Kevin Drum - June 2013

Chart of the Day: Inflation Is Out of Control!

| Tue Jun. 18, 2013 10:58 AM EDT

The BLS reported today that inflation is now running wildly out of control! It jumped from 1.1 percent in April to....1.4 percent in May. Obviously this means we need more austerity.

Or so the wise men and the conservative shills, allied as usual when it comes to monetary and fiscal policy, will tell us. Matt Yglesias provides the antidote:

If we had 2.3 percent core inflation and 2.6 percent headline inflation, then there'd be a real reason to tighten monetary policy. Given the high unemployment rate, there'd also be a reason to resist that pressure to tighten. But we're not 0.3 percentage points above the inflation target, we're 0.3 percentage points below the inflation target [he's talking here about core inflation, which came in at 1.7 percent in May]. Even if the unemployment rate were dramatically lower, tighter money would still be perverse.

With joblessness high and inflation low, the right policy is clear—easier money, not tighter.

Someday inflation will be persistently above 2 percent. At that point, we can all argue about whether that's the right target and whether we need to take action to get back under it. But that day is not today. Right now, we've been under our inflation target consistently for the entire past year. It's not something to worry about. Unemployment is.

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There are 46 Guantánamo Detainees Who Will Never Be Tried and Never Be Released

| Tue Jun. 18, 2013 1:46 AM EDT

Throughout the years-long debate about fate of the Guantánamo prison, there's always been one unanswered question: how many detainees are in permanent limbo? That is, how many of them are considered unquestionably too dangerous to release, but just as unquestionably not prosecutable. Now we know:

The Obama administration Monday lifted a veil of secrecy surrounding the status of the detainees at Guantánamo, for the first time publicly naming the four dozen captives it defined as indefinite detainees — men too dangerous to transfer but who cannot be tried in a court of law.

....Administration officials have through the years described a variety of reasons why the men could not face trial: Evidence against some of the indefinite detainees was too tainted by CIA or other interrogation torture or abuse to be admissible in a court; insufficient evidence to prove an individual detainee had committed a crime; or military intelligence opinions that certain captives had undertaken suicide or other type of terrorist training, and had vowed to engage in an attack on release.

The formal classification for these prisoners is "continued detention pursuant to the Authorization for Use of Military Force (2001), as informed by principles of the laws of war," as you can see in the excerpt below.

There are lots of Guantánamo detainees who have no near-term prospect of being prosecuted or released, but still could be if circumstances change. However, even if we handled every single one of them, there's still a hard nut of 46 prisoners with no recourse at all. They will never be tried, and they will never be released.

Poll of the Day: Nobody Wants to Get Involved in Syria

| Mon Jun. 17, 2013 11:15 PM EDT

A new Pew poll tells a remarkable story: not only does the American public not want to get more involved in Syria, the American public doesn't even want to send arms to the rebels. What's more, this feeling is entirely bipartisan: Democrats, Republicans, and Independents all oppose arming the rebels by a margin of about 70-20. When was the last time that happened? It's a sign of the strength of the Beltway consensus in favor of intervention that despite this, President Obama was feeling pressure from all sides to do exactly the opposite of what 70 percent of the public wants. The war gods are strong in America.

Yep, Having More Money Is Good for Your Health (and Your Baby's)

| Mon Jun. 17, 2013 4:55 PM EDT

In 1990, a pregnant low-income mother with one child would have received an EITC tax credit of $1,250. A mother with two children would have received the same amount, because back then EITC didn't take into account the number of children you had.

That changed in 1993, and the change was fully phased in by 1996. So in 1996, the first mother would have received $2,250, while the second mother would have received $3,750.

This provides us with the ability to perform a lovely little natural experiment. In the 1990 group, both pregnant mothers get the same amount of money, so you can use this as a baseline. In the 1996 group, pregnant mothers with two children get more money. Do their newborn babies do any better relative to this baseline? Last year a team of researchers did the legwork to find out, and as it turns out, the answer is yes:

We find that increased EITC income reduces the incidence of low birth weight and increases mean birth weight. For single low education (<= 12 years) mothers, a policy-induced treatment on the treated increase of $1000 in EITC income is associated with a 6.7 to 10.8 percent reduction in the low birth weight rate.

So an extra $1,000 produces about a 10 percent reduction in low birth weights. That's a pretty persuasive argument that having more money really does produce better health. As Bill Gardner puts it, "The bottom line is that redistributing income to poor families improves the health of their infants. It is, in effect, a form of prenatal care."

Can the Christian Right Persuade Republicans to Fix Obamacare?

| Mon Jun. 17, 2013 1:30 PM EDT

A loyal reader just emailed to beg me to write about something other than NSA surveillance. I make no promises for the future, since I'm pretty caught up by the story, but perhaps a breather is in order. Luckily, Ann Kim and Ed Kilgore have served up a perfect little morsel to warm the heart of any liberal.

As you know, conservatives are doing everything they can to sabotage Obamacare. This includes court fights, refusal to expand Medicaid even though it's practically free, declining to set up state exchanges, and, of course, the flat rejection of any tweaks to Obamacare from House Republicans. The problem is that any big law is likely to need small adjustments here and there to clarify things or fix small bugs, but Republicans don't want to fix bugs. They want Obamacare to fail, so as far as they're concerned, bugs are good things. But what happens if one of those bugs happens to impact a key part of the GOP base?

For the first time, a constituency group to whom the GOP normally pays close attention—religious institutions—is asking for a legislative "fix" of the Affordable Care Act to make it work as intended....Without the requested "fix," as many as one million clergy members and church employees now enrolled in church-sponsored health plans could soon face the choice of leaving these plans (designed to meet their unique needs, such as the frequent reassignment of clergy across state lines) or losing access to the tax subsidies provided by the ACA to help lower-to-middle income Americans purchase insurance.

Observers generally agree that the exclusion of church health plans from eligibility for the exchanges, which occurred because they do not sell policies to the general public, was an oversight caused by staffers scrambling to draft bill language under tight deadlines. Because employees of religious institutions are usually paid modestly, many will qualify for subsidies made available on a sliding scale to families earning up to 400 percent of the federal poverty level. But the subsidies can only be used to purchase insurance from the exchanges.

Apparently this problem is starting to attract the attention of religious groups, including large, conservative denominations like the Southern Baptist Convention, who don't want their clergy to lose access to tax breaks just because of an unintentional drafting error. But can even the Christian Right persuade House Republicans to take a short break from their scorched-earth campaign against Obamacare? Stay tuned.

When You Get Right Down To It, Everything is Policy

| Mon Jun. 17, 2013 12:47 PM EDT

There's a lot more heat than light in Edward Snowden's live Q&A over at the Guardian, which is too bad. We could use more clarity on the scope of NSA's surveillance. Along those lines, I was glad to see Josh Marshall picking up on this point:

For all the back and forth about Phoenixes and what exactly he expected a spy organization to do, the one interesting and significant thing to come out of this Snowden live chat is his focus on what is technically possible within the NSA vs whatever policy restrictions are in place to protect privacy, constitutional protections for US citizens and so forth. It’s not even totally clear, reading these answers, how much Snowden and his nemeses within the Intel Community are even disagreeing about how things work.

I'd guess there's not much disagreement at all. After all, Snowden has so far presented no evidence that NSA has abused its statutory powers. He obviously doesn't like NSA's statutory powers, but that's a different thing. At one point, for example, he says that the focus on whether NSA is sweeping up domestic communications is a "distraction from the power and danger of this system. Suspicionless surveillance does not become okay simply because it's only victimizing 95% of the world instead of 100%." Maybe so, but spying on foreigners is NSA's whole reason for existence.

And that gets to the nub of things: If you simply disapprove of spying on foreigners, then you're obviously not going to think much of the NSA. But that's a disagreement with U.S. policy, not a criticism of the agency itself.

Ditto for Snowden's comments about NSA being restricted only by "policy." Well, of course that's what restricts them. Once the technical capability is available to do something, then policy is always the only restriction. That policy can take the form of laws, of executive orders, of court oversight, or of internal NSA rules. Some of those are better than others, and all are subject to abuse if oversight is poor, but they're all policies. Pointing this out is like saying that Social Security is insecure because it's merely a policy of the federal government. That's true, but what isn't?

NOTE: There is, of course, a difference between Social Security and NSA surveillance. They're both creatures of policy, but NSA's actions are largely constrained by secret policies. That's a legitimate beef. The simple fact that NSA's constraints are policy-based isn't.

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Edward Snowden Says More Info About "Direct Access" Is In the Works

| Mon Jun. 17, 2013 12:09 PM EDT

Edward Snowden is holding a live Q&A at the Guardian. Here's one exchange:

Anthony De Rosa:

1) Define in as much detail as you can what "direct access" means.

2) Can analysts listen to content of domestic calls without a warrant?

Answer:

1) More detail on how direct NSA's accesses are is coming, but in general, the reality is this: if an NSA, FBI, CIA, DIA, etc analyst has access to query raw SIGINT databases, they can enter and get results for anything they want. Phone number, email, user id, cell phone handset id (IMEI), and so on — it's all the same. The restrictions against this are policy based, not technically based, and can change at any time. Additionally, audits are cursory, incomplete, and easily fooled by fake justifications. For at least GCHQ, the number of audited queries is only 5% of those performed.

2) NSA likes to use "domestic" as a weasel word here for a number of reasons. The reality is that due to the FISA Amendments Act and its section 702 authorities, Americans’ communications are collected and viewed on a daily basis on the certification of an analyst rather than a warrant. They excuse this as "incidental" collection, but at the end of the day, someone at NSA still has the content of your communications. Even in the event of "warranted" intercept, it's important to understand the intelligence community doesn't always deal with what you would consider a "real" warrant like a Police department would have to, the "warrant" is more of a templated form they fill out and send to a reliable judge with a rubber stamp.

Snowden's reply about direct access is weirdly nonresponsive. He's talking here about analysts' access to NSA databases, not to corporate servers, and he seems to be talking about metadata, not content. What's more, even if he is talking about content, he's talking about content that's already been collected by NSA, not content "direct" from Google's servers. He's right that access to this stuff is policy-based, but then again, I'm not sure what else it could be. In the end, access to everything is policy-based.

His reply to the warrant question is a little clearer, but doesn't really say anything new. Section 702 warrants are indeed very broad, and once issued can cover communications from a lot of targets. When this stuff is swept up, some of it inevitably turns out to be domestic communications, which NSA is required to either discard or segregate away from the view of analysts according to court-mandated minimization procedures.

Now, does NSA really do this? How do we know? Those are good questions, but Snowden sheds no light on that. He's just telling us that 702 warrants are very broad, something we already knew.

I really wish Snowden were more forthcoming and less evasive in his answers to questions like this. It's been over a week now, and if he really has more detail about what "direct access" means, it's long past time to share it with us. Ditto for any evidence that NSA is abusing its minimization protocols.

Immigration Reform Faces Long Odds in the House

| Mon Jun. 17, 2013 11:17 AM EDT

David Drucker says that immigration reform is in trouble in the House:

House Speaker John Boehner is not going to bring a comprehensive immigration-reform plan to the floor if a majority of Republicans don't support it, sources familiar with his plans said. "No way in hell," is how several described the chances of the speaker acting on such a proposal without a majority of his majority behind him.

So what are the odds of getting a bill that a majority of House Republicans support? Kinda slim. But you never know. A combination of arm-twisting, modestly tighter enforcement requirements, and a fuzzy definition of "majority" (40 percent, anyone?) could be enough. Right now, I'd probably put the odds of passage at about a third or so. That's not great, but it's better than the 10 percent odds that a lot of folks are assuming these days.

Yet More Reporting on NSA's Surveillance Programs

| Sun Jun. 16, 2013 1:08 AM EDT

I can't keep up with all the new reporting on NSA surveillance programs tonight. Here are two more. First, Mark Hosenball of Reuters reports that although NSA collects metadata for every phone call made, it makes only modest use of them:

Millions of phone records were collected in 2012, but the paper says U.S. authorities only looked in detail at the records linked to fewer than 300 phone numbers.

A person familiar with details of the program said the figure of fewer than 300 numbers applied to the entire mass of raw telephone "metadata" collected last year by the NSA from U.S. carriers — not just to Verizon, which is the only telephone company identified in a document disclosed by Snowden as providing such data to the NSA.

Is this true? Is this figure only for searches that began with a U.S. phone number, or for all searches of any kind? I don't know, but I'm passing it along. Take it with a grain of salt for now.

Next up is an AP story that describes how the PRISM program works. Prior to 2007, it reports, tech companies responded to warrants manually. But after the passage of the Protect America Act, NSA decided it wanted to streamline things:

Though the companies didn't know it, the passage of the Protect America Act gave birth to a top-secret NSA program, officially called US-98XN.

It was known as Prism....What the NSA called Prism, the companies knew as a streamlined system that automated and simplified the "Hoovering" from years earlier, the former assistant general counsel said. The companies, he said, wanted to reduce their workload. The government wanted the data in a structured, consistent format that was easy to search.

....Under Prism, the delivery process varied by company. Google, for instance, says it makes secure file transfers. Others use contractors or have set up stand-alone systems. Some have set up user interfaces making it easier for the government, according to a security expert familiar with the process.

Every company involved denied the most sensational assertion in the Prism documents: that the NSA pulled data "directly from the servers" of Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, AOL and more.

Technology experts and a former government official say that phrasing, taken from a PowerPoint slide describing the program, was likely meant to differentiate Prism's neatly organized, company-provided data from the unstructured information snatched out of the Internet's major pipelines.

How accurate is this? It sounds about right to me, but reporting on this is reaching a fever pitch, so our understanding might change in the near future. Apparently the government is also preparing an unclassified white paper about all this, so we'll have that to chew over before long. Stay tuned.

How Much Email Metadata Does NSA Collect?

| Sun Jun. 16, 2013 12:30 AM EDT

In Barton Gellman's big NSA surveillance piece, he says it wasn't bulk collection of telephone metadata that caused the dramatic showdown in John Ashcroft's hospital room in 2004. (Metadata consists of records about phone calls—time, location, and participants—not the contents of the calls themselves.) Everyone was fine with that. It was collection of internet metadata for email, chat, Skype, and so forth that caused the showdown. In the end, the program was shut down, but then a few months later it was started back up under the oversight of the FISA court.

So it's still cruising along, right? I'd guess so, but then there's this at the tail end of Gellman's article:

As for bulk collection of Internet metadata, the question that triggered the crisis of 2004, another official said the NSA is no longer doing it. When pressed on that question, he said he was speaking only of collections under authority of the surveillance court.

“I’m not going to say we’re not collecting any Internet metadata,” he added. “We’re not using this program and these kinds of accesses to collect Internet metadata in bulk.”

That's clear as mud, isn't it? Gellman also describes NSA's initial contention after 9/11 that it could collect bulk internet metadata because, legally, it didn't "acquire" the information merely by putting it in a database. It only "acquired" it when an analyst actually retrieved it for some reason. So as long as analysts only retrieved records they were legally entitled to, everything was kosher:

Goldsmith and Comey did not buy that argument, and a high-ranking U.S. intelligence official said the NSA does not rely on it today. As soon as surveillance data “touches us, we’ve got it, whatever verbs you choose to use,” the official said in an interview. “We’re not saying there’s a magic formula that lets us have it without having it.”

Taken together, these two officials are suggesting that NSA no longer collects internet metadata in bulk. It collects only data it's legally allowed to have in the first place, presumably based on a Section 702 warrant. But that's still a helluva lot. One of the documents released by Edward Snowden suggests that it amounts to over 1 trillion records per year.