Nel's New Day

May 7, 2015

Really Big Deals! Alberta, NSA Surveillance, Arizona

U.S. conservatives have waged war for years against the president to allow the Keystone XL Pipeline across the country, moving oil from Alberta to Texas where it would be shipped out of the country to benefit wealthy people like the Koch brothers. After winning the Congress in last fall’s election, the GOP passed approval for the pipeline in both chambers; the president has still not taken any action.

Just a few months after this grand success, Albert overwhelmingly voted in the party that plans to force the gas and oil industries to pay their fair share of taxes and royalty payments and phase out coal power. It also plans to cut back pipeline projects. For almost one-half century, Big Oil and the Tories (oxymoronically called the Progressive Conservative Party) had been in charge. The election took the number of New Democratic Party (NDP) seats in Alberta’s legislature from four to 53 of the 87-seat legislature while the Conservatives (blue in the following chart) fell from 70 seats to third place with 10 seats, following the rightest Wildrose Party that took 21 seats.

chart-alberta-2015-election-resultsDave Weigel of Bloomberg, explained the tremendous change in the Canadian province known as “the Texas of Canada.”

“Imagine if Democrats took not only Texas Governor, but supermajority control of [the] Legislature and all state offices. That’s what [Alberta’s election] is like in Canada.”

As for the pipeline, premier-elect Rachel Notley pledged to stop lobbying Congress for its construction because poorly-regulated production of tar sands oil has made Alberta the biggest producer of climate-changing gases in Canada. Most of the oil coming from Alberta, 78 percent of Canada’s oil, comes from the extraction of dirty tar sands oil, which releases much larger amounts of greenhouse emissions than the regular production of oil. Unlike regular oil, the thick mixture of sand, water, clay and bitumen is extracted from the ground by “non-conventional” methods that are more carbon-intensive. Companies get the oil by digging up the tar sand and heating it with water or injecting steam underground. Making the steam requires a great deal of extra energy. Alberta’s extraction of tar sands produces more greenhouse gasses than transportation throughout Canada because of extremely weak regulations.

Alberta’s current premier, Jim Prentice, is immediately resigning and quitting his legislative seat. In this position for less than eight months, he called a snap election to get a mandate in a tax-raising budget after the drastic drop in oil prices caused a $7-billion hole in government finances. Prentice’s budget raised taxes and fees for everyone except corporations and ran a $5-billion deficit. When his female opponent challenged him for not raising corporate taxes, Prentice responded, “Math is difficult.” The election was a year earlier than necessary, but Prentice hoped to get a four-year term with what he perceived as weakened opposition.

The Conservative Party’s loss in Alberta may damage the re-election of Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper, a Conservative member in that position for the past nine years. Harper came out of the oil industry and lives in Alberta.

Investors, who had ignored the polls warning them of the shift in the political weather, are stunned, and Canada’s main stock index fell sharply on the day after the election because of large losses among energy companies.

The new controlling party may increase oil royalties, at this time between 25 and 40 percent of the companies’ profits. Texas charges 25 percent, one-fourth more than any other state in the U.S. while Norway charges about 80 percent of profits. The NDP plans at the least to make the royalty process more transparent and also raise the corporate tax rate from 10 percent to 12 percent. Between 2011 and 2014, Alberta’s oil-sands production increased from 1.5 million barrels per day to 2 million barrels per day. It could double to 4.3 million barrels per day by 2023 although the recent oil price crash may change that prediction. An increase in royalties would only affect future projects because operation is far less than upfront investment in oil sands projects.

Referring to the election, one commentator said, “Pigs do fly.”

Pigs flew as well in the United States today. For the first time ever, a court has ruled against the NSA massive surveillance. A three-judge panel of the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals in New York unanimously rejected the National Security Agency’s program on collecting and storing bulk information on telephone calls by overturning an earlier ruling that the surveillance could not be subject to judicial review. According to Josh Gerstein, the panel ruled that “allowing the government to gather data in a blanket fashion was not consistent with the statute used to carry out the program: Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act.”

Currently, NSA is gathering and storing all data to search later if it sees a need, an act that the panel found to be illegal. The judges used the clause that “the tangible things sought are relevant to an authorized investigation” to make its ruling against the NSA because there was no discussion of relevance in the collected data. They explained that Congress did have the opportunity to authorize “such a far-reaching and unprecedented program … unambiguously.” This may not happen because the House wants to replace the bulk record collection with “a new program that would preserve the ability to analyze links between callers to hunt for terrorists but keep the bulk records in the hands of phone companies.” Last year, the House passed a bill to disallow the bulk collection, but the Senate refused to take it up. GOP Senators continue to prefer the status quo.

Today’s decision didn’t strike down the NSA program; instead it sent the problem back to a lower court. The ruling also didn’t end the collection while Congress debates the issue. The provision under discussion expires on June 1. With no decision by then, NSA has no justification after that for its actions. Without a law from Congress, the legal dispute about the constitutionality of NSA’s collection/storage will continue.

The ruling also covertly warned Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) who wants to allow the massive database collection by merely re-authorizing an unmodified Section 215:

“There will be time then to address appellants’ constitutional issues…. We hold that the text of section 215 cannot bear the weight the government asks us to assign to it, and that it does not authorize the telephone metadata program.”

Without Edward Snowden’s leaks about the NSA database, the U.S. public would have no knowledge about NSA’s surveillance. In 2013, Snowden leaked a court order to Verizon to produce “all call detail records or ‘telephony metadata’’ relating to Verizon communications within the United States or between the United States and abroad.” The federal government has not opposed the claim that “all significant service providers in the United States are subject to similar orders.” The Circuit Court used the phrase that “the tangible things sought are relevant to an authorized investigation” to make its ruling against the NSA because there was no discussion of relevance in the collected data.

One final piece of good news—an Arizona judge has ruled that Dreamers, the Latino youth in the United States because of DACA, are in this country lawfully because federal law, not state law, determines the legality. A 2012 executive order created the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program for young people who had been brought to the United States illegally as children. According to the court decision, DACA residents in Arizona are to pay in-state tuition for the Maricopa County Community Colleges instead of out-of-state tuition which can be almost four times as much as the in-state costs. Arizona community colleges lost 15,000 enrollees when DACA students couldn’t afford to pay $355 per credit. The current attorney general, Mark Brnovich, is considering whether to appeal, and the decision affects only Maricopa County, covering much of Phoenix, but the Maricopa County Judge started a movement that may have great repercussions.

 

October 26, 2013

Surveillance Violates U.S. Constitution

Today is the 12 anniversary of the PATRIOT Act. This unbelievably broad surveillance law has been renewed twice since its 2001 inception with almost no protest from Congress. A little over two years ago, Congress passed a four-year extension of provisions set to expire on June 1, 2015. Since Edward Snowden leaked information, people—including those in a number of foreign countries—are discovering how the surveillance superstructure works and how it destroys civil liberties.

As it now stands, the government has the authority to spy on people inside the United States without any knowledge of wrongdoing.

Section 215 of the Patriot Act authorizes the government to obtain “any tangible thing” relevant to a terrorism investigation, even if there is no indication that the “thing” pertains to suspected terrorists or terrorist activities. This provision is in direct opposition to the U.S. Constitution’s protection against search and seizure requiring the government to show probable cause before infringing on a person’s privacy.

Section 206 of the Patriot Act, aka “roving John Doe wiretap” provision, gives government permission to obtain intelligence surveillance orders that fail to identify either the person or the facility to be tapped. Again, this provision violates protection against search and seizure that requires the government to be specific about what it wants to search or seize.

Section 6001 of the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004, or the so-called “Lone Wolf” provision, permits secret intelligence surveillance of non-U.S. persons who are not affiliated with a foreign organization. Granted only in secret courts, this authorization violates the limits of government surveillance within the nation’s borders.

Another part of the Patriot Act is the use of national security letters (NSLs) that permit the government to obtain the communication, financial, and credit records of anyone deemed relevant to a terrorism investigation even if that person is not suspected of unlawful behavior. Tens of thousands of these letters issued every year are used to collect information on people two and three times removed from a terrorism suspect. Nondisclosure requirements in NSLs also prevent a court from determining whether the gag is necessary to protect national security.

Thousands of protesters gathered outside the U.S. Capitol today and in other U.S. cities to protest the NSA Internet data gathering program. Organized by Stop Watching Us, the group wants changes in the government spying on innocent people. The organization has also released a video featuring Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg, Phil Donahue, U.S. Rep. John Conyers Jr., David Segal of Demand Progress, and others.

At least one author of the original 2001 Patriot Act has decided enough is enough—especially after the report that NSA may be surveilling people in 35 countries, including the cell phone of Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI) plans to introduce legislation next week to curb the National Security Agency’s surveillance powers. He hopes to have 60 House co-sponsors for the bill, called the USA Freedom Act. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) plans to introduce companion legislation at the same time. Sensenbrenner claims that Congress never authorized such massive data collection on people who have no record of wrongdoing.

The proposed legislation would tighten record gathering only on U.S. phone calls, however, making Merkel still at risk. In addition, it would create a special advocate’s office to argue stronger privacy protections before the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, the secret court established by Congress, and appeal its decisions. According to current law, the court hears only arguments in favor of surveillance. If the bill passes, the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board would have subpoena power to investigate privacy and national security issues. Companies like Google, Microsoft and Facebook would be able to reveal more statistics about the information they must turn over to the government.

Leaders of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees are expected to oppose the bill. In the past they have claimed that all the collection is vital to stopping terrorist attacks. “I will do everything I can to prevent this [phone data] program from being canceled,” Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) said.

The argument that NSA surveillance has stopped more than 50 terrorist attacks is bogus. The original wording was that NSA’s intelligence had “contributed to the understanding of terrorism activities.” No thwarting. NSA refuses to release records to prove any of their claims. Officials have released information about only one of these cases: a San Diego man sent $8,500 to Somalia to support the militant group Al Shabab. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) has long argued that the federal government is abusing its surveillance and claimed that NSA could have gotten a court order to get phone records for the convicted San Diego man.

Members of Congress received the complete list from NASA about the over 50 cases, but it remains classified. After reading the list, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) still questions the agency’s figures. He said, “That’s plainly wrong …. These weren’t all plots and they weren’t all thwarted.” Yet GOP Reps. Lynn Westmoreland (GA), Brad Wenstrup (OH), Joe Heck (NV), Mike Rogers (MI), and James Lankford (OK) continue to support NSA’s false reporting. Rep. Jim Langevin (D-RI) followed their lead.

NSA claimed that their surveillance helped thwart a plot to attack a Danish newspaper, but an examination of the event concluded that a tip from British intelligence led authorities to the perpetrator. NSA claimed that its surveillance led to a supposed plot to attack the New York Stock Exchange in 2010, but no one was charged in relationship to that attack.

My partner thinks that the surveillance will make us safer, but, as she pointed out, she was taught to hide under her desk in grade school if there was danger of an atomic bomb. She grew up being taught to be afraid, the same tactic that conservatives use in contemporary times.

I told her about a senior National Security Council staffer who tweeted anti-admininstration messages for over two years before he could be found. Jofi Joseph, 40, a key member of the White House team negotiating on Iran’s nuclear weapons program, unleashed a barrage of over 2,000 caustic tweets about former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and top NSC officials, especially Ben Rhodes, who he accused of dodging questions about Benghazi. The fired man’s wife, Carolyn Leddy, is on the Republican side of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. It took two years to find the source of the tweets.

NSA spends billions of dollars to discover very little and sometimes destroy people’s lives as it did to Brandon Mayfield, a Portland (OR) lawyer. Members of the agency secretly broke into his house, tapped his phone, and accused him of being part of bombing in the 2004 Madrid train bombing on the basis of a faxed fingerprint and his children’s Spanish lessons on his computer. That plus the fact that he had become a Muslim. They finally admitted that he had nothing to do with the act of terror.

This article sounds like science fiction, but it has fact for support. Within the next few years, household appliances can be used to spy on everyone. Advertisers propose putting cameras into television to get reactions to TV ads or what shows make people fall asleep. Last year Computer Security firm ReVuln proved that it could hack Samsung’s newest televisions to access users’ settings, install malware on the TVs and any connected devices, and harvest all personal data stored on the machine as well as switching on the camera embedded in the TV and watch viewers watching the set. Google and Verizon are two companies developing cable boxes with built-in video cameras and motion sensors.

Former CIA Director David Petraeus believes that such appliances as dishwashers, clothes dryers, toasters, clock radios, and remote controls will soon gather intelligence. Even now these appliances connect to the Internet. Criminals will also find this information useful as well as technology that allows spies to monitor lights and heating/AC thermostats. Home security systems wirelessly connected to phones and tablets can easily be hacked, allowing burglars to keep tabs on homes.

Last year, the U.S. military disclosed an app, PlaceRaider, that uses a smartphone’s camera, geo-location data, and accelerometer to create a 3D map of the phone’s surroundings. Tablets and computers have all the same tools as smartphones and more. They hold all a person’s secrets, making these available to anyone who knows the technology.

A year ago White Hat hacker Barnaby Jack proved he could kill a diabetic person from 300 feet away by ordering an insulin pump to deliver fatal doses of insulin; this summer he said he could hack pacemakers and implanted defibrillators.

NSA doesn’t want people to have safeguards because they can also be blocked by these. The nation needs to stop wasting taxpayer money and follow the constitution, and Congress needs to stop making unconstitutional laws after they have terrified people in the United States.

June 15, 2013

GOP Legislators Won’t Do Their Job

All month the media has bombarded people with sound bites about the National Security Agency surveillance. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) tried to make citizens aware of this for two years; Edward Snowden managed to do it in two minutes. Quick to blame President Obama—again—several GOP legislators in Congress have bitterly complained about being left out of the loop.

Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-CA), chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, organized briefings to better inform the senators. The most recent was last Thursday afternoon with NSA Director Keith Alexander, the FBI, Justice Department, FISA Court, and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, who denied in a Senate committee hearing only three months ago that there was no surveillance of the U.S. people. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) recessed the Senate for an hour so that everyone could attend this important briefing. Over half the senators left early on Thursday to catch their planes home. Only 47 of them attended the briefing.

Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI) claimed that the administration is abusing the law through the NSA surveillance activities and expressed surprise at the extent of the surveillance, probably because he failed to attend any of the hearings during the last three years about NSA’s activities. Even more hypocritical, he has called himself the “author of the PATRIOT Act,” the law that makes all this surveillance legal and helped renew it in 2011.

Section 215 of his PATRIOT Act approves an FBI request for NSA to view millions of records from Verizon customers. It also allows the FBI to obtain any records from libraries without court orders. In a Connecticut case, FBI agents demanded “any and all subscriber information, billing information and access logs of any person or entity” that had used computers between 4 p.m. and 4:45 p.m. on February 15, 2005, in any of the 27 libraries whose computer systems were managed by the Library Connection, a nonprofit co-op of library databases. If the librarian told anyone about the letter that the FBI gave him, he could go to jail for five years. No court order was necessary.

Because he discussed the letter with three other librarians, all four of them were bound by the gag order, according to their attorney. They challenged the letter’s constitutionality and the gag order but couldn’t even attend the hearings because government lawyers declared that their presence posed a threat to national security. A year later when the PATRIOT Act was renewed, a federal court ruled that the letter was indeed unconstitutional, but the government appealed the ruling.

Congressional legislators have also decided that it’s not their job to answer questions about Obamacare. They respond to such concerns from their constituents as Medicare, Social Security, and immigration, but they don’t like Obamacare so they won’t bother to provide any assistance. Some said they would flat-out refuse to give any answers while others, such as Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-KS) said he would refer them to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) said, “We know how to forward a phone call.”

House leaders have organized a group known as HOAP—the House ObamaCare Accountability Project—to organize a messaging strategy against the law that will trickle down to constituents. August recess will probably provide the kick-off for this sabotage when some Congressional members may hold town halls.

A recent poll about Obamacare found “a majority [54 percent] of Americans still oppose the nation’s new health care measure, three years after it became law.” Sound bites ignore the section of the poll showing that more than one-fourth of those who oppose think it doesn’t go far enough. Adding the 44 percent of those who support the law and the 16 percent of those who think it doesn’t go far enough means that people against it are actually in the minority of 35 percent. Half the people polled are unfamiliar with the law. All they know is what far-right conservatives and media have told them.

In looking at polls about the unpopularity of Congress, House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) claims that Congress has always been unpopular. He’s wrong. Forty years ago, confidence in Congress was 42 percent, a far cry from today’s 10 percent.

confidence in congress

 

Steve Benen wrote, “I tend to think 10% confidence is a little on the high end. Indeed, I’m wondering what those satisfied folks are thinking.” The 112th Congress was the worst seen since the 1700s, and the GOP obstructionism is making the 113th Congress just as bad only six months into its two-year session. It can become much worse as the GOP threatens to intentionally crash the economy this fall in the next debt-ceiling crisis.

The solution to improving the Congress would be for the GOP to pass the immigration reform bill, stop the deliberately harmful sequester, reduce gun violence ever so slightly, perhaps debate a bill or two that could create jobs, and rein in Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) from his incessant manufactured “scandals.”

Conservatives, however, are sure to follow this recent advice from the Heritage Foundation, formerly a think tank and now a policy-making group:

“We urge you to avoid bringing any legislation to the House Floor that could expose or highlight major schisms within the conference. Legislation such as the Internet sales tax or the farm bill which contains nearly $800 billion in food stamp spending, would give the press a reason to shift their attention away from the failures of the Obama administration.”

[Note: The $800 billion covers ten years; using that amount makes it look much larger.]

Charlie Cook followed that up with a National Journal piece late Thursday:

“Republicans would be much wiser to pursue a third option: Dig up as much damaging information as they can about the Obama administration and leak it to reporters they know will write tough stories that won’t be traced back to the source. That way, the public won’t see the GOP as being obsessed with attacking the other side and playing gotcha at the expense of the big issues facing the country—the ones voters really care about.

“Meanwhile, everyone in Washington will watch polls for signs of blood in the water, indications that the controversies or scandals—depending upon your perspective—are taking a political toll on Obama’s job-approval numbers.”

Meanwhile, 70 GOP representatives, led by Rep. Matt Salmon (R-AZ), have set out to lower Congress’s popularity, and the Tea Party is cheering them on. Their goal is to make Boehner follow the “Hastert rule”: only bills with majority GOP support are allowed on the House floor.

There actually is no “Hastert Rule.” Its author, GOP strategist John Feehery, said that it is “situational advice, never a hard-and-fast rule.” He sees insistence on this “rule” as counterproductive for conservatives, encouraging ideological rigidity and eliminating any compromise with Democrats, meaning that Boehner must work with the opposing political party to pass any bills other than renaming post offices.

After Issa’s letter to Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD), scolding him for demanding the release of full transcripts of the IRS investigation, the Democrats on Issa’s House Oversight Committee responded. They set Monday as the deadline for Isssa to explain why he refuses to release these transcripts of witness testimony or they will release the transcripts themselves. Issa’s problem is that the transcripts will most likely indicate no evidence of White House involvement in the process of selecting IRS audits.

Issa is most likely looking forward to the August town hall meetings where he has total control. Recess will make little difference in the Congressional level of activity; it just means that they cannot do any harm.

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