White House Insists Snowden is Still Guilty of ‘Very Serious Crimes’

Regardless of political developments that may vindicate the actions of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, the White House still maintains that he committed “very serious crimes” and should continue to face prosecution in the United States.

White House Press Secretary Joshua Earnest was asked during a press briefing on June 1 about whether it was time to “reassess the persecution” of Snowden. All three branches of government have rejected the use of the Patriot Act to justify bulk data collection by the NSA, a program which Snowden revealed to the public.

“It’s not,” Earnest replied. “The fact is Mr. Snowden committed very serious crimes, and the US government and Department of Justice believe that he should face them.”

“That’s why we believe Mr. Snowden should return to the United States, and he will have the opportunity if he were to return to the United States to make that case in a court of law. But, obviously, our view on this is that he committed and is accused of very serious crimes.”

As a follow-up, Earnest was pressed on the fact that Snowden would not be able to make a public interest or whistleblower defense in court during a trial. He is charged with violating the Espionage Act. The Justice Department prosecutes it as a strict liability crime, which means motive does not matter. If a person causes “national defense” information to be made public without proper authorization, that is enough to convict them of committing a violation of the law.

“Would you be willing to at least talk to him about the circumstances in which you’ve said you’d give him a fair trial?”

Earnest suggested the Justice Department would have to handle something like that. He would not get into how that would play out. But, he added, “There exists mechanisms for whistleblowers to raise concerns about sensitive national security programs.”

“Releasing details of sensitive national security programs on the internet for everyone, including our adversaries, to see is inconsistent with those protocols that are established for protecting whistleblowers.”

Jesselyn Radack, an attorney who has represented Snowden, reacted, “Snowden did not release any documents on the internet. He provided documents to journalists, who used their editorial discretion to decide what was worthy and in the public interest to know.”

It is a “tried and true line,” which President Barack Obama’s administration has “trotted out in Espionage Act cases.” The argument is because terrorists read newspapers there will be grave harm, but it is generally not supported by facts.

When Snowden was at the NSA, he was working as a private contractor. Snowden did not have “proper channels” he could go through because the presidential policy directive put in place for “intelligence officers” excluded contractors. So, it is hard to figure out what “protocols” Earnest was referencing when he made his remarks.

Radack added, “As one of the attorneys representing Snowden, given the recent developments in the courts and Congress, it is clearly time to drop these charges against Mr. Snowden.”

It was not Obama that created this political moment where potential surveillance reforms were debated and senators spoke out against bulk data collection. It was Snowden—and a number of senators recognize this reality.

However, Earnest claimed that Obama should be the one credited with any surveillance reform that passes in Congress.

“To the extent that we’re talking about the president’s legacy, I would suspect that would be a logical conclusion from some historians that the president ended some of these programs that did raise concerns [among] those who prioritize privacy and civil liberties of the American people,” Earnest stated.

“This is consistent with the reforms that the president advocated a year and a half ago. And these are reforms that required the president and his team to expend significant amounts of political capital to achieve over the objection of Republicans.”

Yet, few senators have credited Obama for pushing reform. Politicians in Washington recognize that public opinion, which has been influenced by disclosures from Snowden, is why they are considering changes to policies.

A Pew Research Center poll recently found that few Americans support government holding on to their data in bulk. Only 6% were “very confident” that government can keep records “safe and secure.”

“[Sixty-five percent] of American adults believe there are not adequate limits on the telephone and internet data that the government collects.”

The Marvelous Moment When a Few Patriot Act Spying Powers Sunset

Sen. Mitch McConnell

Three powers in the Patriot Act expired on Sunday night. Though temporary, the development marked the first time since the September 11th attacks that the expansive and covert global security state suffered a setback, where power was lost.

It was all because of National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden and a shift in public consciousness brought about by what Snowden revealed about massive government surveillance.

Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was livid as he found himself with no choice but to call for a vote on a motion to debate the USA Freedom Act, a watered-down piece of reform legislation supported by President Barack Obama’s administration and the intelligence community which he had opposed.

On May 20, Senator Rand Paul held the Senate floor for ten and a half hours as he opposed extending provisions of the Patriot Act. His action single-handedly put the Senate in a position, where it would be difficult to prevent expiration.

There was one option: pass the USA Freedom Act, which maintained the “roving wiretap” and “lone wolf” provisions but made changes to the bulk phone records collection program.

On May 22, the USA Freedom Act failed to pass in the Senate. Senators scrambled to save the government’s spying powers. Senator Richard Burr and Senator Dianne Feinstein each proposed their own bills, which would have been very favorable to the country’s intelligence agencies had either piece of legislation gained support.

The Senate’s only alternative to simply letting powers expire was to support a bill that had failed earlier in May. McConnell had to call for a cloture vote on a bill that does not give government the same exact power agencies have had under the Patriot Act. In other words, McConnell had to concede that security hawks would suffer a rare defeat this round. (more…)

New York Times Pushes False Notion Both Sides of Patriot Act Debate Are Wrong

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An analysis published in the New York Times falsely equates arguments for and against extending provisions of the PATRIOT Act, making it seem as if those against extension are just as wrong as those pushing to preserve government spying powers.

“There is little evidence in the history of the expiring Patriot Act powers to bolster the arguments that either supporters or opponents are making,” according to a description of the analysis written by Charlie Savage.

With the headline, “Reality Checks in Debate Over Surveillance Laws,” it appropriately calls out Republican senators like Tom Cotton, who have claimed a lapse in “this critical tool would lead to attacks.” Savage notes that studies and testimony have both shown that in the program’s existence zero terrorist attacks have been thwarted.

However, in the next paragraphs, Savage casts opponents of extending the provisions as individuals who are comparably wrong:

At the same time, proponents of ending the program say it poses risks to Americans’ private lives, by permitting the government to know who has been calling psychiatrists or political groups, for example. But despite the discovery of technical violations of the rules several years ago, no evidence has emerged that the program has been misused for political or personal gain. As a result, the privacy-minded critics have had to couch their warnings in hypothetical terms.

“Even if we stipulate for purposes of this discussion that no one within the N.S.A. is currently abusing this program for nefarious political purposes,” Senator Rand Paul, who is running for the Republican presidential nomination, said in a filibuster-style floor speech last week, “can we say we are certain that will always be the case? Who is to say what might happen one year from now, two years from now, five years, 10 years or 15 years from now?”

While Savage may consider this to be equal to fear mongering about what will happen if spying powers are curtailed, “privacy-minded” opponents of the PATRIOT Act are not relying on the same hyperbole.

The only example Savage cites is very restrained and calculated. It is based on a concern that history could repeat itself because the country once experienced what it was like to have a domestic security state turned against citizens decades ago when J. Edgar Hoover was FBI director. And, in the example, Paul is making no claims about abuse for personal or political gain that cannot be backed up.

On the contrary, none of the supporters of the Patriot Act spying powers are as measured in their arguments. Not even officials from President Barack Obama’s administration are as level-headed in their rhetoric.

Administration officials have had a reporter from the Times print anonymous statements from them, one which suggests critics are playing “national security Russian roulette.” The administration maintains opponents are being “grossly irresponsible” because they want to have a debate and reform spying powers in a manner that much of the country actually supports.

Furthermore, it is inaccurate—and, at best, misleading—to write in any analysis that there is “no evidence” that “the program has been misused for political or personal gain.” (more…)

With Deadline in Sight, Senate Scrambles on Patriot Act

Sen. Dianne Feinstein pushes new legislation that would criminalize whistleblower activity on national security

By Nadia Prupis

As public outcry against government spying reaches a fever pitch, the U.S. Senate is scrambling to address the USA Patriot Act, key sections of which are currently speeding toward expiration.

President Barack Obama on Tuesday warned the Senate—which is on a weeklong Memorial Day recess—to pass legislation that would renew those provisions, such as Section 215, which are scheduled to sunset on June 1.

“The problem we have now is that those authorities run out at midnight on Sunday,” Obama said. “So I strongly urge the Senate to work through this recess and make sure that they identify a way to get this done.”

The Senate on Friday rejected the legislation, known as the USA Freedom Act, which would have ended the National Security Agency’s (NSA) authority to collect domestic phone records in bulk, but would have renewed Section 215 and other controversial provisions of the Patriot Act which are set to expire next week. The U.S. House passed the USA Freedom Act on May 14.

On Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s watch, lawmakers are set to reconvene on Sunday, May 31 to vote again on the USA Freedom Act, as well as on another deal proposed—and rejected—last week that would have temporarily extended the Patriot Act.

The Senate will also consider legislation introduced by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), which would prohibit “unauthorized disclosures” by an “officer, employee, contractor, or consultant of the United States” or any “recipient of an order” issued under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), who “knowingly comes into possession of classified information or documents or materials containing classified information” of the U.S.

As Kevin Gosztola writes at Firedoglake, Feinstein’s bill—modeled after the Espionage Act—”would not only save spying powers but also codify into law a provision that would expressly enable the government to criminalize any national security whistleblower who may choose to follow the footsteps of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.”

Observers say that the chances are slim that the Senate will embrace any of those bills after overwhelmingly rejecting two of them so recently—and that’s just what privacy advocates are hoping for.

The USA Freedom Act has gotten a lukewarm reception by digital rights organizations like Fight for the Future and the Electronic Frontier Foundation over what they say are insufficient reforms of the NSA’s spying powers.

Fight for the Future called the Senate’s rejection of the bill on Friday a “historic tactical win against surveillance.”

“Sunsetting the Patriot Act is the biggest win for ending mass surveillance programs,” Tiffiniy Cheng, co-founder of Fight for the Future, a coalition of civil liberties and privacy rights organizations, said at the time. “We are seeing history in the making and it was because the public stood up for our rights to freedom of expression and freedom of association—and there’s no turning back now.”

The Electronic Frontier Foundation explained the setup succinctly last week, with senior staff attorney Lee Tien writing in a blog post that the gridlock is “good news: if the Senate stalemate continues, the mass surveillance of everyone’s phone records will simply expire on June 1.”

“We commend every Senator who voted against reauthorizing the unconstitutional surveillance of millions of law-abiding Americans,” Tien wrote.

Congress should again reject renewing Section 215 on Sunday and instead “turn to addressing other surveillance abuses by the US government, including mass surveillance of the Internet, the secretive and one-sided FISA Court, and the problems of secrecy and over-classification that have created the environment that allowed such spying overreach to flourish,” he continued.

As ACLU legislative counsel Michelle Richardson wrote in an op-ed last Friday, “The question before Congress and the American people now is whether that provision should be renewed. The answer is a clear and resounding no.

“Voting for reauthorization of Section 215 now would not just be a missed opportunity for a serious debate about the role of government surveillance in our democracy; it would be an endorsement of the unconstitutional surveillance programs we already know exist, and a tacit endorsement of those we’re still in the dark about.”

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Scaremongering About the Patriot Act Sunset

As Section 215 nears its expiration date, the standoff over civil liberties is imminent, writes ACLU’s Jameel Jaffer.

By Jameel Jaffer

In a last-ditch effort to scare lawmakers into preserving unpopular and much-abused surveillance authorities, the Senate Republican leadership and some intelligence officials are warning that allowing Section 215 of the Patriot Act to sunset would compromise national security. (One particularly crass example from Senator Lindsey Graham: “Anyone who neuters this program is going to be partially responsible for the next attack.”) Some media organizations have published these warnings without challenging them, which is unfortunate. The claim that the expiration of Section 215 would deprive the government of necessary investigative tools or compromise national security is entirely without support.

First, there’s no evidence that the call-records program is effective in any meaningful sense of the word. The Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, which reviewed classified files, “could not identify a single instance involving a threat to the United States in which the telephone records program made a concrete difference in the outcome of a counterterrorism investigation.” The President’s Review Group, which also reviewed classified files, determined that the call-records program had “not [been] essential to preventing attacks,” and that, to the extent the program had contributed to terrorism investigations, the records in question “could readily have been obtained in a timely manner” using targeted demands. Although government once made far grander claims to the FISA court, the strongest claim that leaders of the intelligence community now make in support of the call-records program is that it provides “peace of mind.” Whatever this claim means—peace of mind to whom?—it’s not a claim that the program is necessary.

Second, there’s no evidence that other forms of collection under Section 215 have been any more effective. If intelligence officials could cite instances in which collection under Section 215 had been crucial to terrorism investigations, you can be sure they would have cited them by now. They certainly would have cited them to the Justice Department’s Inspector General, but a report by the Inspector General released this past week states that FBI personnel were “unable to identify any major case developments that resulted from use of the records obtained through use of Section 215 orders.” FBI personnel didn’t say that collection under Section 215 had been entirely useless—they said it had been useful in corroborating information already in their possession, for example—but they certainly didn’t say, or even come close to saying, that the expiration of Section 215 would compromise national security.

Third, the sunset of Section 215 wouldn’t affect the government’s ability to conduct targeted investigations of terrorist threats. This is because the government has many other tools that allow it to collect the same kinds of things that it can collect under Section 215. It can use administrative subpoenas or grand jury subpoenas. It can use pen registers. It can use national security letters. It can use orders served under the Electronic Communications Privacy Act. If Section 215 sunsets, it can use the provision that Section 215 amended, which will allow it to collect business records of hotels, motels, car and truck rental agencies, and storage rental facilities.

The sunset of Section 215 would undoubtedly be a significant political loss for the intelligence community, and it would be a sensible first step towards broader reform of the surveillance laws, but there’s no support for the argument that the sunset of Section 215 would compromise national security. Against this background, it’s not surprising the FBI Director reacted the way he did to a question about the possible sunset of Section 215. “I don’t like losing any tool in our toolbox,” Comey said, “but if we do, we press on.”

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© 2015 Just Security

For 7 Years, FBI Defied Law for Seeking a Person’s Records Under Patriot Act

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A Justice Department inspector general’s report shows that for seven years the Federal Bureau of Investigation violated statutory law designed to restrict the agency’s surveillance power. During this period, the agency sought individuals’ records under the business records provision of the PATRIOT Act without adopting proper “minimization procedures” to protect privacy of US persons.

The FBI’s use of orders under Section 215 between 2007 and 2009 was examined by the inspector general. Whether the FBI complied with recommendations the inspector general made back in March 2008.

Section 215 makes it possible for the government to obtain “any tangible things,” such as books, records and other items from a business, organization or entity. They are supposed to be “relevant” to an “authorized investigation to obtain foreign intelligence information not concerning a US person or to protect against international terrorism or clandestine intelligence activities.” But the standard for relevance is very low.

The Section 215 provision is set to expire on June 1, and, as Senator Rand Paul comprehensively outlined while he held the Senate floor for over ten hours, there are many reasons to not reauthorize the provision. This report, which was completed eleven months ago but is dated May 2015, adds substantially to those reasons.

Under the PATRIOT Improvement and Reauthorization Act of 2005, the law required that certain “minimization procedures” be adopted to ensure the handling of US persons’ data was done appropriately. It was not until March 7, 2013, that the Attorney General and the Justice Department officially incorporated these procedures into requests for records. (Marcy Wheeler points out the Justice Department did not actually fully comply with legally required procedures until after NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden disclosed information.)

“The Attorney General’s and the [Justice] Department’s actions came 7 years after such procedures were required by the Reauthorization Act and 5 years after we concluded the interim procedures in 2006 were deficient,” the inspector general’s report [PDF] indicates.

In an understatement, the inspector general declares that the Justice Department “should have met its statutory obligation considerably earlier than March 2013.”

The report suggests that FBI personnel have made “strategic use of the legislative and technological changes by broadening the scope of materials sought in applications. Section 215 authority is not limited to requesting information related to the known subjects of specific underlying investigations. The authority is also used in investigations of groups comprised of unknown members and to obtain information in bulk concerning persons who are not the subjects of or associated with any FBI investigation.”

That seems hugely significant. FBI personnel are permitted to request records of persons who are not subjects of underlying investigations. The FBI uses the PATRIOT Act to request records on people when they do not even have an FBI investigation into those individuals.

FBI personnel with authorized access are apparently permitted to engage in some action involving records, which the Justice Department believes must keep secret. This action is used to determine whether records “reasonably appear to be foreign intelligence information, necessary to understand foreign intelligence information or evidence of a crime.”

National Security Division attorneys in the Justice Department and FBI case agents provided the inspector general with a “range of examples of material that would qualify under this criteria.” It is impossible for the public to know what this means because the Justice Department had it censored in the report.

Another term the FBI has conjured to expand its surveillance powers is “investigative value.” This is a term the inspector general discovered the FBI had introduced for allowing case agents “unconnected with the underlying investigation access to material received in response” to a Section 215 order. However, what “investigative value” means to the FBI and just how it stretches the boundaries of what the agency is authorized to do is anyone’s guess because, again, the agency’s definition is censored in the released report.

The “type of information that is categorized as metadata will likely continue to evolve and expand,” the report acknowledges. The FBI is obtaining “large collections of metadata,” which is data about the records but not the exact content from the records themselves. “Electronic communication transaction information” and two other types of data, which the FBI does not want the public to know about, are being sought through this provision of the PATRIOT Act. (more…)

Obama And Clinton Endorse USA Freedom Act After Court Ruling

In the aftermath of yesterday’s court ruling and the looming June 1st deadline to reauthorize the section of the PATRIOT Act the court ruled illegal, the Democratic Party establishment appears to have shifted somewhat on domestic spying. President Barack Obama, through a White House spokesman, has said he supports the USA Freedom Act – which would reform the phone collection program.

Hillary Clinton also endorsed the NSA reform bill tweeting: “Congress should move ahead now with the USA Freedom Act—a good step forward in ongoing efforts to protect our security & civil liberties.”

One of the USA Freedom Act’s biggest promoters is Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner who helped author the PATRIOT Act. Sensenbrenner has been adamant post-Snowden that the NSA was never given the powers it was using under the bill he helped write. After the court decision Sensenbrenner reaffirmed his view saying that Congress never intended Section 215 to authorize bulk collection of phone records and that “This program is illegal and based on a blatant misinterpretation of the law. It’s time for Congress to pass the USA Freedom Act in order to protect both civil liberties and national security with legally authorized surveillance.”

But the USA Freedom Act is by no means fundamental reform. While the bill would reform NSA’s bulk collection practices domestically it would leave in place the massive spying apparatus along with the unrestricted information warfare overseas that will inevitably lead to the agency vacuuming up US citizen’s data.

The truth likely is that as long as the US maintains its national security state mentality and massively funds permanent agencies of war like the NSA there will always be these kind of abuses. Ultimately, the greatest impact from the Snowden disclosures may be the public being more vigilant with their private information and more skeptical of the state’s claims regarding power.