Strong opinions, weakly held

Tag: civil liberties

The Snowden Effect

Journalism prof/media critic Jay Rosen made the most important point yet about Edward Snowden in his post, The Snowden Effect. In it, he describes how Snowden’s disclosures have motivated reporters to dig deeply into secret government programs that violate citizens’ privacy, and not just in America. All over the world people are asking what their governments are up to. Snowden’s specific disclosures aside, we’ve learned a ton about how governments collect data about us thanks to the Snowden Effect that Rosen describes. Had Glenn Greenwald not reported on Snowden’s leak, none of this would be happening. This effect alone (which is generalizable to many whistle blowers) makes whistle blowing hugely important.

The best example yet is this New York Times article from the Saturday New York Times that explains how the FISA court is used to establish secret precedents that provide a legal fig leaf for the NSA’s activities, thus illustrating the dangers of secrecy itself. It’s fascinating to see the Judicial Branch step up and provide the same function that the Office of Legal Counsel did in the Bush era.

The whisteblower’s name is Edward Snowden

Today The Guardian prints the identity of the PRISM whistleblower, at his request:

The individual responsible for one of the most significant leaks in US political history is Edward Snowden, a 29-year-old former technical assistant for the CIA and current employee of the defence contractor Booz Allen Hamilton. Snowden has been working at the National Security Agency for the last four years as an employee of various outside contractors, including Booz Allen and Dell.

For those of us who believe that the protection of whistleblowers is an essential component of a functioning democracy, the question before us is how to effectively protest when he is inevitably arrested and tried. Web site defacements by Anonymous aren’t going to keep him out of jail.

You’ll also read a lot of demands that President Obama pardon Snowden, but I think that’s highly unlikely. The Obama Justice Department has aggressively prosecuted whistleblowers, and the pardon power is generally applied through a bureaucratic process handled by the Justice Department. I’m not optimistic about prosecutorial discretion saving the day, either.

In any case, keeping Snowden’s name in the news as much as possible will be important.

See also: Bruce Schneier on whistleblowers.

The Miranda warning and constitutional rights

IMG 1165

There’s been a lot of talk about the Miranda warning now that accused Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev has been taken into custody. The government has said that they will not be “reading him his rights,” and will not, I assume, be giving him access to a lawyer even if he asks for one, until they question him. I see a lot of people who are generally on the same side of issues as me arguing that this is a violation of his constitutional rights. That is not necessarily the case.

First, let me say that it is clear and inarguable that the authorities are not putting the defendant’s rights first here. They are, at best, interpreting the statutes as broadly as possible in order to gather information unimpeded by a defense attorney. Given that it is a terrorism case, I find that completely unsurprising. Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham are arguing that Tsarnaev should be held as an enemy combatant.

It’s worth digging into what one’s Miranda rights actually are. The constitutional right in question is the Fifth Amendment, the right against self-incrimination. The Miranda warning just insures that people do not surrender this right because they are ignorant or because they were misled by law enforcement. (It’s worth reading about Miranda v Arizona for the details.)

Law enforcement is not required by law to read your rights, however, any evidence obtained through questioning without a Miranda warning will probably be excluded by the judge at trial. If the accused confessed without being read his rights, that confession would be excluded. More importantly, any evidence obtained from information in the illegal confession could also be excluded. So if the accused person revealed where another bomb was hidden, the bomb could not be used as evidence either (see fruit of the poisonous tree). Questioning a suspect without reading their rights is risky for this reason, they may taint evidence needed to convict them.

This is where the “public safety exclusion” to the Miranda rule comes into play. In some cases, law enforcement may need to ask questions immediately for reasons of public safety. It originated from a case where the police asked someone they apprehended about the location of a gun without reading their rights first. The police had a strong incentive to find the weapon, which was unaccounted for, but revealing the gun’s location was self-incriminating. The courts ruled that because the police needed the information immediately for reasons of public safety, the evidence was not tainted.

So the argument the federal government is making in this case is that they need to question Tsarnaev immediately to find out about any other immediate threats before granting him access to a lawyer. If they obtain any evidence that they want to use at trial in the process, they’ll try to keep it from being thrown out based on the public safety exception.

My main point is that not reading a suspect their Miranda rights is not in and of itself a violation of their constitutional rights. However, there are two things we should look out for. The first is whether the accused is arraigned in criminal court within 72 hours of being arrested. If not, he should be able to file a writ of habeas corpus and be released. The second is how this initial questioning affects the ongoing criminal proceedings.

One reason why we have military tribunals now is that the government failed to follow the rules of evidence after 9/11 and they didn’t have enough legally obtained evidence to convict people. Failing to follow proper procedure early on permanently perverted the legal process. Postponing the Miranda warning now is not a violation of Tsarnaev’s rights in and of itself, but it makes it more likely that the process will part ways with constitutionality down the road.

Update: The New York Times has a much better story on the same subject. Here’s former federal prosecutor David Raskin making the point I was trying to make about skipping the Miranda warning:

“I see a fairly strong case against this young man based on a great deal of evidence so, as a prosecutor, the top of my list would not be necessarily to Mirandize him and get a usable confession,” said David Raskin, a former federal prosecutor in terrorism cases in New York.

Every government wants to spy on its citizens

Remember how people made fun of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates for banning Blackberries because RIM refused to allow them to control and monitor their users’ online activities? Well, the Obama administration is going to submit a bill that would require RIM and every other company providing communications software to include loopholes that enable the US to tap into them as well.

A legal mandate that requires peer-to-peer communications to be subject to monitoring will essentially kill it off. Likewise, software that uses public key encryption in the client would also have to be fundamentally changed in order to comply.

And, of course, people with a clue will always be able to encrypt their communications so that they can’t be easily monitored, through the use of open source software that can be made illegal but can’t be eradicated.

The New York Times article linked above is very good, and covers most of the obvious problems with this legislation. You should also read Glenn Greenwald’s post on the subject.

What really irritates me about this is that the Obama administration is supposed to be more technically savvy and pragmatic than its predecessors. I’m sure there are plenty of smart people in the administration who know everything there is to know on this topic. So why push for this legislation? I have a theory, but I’m not even going to bother to write it up, because it’s not important. This legislation is an obviously bad idea and wandering around in the forest of systems theory doesn’t change that. As an activist, my role in the system is to attack the government for taking action that I disagree with. I’ll leave the role of government apologist for other people.

Update: Be sure to read Declan McCullagh’s take on the proposed legislation.

Intelligence reform please

Turns out that the NSA is abusing even the excessive powers it was granted in last year’s FISA bill, which Barack Obama voted for. Time for real intelligence reform.

Obama likes eavesdropping more than torture

Threat Level reports on the Obama administration’s decision to fall in line with a Bush administration request to keep evidence classified in a wiretapping case involving two American lawyers. Obama has taken a strong stand against torture, but his positions on surveillance have been less encouraging.

It would be ideal if the Obama administration would clearly outline its philosophy on the government’s right to spy on Americans. The actual mechanisms can stay secret, but we should know how much power the executive branch is claiming to possess.

Update: David Kris, an outspoken opponent of warrentless wiretapping, has been nominated to run the Justice Department’s national security division.

Sarah Palin, book banner

Time magazine reports on Sarah Palin’s tenure as mayor of Wasilla, Alaska:

Stein says that as mayor, Palin continued to inject religious beliefs into her policy at times. “She asked the library how she could go about banning books,” he says, because some voters thought they had inappropriate language in them. “The librarian was aghast.” The librarian, Mary Ellen Baker, couldn’t be reached for comment, but news reports from the time show that Palin had threatened to fire her for not giving “full support” to the mayor.

FISA fight ends with a whimper

Amanda Simon is blogging the debate over the amendments to the FISA bill for the ACLU. This is a tough one to take, and honestly I don’t expect the next President to make things any better regardless of who it is. Here’s Gore Vidal in September 2000:

You have two candidates. Gore is by far the better trained and more intelligent and is going to win. It’s as simple as that. But I worry because he, too, is funded by corporate America. Luckily he’s intelligent and will hopefully turn out pretty well. But what I’m concerned about is how the corruption of the system has become totally accepted. This can be changed by an act of Congress, but no one will be propose it.

Will it happen? No burglar who ever reached the second floor ever kicked the ladder away.

That last sentence is one that has come to mind frequently in the years since. Vidal’s incorrect prediction that Al Gore would win stings a bit, too.

Here’s Glenn Greenwald on today’s events:

Rather, the insultingly false claims about this bill — it brings the FISA court back into eavesdropping! it actually improves civil liberties! Obama will now go after the telecoms criminally! Government spying and lawbreaking isn’t really that important anyway! — are being disseminated by the Democratic Congressional leadership and, most of all, by those desperate to glorify Barack Obama and justify anything and everything he does. Many of these are the same people who spent the last five years screaming that Bush was shredding the Constitution, that spying on Americans was profoundly dangerous, that the political establishment did nothing about Bush’s lawbreaking.

It’s been quite disturbing to watch them turn on a dime — completely reverse everything they claimed to believe — the minute Obama issued his statement saying that he would support this bill. They actually have the audacity to say that this bill — a bill which Bush, Cheney and the entire GOP eagerly support, while virtually every civil libertarian vehemently opposes — will increase the civil liberties that Americans enjoy, as though Dick Cheney, Mike McConnell and “Kit” Bond decided that it was urgently important to pass a new bill to restrict presidential spying and enhance our civil liberties. How completely do you have to relinquish your critical faculties at Barack Obama’s altar in order to get yourself to think that way?

Barack Obama’s FISA shame

How did Barack Obama go from saying this on January 28:

Ever since 9/11, this Administration has put forward a false choice between the liberties we cherish and the security we demand.

The FISA court works. The separation of powers works. We can trace, track down and take out terrorists while ensuring that our actions are subject to vigorous oversight, and do not undermine the very laws and freedom that we are fighting to defend.

No one should get a free pass to violate the basic civil liberties of the American people — not the President of the United States, and not the telecommunications companies that fell in line with his warrantless surveillance program. We have to make clear the lines that cannot be crossed.

To saying this on June 20:

It is not all that I would want. But given the legitimate threats we face, providing effective intelligence collection tools with appropriate safeguards is too important to delay. So I support the compromise, but do so with a firm pledge that as President, I will carefully monitor the program, review the report by the Inspectors General, and work with the Congress to take any additional steps I deem necessary to protect the lives — and the liberty — of the American people.

Talking Points Memo has a collection of Barack Obama’s statements on the subject. Glenn Greenwald has also been all over this issue.

Update: Barack Obama responded directly to his critics on his blog today. I continue to disagree with his rationale for supporting the compromise but I’m somewhat pleased that he’s engaging with his critics. Be sure to read Glenn Greenwald’s analysis of Obama’s statement. I agree with every red flag he raises.

Hillary Clinton vs Barack Obama on civil liberties

If you’ve been looking for an area of policy where there Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama differ substantially, you should read today’s op-ed by Jeffrey Rosen on civil liberties.

Most Americans don’t really care about civil liberties, at least enough to pay attention to them or to vote based on that issue. Many Americans are, in fact, completely OK with abuses of civil liberties as long as those abuses come with a promise that they’re necessary to keep us safe. Civil liberties are an area where the President has the most discretion. Even if Congress authorizes the executive branch to abuse civil liberties, the President can choose not to act on that authority. (Or, in the case of the Bush administration, can claim authority not actually granted to the executive branch by Congress or the Constitution.) For those reasons, as a civil libertarian, this is a key issue for me as a voter.

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