Saturday, June 15, 2013

Editorial: Spy Business Scandal

The scandal in the revelation that the National Security Agency is scooping up data from millions of phone calls and emails daily is not so much that the surveillance program exists. There have been reports that the NSA was working on a massive data collection network ever since 9/11. The scandal is that a 29-year-old information technology consultant working for a private corporation contracting with the NSA not only was in the loop but boasted that he could snoop on anybody with an email address, including the President of the United States.

Some experts dispute whether Edward Snowden really could hack the President’s email, but there is no longer any doubt that he was telling the truth about the NSA’s widespread surveillance programs. His story sounds like he was on the express lane to the American Dream as a high-school dropout who was able to work his way up to a $122,000-a-year job as a Hawaii-based information analyst for Booz Allen Hamilton, at least until he decided to spill the beans to the Washington Post and the London Guardian.

As Tim Shorrock, author of Spies for Hire who writes about the business of national security on page 12, told Amy Goodman on Democracy Now! June 11, “If Mr. Snowden had access to these kinds of documents, such as these PRISM documents about surveillance on the Internet, as well as this FISA court order, that means practically anyone in Booz Allen who is in intelligence working for the NSA has access to the same kinds of documents. And American people should really know that now we have conclusive proof that these private-sector corporations are operating at the highest levels of intelligence and the military.”

Colleen Rowley, a former FBI special agent and legal counsel in its Minneapolis office whose May 2002 memo described some of the FBI’s pre-9/11 failures wrote for CNN’s website on June 11, “The recent disclosures about the National Security Agency’s massive and aggressive spying on the world, including US citizens, along with other scandals showing Associated Press and Fox News reporters targeted in ‘leak’ investigations, should make us realize that John Poindexter’s plan for ‘Total Information Awareness’ never died: It merely went underground and changed its name.

“When the TIA idea was first proposed by the Bush administration after 9/11, along with a ‘Big Brother’ all-seeing eye logo, it was widely considered a crazy notion, resulting in an outcry. That data collection plan, which involved indiscriminate spying on Americans, was quickly squelched — at least publicly.

“The truth, however, was that it was reborn under dozens of massive data collection and surveillance programs within each of our 16 highly secretive intelligence agencies, under a variety of cute acronyms,” Rowley wrote.

Those agencies increasingly rely on private contractors. Of the 4.9 million people with clearance to access “confidential and secret” government information, the Associated Press reported, 1.1 million, or 21%, work for outside contractors, according to a report from Director of National Intelligence James Clapper’s office. Of the 1.4 million who have the higher “top secret” access, 483,000, or 34%, work for contractors. Three-fourths of Booz Allen’s 25,000 employees hold government security clearances. Half of those employees have top secret clearances.

The move to a national security state is nothing new, though it has expanded since the 9/11 attacks. Charles Pierce, writing at (June 11), took apart Peggy Noonan’s claim in the Wall Street Journal June 8 that “The security age began on Sept. 12, 2001.” Pierce noted, “The manifestation of ‘the security age’ that is presently under discussion began then, but ‘the security age’ as we know it began during World War II, with the Manhattan Project, and it really got rolling after the war, when the Russians ended up with the bomb and there was hell to pay here. Garry Wills is right in his book Bomb Power. It was the combination of those weapons, and the military-industrial complex that produced them and against which Dwight Eisenhower was right to warn us, that embedded ‘the security age’ in the institutions of free government, and it has operated like rot and termites within them ever since. Everything since has been just technology. The impulse toward ‘the security age’ has been present at almost every level of law enforcement, let alone the military.”

So we’ve had more than 70 years of national security fears chipping away at our personal privacy and civil liberties. A US Senate Select Committee chaired by Sen. Frank Church (D-Idaho), now known as the Church Committee, shook up the national security establishment in 1975 when it investigated abuses of intelligence gathering by the FBI, the CIA, military intelligence and the NSA during the Nixon administration. It went back to the 1950s and investigated attempts to assassinate foreign leaders as well as the use of intelligence agencies to track anti-war and civil rights protesters as well as critics of the administration.

The Church Committee published 14 reports on the formation of US intelligence agencies, their operations and the alleged abuses of law and of power that they had committed, together with recommendations for reform. More than 50,000 pages have been declassified. President Gerald Ford issued an executive order that banned US assassinations of foreign leaders, and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 prescribed procedures for physical and electronic surveillance and collection of “foreign intelligence information” between “foreign powers” and “agents of foreign powers.” The law also set up the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to oversee requests for surveillance warrants against suspected foreign intelligence agents inside the US by federal agencies. The House and Senate created select committees on intelligence to provide oversight over intelligence activities. And Frank Church was accused by right wingers of treason for exposing the problems.

Church, who died in 1984, said of the NSA in 1975: “I don’t want to see this country ever go across the bridge ... I know the capacity that is there to make tyranny total in America, and we must see to it that this agency and all agencies that possess this technology operate within the law and under proper supervision, so that we never cross over that abyss. That is the abyss from which there is no return.”

After the Sept. 11 attacks, Congress passed the PATRIOT Act, which expanded national security authority.

We shouldn’t expect the President to give up executive powers that arguably can be used to make the country safer. If President Obama unilaterally ordered the NSA to dismantle PRISM, and terrorists later struck the US, there would be hell to pay again, so Obama couldn’t do it for political as well as national security reasons.

It’s up to Congress to take those powers away or at least make the national security bureaucracy accountable in a way they are not now, with secret court orders and briefings that members of Congress may not share with the public.

A good start would be a bill introduced by a bipartisan group of senators that would declassify key legal opinions reached by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court that make the gathering of these records possible. The bill is being introduced by Sens. Jeff Merkley, progressive Democrat from Oregon, and Mike Lee, a Tea Party Republican from Utah. It’s also supported by Democratic Sens. Patrick Leahy, the Judiciary chairman from Vermont, Ron Wyden of Oregon, Jon Tester of Montana, Mark Begich of Alaska and Al Franken of Minnesota, and Republican Sen Dean Heller of Nevada.

Above all, Congress ought to make sure that any official duties — particularly those involving sensitive data — are handled by government employees, not job-hopping private contractors.
National security reform is a more daunting task now that corporations such as Booz Allen Hamilton, Northrup Grumman, SAIC and others have billions of dollars in profits at stake in expanding the national security infrastructure.

President Obama says he welcomes the debate on the tradeoffs between security and privacy. If so, he can thank Edward Snowden for bringing that conflict of interests to our attention. — JMC

From The Progressive Populist, July 1-15, 2013
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Selections from the July 1-15, 2013 issue

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Farm Bill Exposes Industry's Connection to Congress

From the Heartland, Margot McMillen writes: I don’t think the farm bill debate could be any more mysterious. Seems like somebody doesn’t want us to know what’s going on. Here’s what I understand so far: Senate version, S. 954, doesn’t contain amendments to help food stamp users (now called Snap) or family farmers. There were more than 200 amendments pending, and a filibuster threatened, so they moved to limit debate to 30 hours. The good amendments, posted on the National Family Farm Coalition website, included “Udall's amendment on Section 2501 (#1055), Tester's amendment on Seeds and Breeds (#972), and the competition amendments: Rockefeller's amendment #993) to limit retaliation for growers speaking out; the Grassley (#969), Tester (#971), and Enzi (#982) amendments on other key components of livestock competition issues; and the Brown (#1088) amendment to encourage food and agriculture market development, entrepreneurship and education.” With these amendments rejected, there are no protections for family farmers and the corporations have free rein as far as narrowing the seed and livestock businesses and stopping young farmers from getting education and starting their own businesses. On the House side, debate is supposed to begin next Monday. They haven’t decided whether to accept amendments or not. Looks like they want to cut funds to GIPSA, the organization supposed to guarantee fairness in pricing, and SNAP. NFFC says, “The bill reported from the House Agriculture Committee guts GIPSA, cuts SNAP by more than $20 billion, and retains the Dairy Security Act (which we oppose) as well as other provisions that roll back current policy. During the House Agriculture Committee markup there were several amendments discussed but not voted on including Lujan-Grisham (D-NM) amendments to restore Section 2501 Minority Outreach and Education funds, and Fudge (D-OH) amendment on receipt for service that may become part of a floor amendment.” Here’s what NFFC says about the Senate Passage of the Farm Bill: S. 954: Washington, DC – Since early 2012, the National Family Farm Coalition (NFFC) has urged passage of a farm bill to extend important programs whose existence depends on a new farm bill. On October 1, 2012, more than 37 programs were stranded in the budget, farm bill, and appropriations processes; several were extended in the fiscal cliff deal but most received no funding. The floor debate on this farm bill exposed major flaws in our democratic process. Despite Senator Stabenow's (D-MI) claims to having taken up many amendments the past two years, some that were critical to family farmers and rural communities were introduced, co-sponsored, and supported widely but never heard or debated. These amendments would have protected growers speaking up about unfair contracts from retaliation; prioritized funding for traditional (non-biotech) crop research; and restored the 40 percent in cuts for critical minority outreach and education programs. S. 954 lowered these funds from $17 million to $10 million per year. The greatest concern around S. 954 is that it privatizes the supposed safety net by shifting direct payments to grain and dairy farmers to a corporate-controlled crop insurance payment program. There is no pricing system based on farmers’ cost of production or any sort of reserve policy at the farm, national, or global level. Without these mechanisms to stabilize prices and to help farmers, fishermen, and rural communities face disastrous weather and economic conditions, this bill promotes farmer uncertainty while global insurance companies reap unchecked profits. S. 954 makes a few small yet significant steps. It links conservation compliance to farmers holding crop insurance and allows organic farmers to be covered under crop insurance at their retail, not wholesale, prices. It expands support for farmers markets and EBT access to SNAP (supplemental nutrition assistance program) benefits and establishes the Healthy Farm Financing Initiative and some beginning farmer initiatives, including outreach to Veteran farmers. It also calls for an official hearing process with broad participation to consider changes to the flawed current and proposed dairy programs.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Edward Snowden is a hero who deserves our praise and thanks

By Marc Jampole
Maybe now we know what happened to the Snowdens of yesteryear. Or at least to one of them.

“Where are the Snowdens of yesteryear?” is Joseph Heller’s wonderful pun on Francois Villon’s famous poem, “Ballade des dames du temps jadis,” with its refrain of “Ou sont les neiges d’antan,” which has been translated into English for centuries as “Where are the snows of yesteryear?” Heller delivers the pun in the middle of his great anti-war novel, Catch-22 about the character of Snowden who dies from shrapnel wounds sustained during a flight to conduct what the crew knows to be senseless bombing.

The Snowden in question these days is the great American hero, Edward Snowden, who has made himself a hunted man by revealing that the U.S. has been collecting and tabulating the metadata of every Verizon customer (and by implication every customer of every phone company).

But many, especially on the right, don’t think he’s a hero. David Brooks threw as much vitriol as is possible in print at Snowden today in his New York Times column. If it were up to Brooks, Edward Snowden would share the fate of Heller’s Snowden: dying cold and in excruciating pain in a freezing airplane, his blood and intestines oozing slowly from massive perforations of the abdomen.

Brooks says that Edward Snowden has betrayed his country, the Constitution, his friends, the cause of open government and the privacy of all of us.

Whether Snowden betrayed his country, friends and the Constitution or not is open to opinion. I tend to fall in the camp that says that sometimes you have to break the law to follow a higher law or to change an unfair law: That’s what Thoreau, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, John Lewis and Daniel Ellsberg did. And I believe that’s what Edward Snowden did.

Brooks is free to disagree, but to say that Snowden betrayed the cause of open government and the privacy of all of us is manipulative nonsense. Read Brooks’ words, and note that in the case of both open government and privacy he is making the same paltry argument: if you don’t let the government do it this way, it will do much worse (even if it’s illegal):
  • OPEN GOVERNMENT: Every time there is a leak like this, the powers that be close the circle of trust a little tighter. They limit debate a little more.”
  • PRIVACY: If federal security agencies can’t do vast data sweeps, they will inevitably revert to the older, more intrusive eavesdropping methods.”
Let us do it or we will do worse! Brooks’s reasoning is as absurdly self-serving as Milo Minderbinder, Colonel Cathcart, Doctor Daneeka and all the other figures of authority in Catch-22.

The last analogy I’m going to make between Heller’s great satire of the military-industrial complex at war and the current situation is to point out that Edward Snowden’s life now resembles that of Heller’s comic hero, Yossarian, at the end of the novel: on the run, unable to trust anyone, a deserter without a country. Yossarian, of course, was only trying to save himself. Edward Snowden was trying to save all of us from a government leaning ever more closely to an authoritarian police state. Edward Snowden deserves our thanks and he deserves our adulation as an American hero. 

What's a farm? What's a farm bill?

From the Heartland, Margot McMillen writes: Looks like the farm bill won’t have anything in it to stem the tide of bad food coming into our communities. It will provide less money for food stamp users, forcing them to live on potato chips and white bread. And, yes, I know the current program isn’t called “food stamps” but I want you to understand what I’m saying. The program name changes just confuse the issue. To continue: The farm bill will force schools to use USDA surplus stocks, even if there is plenty of good food in the community. Here in the heartland where we raise lots of cattle, schools can get free ground beef to make taco pie and chili. It’s a grade lower than the beef used by dog food companies, but, hey! The budget . . . So far, there’s nothing to suggest that the Monsanto Protection Act will be repealed. That’s the verbiage which also protects other GMO companies, like DuPont, Syngeta AG and Dow, from worrying about GMO labeling or being prosecuted for planting unapproved GMO crops. The new farm bill won’t help beginning farmers. Or do anything to keep local agriculture in our nation. Nothing but payments for big ag insurance, big ag facilities, big ag wreck-the-earth-at-taxpayer-expense. The giant machines that tear up the dirt, dump chemicals, harvest up non-nutritious grain and sick animals—those will still go on. It’s up to family farmers and consumers to keep each other going. For consumers, it’s crucial to take a weekly trip to the farmers’ market and eat what’s fresh and local. For farmers, well, we need to learn how to think and talk like mainstream Americans. We need to agree on some messages. What we're asking the public to do is to think critically, but we're not giving them the tools to do it. So we need to talk like a consumer. For example, dairy farmers talk about POUNDS of milk. Consumers think about GALLONS of milk. Farmers talk about PRICE and want FAIR PRICES. Consumers talk about what they pay at Wal-Mart and want LOW PRICES. Since I talk to consumers all the time, I edit myself constantly. I never say "sow" without explaining it's a female hog with babies. I never say "heifer," "steer," "bull," "lamb," or even "pony," or "mule," without explaining. You can't imagine how many times I've had to explain that a pony won’t grow up to be a horse. And a mule, by the way, is a cross between a donkey and a horse. People think it's just another word for donkey, like burro or ass. The other day, I had to explain to a feed store worker the difference between a hybrid and GMOs. She was too young to know the difference. So, see the problems??

Monday, June 10, 2013

American people have “Joseph Welch” moment about government snooping.

By Marc Jampole
Have the American people just had a Joseph Welch epiphany?  A sudden realization that this time, they have gone too far, that we have let them go too far?

Welch was the lawyer who was questioning the rabidly anti-communist Senator Joseph McCarthy during McCarthy’s 1954 hearings to investigate communist infiltration of the Army. McCarthy told one bold-faced lie too many, accusing a perfectly innocent man, and Welch suddenly exclaimed in shock, Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”

It was at that moment that America’s elected leaders and other influentials realized that the post-war witch hunt for communists and fellow travelers in American government and society had gone too far.  It was at that moment when the American people realized that we had let them take it too far.

Have we seen a “Joseph Welch” moment with the revelation that the Obama Administration has collected the metadata of phone numbers of every Verizon customer? I think everyone assumes that if the federal government has the data from Verizon, then it has it from every other telephone company. The most shocking part of the revelation of mass snooping is that everyone agrees that it’s absolutely legal, thanks to the Patriot Act, which Congress keeps renewing.

Will we as a nation now put more pressure on Congress to rescind the Patriot Act or rethink many of its provisions? Will right-wing Republicans finally recognize the inherent contradiction in their national security positions, that they call for less government interference in our personal lives and then support these assaults on personal liberty?  Will Democrats no longer cravenly cave into every demand for greater spying, warrantless searches, drone killings and invasions built on fantasy premises?

Let’s hope so, because collecting and analyzing the metadata of all of our phone calls is a monstrous invasion of privacy. Collection of metadata is ripe for abuse by both the federal government and individuals. 

Obama’s excuse is that computers are sifting through the information, not humans, and that no one is listening to the contents of the phone calls.  Note the clever rhetorical misdirection that the President employs. He wants us to focus on what they’re not doing (or say they’re not doing), so we’ll forget what they are doing.  But there is so much information that we can gain from knowing whom you called, who called you and where and when all the parties were at the time of the call.  What if some future Joe McCarthy with access to the files wants to investigate Nation or Jewish Currents? What if the president wants to gather evidence about every major donor to the campaign of a potential rival?  Couldn’t this metadata be used to help plan the assassination of a foreign leader?

This gross invasion of privacy—this pilfering of civil and human rights—predates the Obama Administration. Obama apologists say at least it’s not torture and at least he didn’t start a war (at least not yet: Syria awaits.) It’s the same type of misdirection.

Let’s not focus on what the Obama Administration isn’t doing. Let’s focus on what it is doing, and although it may be legal, it is not right and it offends the sensibilities of many, if not most Americans.

It’s time for a total repeal of the Patriot Act.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

What the Old-Style Progressives Eat

From the Heartland, Margot McMillen writes: I go to around 50 farm and food meetings a year—probably one a week. And at most of these, there’s food. You could blindfold and feed me what they’re serving and I could tell you the age of the people in charge. Young progressives are getting really picky about their food—fresh and local. When we meet, we go to independent restaurants where local food is served, which is the kind of place these kids want to work. Oldsters go for whatever the industrial truck delivers to the greasy spoon cafĂ©. They’ll eat hot dogs, for god’s sake, smothered in canned chili. And they’ll complain like crazy about industry and the consolidation of the food system, but they patronize the baddies without a thought. It’s a bit of a shock to attend meetings of progressive organizations, gray heads all, and see that they don’t know what the youngsters are doing. Shocking, really, to see well-intentioned and philosophically brilliant social thinkers talking the talk but failing to walk the walk and cluelessly tucking into the products of industry. This happens time and again, and I end up realizing that I can eat healthy local foods all month long, unless I go to a meeting of yesterday’s farm progressives. Sad, when we could be building bridges, serving healthy and local food and patronizing the businesses that the next generation sees as necessary to make their issues work. One of the great joys of being a locavore is that you so often find yourself surrounded by people working to make their communities more sustainable. These are high-energy young people and they’re forcing us oldsters to choose: Will we be helpful elders? Or are we just in the way? Social movements always start at the grassroots level. Always. And they take generations to complete. It’s up to us powerful oldsters to reach to the next group and help. We can’t make progress without them, and we can’t make headway by ignoring their accomplishments. These kids don’t ask permission, they’ll do it on their own. They’re creating composting sites and recycling in their communities, forcing cities to create bike lanes, learning how to grow their own food and, of course, patronizing the restaurants founded by their friends. They’re coming up with an excellent system. Social movements always start at the grassroots level. Always. I think of the changes in my own lifetime—civil rights for blacks, workplace expansion for women, independence for African nations. None of these came from the top and trickled down.