Kevin Drum - June 2013

NSA Has Been Hoovering Up Your Phone Records For Over a Decade

| Thu Jun. 6, 2013 3:09 PM EDT

The NSA surveillance that Glenn Greenwald revealed last night has been in place since 2006:

“As far as I know, this is the exact three-month renewal of what has been in place for the past seven years," Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) told reporters Thursday. The surveillance “is lawful” and Congress has been fully briefed on the practice, she added.

Her Republican counterpart, Saxby Chambliss, concurred: "This is nothing new. This has been going on for seven years,” he said. “Every member of the United States Senate has been advised of this. To my knowledge there has not been any citizen who has registered a complaint. It has proved meritorious because we have collected significant information on bad guys, but only on bad guys, over the years."

Neither Feinstein nor Chambliss said this, but the obvious inference from their statements is that this program isn't limited to Verizon. It's almost certainly a universal dragnet that applies to every phone service provider in the country. What's more, we've known since 2005 that a similar program was put in place by President Bush in 2002. Basically, then, NSA has been hoovering up all the telephone metadata in the United States for the past 11 years.

So what now? Republicans loved this program back when Bush approved it. Congress basically gave it its official blessing in 2008. President Obama thinks it's a great idea. And congressional leaders, who have known about this for a long time, mostly seem to be fine with it. I don't know what the public thinks, but we'll probably find out soon. I wouldn't be surprised if public support is up around 70 percent or higher once everyone figures out what this program really does.

It's disheartening as hell that we've come to this. But the problem is that, like it or not, it probably works. House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) certainly thinks so, telling reporters today that the surveillance program helped thwart a "significant" case of domestic terrorism "within the last few years." That's going to be hard to fight. The vast majority of the American public seems to think this is a fair tradeoff, and aren't really concerned with spy agencies having access to their phone records. (If it were the contents of their calls, that would probably be a different story.)

What we really need to know is whether there's any evidence that NSA has abused the program. I'm not even sure what "abuse" would mean in this context, since they seem to have free rein in what they do with the data, but more information on that score could—maybe—turn public opinion around. Where's the whistleblower who will fill us in on this?

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It's Time to Stop Sulking and Start Fighting Back on Obamacare

| Thu Jun. 6, 2013 12:45 PM EDT

First Read, after noting that Obamacare is getting steadily more unpopular, explains why:

The Obama White House has a massive PR problem with health care. The biggest reason: Opponents of this law have been very vocal, while supporters have done very little to drum up support. The president doesn’t sell it that often, and many arms of the Democratic Party essentially avoid it. Politics abhors a vacuum, and opponents — not supporters — have filled the health-care vacuum.

Yep. Three years after passage, conservatives remain revved up and on the warpath about Obamacare. They vastly outspend supporters on the airwaves; conservative talkers attack it relentlessly; think tanks write reports predicting doom over every conceiveable piece of bad news; Republican House members schedule endless repeal votes; and Republicans in both chambers do everything they can to sabotage its rollout.

In the meantime, many liberals remain....lukewarm. Why? I find it hard to fathom. It's true that we didn't get everything we wanted. We didn't get a public option. We gave away lots of goodies to corporate interest groups. We fought those wars and lost, and as a result, the very people who ought to be defending Obamacare most vigorously are, instead, still sulking in their tents. The left is, basically, fighting with one hand tied behind its back.

Even granting that I'm temperamentally more tolerant of compromise than many people, I still find this inexplicable. You fight your fights, and sometimes you lose. That's the way politics is and always has worked. But Obamacare is an historic piece of legislation regardless. Despite all the Republican tantrums, it's going to provide decent healthcare to tens of millions of Americans who didn't have it before. And like other social welfare programs before it, it will eventually expand and cover even more people. It's something to be proud of, and something to defend robustly, not something to slink away from.

Charts of the Day: Time to Hit the Fiscal Reset

| Thu Jun. 6, 2013 11:28 AM EDT

You've seen versions of these charts before, but Michael Linden of CAP has now updated them. They send a pretty clear message: Over the past two years, the federal deficit has been slashed by about $2.5 trillion, mostly via spending cuts. As a result, our medium-term deficit picture has brightened considerably.

And now? It's time to stop. The economy is still fragile, austerity has failed utterly in Europe, and we don't need any more of it here. For now, at least, a deficit of around 3 percent of GDP is, if anything, too low. It's time to hit the reset button. The full report is here.

Report Says IRS Approved Tax-Exempt Status For Twice as Many Conservative Groups as Liberal Groups

| Thu Jun. 6, 2013 12:53 AM EDT

Here's an interesting tidbit from the newsletter Tax Notes. As we all know by now, the IRS applies extra scrutiny to a group applying for tax-exempt status if it suspects the group is political in nature. In 2010, they decided that having "tea party" in a group's name was sufficient to raise a red flag.

The Inspector General's report about this included an audit of 298 groups that had been given special scrutiny. Of these, 96 had "tea party," "patriots," or "9-12 project" in their names. But that's all we know. We have no idea how many of the 298 groups were liberal and how many were conservative, because the IRS doesn't release the name of groups that have applied for tax-exempt status.

However, the IRS does publish the names of groups that have received special scrutiny and been approved for tax-exempt status. They recently released a list of 176 organizations that have been approved since 2010, so Martin Sullivan checked each one to figure out if it was liberal or conservative. Here's what he found:

  • 122 conservative
  • 48 liberal/nonconservative
  • 6 unknown

This doesn't tell us anything definitive about the entire set of groups that got special scrutiny. If the whole set is similar to the approved set, then about two-thirds were conservative and one-third liberal—most likely because of the boom in new tea party groups in 2010. But that's just a guess.

One thing isn't a guess, however: Two-thirds of the groups who were approved for tax-exempt status were conservative. If the IRS was on a partisan witch hunt against conservative groups, that's sure an odd way of showing it, isn't it?

The NSA Is Still Data Mining Your Telephone Calls

| Wed Jun. 5, 2013 9:33 PM EDT

I confess that I'm a little puzzled by this Glenn Greenwald story in the Guardian:

The National Security Agency is currently collecting the telephone records of millions of US customers of Verizon, one of America's largest telecoms providers, under a top secret court order issued in April....Under the terms of the blanket order, the numbers of both parties on a call are handed over, as is location data, call duration, unique identifiers, and the time and duration of all calls. The contents of the conversation itself are not covered.

The NSA, as part of a program secretly authorized by President Bush on 4 October 2001, implemented a bulk collection program of domestic telephone, internet and email records....Until now, there has been no indication that the Obama administration implemented a similar program.

Obviously I'm missing something. After Democrats caved on the surveillance bill in 2008, I simply assumed that this kind of massive data mining of telephone metadata was going to continue forever and everyone knew it. But Glenn suggests that, in fact, this is something surprising. So I guess I assumed wrong.

I'm going to mull this over for a while to figure out where I went wrong. In the meantime, go read the full story.

Blogging Just Keeps Getting More and More Expensive

| Wed Jun. 5, 2013 2:39 PM EDT

It's official: the Washington Post is putting up a paywall. You can view 20 articles per month for free, but you need a subscription to view more than that.

For casual news consumers, this doesn't matter much. And even for me, it's more annoyance than anything else, since even after you've viewed 20 articles you can still get in free via search engines or links from other sources. Still, it's an annoyance. And it means I have a decision to make. I already subscribe to three newspapers—the LA Times, New York Times, and Wall Street Journal—and I really can't afford to subscribe to more. So should I just put up with the annoyance of getting access to the Post, or should I drop one of my other subscriptions?

If the Koch brothers buy the LA Times, that will make my decision pretty easy. But they haven't done that yet. The Journal is less useful than it used to be before Rupert Murdoch dumbed it down, but it's still useful. I could switch to the Financial Times for my business news, which would make sense from a quality-of-journalism perspective, but it's more expensive than the Journal, so it wouldn't help on that front. I could also dump home delivery of the LA Times and switch to home delivery of the New York Times to satisfy my prehistoric need for a print newspaper, but that would set me back nearly a grand a year all by itself (at least, as near as I can tell from the Times' egregiously hard to understand subscription page).

Decisions, decisions. Back in the day, all this stuff was free and I had access to Lexis/Nexis too. I guess that was the golden age of blogging or something. No longer.

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Chart of the Day: Student Loan Debt Is Skyrocketing

| Wed Jun. 5, 2013 1:17 PM EDT

You've probably seen this chart before, but it's worth seeing again: Student loan debt is just flatly out of control. I understand why this has happened, and I understand why it's hard to get a handle on, but we're going to regret it if we don't do something about this. We're training a whole generation to be wary of going to college, and for those who do, we're forcing them to start out their lives living under a mountain of debt. This is a recipe for disaster. More here from Maggie Severns.

It's also yet another fault line between young and old that's not likely to turn out well. My generation got a cheap college education when we were young, and we're getting good retirement benefits now that we're old. Pretty nice. But now we're turning around and telling today's twentysomethings that they should pay through the nose for college, keep paying taxes for our retirements, and oh by the way, when it comes time for you to retire your benefits are going to have to be cut. So sorry. And all this despite the fact that the country is richer than it was 50 years ago, and will be richer still 50 years from now.

But at least today's kids don't have to worry about being drafted. That's something, I suppose.

Immiserating the Poor for the Benefit of the Rich

| Wed Jun. 5, 2013 12:46 PM EDT

Mark Bittman is appalled at the farm bill currently wending its way through Congress:

The current versions of the Farm Bill [] could hardly be more frustrating. The House is proposing $20 billion in cuts to SNAP — equivalent, says Beckmann, to “almost half of all the charitable food assistance that food banks and food charities provide to people in need.”

Deficit reduction is the sacred excuse for such cruelty, but the first could be achieved without the second. Two of the most expensive programs are food stamps, the cost of which has justifiably soared since the beginning of the Great Recession, and direct subsidy payments.

This pits the ability of poor people to eat — not well, but sort of enough — against the production of agricultural commodities. That would be a difficult choice if the subsidies were going to farmers who could be crushed by failure, but in reality most direct payments go to those who need them least.

I'm starting to lose my ability to write rationally about this stuff. I just don't know any longer what I'm supposed to think about a political movement whose primary raison d'être, one they no longer even bother to conceal, is an almost gleeful immiseration of the poor for the benefit of the rich. How is it that the wealthiest country on earth has come to this?

This would all be cruel enough even if the economy were good and you thought that folks on food stamps needed some motivation to get themselves off assistance and into jobs. Cruel but—arguably, anyway—perhaps best in the long run. But now? When the current level of SNAP spending is entirely due to the swollen ranks of the unemployed and underemployed, which makes it all but impossible for most recipients to entertain even a faint hope of either finding work or, for those lucky enough to have jobs, increase their incomes enough to escape poverty? Is there even a pretense of a reason for these cuts, aside from a desire not to reduce subsidies to agribusiness and not to raise taxes on the best off? Help me out. What is it?

Immigration Reform Gets a Sudden Blast of Reality

| Wed Jun. 5, 2013 10:52 AM EDT

One of the key questions that's been swirling around the immigration debate from the beginning is whether Marco Rubio is being an honest broker. Does he really and truly want immigration reform? Or does he want to play the role of reasonable conservative for as long as he can, and then, more in sadness than in anger, turn against his own bill at the end because it's not tough enough? Byron York reports that it's looking like the latter:

Speaking with radio host Hugh Hewitt Tuesday, Rubio said the Senate should “strengthen the border security parts of this bill so that they’re stronger, so that they don’t give overwhelming discretion to the Department of Homeland Security.” He said he was working with other senators on amendments to do just that.

Then Hewitt asked: “If those amendments don’t pass, will you yourself support the bill that emerged from Judiciary, Senator Rubio?”

Rubio answered, “Well, I think if those amendments don’t pass, then I think we’ve got a bill that isn’t going to become law, and I think we’re wasting our time. So the answer is no.”

"Those amendments" are poison pills that would require 100 percent operational control of the border before any new green cards are issued, a standard that's pretty obviously impossible to meet. The only reason to insist on them is to give Rubio a plausible exit strategy from his own bill.

Or so it seems. Maybe Rubio has something else in mind. But it's sure starting to look like Rubio has figured out that his support for immigration reform is doing him more harm than good with the tea party folks he needs if he ever wants to become president. What's more, he's probably less confident than he used to be about the chances of getting the House to go along anyway, which makes it pointless for him to keep taking damage over the issue.

We'll see. Rubio's support, as always, is critical to immigration reform. If he bolts, it's dead. But if he insists on his poison pill amendments, it's dead too. I'd say the odds on passage just dropped dramatically.

Maybe Republicans Won't Block All of Obama's DC Court Nominees After All

| Tue Jun. 4, 2013 11:50 PM EDT

Will Republicans flatly obstruct all three of President Obama's nominees to the DC Circuit Court? It sure seems that way to me, but Jonathan Bernstein disagrees:

Here's my guess — not a prediction, but just a guess based on past patterns. We'll continue to hear the insipid rhetoric about "court packing" and how the DC Circuit doesn't need any judges anyway, but that will be mostly just background music for the rubes. One of the picks will get through fairly easily. One will be killed by filibuster. And the third will be a close call, but probably get through, perhaps with a few Republicans voting yes on cloture but against confirmation. Those opposing picks will mainly focus on claims that the nominees are out of the mainstream ideologically, or will allege lack of proper judicial temperament, or some other such reason — very few Republicans will claim that they are blockading the DC Circuit Court.

Maybe! Jonathan thinks Republicans will be leery of total obstruction because "it would almost certainly push Democrats over the edge into going nuclear." That's a good point—better, I think, than his argument that Republicans haven't blocked every single appellate court nominee in the past. I don't think that's very meaningful. This fight is different, and the stakes are higher, so I don't think past performance is a good indicator of how Republicans are going to play things.

But fear of pushing Democrats over the edge into killing the filibuster is probably quite real, and there might well be half a dozen Republican senators who (a) take that seriously and (b) are nervous about the total blockade strategy in the first place. These half dozen will also need to be senators who (a) aren't up for reelection next year and (b) can afford to cross the conservative media, which is almost certain to turn this into a litmus test of standing up against Obama's attempt to impose his thuggish one-party rule over the entire country. But there might well be six such senators. I'd say Jonathan makes a good case.