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PATRIOT Act Warrants Used More For Drugs Than For Terrorism

| Fri Oct. 31, 2014 1:13 AM EDT

The PATRIOT Act gave federal agents expanded powers to issue search warrants without informing the targets of the warrant beforehand. Why? Because terrorism investigations were special: they'd fall apart if terrorists received warning that they were being investigated. So with terrorism suddenly a far bigger priority after 9/11, national security required that authority for these "sneak-and-peek" warrants be broadened.

A few days ago, the Electronic Frontier Foundation tallied up the known figures for sneak-and-peek warrants:

  • 2001-03: 47
  • 2010: 3,970
  • 2011: 6,775
  • 2012: 10,183
  • 2013: 11,129

That's quite an increase. So did terrorism investigations skyrocket over the past decade? Not so much. It turns out that hardly any of these warrants were used in terrorism cases. Instead, they were virtually all used in narcotics cases—as the chart on the right shows. Radley Balko draws the right lessons from this:

  • Assume that any power you grant to the federal government to fight terrorism will inevitably be used in other contexts.
  • Assume that the primary “other context” will be to fight the war on drugs.
  • When critics point out the ways a new law might be abused, supporters of the law often accuse those critics of being cynical — they say we should have more faith in the judgment and propriety of public officials. Always assume that when a law grants new powers to the government, that law will be interpreted in the vaguest, most expansive, most pro-government manner imaginable. If that doesn’t happen, good. But why take the risk? Why leave open the possibility? Better to write laws narrowly, restrictively and with explicit safeguards against abuse.

There's no reason laws like this can't be drawn properly in the first place. Sure, some terrorism cases involve narcotics, but that's a poor excuse. If terrorism is genuinely involved, law enforcement officers have plenty of opportunity to convince a judge of that. A properly-constructed statute won't get in their way.

This goes for the NSA as well as the FBI, by the way. If they need broadened surveillance powers to fight terrorism—and perhaps they do—a narrowly-drawn statute won't hurt them. If they object to this, every one of us should wonder why.

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CNN Is Now Just Like the National Enquirer

| Thu Oct. 30, 2014 9:52 PM EDT

Earlier today I was idly flipping channels on the TV and came upon a CNN chyron informing me breathlessly that Chuck Hagel had just "blasted" President Obama's Syria policy. Unfortunately, I came in at the end of the segment, so I didn't get to find out just what kind of blasting Hagel had done. But it certainly sounded ominous.

I just now remembered this, and figured I should take a look at the news to see what had happened. But that wasn't so easy. Every front page I checked had bupkis about Hagel. Finally I went to the source: CNN. Here's what they say:

Earlier this month, while on an trip to Latin America to discuss climate change, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel sat down and wrote a highly private, and very blunt memo to National Security Advisor Susan Rice about U.S. policy toward Syria.

It was a detailed analysis, crafted directly by Hagel "expressing concern about overall Syria strategy," a senior U.S. official tells CNN. The official directly familiar with the contents declined to be named because of the sensitivity of the matter.

....The focus of the memo was "we need to have a sharper view of what to do about the Assad regime," the official said. The official refused to provide additional details, but did not disagree with the notion that Hagel feels the U.S. is risking its gains in the war against ISIS if adjustments are not made.

That's it? Hagel wrote an internal memo suggesting that we should have a "sharper view" of what to do about Assad? And some sympathetic White House official kinda sorta agreed that Hagel felt we might be in trouble if "adjustments" aren't made?

I swear, watching cable news is like reading the National Enquirer these days: big, blasting headlines that turn out, when you read the story, to mean absolutely nothing. That's ten minutes of my life that I'll never get back. Thanks, CNN.

GDP Increases at Not-Bad 3.5 Percent Rate in 3rd Quarter

| Thu Oct. 30, 2014 2:29 PM EDT

Today's economic news is fairly good. GDP in the third quarter grew at a 3.5 percent annual rate, which means that the slowdown at the beginning of the year really does look like it was just a blip. Aside from that one quarter, economic growth has been pretty robust for over a year now.

At the same time, inflation continues to be very low, which you can take as either good news (if you're an inflation hawk) or bad news (if you think the economy could use a couple of years of higher inflation).

We could still use some higher growth after five years of weakness, but at least we're providing a bit of a counterbalance to Europe, which appears to be going off a cliff at the moment. Count your blessings.

Will Snow Ruin Your Halloween?

| Thu Oct. 30, 2014 2:11 PM EDT
snow forecasr
The snow forecast from today through the weekend. This data represents a worst-case scenario; there's a 95 percent change there will be less snow than this. National Weather Service

Happy Halloween! Hope you have a good costume lined up that isn't this horrible "sexy Ebola nurse" one. Anyway, this year the weather seems pretty determined to mess with your trick-or-treating plans: We've already seen pumpkin prices spike thanks to the ongoing drought in California. And now it seems that a snowstorm is headed for the Midwest and East Coast. But fear not: It's unlikely that the goblins and witches in NYC, DC, and other eastern cities will get hit too hard tomorrow night.

The map above is the most recent snow accumulation forecast from the National Weather Service, a prediction of how many inches of snow are expected to fall between today and Sunday. It looks worse than it probably will be; this is the 95th-percentile estimate, meaning snowfall is 95 percent likely to be less severe than what is shown here. AccuWeather has a good map showing the trajectory of snowfall over the weekend, as it moves from the Appalachians on Friday up to Maine by Sunday. And the Weather Channel has a useful daily breakdown here. The upshot is that Midwesterners should plan to bundle up, and Mainers could have snow by the end of the weekend, but East Coasters don't need to worry too much about snow-proofing their Halloween costumes.

That said, even without snow it could still be cold and blustery, as our friend Eric Holthaus at Slate points out. The NASA satellite imagery below depicts the Nor'easter currently straddling the eastern seaboard, which the latest NOAA forecast says will bring "much colder weather" and possibly some showers by Saturday. So whatever ridiculous "sexy" costume you decide to wear tomorrow, probably pack a sweater.

snow halloween
NASA

Chris Christie Needs to Rehearse His Lines Better

| Thu Oct. 30, 2014 12:44 PM EDT

Paul Waldman comments on Chris Christie's latest outburst against a heckler:

My favorite part is how Christie keeps calling him "buddy" (reminded me of this). Now try to imagine what would happen if Barack Obama shouted "Sit down and shut up!" at a citizen. Or almost any other prominent politician, for that matter; commentators would immediately start questioning his mental health. But even though it's been a while, shouting at people was how Chris Christie became a national figure talked about as a potential presidential candidate in the first place....If you standup at a town meeting and ask him an impertinent question about something like the state budget, he'll shout you down (to the cheers of his supporters).

Here are a few ways to explain this pattern of behavior:

  1. This is a calculated way of showing that he's a Tough Guy, which Christie knows Republicans love
  2. This is just who Christie is, and if nobody was around he'd still be picking fights with people
  3. Both 1 and 2

I lean toward number 3. It isn't just play-acting, because Christie obviously gets sincerely pissed off when he's challenged by people he thinks are beneath him. At the same time, he's a smart enough politician to know that the cameras are on, and there's some benefit to reinforcing the persona he has created.

I admit that this is mostly just curiosity on my part, since Christie's act long ago got nearly as stale as Sarah Palin's. But take a look at the video. Unlike Waldman, I vote for No. 1. To me, Christie appears entirely under control. I don't doubt that there's some real annoyance there (even a Vulcan would get annoyed at your average heckler), but overall Christie's response gives the impression of being practically scripted. There are even a couple of instances where Christie seems like he forgot his lines and hurriedly tosses them in before heckler guy goes away and ruins his chance to get off his best zingers.

So vote in comments. Is it real anger, or has it just become a well-rehearsed schtick by now? In this case, at least, I vote for schtick.

Watch Anita Sarkeesian Explain Gamergate's "Attacks on Women" and Convince Colbert He's a Feminist

| Thu Oct. 30, 2014 12:35 PM EDT

Anita Sarkeesian, the feminist critic at the center of the Gamergate controversy, appeared on The Colbert Report last night to explain the sexual harassment issues rampant in the gaming world and why women aren't going to just accept a "separate but equal" community.

"Women are perceived as threatening because we are asking for games to be more inclusive," Sarkeesian said. "We are asking for games to acknowledge that we exist and that we love games."

But as recent disturbing events have shown, many gamers are not pleased with Sarkeesian's work and have been launching extremely violent messages against her and her supporters via social media. Earlier this month, Sarkeesian was forced to cancel a speaking engagement after an anonymous email threatened to stage the "deadliest mass shooting in American history" if she spoke.

Speaking to Colbert on Wednesday, she went on to reject the defense that Gamergate is actually about ethics in video game journalism.

"That is sort of a compelling way to reframe the fact that this is actually an attack on women," she said."Ethics in journalism is not what's happening in any way. It's actually men going after women in really hostile, aggressive ways. That's what Gamergate is about. it's about terrorizing women for being involved in this industry."

For more a deeper dive into the Gamergate controversy, check out our excellent explainer.

Correction: A previous version of this story erroneously quoted Sarkeesian in the headline. This has since been corrected. 

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Here's What Democrats and Republicans Are Afraid Of

| Thu Oct. 30, 2014 11:33 AM EDT

Wonkblog regales us this morning with the chart on the right, which summarizes a recent Chapman University survey about what we're afraid of. Basically, it suggests that Democrats are more afraid of things than Republicans. This goes against the conventional wisdom a bit, and it especially goes against the conventional wisdom in the "strangers" category. Supposedly, liberals are more open to strangers and outsiders than conservatives, but this survey suggests the opposite.

So that's interesting. But what's probably more interesting is the cause of all this fear. Here's what the researchers say are the prime causes of fear:

  • Low education
  • Talk TV
  • True Crime TV

These all make sense. People with low levels of education tend to be poor and to live in poor areas. I don't know why they're so afraid of clowns, but it makes perfect sense that they'd have relatively high levels of economic anxiety as well as fears for their personal safety. As for talk TV, that makes sense too. "It is a simple, straight-line effect," the researchers says. "The more one watches talk TV, the more fearful one tends to be."

So turn off the doofus TV, OK? And tell your friends and family to turn it off too. It's making our lives worse.

And for the record, the rest of the survey suggests that Democrats tend to be afraid of crime, pollution, and man-made disasters. Republicans tend to be afraid of today’s youth, the government, and immigrants.

"Wild-Caught," Eh? 30 Percent of Shrimp Labels Are False

| Thu Oct. 30, 2014 10:44 AM EDT

Shrimp is America's favorite seafood—we eat more of it than any other kind, by a wide margin. And the tasty crustacean still (more or less) thrives near our ample shores—from the Pacific Northwest to the Gulf to the Carolinas. That's why it's deeply weird that 90 percent of the shrimp we eat comes from often-fetid farms in Southeast Asia, which tend to snuff out productive mangrove ecosystems and have a sketchy labor record. But it gets worse. Even when we do try to choose wild-caught US shrimp, we're often fooled. That's the message of a new report by the ocean-conservation group Oceana.

In New York City, 43 percent of the wild shrimp samples proved to be misleadingly labeled.

The researchers sampled 143 shrimp products from 111 grocery stores and restaurants in Portland, Ore., New York City, Washington D.C., and along the Gulf of Mexico, and subjected them to DNA testing. Result: 30 percent of them were misrepresented on labels.

They found the most deception in New York City, where 43 percent of the samples from supermarkets and restaurants proved to be misleadingly labeled. Of those, more than half were "farmed whiteleg shrimp disguised as wild-caught shrimp." Oof. D.C. shrimp eaters have also have cause for doubt about what's being served them: Supermarkets there showed better than in ones in New York, but nearly half of shrimp samples from D.C. restaurants turned up mislabeled.

Even in the Gulf, still the site of a robust shrimp fishery despite the occasional cataclysmic oil spill and vast annual dead zones from agricultural runoff, the researchers found that "over one-third of the products labeled as 'Gulf' shrimp were farmed." On the other hand, "nearly two-thirds of the samples simply labeled as 'shrimp' were actually wild-caught Gulf shrimp," the report states, "possibly a missed marketing opportunity for promoting domestically caught seafood."

Only Portlandia emerged virtually unscathed from Oceana's scrutiny: Just one sample in 20 turned out to be mislabeled—a dish presented as “wild Pacific shrimp” turned out to be farmed.

Beyond rank mislabeling, the report also reveals that consumers indulge their shrimp habit from within a generalized information void. "The majority of restaurant menus surveyed did not provide the diner with any information on the type of shrimp, whether it was farmed/wild or its origin," Oceana found. As for supermarkets, "30 percent of the shrimp products surveyed in grocery stores lacked information on country-of-origin, 29 percent lacked farmed/wild information and one in five did not provide either.

This overriding lack of transparency does more than lull us into accepting an inferior product. As Paul Greenberg argues in his brilliant 2014 book American Catch, it also makes our coastal areas—home to 40 percent of the US population—vulnerable to climate change.

That's because treating treasures like the Gulf of Mexico shrimp fishery as an afterthought allows us to disregard the ecosystems that make them possible: the region's wetlands, which are vanishing at the rate of one football field-sized chunk per hour, largely under pressure from the oil industry. These coastal landscapes don't just provide nurseries for shrimp and other seafood; they also provide critical buffers against the increasingly violent storms and rising sea levels promised (and already being triggered) by a changing climate. Greenberg argues that a revival of interest in US-caught shrimp could rally support for wetland restoration, "conjoining of the interests of seafood and the interests of humans."

Meet Another GOP Candidate Who's Pretending He's Pro-Choice

| Thu Oct. 30, 2014 10:37 AM EDT

Over the past few weeks, a number of Republican candidates have run deceptive advertisements or used sneaky language to paper over their hardline views on reproductive rights. Pols who've done this include Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Senate hopeful Scott Brown in New Hampshire, and Colorado gubernatorial candidate Bob Beauprez. Now you can add another name to the list of pro-life GOPers who are suddenly talking about choice: Oregon's Dennis Richardson.

Richardson, a Republican state representative running for governor, cut an ad (watch it above) featuring a self-described "pro-choice Democrat" named Michelle Horgan. Speaking directly into the camera, Horgan says: "I trust Dennis. He'll uphold Oregon's laws to protect my right to choose, and he'll work hard for Oregon families."

The language in Richardson's ad—"He'll uphold Oregon's laws to protect my right to choose"—hews closely to the rhetoric used by Walker, Brown, and Beauprez. All of those Republicans have previously sought to restrict women's reproductive rights (Walker supports eliminating all abortions). But during this election season, they have each tried to strike a moderate tone on the issue.

Richardson's ad is particularly brazen given his long record of opposing abortion rights. He wrote a letter to the Oregonian in 1990 saying that "a woman relinquishes her unfettered right to control her own body when her actions cause the conception of a baby." As a state legislator, he sponsored legislation to give unborn fetuses the rights of humans and to require parental notification for abortions. In 2007, he voted against mandating that hospitals offer emergency contraception to women who have been sexually assaulted.

What's more, Richardson has the endorsement and full-throated support of Oregon Right to Life, the state's main anti-abortion-rights group. Oregon Right to Life's PAC has donated $80,000 to Richardson's campaign. (Right to Life's $50,000 check in September remains the fourth-largest cash contribution of Richardson's entire campaign.) In an email blast to its list, the group touted Richardson as "an excellent gubernatorial candidate" who, if elected, would offer the "opportunity to reclaim political ground and hopefully start changing the way Oregon politics treat the abortion issue. We might actually be able to end our 'reign' as the only state in America lacking a single restriction on abortion."

No mistaking that message: In Richardson, the pro-life community sees an opportunity to finally start curbing abortion access in the state of Oregon. But you probably won't see that message in Richardson's campaign ads any time soon.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for October 30, 2014

Thu Oct. 30, 2014 10:28 AM EDT

The USS George HW Bush travels through the Gulf of Aden after supporting strike operations in Iraq and Syria. (US Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Abe McNatt)