Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor who disclosed details about two massive spying programs, initially holed up in a hotel in Hong Kong, a part of the world he chose apparently because of its "spirited commitment to free speech and the right of political dissent." But it's not clear that Hong Kong officials are especially interested in sheltering him. And Snowden said when he went public this weekend that he might try to seek asylum in Iceland.
But Iceland is a long way from Hong Kong. At least 20 hours by air and easily a $3,000 ticket, the trip also would almost certainly require a stop in another European country that might be inclined to turn him over to the US during a layover. But could he try to follow the lead of Julian Assange and make his way to the Icelandic consulate in Hong Kong, where he could submit an application for asylum? The consulate is only about five miles from Snowden's last known whereabouts, the swanky Mira hotel in Kowloon.
A spokesman for the government of Iceland told USA Today this would not be possible because asylum seekers have to be in Iceland to start the application process:
"The main stipulation for seeking asylum in Iceland would be that the person must be in Iceland to start the process," said Johannes Tomasson, the chief spokesman for Iceland's Ministry of Interior in Reykjavik. "That would be the ground rule No. 1."
Snowden does have supporters in the country, namely Birgitta Jónsdóttir, a member of the Icelandic parliament, who released a statement this week saying, "We feel it is our duty to offer to assist and advise Mr. Snowden to the greatest of our ability." In an interview with Mother Jones, Jónsdóttir noted that Iceland's interior minister is a conservative "who has been saying [he wants] to strengthen ties with US, which means he will want to do everything that the US government tells him to do." But she explained that the parliament has the power to grant citizenship to people in special cases, which could spare Snowden from extradition because, she says, Iceland has never extradited an Icelandic citizen anywhere. This would still require Snowden to get from Hong Kong to Iceland. If he did, whether Jónsdóttir could rally enough of her colleagues to take action is anything but certain.
Jónsdóttir is the public face of the Pirate Party, a newly formed opposition party dedicated to media freedom and digital innovation. The party won only 3 out of 63 seats in the recently formed parliament and may not have much clout in the matter. Moreover, others in the government have not expressed a great desire to help Snowden. After all, the United States is one of Iceland's largest trading partners, and Iceland has a long-standing extradition treaty with the US, factors that even Jónsdóttir concedes could mean that Iceland is "not the best location" for Snowden to seek refuge.
If all else fails, Jónsdóttir says, "maybe we need to create like a whistleblower freedom boat somewhere to pick up refugees."
After last week's revelations extensive National Security Agency surveillance of phone and internet communications, President Barack Obama made it a point to assure Americans that, not to worry, there is plenty of oversight of his administration's snooping programs. "We've got congressional oversight and judicial oversight," he said Friday, referring in part to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC), which was created in 1979 to oversee Department of Justice requests for surveillance warrants against foreign agents suspected of espionage or terrorism in the United States. But the FISC has declined just 11 of the more than 33,900 surveillance requests made by the government in 33 years, the Wall Street Journalreported Sunday. That's a rate of .03 percent, which raises questions about just how much judicial oversight is actually being provided.
"The FISA system is broken," Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, told the Journal. "At the point that a FISA judge can compel the disclosure of millions of phone records of US citizens engaged in only domestic communications, unrelated to the collection of foreign intelligence…there is no longer meaningful judicial review."
But according to Timothy Edgar, a top privacy lawyer at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the National Security Council under Bush and Obama, it's not quite as simple as the FISC rubber stamping nearly every application the government puts in front of it.
The reason so many orders are approved, he said, is that the Justice Department office that manages the process vets the applications rigorously... [S]o getting the order approved by the Justice Department lawyers is perhaps the biggest hurdle to approval. "The culture of that office is very reluctant to get a denial," he [told the Journal].
Still, the entire process is closed. The FISC court hears evidence for surveillance applications presented solely by the Department of Justice. The court does not have to release its opinions or any information regarding such hearings.
In February, Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), and Mark Udall (D-Colo.), wrote a letter to the FISC asking the court to consider releasing portions of its opinions to the public by "writing summaries of its significant interpretations of the law in a manner that separates the classified facts of the application under review from the legal analysis, so as to enable declassification." After the revelations on the spying programs last week, Sen. Al Franken called the same thing.
In response to the senators' letter, the FISA court's presiding judge, Reggie B. Walton, said in March that it would be very difficult to release summaries of the court's opinions to the public, because the legal analysis in most opinions is "inextricably intertwined" with classified information.
This post has been corrected. A commenter pointed out that a previous version stated that the FISA court has rejected .0003 percent of all government surveillance requests. The correct percentage is .03. Apologies for the bad math.
Less than half of Americans living with mental illness receive the treatment they need—a failure that lands large numbers of mentally ill people in jails, emergency rooms, and on the streets. One provision of the 2010 Affordable Care Act, a.k.a Obamacare, would help fix the problem. Under the law, states will get hundreds of billions in federal money over the next ten years to provide health care to 2.7 million poor mentally ill people who are currently uninsured. But 17 states—including some states with among the worst mental-health programs in the country—are rejecting these funds.
Here's how it was supposed to work. Obamacare aimed to cover a huge chunk of uninsured mentally ill people by making more Americans eligible for Medicaid, the joint state-federal program that provides health insurance for pregnant women, infants, and people with disabilities. Starting next year, the Affordable Care Act will pay for states to expand Medicaid coverage to all Americans that live on or under 138 percent of the poverty line—$15,856 per year for an individual, or $32,499 for a family of four. About a third of currently uninsured adults who would be able to get health care coverage through this expansion are mentally ill.
In short, the plan was for the federal government to foot the bill for states to provide lots of mentally ill people with health insurance.
On Thursday, Sen. Elizabeth Warren slammed Republicans for blocking a bill that would give Americans relief on their student loan debt.
Student loan interest rates are set to double from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent on July 1 unless Congress acts. Warren has introduced a short-term plan that would drop rates on federal loans for needy students to near zero for a year, and Sens. Jack Reed (D-RI), and Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) have co-sponsored a bill that would freeze interest rates at 3.4 percent for two years. But the GOP has other ideas. Yesterday, Senate Republicans blocked passage of Reed and Harkin's bill, arguing instead for plans that Republicans in both chambers have introduced that would increase interest rates on student loans.
Warren suggested the GOP was morally bankrupt for blocking the student loan proposals. Here is part of her speech:
There are strong proposals on the table that would keep interest rates low while Congress has time to work out a permanent solution. And yet, Congress fails to act. Why? Two issues: money and values.
First, money. Some have argued that we can’t afford to keep interest rates low. But let’s be clear: Right now the federal government is making a profit from our students. Just last month, the Congressional Budget Office calculated that the government will make $51 billion this year off student loans…
[Yet] two weeks ago, House Republicans passed a plan that would produce higher profits off the backs of our college students. And here in the Senate, Senator Coburn has introduced a similar bill that makes student loans more profitable…
The second issue is values….Have we become a people who will support our big banks with nearly free loans, while we crush our kids who are trying to get an education?...This is morally wrong, and we must put a stop to it.
The US economy added 175,000 jobs in May, more than economists had predicted, the Labor Department reported Friday. More people started looking for jobs again, too. But because the government's main measure of unemployment only counts people as unemployed if they're seeking work, the increase in job-seekers increased the official unemployment rate to 7.6 percent, up from April's four-year low of 7.5 percent.
Employment increased in the service sector—in retail, hospitality, temporary help agencies, and education and health services, i.e. in the low-wage work that has been the hallmark of the current economic recovery. New jobs were also added in high-salaried professional services, such as accounting, consulting, PR, and legal work. And employment ticked upwards in construction, as new housing construction begins (barely) to come back to life. Factory work and government employment decreased.
Here's what job creation in various industries looked like last month, via Quartz: