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Beyond CIA & NSA spying: Corruption

2:54 pm in Uncategorized by Shahid Buttar

Even before open war erupted last week between the CIA and Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), embattled NSA officials had woven tangled skeins to downplay public crimes including lying to Congress.

Portrait of Dianne Feinstein

While the CIA’s torture prompted Feinstein to begin her committee’s investigation, it was the agency’s continuing cover up that prompted her to voice her concerns on the Senate floor in a speech described by her colleague Patrick Leahy (D-VT) as the most important he had ever witnessed in his 40 year career in the Senate.

Many observers have noted the double-standard apparent in Feinstein challenging the CIA while deferring to the NSA. Few have recognized that both the NSA’s pattern of spying and then lying about it, and the CIA’s trajectory of first committing torture crimes, then spying on Congress to cover it up and then lying about the spying when caught, can be described in a single word: corruption.

CIA: spying on Congress to cover up criminal human rights violations

Senator Feinstein knows as much about the CIA’s detention & torture programs under the Bush administration — which went well beyond the acts depicted in photographs from Abu Ghraib — as anyone outside the CIA. She described them as “un-American and brutal,” and her colleague Mark Udall (D-CO) called them both “brutal and ineffective.”

Beyond their brutality, ineffectiveness as an intelligence tool, and violation of fundamental American values and foreign policy interests, the programs were also international crimes at least partly responsible for the deaths of US military servicemembers. Releasing the Senate’s authoritative, 6,000 page, $40 million report to the public is long overdue—especially for an administration that falsely champions transparency while routinely undermining it.

While the CIA’s torture prompted Feinstein to begin her committee’s investigation, it was the agency’s continuing cover up that prompted her to voice her concerns on the Senate floor in a speech described by her colleague Patrick Leahy (D-VT) as the most important he had ever witnessed in his 40 year career in the Senate.

Feinstein revealed that CIA personnel removed files from the computers used by Senate staff to conduct their investigation, and that a CIA lawyer himself complicit in human rights abuses has tried to intimidate Senate investigators by outrageously seeking their prosecution—for obtaining an internal CIA document confirming facts the Agency is trying to continue covering up.

Ultimately, the CIA’s attempt to limit what material its congressional overseers can review smacks of self-interest, and reflects a evasion of accountability for severe institutional crimes. Brennan’s confirmation by the committee last spring entitled him to lead the CIA, not to place it above the law.

NSA: Lies to Congress and the public to cover up mass surveillance

Observers from across the political spectrum have agreed that Director of National Intelligence James Clapper either misled Congress, or lied outright when asked a straightforward question by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) in a March 2013 Senate hearing.

With advance notice, Clapper was asked whether the NSA collects “any type of data at all on millions…of Americans.” He answered, “No sir. Not wittingly.” In June, the Snowden revelations shocked the globe and proved that his statement was simply not true, in addition to self-serving.

Many people have gone to prison for less significant lies than that.

Responding to Clapper’s admittedly false answer to Wyden, seven Republican members of Congress wrote to the Attorney General in December seeking a Justice Department investigation into potential perjury. They correctly noted that “Congressional oversight depends on truthful testimony,” which is why “witnesses cannot be allowed to lie to Congress.”

Members of Congress from both parties, and both chambers, are not alone in calling for accountability: Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington called for an investigation nearly a year ago, followed by the Bill of Rights Defense Committee and grassroots activists and organizations from across the country.

Obama: On the sidelines while his legacy is sealed

How else might we describe demonstrably false, self-serving statements by NSA officials paid by taxpayers to perform a public service, or CIA efforts to secretly hamstring investigations into their activities by the elected officials charged to oversee them? In any country that claims to be a democracy, the most elegant answer is a single word — corruption — with crucial connotations for a contemporary debate that remains limited, even after the Snowden revelations.

As members of Congress have challenged executive agencies covering up their crimes, President Obama has absurdly attempted to evade responsibility. This maneuver, like his initial decision to “look forward, not back” on torture, is what I described then as “an illegal capitulation to illegitimate political interests carrying profound consequences for human rights and freedom both in the U.S. and around the world.”

President Obama’s evasion is the antithesis of President Truman’s reminder that “the buck stops here,” and undermines his own prior commitment to releasing at least parts of the Senate’s torture report. Coming from an administration that has accepted poorly-deserved awards for transparency in ironically appropriate secret meetings, its tacit support for executive lawlessness is a spectacular — though entirely unsurprising — failure.

This post was originally published on March 17 at the People’s Blog for the Constitution.

Killing us softly

1:48 pm in Uncategorized by Shahid Buttar

John Brennan - Caricature

John Brennan - Caricature

Why Holder’s letter carries little water

Last week, Senator Rand Paul (R-TX) forced a long overdue conversation in Washington about checks and balances on executive power. Yet few observers recognize the ultimate importance of his actions, or why the Senate’s confirmation of the new CIA director remained premature.

Prompted by Sen. Paul’s filibuster last Wednesday, Attorney General Holder wrote a letter the following day, acknowledging that our government lacks authority to execute Americans within the US without trial.

His concession is welcome, but must be taken with a grain of salt. It behooves observers to understand why, for several reasons, Holder’s statement may be less secure than we would ideally hope.

Accepting disclosure without investigation

Much of the controversy surrounding Brennan’s nomination concerned mere disclosure: whether the executive branch would let Congress read the administration’s legal analysis governing the targeted assassination program. President Obama apparently heard the message, admitting in his State of the Union address that more transparency is required.

The result proved underwhelming. One congressional committee received a single legal memo among several, which did not even purport to delineate the boundaries of the assassination program, but rather explored the use of deadly authority against a single target among several hundred who have been killed, including at least four US citizens.

Mere disclosure of some OLC memos to some Senators is insufficient.

Meaningful congressional oversight requires full access to all the legal memos, as well as active investigation of the underlying facts. It is not enough to simply read executive legal analyses paying lip service to constitutional values routinely violated on the ground.

The congressional intelligence committees, after all, were founded after robust investigations revealed widespread abuses by intelligence agencies, including the CIA, spanning decades and the terms of several presidents. Factual investigation has revealed more recent abuses, as well.

Last year, the Senate Intelligence Committee concluded a thorough investigation of torture, which produced a report recognizing torture as an international human rights abuse that ultimately undermined US national security by producing false intelligence, eroding pro American sentiment abroad, and helping our enemies recruit foot soldiers.

Yet, reflecting its pattern of embracing secrecy while claiming transparency, the Obama administration has refused to declassify the report. It is only because neither the press nor the public know the facts that irresponsible Hollywood fiction proved so problematic and controversial.

Forgotten in commentary on Brennan’s confirmation were some troubling details suggesting that, on both torture and drone strikes, transparency remains inadequate.

First, Senators had to fight tooth & nail to secure even the most minimal disclosure from the White House. Second, other congressional committees also sought access to the OLC assassination memos, but were denied.

Finally, beyond disclosure of the OLC’s legal memos are important questions about how the standards in them are applied to real facts. The Obama administration and CIA still refuse to answer congressional questions beyond the memos—such as, “How much evidence does the President need to determine that a particular American can be lawfully killed?” These questions are crucial, but Brennan’s confirmation could ensure that Congress receives few answers.

How the facts suggest elastic powers
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Will Obama’s second term finally fulfill his 2008 promises? (Part I)

5:37 pm in Uncategorized by Shahid Buttar

This article was originally published on the People’s Blog for the Constitution and is the first in a forthcoming series articulating specific civil liberties recommendations for the second Obama administration.

President Obama’s reelection has sparked an onslaught of analysis attempting to define the agenda for his second term. Will it reflect the vision of restoring liberty and security on which the president ran in 2008, or the disappointing passivity towards the national security state that characterized his first term?

More to the point, will President Obama’s legacy include emerging American authoritarianism, or instead the recovery of constitutional freedoms lost over the past decade? While machinations in Washington will of course influence the answer, We the People will play a crucial role, well beyond the 2012 election, in determining the outcome.

Obama’s legacy of constitutional violations

With the broad strokes that history affords the past, any president’s legacy usually shrinks within a decade to two or three elements. For instance, Clinton is remembered for presiding over the tech boom and resulting federal surplus, dismantling welfare and escalating mass incarceration, and surviving a partisan impeachment effort prompted by sophomoric sexual indiscretion.

George H. W. Bush’s legacy includes the first Iraq war, failing to energize the economy, and a premature pledge not to raise taxes. We remember Ronald Reagan for overcoming the Soviet Union and its satellites (even if his methods ensured the contemporary budget crisis, created al-Qaeda, and emboldened Iran), heralding “morning in America” to end a recession, and after surviving an assassination attempt, conveniently growing unable to recall more or less anything about compounding scandals that stained his second term.

In these broad strokes, President Obama’s legacy will likely include memories of the historic debate over healthcare policy in 2009, and the recurring budget crises that, combined with GOP intransigence, have periodically brought Washington to a standstill under his administration. The most enduring part of his legacy, however, will be the entrenchment of the national security state on his watch.

Beyond merely failing to reverse the trajectory of the Bush-Cheney administration, Obama’s first term extended it, pioneering new abuses while entrenching old ones.

Unlike Obama, Bush & Cheney never asserted the authority to kill US citizens based on their speech.

Unlike Obama, Bush & Cheney never signed into a law a statute granting the military the power to detain any American without evidence or proof of crime.

While Bush & Cheney violated international law by authorizing torture, it took the Obama administration to decide  that such criminal acts would go unpunished (or even investigated), ensuring their recurrence and nailing the coffin of international human rights.

The Obama administration’s prosecution of whistleblowers who sacrifice their jobs to defend the public interest has reached unprecedented levels, as have deportations of undocumented workers, their families, and occasionally, even US citizens. Rather than repudiate the Bush & Cheney paradigm, Obama has unfortunately perpetuated it.

A former President’s warning

50 years ago, a president with the deepest military roots among any who has held office since then–no mere General, but the Supreme Allied Commander during World War II, Dwight “Ike” Eisenhower — issued a disturbing warning about a threat to our democracy posed by “an immense military establishment and a large arms industry” that, together, he described as “the military-industrial complex.” President Eisenhower said, in no uncertain terms, that:

“[W]e must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence…by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.

We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.”

Ike observed the larval stages of a dynamic that has grown only more pernicious since he left office. In the decade since 9/11, under Presidents Bush and Obama alike, our military-industrial complex has initiated not only various military conflicts abroad, but also a domestic war on the constitutional rights of the American people.

Secret and increasingly immune to public accountability, if not above the law altogether, and insulated from accountability by elected leaders from each of the major political parties, an alphabet soup of federal agencies has emerged to pursue a duplicative, wasteful, and constitutionally abusive national security agenda.

Eisenhower proved prescient. True to his prediction, the contemporary national security racket offends all Americans, regardless of ideology.

Casualties of the national security state: transparency, accountability, and legitimacy

First, it has erected such pervasive secrecy that it threatens the basis for democratic accountability, subverting the consent of the governed on which democratic  legitimacy depends. For years, the NSA operated its dragnet warrantless wiretapping scheme in total secrecy, not only unauthorized by statute, but in direct violation of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) enacted by Congress in the 1970s to stop domestic spying.

Every federal court ever to review the program on the merits has struck it down as unconstitutional, yet it persists unabated. Congress bent over backward to rewrite the FISA law in 2008, and appellate courts have thrown out numerous lawsuits challenging it based on the perverse reasoning that, because the NSA’s program is secret, no plaintiffs can prove that they, in particular, have been monitored.

Officials have admitted to violating even the permissive new law. Members of Congress have asked tough questions and received only silence in response. Yet, reflecting a disturbing pattern of bipartisan abdication repeated over the past decade, the House recently voted to reauthorize the 2008 FISA amendments for another five years, even beyond the next administration.

Secret programs violating contrived statutes, especially with the blessing of (supposedly) independent courts, make a mockery of our claim to live in “a land of the free.”

Further installments in this series will examine the ideologically diverse social movements abused by misguided and constitutionally offensive domestic spying activities, as well as the contribution of those programs to the federal budget crisis. The series will conclude by suggesting not one, but two alternative national security agendas for President Obama’s second term.

Photo by leighblackall under Creative Commons license.

Washington dishonors our veterans

5:42 pm in Uncategorized by Shahid Buttar

This Veterans Day, it’s worth noting how, while paying lip service to honoring our veterans, our leaders systematically abuse their legacy, expose current servicemembers to potential human rights violations, and degrade the nation they have risked their lives to defend.

The day before the PATRIOT Act’s 10 year anniversary last month, I was visiting the San Francisco Bay Area for a series of speaking engagements. The afternoon of Tuesday, October 25, I visited a journalism class at the University of California Berkeley to discuss the First Amendment. It was during the class that the Oakland Police Department began gassing peaceful protesters just a few miles down the road at Occupy Oakland. After class was over, I headed to downtown Oakland, encountered some police violence myself, and witnessed the aftermath of Iraq veteran Scott Olsen suffering a fractured skull at the hands of the Oakland police department.

It’s one thing, to use the words of President Eisenhower, for our country’s military industrial complex to co-opt taxpayer money, create entire industries dedicated to death and destruction, and skew our foreign policy to encourage war and militarism. That same industrial complex now sells to local police departments technologies initially developed for the military to use in war, from rural sheriffs’ offices using aerial drones, to monitoring neighborhoods with license plate scanners, to local police deploying the mobile sonic cannon to quell dissent in Oakland two weeks ago.

The domestic intelligence industrial complex is apparent in other, even more disturbing, ways. Under the guise of a program to deport undocumented immigrants, government agencies are constructing the Next Generation Initiative, a national identification system based on biometric data like fingerprints, facial and voice recognition, iris scans, and potentially even DNA—turning our bodies themselves as identification cards. Working with America’s local law enforcement agencies, the FBI has already rolled out this pervasive biometric data collection.

These are not the rights for which our veterans risked their lives.

For 60 years, we have prided ourselves on being the nation that ended torture and human experimentation, at the cost of a World War and tens of millions of lives. In only 10 short years, we have abandoned those principles. As I’ve written before:

Bush and Cheney succeeded in doing what neither Nazi Germany nor the Soviet Union could: eviscerate American values and undermine our grandest foreign policy accomplishments since the turn of the 20th century. And while President Obama’s aim to “look forward, not backward,” may resemble a thoughtful political compromise, it is an illegal capitulation to illegitimate political interests carrying profound consequences for human rights and freedom both in the U.S. and around the world.

Our nation’s leaders, from both major political parties, have left behind not only the prohibition on torture our veterans once fought to establish, but alsoany pretense of accountability for human rights abuses—effectively ensuring that torture and forced confessions will rear their ugly heads in the future. Forced confessions will abuse not only the rights of those false accused and wrongfully convicted, but also our justice system, which will lose whatever shred of legitimacy it still claims after having already imprisoned millions for trivial offenses while letting human rights abusers (like Judge Jay Bybee) run amok and continue to claim power.

We have lost World War II—to ourselves—in a time of relative peace, two generations after achieving victory at incalculable cost.

This is not the vision for which our veterans fought.

We give thanks today for our veterans and their sacrifices, and we remember and honor the principles they defended. They paid in blood to protect liberty and human rights. It is a shame on our nation and the world that we have abandoned those principles with such glaring indifference.

 

The greatest casualty of 9/11: The America we knew

11:31 am in Uncategorized by Shahid Buttar

LibertyReflections on the 9/11 attacks are important and moving. But most overlook the enduring legacy of the attacks, in the form of the vastly greater damage done to American principles over the past decade. Whether in the context of surveillance, torture, or the congressional cowardice that has enabled them, our leaders have sullied the legacy of an America that once inspired the world.

Earlier this summer, when facing a crucial accountability moment for an agency that continues to abuse the rights of millions of Americans, members of Congress asked no tough questions, avoided controversy, and submitted to a White House proposal to entrench the FBI leadership—at the same time as they fought to the knuckles over issues that Congress created in the first place by spending the country into a fiscal black hole and absurdly cutting taxes in the midst of multiple wars.

Most astounding in all this is Congress’s apparent abandonment of its own institutional interests. Even in the face of documented lies by the FBI’s leadership to congressional committees and repeated proof that Congress, the press, and the public are hearing only tiny slices of the whole truth, Congress has failed to use its many tools to seek transparency and investigate executive abuses.

There was a time that America’s leaders took seriously their oaths to defend the Constitution by conducting aggressive oversight of executive agencies. A generation ago, for instance, the Church and Pike Committees investigated many of the same practices that have recurred in the past decade. The failure of their successors in Congress threatens the future of democracy in America and reflects a disturbing pattern of congressional submission to executive power.

Congress began lining up to defend executive abuses in the face of public criticism soon after the 9/11 attacks. Special registration requirements, the PATRIOT Act’s draconian surveillance powers, unprecedented authorities to arbitrarily—and indefinitely—detain individuals on the mere basis of accusation, and major revisions to the FBI Guidelines all generated little debate in Congress.

And while we might find comfort in the hope that a counter-movement would emerge, that hope is misplaced. Despite running on a platform announcing that the “choice between liberty and security” was “false,” the Obama administration has continued—and even expanded—the Bush administration’s surveillance and secrecy. And by reversing course on accountability for torture, the Obama administration affirmed that criminals with enough political connections would receive judges’ robes rather than prison terms.

Even when ordered by multiple courts to release evidence of detainee abuse, the White House refused. In fall 2009, in the midst of a year-long battle to extend healthcare to 42 million underinsured Americans, Congress took less than a week to change the law at the Obama administration’s request so that evidence of the Bush administration’s abuses would remain hidden from the public. This, after abandoning Obama’s original nominee to lead the Office of Legal Counsel at the Justice Department because she favored applying the law equally to all accused criminals, regardless of their political position.

Leave aside that hiding evidence of detainee abuse places our soldiers at risk abroad by driving the recruitment efforts of violent extremists and effectively inviting our enemies to treat our troops in the same inhumane way. Ignore the 2.3 million Americans rotting behind bars—25 percent of the world’s prisoners, in the nation that claims to lead the free world—while politically connected criminals enjoy power, prestige, and even lifetime judicial office. Forget about the sacrifices of the soldiers who gave their lives in WWII to usher in a lost era of peace, or how human rights precedents that our nation established in Nuremberg have been wrecked by our unwillingness to pursue uncomfortable truths.

Think instead about how the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) came to be: through controversy stoked by grassroots activists who broke into an FBI office and elite critics who used their findings to spark a two-year congressional investigation documenting heinous abuses by FBI and CIA officials. The FOIA stood for 40 years, but when courts interpreted it to require the revelation of Pentagon crimes, Congress quickly joined President Obama to change the law. “Move along. Nothing to see here…”

Think about why the CIA destroyed videotapes documenting torture. And then remember the debate in the wake of Osama bin Laden’s elimination over whether to revive torture, even though the Defense Department said it was unhelpful and claimed to have ended the practice.

The American people voted in 2008 for change, including restoring constitutional protections against unchecked secret dragnet surveillance and accountability for human rights abuses. The abject failure of our government to reflect that mandate reflects how perverted our republic has grown. For a project that took two and a half centuries to build, the past decade has been catastrophic for democracy in America. When future generations look back on our failures, the attacks of a decade ago will be the least of their concerns.


Ten years ago on September 11, 2001, the United States suffered the worst terrorist attack in the nation’s history. In the panic of the weeks that followed, the American government began changing its counterterrorism policies in ways that undermined constitutionally guaranteed civil liberties, culminating in the passage of the USA PATRIOT Act on October 26, 2001. Within two weeks of that law’s passage, on November 10, 2001, organizers in Massachusetts founded the Bill of Rights Defense Committee to fight against that dangerous law and others that followed.

To mark the tenth anniversary of these pivotal events in American history and of our organization itself, the Bill of Rights Defense Committee is running a series of articles looking back on the last ten years. This post is part of that series.