On Friday, President Obama released his plan to reform the NSA's sweeping surveillance program. Obama offered much praise for the NSA, and he's not ending the agency's controversial bulk collection program, which scoops up information about Americans' telephone calls. But he is making substantial changes to how the program currently runs, indicating that he may be more willing to risk the ire of the intelligence community for the sake of transparency reforms, than he's been in the past. Many oversight questions, though, are still being left to the intelligence community, and the reforms Obama announced on Friday only address a sliver of the surveillance issues raised by the Snowden leaks. Most notably, the president did not address many of the internet-related revelations produced by the Snowden documents. But he tried to offer some real reform to civil libertarians (though hardly meeting the demands for widespread changes) while providing much support to the intelligence community, which will not likely cheer the reforms the president is implementing.
Bulk Phone Records Collection: Not Going Away, But More Hurdles for the NSA
The biggest change announced on Friday deals with the government's practice of sweeping up Americans' phone records in bulk—a practice that 60 percent of Americans oppose. Privacy advocates had hoped that Obama would take this opportunity to end the program. Instead, he announced that he'll be making some big changes to how it operates. He ordered the attorney general and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court to implement a system in which NSA analysts must get approval from the FISA court to search the records. There will also be a new limit on the number of people the NSA can investigate via these records ("two steps removed from a number associated with a terrorist organization instead of three.") These are significant changes—ones that could ruffle feathers at the NSA, which has claimed that any changes to the program would undermine its ability to combat terrorism. However, the real test will be whether the judicial review process will be stringent enough to satisfy critics. In the past, the FISA court has been criticized as a "rubber stamp" court.
Bulk Phone Records Storage: Going Somewhere, No One Knows Where
Obama ordered the intelligence community and the attorney general to come up with a new way to store phone records collected under the program, without having the government hold on to this data. This certainly will create some hurdles for the NSA, but it doesn't mean that the NSA is no longer permitted to collect telephone records. It's just about how they'll be stored. While the intelligence community has to come up with recommendations before March 28, it's entirely unclear when this policy will be implemented, because no third-party outside of phone companies—which have indicated they don't want this responsibility—really exists.
National Security Letters: Less Secret, Still No Judicial Oversight
Obama is making some modest changes to the process by which the government can use National Security Letters to compel businesses to secretly provide private records to federal investigators. Companies will now be able to disclose these requests—but at some yet-to-be determined point. The specifics are up to the attorney general. Privacy advocates will undoubtedly be disappointed by the fact that Obama is refusing to require judicial review before the government issues these secret orders.
The Top-Secret Spy Court: More Transparency, But Congress Should Figure It Out
Obama is asking the director of national intelligence and the attorney general to annually review which decisions made by the FISA court can be declassified. He is also asking Congress to put together a panel of advocates that will provide an independent voice in "significant cases before the court." This is not quite as strong as having an in-house privacy advocate on every case, but it's a serious change.
And...that's pretty much it. Obama's reforms don't cover reports that the NSA has been working to undermine the internet's encryption—such as by hacking into Google—and don't entail a major overhaul of Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act, which governs PRISM, the program that's been accused of sweeping up internet communications. So it seems that any kind of online surveillance the government may be carrying out, will remain largely intact: "We’d hoped for, and the internet deserves, more," says Alex Fowler, global privacy and policy leader at Mozilla. "We’re concerned that the President didn’t address the most glaring reform needs."
Obama maintains that there have been no alleged abuses of the telephone records collection program, which contradicts what the top-secret spy court has found. But his reforms indicate a greater willingness to reconsider aspects of the NSA's surveillance programs, and they've somewhat exceeded expectations. He does say these reforms are only a start, which might be a small comfort to privacy advocates who are looking for much more.
To Montanans, Missoula is a college town of about 68,000 with a laid-back, hippie vibe. But elsewhere, Missoula is also known as the "rape capital" of the country.
Between January 2008 and May 2012, Missoula police received more than 350 sexual-assault reports, including multiple cases of assault allegedly committed by University of Montana football players. The US Department of Justice found that city officials did not adequately handle all of these reports—going so far as to charge that police were using "sex-based stereotypes" to discriminate against women who reported rape. Last month, the Justice Department proposed an agreement that would require the Missoula County Attorney's office to make a number of changes. The DOJ recommended adding two or three new staff positions, including an advocate for victims; ramping up training for county supervisors and prosecutors; and collecting more data on sexual-assault cases, including feedback from victims. Last week, the county's chief prosecutor rejected the offer and told the feds to take a hike, insisting they have no authority to tell his office what to do.
"The DOJ is clearly overstepping in the investigation of my office," Missoula County Attorney Fred Van Valkenburg tells Mother Jones. "The Missoula Police Department and our office have done a very good job of handling sexual-assault allegations regardless of what national and local news accounts may indicate."
Missoula's rape problem rose to national attention when six members of the University of Montana football team, the Grizzlies, were accused of committing, attempting, or helping cover-up sexual assault between 2009 and 2012. In March 2012, facing scrutiny over how it was handling assault allegations leveled against athletes, the university fired its football coach and athletic director. In May 2012, Attorney General Eric Holder said he was launching a federal investigation into whether Missoula officials and the university were discriminating against female rape victims, noting he foundthe allegations "very disturbing."
In May 2013, the Justice Department released findings from its investigation, indicating officials in Missoula were indeed discriminating against female victims in sexual-assault cases. For example, according to the Justice Department's report, one Missoula detective allegedly told a woman who said she was vomiting during her sexual assault—she was allegedly raped by several people—that "she might have had a case if if she had been unconscious during the rape rather than merely incapacitated." In another case where a woman reported vaginal and anal rape, a detective reportedly asked her why she hadn't fought harder, saying, "Tell me the truth—is this something we want to go through with?" (Van Valkenburg says, "Both our office and the police are very much aware of what is necessary to legally prove that a woman who is incapacitated by alcohol and/or drugs did not consent to a sexual act. Local prosecutors fully understand these issues.") The Justice Department also determined that the Missoula attorney's office provides "no information" to local police as to why it declines to prosecute sexual assault cases and police are "frustrated" with the "lack of follow-up and prosecution." (Missoula Police Captain Mike Coyler says, "As a general rule, I disagree with this.")
The month it released those findings, the Justice Department entered into agreements with the University of Montana and the Missoula Police Department to beef up resources to combat rape. (Lucy France, legal counsel for the university, says that she disagrees with the Justice Department's findings that the university discriminated against victims and botched investigations, but "we agreed to work to continue to improve our responses to reports.") Last month, the US Attorney for Montana proposed that the Missoula County Attorney's office enter a similar agreement to ensure that it responds to sexual assault without discrimination. In response, Van Valkenburg wrote in a January 9 letter that his office would commit to help the police department and the university meet their commitments—but he wouldn't make the Justice Department's recommended changes to his office.
"Missoula County Attorneys Office does not need to enter into an agreement with DOJ to protect victims of sexual assault, [we have] actively assisted victims for years," Van Valkenburg wrote, arguing that the two federal statutes that the Justice Department cites—one of which deals with gender discrimination—do not legally justify imposing changes on his office. The prosecutor is correct that the Justice Department can't force recommendations on the office, says Christopher Mallios, an attorney adviser for AEquitas, which receives funding from the Department of Justice to help local prosecutors better handle sexual-violence cases. But he adds, that if the Justice Department is able to prove civil rights violations in court, a judge could enforce them. Van Valkenburg says that his office is already meeting many of the Justice Department's demands, and even if he had the funding, he wouldn't add the three new staff members the feds want, because they'd represent "a duplication of services" provided by other city units. Van Valkenburg says if the Justice Department doesn't back off in the next two weeks, he will take the issue to federal court.
"I'm not aware of another case where a prosecutor said we would rather litigate and go to trial than make some changes," Mallios says. And other experts say the prosecutor's response is unusual: "No prosecutor wants to admit that they have shortcomings, especially on such a sensitive issue," says Sarah Deer, who worked for the Justice Department's Office on Violence Against Women in the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations. "But there is a culture in some offices that sexual assault is sort of overstated or victims tend to lie. That might be what's going on here—a culture of indifference."
On Friday, President Barack Obama is expected to unveil changes to the National Security Agency's sweeping surveillance programs. The announcement comes weeks after a post-Snowden advisory panel appointed by the president issued a whopping 300-plus pages of pro-transparency recommendations that, if taken up, would radically alter how the NSA does business. But according to earlyreports, Obama will only be implementing small reforms. He will punt the bigger decisions to Congress—with the hope of partially appeasing lawmakers, voters, privacy advocates, and the national security community. From the looks of it, pretty much everyone is going to be mad at him.
If Obama Lets the NSA Continue Sweeping Up Vast Information on Americans' Phone Calls…
Right now, the NSA collects Americans' phone metadata in bulk.(Metadata, which includes call dates and phone numbers, is revealing, but it doesn't include the contents of the actual conversations.) For privacy advocates, ceasing the practice is a top priority. "Ending bulk collection is essential to effective reform," says Greg Nojeim, senior counsel at the Center for Democracy & Technology Center. "I can't imagine anyone who's concerned about these programs is going to be satisfied by a bunch of cosmetic tweaks that leave bulk collection in place," adds Julian Sanchez, a research fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute. The conservative activist group FreedomWorks will also be mad if Obama doesn't repeal bulk surveillance. "The NSA's unconstitutional surveillance must be stopped to safeguard our civil liberties," the group writes. Julie Borowski, policy analyst for FreedomWorks, said in a press call on Thursday that the group supports the USA Freedom Act, which would end bulk collection of phone data.
Obama's advisory panel recommended the government accede to privacy activists' demands and terminate the NSA's expansive collection and storage of phone metadata. The panel proposed that a party other than the government, such as a phone company, hold on to Americans' phone records, and it suggested that the NSA should have to seek a court order to access that data. (The NSA currently doesn't need a judge's permission each time it dips into this data.) But civil liberties advocates should prepare to be disappointed. TheNew York Timesreported that Obama will not end this bulk collection of phone metadata. Nor is Obama likely to accept the panel's recommendation that phone companies become the guardians of this trove of data. It appears he will leave the big decisions regarding phone metadata to a polarized Congress, which is currently fighting over two bills. One introduced by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Rep. James SensenbrennerJr. (R-Wis.) would end bulk collection, and another, from Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), would codify the practice.
If Obama Imposes Modest Limits on the NSA's Telephone Metadata Collection Program…
Who gets mad? The NSA, Feinstein, and other members of Congress
The NSA will be happy if, as expected, Obama okays its continued collection of bulk phone metadata. However, he may well make somemodest changes to this program, according to the New York Times, such as cutting back the number of people whose phone records the NSA can look at and limiting the time the NSA can hold on to the records. Even such slight reforms will upset folks in the intelligence community. According to the Times, "Some [intelligence] officials complained that [Obama's] changes will add layers of cumbersome procedure that will hinder the hunt for potential terrorists." Some members of Congress also oppose modest limits to the NSA's collection powers.
If Obama Allows the NSA to Continue Hacking Internet Encryption…
Who gets mad? Tech geeks, Lavabit, Google engineers, and journalists
The NSA will be delighted if Obama eschews his panel's recommendation that the agency cease undermining the encryption and security of tech companies, as leaked documents have revealed. It's not clear yet what Obama administration will do regarding this recommendation. But if doesn't restrain the NSA on this front, tech geeks everywhere will be angry. When the news broke in October that the NSA had hacked into Google, a security engineer for the company wrote, "Fuck these guys." (Google and other tech companies have since bulked up their encryption to keep out the NSA.) Many journalists and lawyers also rely on the promise of secure encryption to do their jobs. They're hoping that the president sides with civil libertarians and members of the tech industry who want to make sure that the NSA does not have the authority to defeat all forms of encryption.
If Obama Reforms the Top-Secret Spy Court…
Who gets mad? The top-secret spy court and the NSA
Some judges will no doubt be outraged if Obama makes any changes to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act Court, the top-secret spy court that approves or denies many of the government's surveillance requests. Obama is expected to appoint a privacy advocate to advise the court on civil liberties issues. But on January 13, US district Judge John Bates, the former presiding judge of the FISA court, wrote in a public letter that "a privacy advocate is unnecessary." Bates also decried the presidential panel's recommendation that the government require judicial approval for all National Security Letters—secret requests the FBI and other government agencies use to force businesses to hand over records. According to Bates, subjecting these requests to the FISA court's scrutiny would be a "detriment to [the court's] current responsibilities." (If the FISA court emerges untouched by Obama's reforms, privacy advocates will be irate.)
Obama faces a tricky challenge. He clearly believes some NSA reform is necessary, yet, for good or bad, he doesn't want to alienate the intelligence community. This might lead him to a position that does not produce sufficient change to allay the concerns of techies, civil libertarians, and Americans who worry the surveillance state has gone too far—but still manages to tick off the intelligence officials he counts on to defend the nation; and the national security hawks on and off Capitol Hill who are always ready to assail the president. Obama has often talked about the need to balance national security and civil liberties. His effort to deal with the Snowden-promptedNSA scandal shows how tough a political task that is for him.
On Monday, CNN reported that federal officials are investigating whether New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie misused Hurricane Sandy relief funds to produce tourism ads that functioned as campaign spots when he was running for reelection. The allegations come as Christie is already immersed in scandal after internal emails suggested that a close aide to the governor—who has now been fired—orchestrated a traffic jam near the George Washington Bridge for the sake of political revenge. With the bridge episode now being investigated by the US attorney for New Jersey, this latest news means Christie, a leading potential GOP presidential contender in 2016, is facing two federal probes.
This second investigation focuses on a $25 million radio, television, and web campaign mounted by Christie's administration to promote the Jersey Shore's recovery in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, a project dubbed "Stronger Than the Storm." Rep. Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-N.J.), who last summer called for the investigation, claims that Christie awarded this advertising campaign to a firm whose bid was $2.2 million higher than the next lowest bidder—and that Christie favored this company because it would feature him and his family in the ads. The Department of Housing and Urban Development's inspector general notified Pallone late last week that there were sufficient grounds to launch a full investigation.
In May, Democrats criticized Christie for the ads, accusing the governor of using the taxpayer-funded advertisements to boost his political image as he ran for reelection. (Christie was largely praised for how he handled hurricane relief.) Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) also called the ads "offensive," noting that "in New Jersey, $25 million was spent on ads that included somebody running for political office. You think there might be a conflict of interest there?" A Christie spokesman told the Asbury Park Press in August that the the firm that was awarded the contract, MWW, was the best option because it had statewide connections and could get the campaign done quickly.
Word of a new investigation couldn't come at a worse time for Christie. The governor apologized for his administration's role in the Fort Lee traffic snarl last week, but plenty of questions remain, including those related to text messages that may incriminate other Christie aides.
The governor's spokesman, Colin Reed, released a statement on Monday responding to the controversy: "The Stronger Than The Storm [ad] campaign was just one part of the first action plan approved by the Obama Administration and developed with the goal of effectively communicating that the Jersey Shore was open for business during the first summer after Sandy. We're confident that any review will show that the ads were a key part in helping New Jersey get back on its feet after being struck by the worst storm in state history."
Check out two more "Stronger than the Storm" ads featuring Christie and his family:
On Thursday, New Jersey GOP Gov. Chris Christie held a press conference to address allegations that his appointees orchestrated a dangerous traffic jam for political revenge. Christie maintained that he was deceived by a member of his "circle of trust" and noted that he had fired his deputy chief of staff, Bridget Anne Kelly, who was implicated in the scandal. He insisted that he had not known that Kelly ordered the traffic problems until the news broke on Wednesday. But many commentators have wondered if this whole episode—whether Christie was in the know or not—has bolstered the view that Christie is a bully.
Christie took issue with this characterization at the press conference. He asserted, "I am who I am. But I am not a bully…The tone that we've set here [is] that I'm willing to compromise." But those who have been the targets of Christie's wrath disagree. And here are 8 videos of Christie yelling, belittling people, and name-calling—and most of the clips are promoted by Christie himself on his popular YouTube page:
1. Christie to a teacher: "If what you want to do is put on a show and giggle every time I talk, well then I have no interest in answering your question."
2. Christie to a former Navy SEAL: "Your rear end's going to get thrown in jail, idiot."
3. Christie to a reporter: "You know Tom, you must be the thinnest-skinned guy in America…you should really see me when I'm pissed."
4. Christie to a constituent: "Hey Gail, you know what, first off it's none of your business."
5. Christie to a former White House doctor: "This is just another hack who wants five minutes on TV…she should shut up."
6. Christie to an Occupy Wall Street protester: "Something may be going down tonight, but it ain't going to be jobs, sweetheart."
7. Christie to a reporter: "Are you stupid?…I'm sorry for the idiot over there."
8. Christie to a person on the street: "You're a real big shot. You're a real big shot. Just keep walking away. Keep walking."