that states that don’t accept the Medicaid expansion lose all their Medicaid money. The Supreme Court decided that went too far. The law might still say that if you read the underlying bill, but it no longer means that. Now states can reject the Medicaid expansion without jeopardizing the rest of their Medicaid money — and many are.

But here’s the thing: When judges make the laws, Congress can always go back and remake the laws. The changes the court makes are public, and so is their reasoning. Both the voters and Congress know what the court has done, and can choose to revisit it.

Well, usually.

The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA court) that governs the national surveillance state is also remaking the law. But it’s remaking the law in secret. The public has no opportunity to weigh in, and Congress can’t really make changes, because few know what the court is deciding, and almost no one can discuss the decisions without endangering themselves.

So that’s a real Catch 22.

Surveillance types make a distinction between secrecy of laws, secrecy of procedures and secrecy of operations. The expectation is that the laws that empower or limit the government’s surveillance powers are always public. The programs built atop those laws are often secret. And the individual operations are almost always secret. As long as the public knows about and agreed to the law, the thinking goes, it’s okay for the government to build a secret surveillance architecture atop it.

But the FISA court is, in effect, breaking the first link in that chain. The public no longer knows about the law itself, and most of Congress may not know, either. The courts have remade the law, but they’ve done so secretly, without public comment or review.

These rules have been remade in a court where the government is the only witness, and there’s no possibility for appeal, and all 11 judges were chosen by Chief Justice John Roberts, and 10 of the 11 judges were Republican appointees to the federal bench. This is not a court like any other court in the United States save for the secrecy. It’s a court pretty much unlike any other in the United States.

When asked who watches over the National Security Agency’s surveillance efforts, the administration says that the FISA courts do. Trite as it may be, that leads to the age-old question: Well, then who watches over the watchers?

The answer would be to rewrite the law but how does one do that with a dysfunctional Congress and a law with impacts that no one can discuss without violating it?  As I said, a Catch-22.  But there is a proposal by Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon and a bi-partisan group of other senators to end some of the secrecy.

We should be discussing ways to rein in the FISA Court and modify the Patriot Act.  Forget Edward Snowden.  He can stay at the Moscow airport or get smuggled to South American.  Fixing the law is what is important.

Let me end with Tom Tomorrow.

This Modern World

This Modern World

Someone has always been watching

The June 24th issue of the New Yorker has an excellent short history of privacy and surveillance by Jill Lepore.  You should try to read the entire article either online (I can’t remember what rules the New Yorker has about access) or get a copy of the magazine.  For my purposes today, I am going to concentrate on the story of Giuseppe Mazzini.  Never heard of him before?  Me either, but his story is instructive.

An extraordinary fuss about eavesdropping started in the spring of 1844, when Giuseppe Mazzini, an Italian exile in London, became convinced that the British government was opening his mail. Mazzini, a revolutionary who’d been thrown in jail in Genoa, imprisoned in Savona, sentenced to death in absentia, and arrested in Paris, was plotting the unification of the kingdoms of Italy and the founding of an Italian republic. He suspected that, in London, he’d been the victim of what he called “post-office espionage”: he believed that the Home Secretary, Sir James Graham, had ordered his mail to be opened, at the request of the Austrian Ambassador, who, like many people, feared what Mazzini hoped—that an insurrection in Italy would spark a series of revolutions across Europe. Mazzini knew how to find out: he put poppy seeds, strands of hair, and grains of sand into envelopes, sealed the envelopes with wax, and sent them, by post, to himself. When the letters arrived—still sealed—they contained no poppy seeds, no hair, and no grains of sand. Mazzini then had his friend Thomas Duncombe, a Member of Parliament, submit a petition to the House of Commons. Duncombe wanted to know if Graham really had ordered the opening of Mazzini’s mail. Was the British government in the business of prying into people’s private correspondence? Graham said the answer to that question was a secret.

Sound familiar?

Questions raised this month about surveillance conducted by the National Security Agency have been met, so far, with much the same response that Duncombe got from Graham in 1844: the program is classified. (This, a secret secret, is known as a double secret.) Luckily, old secrets aren’t secret; old secrets are history. The Mazzini affair, as the historian David Vincent argued in “The Culture of Secrecy,” led to “the first modern attack on official secrecy.” It stirred a public uproar, and eventually the House of Commons appointed a Committee of Secrecy “to inquire into the State of the Law in respect of the Detaining and Opening of Letters at the General Post-office, and into the Mode under which the Authority given for such Detaining and Opening has been exercised.” In August of 1844, the committee issued a hundred-and-sixteen-page report on the goings on at the post office. Fascinating to historians, it must have bored Parliament silly. It includes a history of the delivery of the mail, back to the sixteenth century. (The committee members had “showed so much antiquarian research,” Lord John Russell remarked, that he was surprised they hadn’t gone all the way back to “the case of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, who opened the letters which had been committed to his charge, and got Rosencrantz and Guildenstern put to death instead of himself.”)

The report revealed that Mazzini’s mail had indeed been opened and that there existed something called the Secret Department of the Post Office. Warrants had been issued for reading the mail of the king’s subjects for centuries. Before Mazzini and the poppy seeds, the practice was scarcely questioned. It was not, however, widespread. “The general average of Warrants issued during the present century, does not much exceed 8 a-year,” the investigation revealed. “This number would comprehend, on an average, the Letters of about 16 persons annually.” The Committee of Secrecy was relieved to report that rumors that the Secret Department of the Post Office had, at times, sent “entire mail-bags” to the Home Office were false: “None but separate Letters or Packets are ever sent.”

“Secresy is an instrument of conspiracy,” Jeremy Bentham argued, in an essay called “Of Publicity,” first published in 1843, a year before the Mazzini affair. “It ought not, therefore, to be the system of a regular government.” By “publicity,” Bentham meant what is now usually called transparency, or openness. “Without publicity, no good is permanent: under the auspices of publicity, no evil can continue.”

In 1844, during the parliamentary debate that followed the report issued by the Committee of Secrecy, some members, believing, with Bentham, that publicity is the enemy of secrecy, suggested that it was fine for the government to open people’s mail, as long as the recipients of the mail were notified that it had been read. (Disraeli said that he would be only too happy to hand over his mail to the Home Office: “They may open all my letters, provided they answer them.”) In “Letter-Opening at the Post-Office,” Mazzini revealed just how much the debate had been informed by Bentham’s arguments about publicity. Diplomats might have their secrets, he granted, but postmen? “Why, who are these men who treat as enemies their fellow subjects of the realm?” he asked. “For public servants, we want responsibility and responsibility cannot be obtained without publicity. Secrecy is but another word for fear. MYSTERY was the name of the beast in the revelations. The great monster by which was typified all the civil and ecclesiastical corruptions of the earth, had on its forehead a name written and that name was MYSTERY.”

There is a delicate balance between privacy and surveillance.  Is it  OK for the government to collect all the metadata but not look at content without a warrant so long as we know that is what is happening?  And who keeps an eye on the FISA court?

In 1890, two Boston lawyers, Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis, published an article in the Harvard Law Review called “The Right to Privacy.” Warren was a Boston Brahmin, but Brandeis’s parents were Eastern Europeans who had supported a failed uprising in Austria in 1848—the very revolution that, four years before, had been anticipated by the Austrian Ambassador who persuaded the British Home Secretary to read Giuseppe Mazzini’s mail. The suppression of the uprising had been followed by a wave of anti-Semitism, leading to the Brandeis family’s decision to emigrate to the United States. Louis Brandeis was born in Kentucky in 1856. In the eighteen-seventies, he and Warren were classmates at Harvard Law School (Brandeis helped found the Harvard Law Review); after graduation, they opened a law firm together. Warren married Mabel Bayard, a senator’s daughter, in 1883. As the legal scholar Amy Gajda has shown, nearly sixty articles of gossip about the Warren-Bayard family appeared in newspapers between 1882 and 1890—including front-page stories, two weeks apart, about the funerals of Mrs. Warren’s mother and sister. Warren was infuriated. His household had been violated; his family’s privacy, like a letter, had been purloined. (A great many ideas about privacy have to do with hiding women and families.)

In “The Right to Privacy,” Warren and Brandeis argued that there exists a legal right to be let alone—a right that had never been defined before. Their essay lies at the heart of every legal decision that has been made about privacy ever since. The right to privacy, as they understood it, is a function of history, a consequence of modernity. Privacy, they argued, hadn’t always been necessary; it had become necessary—because of the shifting meaning and nature of publicity. By the end of the nineteenth century, publicity, which for Bentham had meant transparency (the opposite of secrecy), had come to mean the attention of the press (the opposite of privacy). Making public the deliberations of Congress was a public good; making public the names of mourners at Mrs. Warren’s mother’s funeral was not. (The same distinction informed the debate that resulted, in the eighteen-eighties and nineties, in the adoption of the secret ballot. Citizens vote in private; legislative votes are public.)

But with blogs, Facebook, Twitter and other new media, those of us who post and tweet want people to read what we say and when we do so we should be aware that we are being public.  Email, however, is the new version of writing a letter and the government reading email is like reading Mazzini’s mail.  There is a very fine line between collecting email records and looking at content and many wonder if we can actually trust the government to honor the distinction.  With cell phones and GPS, our whereabouts can also be tracked. (I’m a fan of NCIS and love the way McGee can locate the bad guys – and sometimes the good ones – using a cell phone number.)  It seems that we are beginning, if we haven’t already, accepted that a lot of our private lives are now public because we put them out there.  We are not like the Warren family who did not want a list of the mourners at a funeral made public.

It is likely that someone has always been watching and it is clear that we still haven’t figured out that troublesome line between public and private.

Here is an old New Yorker cartoon from around 1973.

Bugging

Whistle-blower, maybe. Hero, probably not.

I just can’t figure Edward Snowden.  The more little pieces I hear about and read about him, the more I wonder about him and his motivation.  This is why I found Jonathan Capehart’s piece so interesting.  Writing in the Washington Post’s Post Partisan blog, Capehart begins

A sidewalk encounter with a friend drove home my conflicted feelings about Edward Snowden. The national-security leaker was surely a “narcissist,” he said, but Snowden was definitely “a hero.” And the more my friend talked about the reaction to Snowden, especially that of congressional Democrats, the more angry his own reaction appeared to become. Part of me wished I could work up that much passion for this self-professed champion of government transparency. Alas, I can’t.

I feel the same way.

Edward Snowden

Edward Snowden

Snowden told the Guardian which broke the story that he wanted to go to a place where the government doesn’t spy on people.  The last time I checked, Hong Kong has a complicated legal relationship to China.  China is not exactly a country that eschews spying on citizens.  In an article about extradition the Guardian says

Hong Kong has not accepted a political defence against extradition since the handover in 1997. In the 1930s it turned down a bid by French authorities for Ho Chi Minh’s return to what was then IndoChina, in a case that went all the way to the privy council. More recently, in 1994, its courts stayed the extradition of the politician Jeffrey Kitigan to Malaysia.

Guy Goodwin-Gill QC, a leading expert on extradition at Blackstone Chambers in London, noted that the international climate had changed, with offences that previously might have qualified – such as hijacking – no longer accepted as political.

“The times are very much one of co-operation across a broad range of activities. You hardly ever find a state refusing extradition for political offences any longer,” he said.

In the case of Snowden, “you certainly see political dimensions: you have members of the US senate or House of Representatives calling him a traitor – so they are building a very good case for another state to treat this as political,” added Goodwin-Gill.

Of course, there are avenues for appeal through the courts in Hong Kong which could drag out the process for years according to some British legal experts.  It remains unclear why he went to part of China when he was professing a wish to be free of surveillance.

I have also heard that he may have misrepresented his salary to the Guardian – that it was much lower than he claimed.  Snowden also claimed that as a contractor with the NSA he had broad authority to do a lot of things that some experts question.  This is from NPR

Edward Snowden’s claim that as systems administrator for a defense contractor in Hawaii he had the authority “to wiretap anyone, from you or your accountant to a federal judge to even the president,” just isn’t plausible, says a former national security lawyer at the Justice Department and Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

Carrie Cordero, the former Justice and DNI lawyer, is now director of national securities studies at Georgetown University Law Center. She tells Steve that “the notion that this individual has the authority to go ahead and … ‘wiretap’ people is just ridiculous.”

Without discussing the details of how such surveillance programs work and the safeguards that are in place to protect privacy, Cordero says that Snowden’s claim “does not resemble anything close to what I observed within the intelligence community.”

Snowden may turn out to be a braggart who stretches the truth.  And this may damage his credibility overall.  But the bottom line for me is that he doesn’t seem to have told us anything that a lot of people didn’t know before.  Capehart again

We absolutely should know what our government is up to. And, according to The Post’s Walter Pincus, we’ve known about this for quite some time.

The legendary national-security writer cites a May 2006 USA Today story that revealed “the NSA ‘has been secretly collecting the phone call records of tens of millions of Americans, using data provided by AT&T, Verizon and BellSouth,’ attributing that information to ‘people with direct knowledge of the arrangement.’” Then there was the March 15, 2012, Wired magazine story on the new $2 billion NSA Data Center in Utah and “its ability to ‘intercept, decipher, analyze, and store vast swaths of the world’s communications as they zap down from satellites and zip through the underground and undersea cables of international, foreign, and domestic networks.’”

“Was there any follow-up in the mainstream media to [James] Bamford’s disclosure, or anything close to the concerns voiced on Capitol Hill this past week? No,” Pincus writes in Tuesday’s paper.

So where should we go from here?  I agree with Capehart’s conclusions

Still, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have a debate about what we now know and its appropriateness now that we know it. Eugene Robinson zeroes in on this in his Tuesday column.

The NSA, it now seems clear, is assembling an unimaginably vast trove of communications data, and the bigger it gets, the more useful it is in enabling analysts to make predictions. It’s one thing if the NSA looks for patterns in the data that suggest a nascent overseas terrorist group or an imminent attack. It’s another thing altogether if the agency observes, say, patterns that suggest the birth of the next tea party or Occupy Wall Street movement.

Is that paranoia? Then reassure me. Let’s talk about the big picture and decide, as citizens, whether we are comfortable with the direction our intelligence agencies are heading. And let’s remember that it was Snowden, not our elected officials, who opened this vital conversation.

Yes, Snowden opened this conversation. But that’s as much credit as I’m willing to give him.

That sounds about right.  Let’s see if Congress talk about this without a lot of finger-pointing and hysteria.  Should the result be changes to the Patriot Act, we can give Snowden a little piece of the credit.

Photograph: AP

Surveillance and President Obama

I look forward to my weekly email from my Congressman, Mike Capuano.  Of course, I once worked for him when he was mayor of the City of Somerville (a near Boston city) so I am used to Mike’s saying what he means and I almost always agree with him.  I am copying the entire first part of his email into this post.

mike_225x315

“U.S. Rep. Michael Capuano (D-Somerville), who voted against the Patriot Act, rallied protesters by calling the law the worst attack on freedom since the 1798 Alien and Sedition Acts.”

                                                                                                                Boston Herald

                                                                                                                September 10, 2003

 

The Patriot Act and Verizon

 

I am sure you are aware that Verizon has reportedly been ordered by the top-secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA court) to turn over, “on an ongoing daily basis”, information about every customer telephone number, including landline, cell and business numbers. That information reportedly includes all numbers dialed and all calls received within the United States as well as between the United States and other countries.

As I write this newsletter, the news is filled with reports that a similar program called PRISM is in place for every major internet and email provider. The government claims they have not accessed the content of phone calls, but it seems they ARE accessing the content of emails such as videos, websites visited and more. According to reports, the PRISM program is not at this time being used on U.S. citizens.

Even if you can accept the government collecting the number and length of every call you make, are you really comfortable with them having the ability to catalogue all the YouTube videos you watch, the Netflix movies you download, or the web pages you visit? It seems that our own government has access to every phone call, email and internet search for all Americans at every minute of every day.

Like most Americans, I am absolutely outraged. But, if you’re a long time subscriber to these newsletters, you probably already knew that. You also probably know that I voted against passage of the so-called “Patriot Act” and every reauthorization since it first passed in 2001.

Before I go any further, I feel compelled to remind you that I was an early and strong supporter of President Obama.  I am still amongst the strongest Obama supporters in the House of Representatives.  Nonetheless, I cannot remain silent out of some sort of misplaced loyalty to President or party when I believe that basic American rights have been intentionally trampled.

I know we live in a dangerous world and there is work to do to prevent terrorists from harming us. But we must find a balance between giving law enforcement the tools they need to track and identify terrorists and protecting the very liberties upon which our great country was founded.

This data collection has reportedly been going on for 7 years. The length of time that this has been going on and the staggering amount of data collected on every Verizon customer amounts to an incredible overreach. Even if you’re not a Verizon customer, there is clearly reason for concern. Who really believes that Verizon is the only telecommunications company required to turn over this data?

I have always believed that we must give law enforcement the tools they need to pursue criminals. However, we can do that and still protect civil liberties.

It is time for those of us who support President Obama to speak up.  I believe he is a good man and has been a good President.  However, I think his Administration has allowed their concern for our safety to lead them down the wrong path.  If we remain silent, those who have always wished him to fail on every point stand a better chance of winning the hearts and minds of America and we will all be worse off for it.  It is possible to support President Obama and yet disagree with him on certain issues – this is one of those times.

The President has said he is glad this is out in the open and he welcomes discussion.  Instead of reacting in horror – or wishing more information would be collected, we need to talk.   I’m not sure I know where the balance is, but one thing that I learned at St. John’s College (Annapolis) is that dialog can lead to greater clarity and understanding.  So let’s talk:  To each other and to the President and your member of Congress.

Photograph from Capuano website.