Andy Kroll

Andy Kroll

Senior Reporter

Andy Kroll is Mother Jones' Dark Money reporter. He is based in the DC bureau. His work has also appeared at the Wall Street Journal, the Guardian, Men's Journal, the American Prospect, and, where he's an associate editor. Email him at akroll (at) motherjones (dot) com. He tweets at @AndyKroll.

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NSA Won't Say If It's Spying on Members of Congress

| Mon Jan. 6, 2014 10:54 AM EST
US Army General Keith Alexander, the director of the National Security Agency.

Last week, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) posed an intriguing—and potentially damaging—question to the embattled National Security Agency: "Has the NSA spied, or is the NSA currently spying, on members of Congress or other American elected officials?"

Sanders, in his letter to the NSA, defined spying as collecting lawmakers' phone metadata (information on phone numbers called, where calls are made to and from, how long the call lasts), information about website and email traffic, and "any other data from a third party not made available to the general public in the regular course of business." As the documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden have revealed, the NSA has hoovered up personal information on just about everyone else on the planet—elected leaders of foreign countries, diplomats, allies and enemies overseas, and millions of American citizens. Although none of the Snowden documents published thus far mention NSA spying on American elected officials, it was only a matter of time before an angry member of Congress asked if Capitol Hill, too, had been a focus of the agency's surveillance.

The NSA quickly responded to Sanders' letter, and as the Guardian reports, it includes no denial of spying on members of Congress. Here's the statement:

NSA's authorities to collect signals intelligence data include procedures that protect the privacy of US persons. Such protections are built into and cut across the entire process. Members of Congress have the same privacy protections as all US persons. NSA is fully committed to transparency with Congress. Our interaction with Congress has been extensive both before and since the media disclosures began last June.

We are reviewing Senator Sanders's letter now, and we will continue to work to ensure that all members of Congress, including Senator Sanders, have information about NSA's mission, authorities, and programs to fully inform the discharge of their duties."

In other words, we treat members of Congress like all other American citizens. Whom the NSA spies on by collecting vast stores of metadata on phone calls and other communications. A fact that James Clapper, the top intelligence official in Obama's cabinet, lied about under oath before Congress last year.

Based on the NSA's statement, the agency apepars to be preparing a fuller response to Sanders' letter. Perhaps that might put to rest any worries about domestic spying on our nation's most powerful lawmakers. If it doesn't, and if concerns about spying on Congress fester, we might see the House or Senate haul Gen. Keith Alexander, the director of the NSA, back to Capitol Hill to testify. That'll make for exciting daytime television.

Read Bernie Sanders' letter to the NSA:


Koch-Backed Group Opens 2014 With $2.5 Million Obamacare Ad Assault

| Thu Jan. 2, 2014 11:35 AM EST
Screenshot of Americans for Prosperity's new ad attacking Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.).

Americans for Prosperity, the national conservative group backed by the billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch, has kicked off 2014 right where it left off in 2013. On Thursday, AFP unveiled a TV ad campaign hammering three Democratic senators for their support of the Affordable Care Act.

AFP has spent more than $2.5 million on a three-week run of ads starting this week that criticize Sens. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.), Mary Landrieu (D-La.), and Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.). Two of those three senators—Hagan and Landrieu—are among the most vulnerable Democratic senators running for reelection this November, according to polling. (Polls consistently show Shaheen with strong support back home.)

Here's one of the AFP ads, this one attacking Hagan:

While the Hagan ad quotes North Carolina resident (and vocal Obamacare critic) Sheila Salter as saying Hagan "just doesn't get it," the other two spots slam Landrieu and Shaheen for specifically claiming that Americans could keep their existing health insurance under the Affordable Care Act. This was a popular talking point of President Obama's that, well, turned out not to be true. PolitiFact named the statement its 2013 Lie of the Year.

AFP's latest Obamacare ad blitz offers a taste of a midterm election year in which President Obama's health-care law will be a hot topic of debate and a political bludgeon wielded by the law's opponents. AFP is one of the leading anti-Obamacare groups, spending more than $16 million on ads criticizing the law since August, according to AFP spokesman Levi Russell.

Following the Dark Money Would Be Easier if This Goverment Agency Did Its Job

| Fri Dec. 20, 2013 12:02 PM EST
A screenshot of the Priorities USA Action 2012 ad "Stage" attacking Mitt Romney.

A recent headline over at the Atlantic captured the mood when it comes to the state of money in American politics: "There's No Way to Follow the Money." The author, former Reuters editor Lee Aitken, was referring to the web of "social welfare" nonprofit groups moving hundreds of millions of dollars in dark money all around the country with the goal, ultimately, of influencing elections and shaping policy. Aitken has a point: As deep as reporters dig, it's harder than ever to track where the money's going, how it's being spent, and who's taking a cut along the way.

Following the dark money isn't any easier when timid or dysfunctional watchdogs plainly fail to do their jobs. Fingers point most often to the Federal Election Commission, which is at the moment an underfunded, ideologically divided, broken institution. But a new Sunlight Foundation analysis identifies another culprit: the Federal Communications Commission, the nation's top cop when it comes to TV, radio, and broadband.

Here's the back story: Tucked inside the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, a landmark piece of legislation better known as "McCain-Feingold" after its two sponsors, was a new requirement that local TV stations make available to the public information about political ad buys, including how much was spent and what candidates or issues were mentioned in the ad. Post-Citizens United, spending on political ads has exploded—$5.6 billion was spent in 2012, a 30 percent increase from 2008. Broadcasters' ad data can provide journalists, campaign staffers, activists, and anyone else with detailed and useful information on the ads running all over the country.

The problem? TV stations are ignoring the law, leaving the public in the dark.

A Sunlight Foundation analysis of 200 randomly-chosen ad buys by PACs, super-PACs, or nonprofits found that fewer than one in six actually disclosed the name of the candidate or specific election referenced in the ad. The most important fields on the ad buy paperwork are blank, and the TV stations that are so eager to rake in all those revenues aren't prodding the ad buyers to fully disclose what they're doing.

The FCC could crack down on this if it wanted. Sunlight's Jacob Fenton explains why the agency isn't acting:

TV stations could be penalized for leaving out disclosure information, but the FCC has shown little appetite for doing so. Although occasional enforcement checks took place in the years after the reforms were adopted, more recently the FCC has fallen back on a "complaint driven" process. In other words, the agency won't act unless someone asks it to. But because the vast majority of the political ad filings are hidden away in file cabinets at broadcast stations, available only during business hours when most voters are working, few people ever see them, let alone complain.

Steve Waldman, an Internet entrepreneur and journalist who worked as a senior advisor to former FCC chairman Julius Genachowski, said the nation's communications watchdog was leery of getting stuck with the unenviable position of campaign cop. "When it comes to political stuff, there's extra sensitivity at the commission because it's the one area where Congress jumps up and down and says, 'If you do that we're going to come and slap you in the head,'" Waldman said.

Tom Wheeler, who just replaced Genachowski, saw his Senate confirmation vote held up by Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, over the issue of political ad disclosure. In a statement, Cruz said he lifted the hold after Wheeler said he'd make political ad funding disclosure "not a priority."

It's not all bad news on the political ad transparency front. In August, a judge ruled that the FCC could proceed with a plan to require several hundred broadcast stations located in the nation's 50 largest cities to post their ad files online. Sunlight, among others, is working to make those files accessible and easily searchable to anyone with an Internet connection.

In the campaign finance world, that's progress. But it's enough. The FCC and the TV stations themselves need to feel more pressure to ensure that those ad files comply with the law. It's one of the few useful tools we have nowadays for following that shadowy money trail.

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