Frustrated with the limited scope of the reforms to the National Security Agency detailed by President Obama on Friday, and the slow pace of Congress in addressing the issue, civil liberties advocates are increasingly taking the privacy fight to state capitols. This month, lawmakers in six states introduced versions of model legislation designed to deny the NSA state resources or cooperation from state officials. The bills cover everything from banning evidence collected by the NSA from being introduced in state courts to shutting off the supply of water and electricity to the agency's in-state data centers.
"I think there is a value in the message that it sends to DC, which is, 'We're not gonna put up with it.'"
"If the feds aren't going to address the issue, then it's up to the states to do it," says David Taylor, a GOP member of the Washington state House of Representatives whose Yakima Valley district hosts an NSA listening post. Taylor's bipartisan bill, introduced last week, would cut off "material support, participation or assistance" from the state and its contractors to any federal agency that collects data or metadata on people without a warrant. Practically speaking, it would mean severing ties between the NSA and state law enforcement, blocking state universities from serving as NSA research facilities and recruiting grounds, and cutting off the water and power to the agency's Yakima facility.
Similar bills, some of them less broad, have been floated in California, Oklahoma, Indiana, Missouri and Kansas. Others are expected in coming months in Michigan, Arizona, and Utah. Unlike the symbolic resolutions that oppose the NSA's warrantless spying, which have passed the Pennsylvania House and the California Senate, few, if any, of the more consequential anti-NSA bills are likely to become law. But their existence underscores the depth of grassroots opposition to the agency's dragnet surveillance programs, and the willingness of lawmakers from both parties to take a stand.
In July 2012, an elderly nun breached the Y-12 facility carrying baby bottles filled with a comrade's blood.
Later this month, Megan Rice, an 83-year-old Catholic nun, could be sentenced to up to 30 years in prison for breaking into Tennessee's Y-12 Nuclear Security Complex and splattering the walls of a weapons-grade uranium warehouse with human blood. That may sound pretty far out—the blood, but also the stiff potential sentence and the notion of an octogenarian breaching a high-level nuclear facility guarded by machine guns and tanks. In any case, the symbolic spilling of blood isn't all that unusual, especially for Rice's fellow Christian peace activists in the Plowshares Movement.
"The blood could be seen as a surrogate for the blood of Christ...and its pouring could be interpreted as a symbolic act of Christian purification."
"We use real human blood frequently in these kinds of actions," says Paul Magno, who spent nearly two years in federal prison in the mid-1980s for breaking into a Pershing missile factory in Orlando, Florida, where he spread blood on missile-launcher parts. "It means terror and bloodshed if these things are ever used, and even if they are not, because we are taking so much of humanity's future to just sustain an arsenal."
According to a paper by Barnard College religion professor Elizabeth Castelli, the first documented use of human blood in an anti-war protest was on October 27, 1967, when four men entered the Baltimore Customs House and poured a mix of their own blood and animal blood on Vietnam War draft files.
One of them, Tom Lewis, became a lifelong peace activist. He died in his sleep in 2008 and and was cremated, but not before his comrades extracted and froze some of his blood for use in one final action. In July 2012, it was thawed and placed into eight baby bottles, which Rice emptied onto the walls of the Y-12 uranium unit.
The radical Catholic priest Philip Berrigan, who also took part in the Baltimore draft protest, initially rejected the blood idea as too "bourgeois" and "tepid," according to his biographers. But he eventually came around, and began to elaborate a theological interpretation: "The blood could be seen as a surrogate for the blood of Christ, he envisioned, and its pouring could be interpreted as a symbolic act of Christian purification—a kind of echo of the sacrifice of the Mass."
Update (2/18/2014): This afternoon, a federal judge in Knoxville, Tennessee, sentenced Sister Mary Rice to 35 months in prison. Her accomplices, Michael Walli and Greg Boertje-Obed, each received 62 months. "For now, their bodies remain in prison," said Rice's friend Ralph Hutchison, "but their voices are free, reminding us that…as long as the government continues to produce thermonuclear weapons of mass destruction in Oak Ridge or anywhere, people are required to resist."
Nestled behind a forested ridgeline on the outskirts of Knoxville, Tennessee, is the sprawling Y-12 National Security Complex, America's "Fort Knox" of weapons-grade uranium. The complex's security cameras and machine gun nests are designed to repel an attack by the world's most feared terrorist organizations, but they were no match for Sister Megan Rice, an 83-year-old Catholic nun armed with nothing more than a hammer and bolt cutters.
In the dark morning hours of July 28, 2012, Rice and two fellow anti-war activists bushwhacked up to the edge of Y-12, cut through three separate security fences, and sprayed peace slogans and human blood on the wall of a building that is said to hold enough weapons-grade uranium to obliterate human civilization several times over. (Click here to get the backstory on the blood.) They remained inside Y-12 for more than an hour before they were detected.
"The security breach," as the Department of Energy's Inspector General later described it, exposed "troubling displays of ineptitude" at what is supposed to be "one of the most secure facilities in the United States." At a February hearing of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, multiple members of Congress thanked Rice for exposing the site's gaping vulnerabilities. Eleven launch officers were targeted in a separate investigation of illegal drug use. But that didn't deter federal prosecutors from throwing the book at Rice and her accomplices: Greg Boertje-Obed, a 57-year-old carpenter, and Michael Walli, a 63-year-old Vietnam veteran. They now sit in Georgia's Irwin County Detention Center, awaiting a January 28 sentencing hearing where a federal judge could put them in prison for up to 30 years.
AR-15s were produced and engraved for Redditors by an Arizona gun manufacturer.
Since 2011, part of the popular online forum Reddit has grown into an active marketplace for assault rifles, high-capacity magazines, and other powerful firearms, according to an investigation by Mother Jones. In the last six months alone there have been more than 1,000 listings posted by more than 400 Redditors on the GunsForSale subreddit, one of thousands of niche communities on the sprawling discussion site. Not only has Reddit allowed a gun market to thrive, it has also literally put its stamp on it: Gun purchases brokered through the site have included nearly 100 AR-15s engraved with Reddit's alien logo, which was used on the assault rifles with explicit permission from the company—while it was owned by media giant Condé Nast—according to email correspondence obtained by Mother Jones.
In May 2011, a Redditor organizing a bulk order of AR-15s asked the company about a plan to engrave the logo and replace the standard "SAFE/FIRE" markings on the weapons' safety selectors with "UPVOTE/DOWNVOTE." Within a few days of the request, a Reddit business staffer working in the New York City headquarters of Condé Nast granted permission to use the logo in an email sent from a Condé Nast account. The staffer did note that for the safety selectors, "we would prefer that you keep the SAFE/FIRE language…to ensure the safety of all people who may come in contact with these guns." (See the document containing the full correspondence below.)
A Condé Nast spokesperson declined to comment, saying only that Reddit is "completely separate" from Condé Nast. (Reddit was spun off in 2012, about a year after the logo was licensed for the guns.)
In a statement provided to Mother Jones, Reddit's communications director, Victoria Taylor, confirmed that the logo was licensed to the gun group in May 2011. She said that Reddit was "allowed to operate independently" under Condé Nast, but that during that period "all Reddit employees were also technically Condé Nast employees."
"I know dealers that operate exclusively without doing any background checks," said one Redditor.
The Reddit-branded AR-15s represent just a sampling of the powerful firearms purchased through the site, which has tens of millions of users and often drives major traffic to other websites. Many listings have offered guns in quantity: In September, for example, an active seller and Redditor who goes by the handle "FirearmConcierge" advertised an inventory of black SCAR 16s, a combat assault rifle made for US Special Operations forces. "UPS freight just dropped 19 of them off," the listing read, pricing them at $2,300 a piece. According to his online postings, FirearmConcierge is a federally licensed firearms dealer (FFL) operating in Florida.
Instructions posted by the moderators of the GunsForSale subreddit warn users to comply with federal and state laws, and many sellers on the site say that they transfer guns through FFLs, which conduct background checks on buyers. But some user comments suggest that sellers may be exploiting a loophole in federal law to traffic firearms—including talk of licensed dealers selling guns without conducting background checks, which in some circumstances would be illegal.
At least 159 transactions have been completed on GunsForSale since last June, according to more than 100 Redditors who reported them using the subreddit's automated system for verifying sales and rating sellers. The number of completed transactions may be higher, because some deals arranged through private messaging on the site and completed face-to-face likely go unreported.
Reddit CEO Yishan Wong did not respond to a request for comment. Taylor, the communications director, told Mother Jones: "Reddit neither condones nor does not condone the buying and selling of firearms through the site, as long as users are not using the site to violate applicable US laws."
Reddit does not know, however, if the gun sales done through its site are done legally: The company does not track commercial transactions between its users, according to Taylor.
Personal privacy is prized among Redditors, most of whom participate on the site anonymously. A fervent pro-gun constituency among them makes the market opportunity for gun dealers all the more attractive. The primary subreddit on the topic, /r/Guns, currently has more than 154,000 subscribers, and GunsForSale, created in March 2011, has doubled in size in the last year, with more than 7,200 subscribers. Gun dealers using the site indicate that they've enjoyed a spike in demand in the past year, after the Sandy Hook massacre ignited a national debate and pro-gun activists whipped up fears about a regulatory crackdown.
Three days before the anniversary of the massacre in December, Redditor and gun dealer FirearmConcierge put it this way on Twitter: "Listen, I'm not saying I want to see Sandy Hook Part II but another 20 or 30 dead kids would really dress out my balance sheet."
A few days later, in a blog post about gun dealing titled "Sandy Hook and the Economics of Mass Murder," FirearmConcierge said, "High net worth individuals and well-financed speculators run the table in a post Sandy Hook market environment."
From July through mid-December, FirearmConcierge posted 268 listings on the GunsForSale subreddit, offering hundreds of assault rifles and related components, hundreds of ammunition magazines containing 30 or more rounds, and hundreds of handguns, silencers, flash suppressors, and other weaponry.
Data on gun listings and transactions was provided by a Redditor who goes by the name "Townsley" and moderates a subreddit, GunsAreCool, whose contributors criticize pro-gun Redditors and advocate for stricter gun regulations. Mother Jones independently verified and analyzed the data, and conducted additional research into gun-related activity on Reddit.
Many Redditors are careful to advertise that they comply with the law when shipping across state lines. But in-state sales are another matter—including the potential to exploit a well-known loophole in federal law, which exempts "private transactions" from background checks. The guidelines page for GunsForSale instructs Redditors to suffix the title of their posts with the states they operate in, noting: "Sellers can prefer not to ship a firearm out of state, but do an in-state face-to-face transaction."
In 2011, a Lamborghini-driving 26-year-old named Dhar Mann became a national media sensation when he partnered with a Morgan Stanley investment banker in an audacious plan to create weGrow, a vertically integrated marijuana conglomerate better known as the "Walmart of Weed." Shortly after I wrote the first detailed profile of Mann, however, he split with Morgan Stanley's Derek Peterson amid mutual accusations of unpaid debts and financial shenanigans. Peterson charged Mann with running "a fucking hydroponzi scheme."
Now it looks like he wasn't exaggerating by much. Yesterday, Mann pleaded "no contest" to five felony counts of defrauding the City of Oakland, the Oakland Tribunereports. The scion of a wealthy taxi monopolist and a major local political donor, Mann was accused of pocketing some $44,000 in city redevelopment funds that he was supposed to use to fix up several of his properties. According to court documents, Mann submitted checks to the city that he'd supposedly written to contractors but that were in fact redeposited into his own bank account.
Mann won't face jail time, but still must resolve an Oakland civil suit seeking $345,000 in civil penalties and damages.
Though weGrow got a lot of media attention, it was never very popular among the Bay Area's pot cognoscenti, who saw the company's materialistic and confrontational image as a liability to their wider goal of a truce in the drug war. But now it looks like it was Mann himself, not anti-drug crusaders in the federal government, who planted the seeds of his demise.