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In the days before the House of Representatives voted on whether or not to curtail the National Security Agency's vacuum collecting of phone call data, the Obama administration laid it on thick, in presenting its opposition to such protections of personal privacy. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper sounded ominous:
“I join others who caution that acting in haste to defund the FISA Business Records program risks dismantling an important intelligence tool,” Clapper said.
Which sounds scary. And NSA chief Keith Alexander was a bit frantic:
NSA head Gen. Keith Alexander scheduled a last-minute, members-only briefing in response to the amendment, according to an invitation distributed to members of Congress this morning and forwarded to HuffPost. "In advance of anticipated action on amendments to the DoD Appropriations bill, Ranking Member C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger of the House Intelligence Committee invites your Member to attend a question and answer session with General Keith B. Alexander of the National Security Agency," reads the invitation.
And just to impress the point:
The invitation warned members that they could not share what they learned with their constituents or others. "The briefing will be held at the Top Secret/SCI level and will be strictly Members-Only," reads the invite.
Which sounds very double secret probation. For its part, the White House channeled Joseph Heller, if not George Orwell:
The Obama administration lobbied hard to stop the amendment’s passage.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said ahead of the vote: “This blunt approach is not the product of an informed, open, or deliberative process. We urge the House to reject the Amash amendment, and instead move forward with an approach that appropriately takes into account the need for a reasoned review of what tools can best secure the nation.”

Carney did not mention that the massive surveillance program was itself not the product of an informed, open or deliberative process, but rather the product of secret court rulings and classified government memos, which came to light only through leaks by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.

In fact, California Democratic Rep. Zoe Lofgren revealed that the annual report to Congress on the telephone surveillance is "less than a single page and not more than eight sentences," while Alexander and Clapper have both lied about the domestic spying, including before Congress. In other words, the administration has deliberately attempted to prevent any reasonable review, the necessity of which it now argued was the excuse to kill legislated reform. And this dishonesty about reasonable Congressional review continued even after the vote, with the administration's lack of cooperation on releasing information leaving Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee openly bristling. Meanwhile, the secret FISA courts themselves have been exposed as little more than rubberstamps, as is the now routine renewal of the authorization of the NSA spying program itself.

Join me over the fold for more.

But the ugliest part of the administration's political strategy has been its blatant fear-mongering, that collective suggestion in the days before the vote that by attempting to rein in a surveillance state run amok, Congress was risking dismantling an important intelligence tool, and by so doing would undermine how best to secure the nation. For his part, while visiting Germany in June, President Obama had claimed that the surveillance has saved lives, which would seem to be such a compelling reason to support the continuation of the program that the White House would have wanted to repeat it, before the House vote. If it actually were true. But curiously, when testifying before the House Intelligence committee that same June day when Obama made the claim, Alexander not only didn't repeat it, but when pressed for details on his own claim that the surveillance has foiled 50 terrorist plots since the September 11, 2001 attacks, he backtracked to a position that the surveillance had contributed to maybe ten investigations, with no claim that the contributions were even essential.

But despite all the dramatic efforts and assertions before the vote, and despite aggressive arm-twisting by the Democratic Minority Leader we Democrats are supposed to be hoping will return to the Speaker's seat, the amendment barely failed, the close vote actually strengthening the hand of those supporting reform. And despite such theatrics and such political hardball from the ostensible Democratic leadership, a majority of House Democrats supported the amendment. Which means that a majority of House Democrats either don't care about national security, or they weren't falling for the patriot acts performed by a Democratic administration's patriot actors.

And if Congress wasn't cowed by the administration's performance, neither was the public, which is fed up with the spying, and isn't buying the excuses and rationalizations. Nor, apparently, are such critics of the NSA spying as Jimmy Carter or Al Gore or Daniel Ellsberg or Van Jones. And this House vote was but one of a growing list of Congressional efforts to rein in the surveillance excesses, while the Electronic Privacy Information Center filed an emergency petition with the Supreme Court to stop it, lawsuits have been filed by the ACLU and by a broad coalition that includes the  Electronic Frontier Foundation, Greenpeace, Human Rights Watch, the Council on American-Islamic Relations Foundation, and People for the American Way, and a petition drive was launched by yet another coalition that includes the American Library Association, Americans for Job Security, the Center for Media Justice, CREDO Action, Daily Kos, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Internet Archive, MoveOn, Mozilla, the National Coalition Against Censorship, the Praxis Project, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, the Rights Working Group, and the World Wide Web Foundation. When the man who literally wrote the book on Orwell invokes Orwell, it's time to pay attention.

Had revelations of such massive domestic surveillance taken place during the Bush-Cheney years, Democrats would have been all but united in decrying it and fighting it. That so many Democrats and self-styled progressives and liberals would be denying it, attempting to distract from it, excusing it, or supporting it defies credulity. This is the even greater danger of these programs being run by the Obama administration: What should be unthinkable is being normalized. Republicans won't be galvanized into opposition because so many of them embrace ideologies of authoritarian extremism, while too many Democrats willingly embrace absolutely anything promoted by their party or their favored politician. And the latest revelations aren't even necessarily the worst of it. On issues where national security can be used as an excuse for militant excess and widespread encroachments on and undermining of personal privacy, what would have been considered chilling had it been done by Republicans is being normalized because it is being done by the Obama team.

  • Imagine the universal reaction from Democrats if this was happening under a Republican president:
    A top secret National Security Agency program allows analysts to search with no prior authorization through vast databases containing emails, online chats and the browsing histories of millions of individuals, according to documents provided by whistleblower Edward Snowden.

    The NSA boasts in training materials that the program, called XKeyscore, is its "widest-reaching" system for developing intelligence from the internet.

    The latest revelations will add to the intense public and congressional debate around the extent of NSA surveillance programs. They come as senior intelligence officials testify to the Senate judiciary committee on Wednesday, releasing classified documents in response to the Guardian's earlier stories on bulk collection of phone records and Fisa surveillance court oversight.

  • Imagine the universal reaction from Democrats if this was happening under a Republican president:
    In an initiative aimed at rooting out future leakers and other security violators, President Barack Obama has ordered federal employees to report suspicious actions of their colleagues based on behavioral profiling techniques that are not scientifically proven to work, according to experts and government documents.

    The techniques are a key pillar of the Insider Threat Program, an unprecedented government-wide crackdown under which millions of federal bureaucrats and contractors must watch out for “high-risk persons or behaviors” among co-workers. Those who fail to report them could face penalties, including criminal charges.

  • Imagine the universal reaction from Democrats if this was happening under a Republican president:
    It’s important to distinguish between two issues raised by the drone attack that killed Anwar Al Awlaki – the American citizen/ Moslem cleric who gained notoriety by his jihadist sermonizing over the internet. So far, the focus has been on the president’s legal authority to order drone strikes in Yemen and other places far removed from the battlefields of Afghanistan/Pakistan and Iraq. This is the subject of an OLC memo, which President Obama unaccountably refuses to make public (in a suitably redacted form). Instead, the Administration is trying to deflect the pressure for publication by leaking a summary to Charlie Savage who has outlined the memo in a front page story on Sunday’s Times.

    From Savage’s account, it seems that the OLC is taking a very extreme position, using a latitudinarian construction of both international law and Congress’ 2001 Resolution Authorizing the Use of Force to defend the virtually unlimited use of drones against “terrorists” in failed states like Yemen or Somalia. But of course, it’s impossible to assess OLC’s position fairly until the Administration actually publishes the memo itself. It is simply unacceptable to force Americans to determine when they can be assassinated by reading rumors about the government’s legal reasoning in the New York Times.

    But the campaign for publication of the OLC memo should not deflect attention from a second issue: While OLC attempts a general justification for drone attacks, it didn’t try to assess the particular process which found that Awlaki posed an imminent threat to the homeland. Here too, administration leaks have been have been proceeding at a furious pace.

  • Imagine the universal reaction from Democrats if this was happening under a Republican president:
    For decades, a so-called anti-propaganda law prevented the U.S. government's mammoth broadcasting arm from delivering programming to American audiences. But on July 2, that came silently to an end with the implementation of a new reform passed in January. The result: an unleashing of thousands of hours per week of government-funded radio and TV programs for domestic U.S. consumption in a reform initially criticized as a green light for U.S. domestic propaganda efforts. So what just happened?

    Until this month, a vast ocean of U.S. programming produced by the Broadcasting Board of Governors such as Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and the Middle East Broadcasting Networks could only be viewed or listened to at broadcast quality in foreign countries. The programming varies in tone and quality, but its breadth is vast: It's viewed in more than 100 countries in 61 languages. The topics covered include human rights abuses in Iran, self-immolation in Tibet, human trafficking across Asia, and on-the-ground reporting in Egypt and Iraq.

    The restriction of these broadcasts was due to the Smith-Mundt Act, a long-standing piece of legislation that has been amended numerous times over the years, perhaps most consequentially by Arkansas Senator J. William Fulbright. In the 1970s, Fulbright was no friend of VOA and Radio Free Europe, and moved to restrict them from domestic distribution, saying they "should be given the opportunity to take their rightful place in the graveyard of Cold War relics." Fulbright's amendment to Smith-Mundt was bolstered in 1985 by Nebraska Senator Edward Zorinsky, who argued that such "propaganda" should be kept out of America as to distinguish the U.S. "from the Soviet Union where domestic propaganda is a principal government activity."

  • Imagine the universal reaction from Democrats if this was happening under a Republican president:
    As an aside during testimony on Capitol Hill today, a National Security Agency representative rather casually indicated that the government looks at data from a universe of far, far more people than previously indicated....

    Analysts look "two or three hops" from terror suspects when evaluating terror activity, (NSA Deputy Director Chris) Inglis revealed. Previously, the limit of how surveillance was extended had been described as two hops. This meant that if the NSA were following a phone metadata or web trail from a terror suspect, it could also look at the calls from the people that suspect has spoken with—one hop. And then, the calls that second person had also spoken with—two hops. Terror suspect to person two to person three. Two hops. And now: A third hop.

    Think of it this way. Let's say the government suspects you are a terrorist and it has access to your Facebook account. If you're an American citizen, it can't do that currently (with certain exceptions)—but for the sake of argument. So all of your friends, that's one hop. Your friends' friends, whether you know them or not—two hops. Your friends' friends' friends, whoever they happen to be, are that third hop. That's a massive group of people that the NSA apparently considers fair game.

    For a sense of scale, researchers at the University of Milan found in 2011 that everyone on the Internet was, on average, 4.74 steps away from anyone else. The NSA explores relationships up to three of those steps.

  • Imagine the universal reaction from Democrats if this was happening under a Republican president:
    “He is the only man in the land that can promote a problem by virtue of his intelligence hat and then promote a solution by virtue of his military hat,” said one former Pentagon official, voicing a concern that the lines governing the two authorities are not clearly demarcated and that Alexander can evade effective public oversight as a result. The former official spoke on the condition of anonymity to be able to talk freely.

    Alexander himself has expressed unease about secrecy constraints that he says prohibit him from fully explaining what the NSA does. But just as in Iraq, he remains fiercely committed to the belief that “we need to get it all,” said Timothy Edgar, a former privacy officer at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and at the White House.

    “He certainly believes you need to collect everything you can under the law,” Edgar said, “and that includes pushing for pretty aggressive interpretations of the law.”

  • Imagine the universal reaction from Democrats if this was happening under a Republican president:
    The Obama administration for the first time responded to a Spygate lawsuit, telling a federal judge the wholesale vacuuming up of all phone-call metadata in the United States is in the “public interest,” does not breach the constitutional rights of Americans and cannot be challenged in a court of law.

    Thursday’s response marks the first time the administration has officially answered one of at least four lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of a secret U.S. snooping program the Guardian newspaper disclosed last month. The administration’s filing sets the stage for what is to be a lengthy legal odyssey — one likely to outlive the Obama presidency — that will define the privacy rights of Americans for years to come.

  • Imagine the universal reaction from Democrats if this was happening under a Republican president:
    In a lengthy front-page story last week exploring President Obama's use of drone strikes in countries including Pakistan and Yemen, the New York Times reported that the president had "embraced a disputed method for counting civilian casualties that did little to box him in."

    Citing "several administration officials," the Times reported that this method "in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants ... unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent." The Times reported that this standard allowed counterterrorism adviser John Brennan to claim in June 2011 that for nearly a year "there hasn't been a single collateral death because of the exceptional proficiency, precision of the capabilities that we've been able to develop."

    Human rights groups and others have expressed outrage at the reported counting method.

  • Imagine the universal reaction from Democrats if this was happening under a Republican president:
    Less visible is the extent to which Obama has institutionalized the highly classified practice of targeted killing, transforming ad-hoc elements into a counterterrorism infrastructure capable of sustaining a seemingly permanent war. Spokesmen for the White House, the National Counterterrorism Center, the CIA and other agencies declined to comment on the matrix or other counterterrorism programs.

    Privately, officials acknowledge that the development of the matrix is part of a series of moves, in Washington and overseas, to embed counterterrorism tools into U.S. policy for the long haul....

    CIA Director David H. Petraeus is pushing for an expansion of the agency’s fleet of armed drones, U.S. officials said. The proposal, which would need White House approval, reflects the agency’s transformation into a paramilitary force, and makes clear that it does not intend to dismantle its drone program and return to its pre-Sept. 11 focus on gathering intelligence.

  • Imagine the universal reaction from Democrats if this was happening under a Republican president:
    Since the Obama administration largely shut down the CIA's rendition programme, choosing instead to dispose of its enemies in drone attacks, those individuals who are being nominated for killing have been discussed at a weekly counter-terrorism meeting at the White House situation room that has become known as Terror Tuesday. Barack Obama, in the chair and wishing to be seen as a restraining influence, agrees the final schedule of names. Once details of these meetings began to emerge it was not long before the media began talking of "kill lists". More double-speak was required, it seemed, and before long the term disposition matrix was born.

    In truth, the matrix is more than a mere euphemism for a kill list, or even a capture-or-kill list. It is a sophisticated grid, mounted upon a database that is said to have been more than two years in the development, containing biographies of individuals believed to pose a threat to US interests, and their known or suspected locations, as well as a range of options for their disposal.

    It is a grid, however, that both blurs and expands the boundaries that human rights law and the law of war place upon acts of abduction or targeted killing. There have been claims that people's names have been entered into it with little or no evidence. And it appears that it will be with us for many years to come.

Things have changed. In 2005, when New York Times reporters James Risen and Eric Lichtblau broke the story on Bush-Cheney era warrantless wiretaps, Democrats and self-styled liberals and progressives didn't vilify the reporters as treasonous traitors, and Very Important People in the national media didn't suggest that they should be prosecuted. But under Obama, Risen himself is now under attack. A Democratic administration is trying to suppress whistleblowers, and is using the same fear-mongering tactics that Democrats almost universally decried when used by the Bush-Cheney team. The tactics, like the surveillance itself, must be fought, or they will be normalized.

When fearmongering succeeds, and human and personal rights are sacrificed under the dubious banner of national security, there will be no end of it. That was how we got the Orwellian titled "Patriot" Act in the first place, and that is how the personal privacy rights have been steadily eroded, since. It will get worse.

Defending basic and universally recognized standards of liberty should not be partisan. The fact is that none of this was necessary to prevent the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, indeed, had the Bush-Cheney team not been so disastrously incompetent, those attacks could have been prevented, just by paying attention to and acting on the intelligence that already was available, thanks to the assiduous efforts of security personnel using the resources then available. The security experts didn't fail, but the politicians did. The politicians then used their own failure to promote a wholly political agenda that had and has little to do with actual security.

Wholesale wide-scale domestic spying, extrajudicial targeted executions, and drone strikes justified by redefining the killed as enemy combatants just because they were among those killed, are abominations, and they must be called abominations, and they must be stopped. Or they will be but the beginning. It will get worse. The Bush-Cheney cabal had immediate support even from Democrats, and continuing support from far too many in the corrupt and incompetent traditional media, but it couldn't succeed in normalizing security state extremism, because there was loud and fierce opposition. But the politicians who rode the wave of that opposition into political power failed to make the Bush-Cheney cabal accountable for its actions, and too many of the most powerful of those politicians now are attempting to normalize those actions by making them legal and acceptable. Those politicians should, instead, be attempting to repeal the "Patriot" Act, and to return this nation to a security footing based on actual need, efficacy, and respect for human and personal rights.

This is a test. And how this nation responds to this test will largely define the parameters by which this nation will or will not continue its birthright struggle toward ideals of freedom and liberty. As anyone who knows anything about the history of this nation understands, living up to those ideals has been an existential struggle right from the start, from the encoding of slavery into the Constitution itself to the Alien and Sedition Acts, which if not killed in their infancy would have killed this nation's pretensions toward liberty in its infancy. The ideal America is not something we have lost, but it is something toward which idealistic Americans always have strived. The question now is not whether or not we ever will attain those ideals, it is whether or not we will even bother to continue to try.

Sign our petition urging Congress to declassify the FISA Secret Court’s rulings.

Originally posted to Daily Kos on Sun Aug 04, 2013 at 04:00 PM PDT.

Also republished by The First and The Fourth.

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