Friday, May 27, 2005

Your Pocket Guide to the Patriot Act

A lot of people don’t understand what’s wrong with the Patriot Act. With many of its most heinous provisions up for renewal this year - and conservatives like Senator Pat Roberts (R-KS) looking to expand the law’s reach even further - now’s a good time for a little primer. Ready? Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a long and bumpy ride.

Let’s say you’re having coffee with your new friend Ahmed. Neither of you know it, but Ahmed is on a Federal watchlist. (In fact, “Ahmed the Tall” is one of the names on the government’s No Fly list, according to the ACLU.) Maybe Ahmed is a terrorist. Maybe he’s merely a middle-eastern exchange student who’s politically active. Or maybe he’s just really really tall. Regardless, there’s now a laundry van across the street with three FBI agents inside, and they’re recording his (and your) every move.

At the end of your conversation, Ahmed hands you his card. You kiss each other on the cheek. Congratulations, you are now part of the Ahmed investigation.

Under the Patriot Act, you don’t have to be a terrorist, or even do anything wrong, to be investigated. Anyone deemed “relevant” to a terror investigation is fair game.

Once that happens, the FBI can wiretap your phone-and not just one phone, but every phone you ever use (what’s known as a “roving wiretap”). That means they’re also eavesdropping on your coworkers, your family, and your friends. To get the wiretap approved, the Feds must go before one of 11 Federal judges who’ve been appointed to the FISA court by the Chief Justice. (FISA stands for Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978.)

Since 2001, the Feds have applied for 5,645 wiretaps under the FISA rules. The court has turned down exactly three requests. That’s a success rate of 99.93%. Even rubber stamps--and I mean the really good, expensive kind--aren’t that reliable.

But a wiretap is only the start. The Feds can break into your house while you’re not home and take a look around. They eventually have to tell you that they did a “sneak and peek,” but with a friendly judge they can delay notification indefinitely. As of April 2005, the FBI had requested and obtained 155 ‘delayed notification’ warrants.

Wait, it gets better. G-men can go to your local library and ask them what books you’ve checked out (hope you aren’t studying Islamic history). They can go to your doctor and demand your medical records (hope you haven’t had an abortion, an HIV test, or treatment for an STD). They can go to your ISP and find out every Web site you’ve visited. They can go to your boss and copy all your personnel records. And so on. And if they use a National Security Letter to do it, they don’t even need a judge’s approval; all they need is the right letterhead. (NSL’s were ruled unconstitutional by a Federal judge last September, but the DOJ is appealing the ruling.)

We don’t know how many National Security Letters the FBI has issued. In January 2003, when the Electronic Privacy Information Center demanded an accounting of NSLs under the Freedom of Information Act, they received a list six pages long--with every piece of information blacked out.

Oh, and by the way, your boss, doctor, librarian, and ISP aren’t allowed to tell you they’ve ratted you out. That means you can’t challenge any of this in court. Odds are you will never even know. So if the Feds made a mistake, and you were really having coffee with Ahmed the Slightly Larger Than Average…. well, there’s a nice fat FBI file somewhere with your name on it. Hope you’re living a clean life.

Of course, the FBI would only use its special powers against really bad evil nasty bomb-throwing terrorists. Right? Well, not exactly.

The Act also covers money laundering, computer fraud, drug trafficking, and other crimes tangential to terrorism. As reported by the New York Times, it’s been used for hundreds of purely criminal cases, such as stolen trade secrets, child porn, forgery, identity theft, smuggling, and more. A GAO report in January 2003 found that more than half of the 266 “terror” convictions claimed by the DOJ had nothing to do with terrorism.

In fact, law enforcement has discovered the Patriot Act is a neat way to get around pesky rules concerning due process, illegal searches and self-incrimination-better known as the 4th and 5th Amendments.

OK, fine. Terrorists and criminals (and those who unwittingly have coffee with them) are targets. How about people whose only crime has been that they disagree with Our Fair Government?

According to the Patriot Act, American citizens cannot be investigated “solely because of First Amendment-protected activities.” This has two interesting implications. One is that if you’re not a U.S. Citizen-say you’re a middle-eastern exchange student - you can be investigated solely because of what you say. The second corollary is that you can be investigated for political activities as long as the Feds can cook up another reason to go after you.

In July 2004, members of the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force visited an estimated 40 activists around the country and interviewed them regarding protests planned for the summer’s political conventions. Three young men in St. Louis were tailed for several days and ordered to appear before a grand jury on the day they were scheduled to be in Boston at the Democratic Convention-effectively scuttling their ability to protest. If that’s not a violation of their First Amendment rights, then I’m Ann Coulter in drag.

In that same month, members of the JTTF along with Denver Police SWAT team raided offices for the Derailer Bicycle Collective (a group that repairs bikes and distributes them to the poor) and Food Not Bombs. Perhaps the Feds had them confused with that other group, Bombs Not Food. Or perhaps they feared an attack from terrorists on ten speeds armed with prepackaged meals.

So our Patriot Act roster now reads suspected terrorists, alleged criminals, left-wing political activists, and people who love lattes. Who else is on the list? How about someone who visits the wrong library or checks out the wrong book?

In an op-ed piece in USA Today, Joan Airoldi describes how her library in Washington state was approached by the FBI in June 2004. The Feds demanded a list of everyone who had checked out a particular biography of Osama Bin Laden since November 2001. To its credit, the library challenged the order, calling it a “fishing expedition.” The FBI backed down.

Imagine being investigated by the FBI merely because you wanted to learn more about Osama Bin Laden. Or being interrogated for 90 minutes simply because of books you bought over the Internet.

In October 2004, this happened to the Reverend Raymond Payne as he was crossing the U.S./Canada border. Payne was on an FBI watchlist, despite the fact that he belongs to no terrorist organizations (unless you consider the Methodist Church a terrorist organization), has never engaged in a political protest, and whose lone brush with the law consists of a single traffic ticket. But he did buy copies of the Koran on the Internet, to educate his parishioners about Islam following 9/11. Or maybe it was simply a case of mistaken identity; perhaps there’s a watchlist with Raymond the Religious on it.

Nobody is saying the Feds don’t need help in fighting actual flesh-and-blood terrorists. And if the FBI were infallible and incorruptible, I’d say the Patriot Act is a troubling but necessary piece of legislation. However, the FBI is neither of those things, and this Act needs to close.

If you agree with that statement, you’re in good company. At last count, some 375 cities and five states have passed resolutions condemning the Act.

And it’s not just us bleeding-heart pinkos. Bob Barr, former Republican senator from Georgia and board member of the NRA, is an outspoken opponent. Here’s what he recently wrote in a Washington Times Op-Ed about the Patriot Act:

“We believe that allowing federal agents to secretly search individuals' homes and businesses without notification, poses a grave threat to the fundamental freedoms our Fourth Amendment was written to protect.”

What can you do about it? As tiresome as it sounds, you should write/call/email your congressfolk and senators. Urge them to permit the worst parts of the Act to expire (or “sunset”), and to provide more independent oversight for the parts that don’t. Even if this won’t alter their vote (and in my home state of NC, it surely won’t) they’ll at least be aware of how deeply the Act is reviled.

Urge your local city council to adopt a resolution opposing the Patriot Act. Talk to your friends and neighbors; don’t let them buy the BS spewing from the White House that it’s all about fighting terrorism. It’s not. It’s about creating a Soviet-style police state where privacy and dissent no longer exist.

Lillian Hellman titled her account of the McCarthy witch hunts “Scoundrel Time.” We are living in another era much like it. But now it’s time for scoundrel time to end.

Monday, May 23, 2005


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Sunday, May 15, 2005

Bicycles and Press Cycles

After 4.5 years of the Bush II Epoch, we’ve finally figured out what it takes to get the attention of the White House press corps. No, not that smoking gun British intelligence memo that suggests the Bushies deliberately manufactured “evidence” of WMDs to justify the war in Iraq. Not the ethics investigations multiplying like paramecia, or even the specter of a male hooker cavorting in the Lincoln Bedroom.

Nope, it was a bike ride.

Last Wednesday, when a two-seater Cessna ventured into restricted airspace over Washington DC, all Hell broke loose. Security officials feared the plane could be carrying anthrax spores or something radioactive, like lobbyist checks made out to Tom DeLay. So they evacuated 30,000 federal employees in 15 minutes.

Things quickly grew comical. According to an AP report, DC police lifted Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi right out of her shoes and carried her down the Capitol steps like a rolled-up carpet.

The secret service hustled Dick Cheney, Laura Bush and former dragon-lady-in-residence Nancy Reagan to a secure bunker, and apparently left Donald Rumsfeld in charge. Per Reuters:

“Vice President Dick Cheney who was at the White House at the time was quickly evacuated, and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was told about the incident around the time it happened, his spokesman said, and was ready to make any "necessary decisions."

But they neglected to inform the Leader of the Free World that his wife and cronies were getting ready to kiss their asses goodbye until 36 minutes after the crisis was over. Why? Because Bush was busy riding his bike in the Maryland woods with an old high school pal.

Bush was understandably eager to finish his ride – apparently he’d just taken off the training wheels. But still, White House reporters wanted to know, why wasn’t he informed? And if Bush wasn’t running the country during what could have been its biggest crisis since 9/11, who was?

For once, the press discovered it had teeth. The exchange between press secretary Scott McClellan and the members of the 4th estate is fascinating and worth a read. Here’s just one of many great questions:

Q I think there's a disconnect here because, I mean, yesterday you had more than 30,000 people who were evacuated, you had millions of people who were watching this on television, and there was a sense at some point -- it was a short window, a 15-minute window, but there was a sense of confusion among some on the streets. There was a sense of fear. And people are wondering was this not a moment for the President to exercise some leadership, some guidance during that period of time? Was this not a missed opportunity for the President to speak out and at least clarify what -- that he was informed, and what was taking place at that time? If not even during the 15-minute window, why not later in the day?

There are a dozen more just like it. (You can find the full transcript here; Editor and Publisher excerpted many of the good bits.)

Needless to say, McClellan was peddling even harder than the President, trying to contain a press corps hungry for blood.

Wouldn’t it have been great if the press had acted like this during, say, the run up to the Iraq war? Or the non-investigations on intelligence failures and 9/11? Or a dozen other occasions where the American people were being fed a steaming pile of horseshit and being told it was hors d’oeuvres?

Here’s my theory on why the press suddenly got pissed. When the White House was evacuated, many reporters weren’t told. The emergency PA system installed for that purpose was never used, so several reporters were left there watching the commotion and holding each other’s johnsons (Helen Thomas excluded).

But their questions cut right to the heart of this sham presidency: From My Pet Goat to Georgie’s Big Adventure, the guy who got elected isn’t the one making the big decisions. So who is?

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Just Sit Right Back and You’ll Hear a Tale…

Have you ever noticed that the longer the Bush Administration stays in power, the more it resembles a TV sitcom?

When the CIA isn’t playing Maxwell Smart, it’s channeling Sergeant Schultz from Hogan’s Heroes. (“Vee see notink! Vee know notink!”) Dick Cheney continues to cling to the theory that Saddam Hussein moved all those weapons of mass destruction to Syria before the war. Like Samantha in Bewitched, Saddam twitched his nose and the WMDs were in Damascus.

And the Department of Homeland Security? Well, it’s really the Department of Homer Simpson.

The New York Times reports that the DHS has spent more than $15 billion on security equipment that’s decrepit and comically useless, and they’re planning to fork out another $7 billion more. They’d be better off spending the money on cat toys.

According to the Times, the DHS spent around $500 million on “highly sophisticated” portals to scan cargo containers for radioactive materials. But by “highly sophisticated,” the department actually meant old and feeble:

“The portal-monitor technology has been used for decades by the scrap metal industry. Customs officials at Newark have nicknamed the devices "dumb sensors," because they cannot discern the source of the radiation. That means benign items that naturally emit radioactivity - including cat litter, ceramic tile, granite, porcelain toilets, even bananas - can set off the monitors.”

Personally, I am shocked, utterly shocked. Cat litter is radioactive? Suddenly it becomes clear why every cat I’ve ever owned has been psychotic. Every time little Snuffles goes wee she’s getting free radicals up the wazoo.

I now know what the terrorists are going to do next: Pack the dirty bombs inside a bag of Tidy Cats. Sure, they’ll wipe out the entire population of Cleveland, but the place will smell like a pine forest after a summer rain.

Here’s another little gem:

“The Transportation Security Administration bought 1,344 machines costing more than $1 million each to search for explosives in checked bags by examining the density of objects inside. But innocuous items as varied as Yorkshire pudding and shampoo bottles, which happen to have a density similar to certain explosives, can set off the machines, causing false alarms for 15 percent to 30 percent of all luggage…”

‘By God they’ve got Yorkshire pudding! Take cover boys, pasties and crumpets may be next!’ I always suspected Tony Blair’s brain-dead support of Bush was just a ruse. Now his secret plan has been revealed: to overwhelm US defenses with scary British food.

There’s more. They’ve spent more than half a billion dollars on postal scanners that do a fabulous job of detecting anthrax spores (but nothing else, just anthrax). They’ve dropped more than $200 million on air monitoring gear that will detect major biological weapons attacks… just 36 hours after they’ve occurred. So the DHS can figure out why you’re bleeding from every orifice, but won’t be able to do anything about it. We’d have done better by installing canaries on every street corner.

And yet the department stands firm in its belief it’s doing a bang-up job.

“We have created a much more formidable deterrent,” said Mark O. Hatfield Jr., a spokesperson for the Transportation Safety Administration, who was apparently hired because he is able to utter statements like that without giggling.

Then again, you’d expect nothing less from a government whose chief executive is really Gilligan in a suit.

Hey li’l buddy, wanna win the war on terrorism?

Friday, May 06, 2005

The War on (T)error

Earlier this year the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of the Inspector General decided it was no longer going notify the press when it issues a report. In other words, the IG’s office would quietly post the reports to its site (as required by Federal law), shut its eyes tight and hope no one noticed.

I bet you didn’t know that the DHS has an Inspector General’s office that issues regular reports on fraud, waste, and mismanagement in the fight against terror. And if you’ve ever read any of the reports, you’d understand why they keep such a low profile.

On March 18, for example, the IG issued a report on “irregularities” in the construction of a $19 million crisis management center in Herndon, Virginia. These included:

  • A 4200-square-foot gym for the building’s 79 employees, which works out to 54 square feet per employee, assuming everyone works out at exactly the same time;

  • Commercial cable TV service in 45 of the 55 lavish offices (tuned to Fox News, no doubt); and

  • Seven kitchens, some equipped with $3,000 Subzero refrigerators. (Because if there’s anything terrorists hate more than our freedoms, it’s our refrigerators. If you’ve ever tried to chill a six pack in the Saudi desert, you’d understand.)

But wait, it gets better. The manager of the construction project spent $500,000 on artwork and silk flowers, then tried to bury the cost in invoices marked “tools and equipment.” The beneficiary of this largesse was a local tool company with whom the manager had “a prior business and personal relationship,” according to the report. Said project manager soon left the TSA to start a new company with--yes, you’ve guessed it, his friends at the tool company–snagging a $34,000 raise with stock options. The report concludes that the former employee “may have breached the requirement to avoid the appearance of ethical violations.” Rest assured he will receive a black mark on his record and a stern talking-to.

Unfortunately for the DHS, this report got picked up by the New York Times and CNN, though it failed to achieve the media saturation of a severed finger in someone’s custard, Paula Abdul banging a 22-year-old American Idol contestant, or the runaway bride who wasn’t.

This is hardly the first time the pigocracy has lavished taxpayer money on creature comforts or been caught with its snout in the trough. But snorfle the IG report archive (some six clicks down from the DHS home page) and you’ll find a basketful of such truffles.

Here’s a small sample:

* On April 1, 2003, a DHS employee sent an April Fools email declaring that one of its detainees, an illegal alien and convicted kidnapper, was now eligible for release. (Apparently this is what passes for fun over at the DHS—such a jolly little crew they must be.) So a deportation officer who read the email cut the kidnapper loose. The DO didn’t read all the way to the end of the message, which noted that it was an April Fool’s joke, or a second email to that effect sent 8 minutes later. Fortunately, the detainee turned himself after a few days of freedom. The prank emailer was put on “paid administration leave” for six months—yes, that’s right, he got a six-month paid vacation--and was then docked a month’s pay. The IG discovered that the DHS had no written policy for approving the release of detainees, so each department was just winging it.

* In 2002, the TSA contracted with Boeing to test 30,000 airport screeners on their ability to operate machines that detect explosives hidden in baggage. Prospective screeners were asked to complete a test with 25 written questions. Just to make extra sure they passed, the screeners were given 22 of the 25 questions ahead of time and were allowed to look up the answers.

The questions weren’t exactly head-scratchers, either. To quote the Washington Times:
One question asks "why is it important to screen bags for IEDs? (improvised explosive devices)." Multiple-choice answers included "ticking timer could worry other passengers," "batteries could leak and damage other passenger bags," or the wires could "cause a short to the aircraft wires." The correct answer is that "IEDs can cause loss of lives, property and aircraft."
The IG’s August 2003 report concludes that “The protocol that TSA adopted maximized the likelihood that students would pass.” And why not? Isn’t providing jobs for 30,000 hard working Americans worth a few midair explosions?

* In a report issued this March, the IG exonerated the TSA for obtaining millions of passenger name records from airlines, despite publicly (and indignantly) denying that it had engaged in any such practice. The report contained this particularly delightful slice of bureaucratese:
“In 2003 and 2004, TSA officials made inaccurate statements regarding these transfers that undermined public trust in the agency. These misstatements were apparently not meant to mischaracterize known facts. Instead, they were premised on an incomplete understanding of the underlying facts at the time the statements were made.”
In other words, they lied, but they didn’t know they were lying, and even if they did know they were lying, it wasn’t their fault.

There are more examples, available to anyone willing to dig deep into the DHS Web site to find them. While the Inspector General’s office continues to air the DHS’s dirty laundry, they’re hanging it in a dark basement in an unmarked building. That’s standard operating procedure for most government agencies, particularly in the Bush Era.

But the DHS isn’t your run-of-the-mill $40 billion bureaucracy. This is the most invasive agency we have. The odds of having the FBI do a sneak-and-peak on your home are slim, but the chances of having your bag riffled by the TSA--if not a pat down or a strip search--are lock-solid-certain, unless you plan to take the bus for the rest of your life.

We’ve given up basic civil liberties – such as the ability to travel within our own borders without showing identification, or to avoid searches without probable cause – in order to feel safer.

Public scrutiny is vital to making sure the agency does its job without abusing its power. Sweeping embarrassments under the carpet only makes us less safe.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Dan reads his last blog entry to an audience of zero.

MP3 File

God Denies Connections to Controversial Evangelist

Almighty creator says he’s never spoken to Pat Robertson

Virginia Beach, VA -- God appeared today on a mountaintop overlooking eastern Virginia to deny any connection to the Reverend Pat Robertson.

“I have only two words to say,” said the Creator of Heaven and Earth. “Pat who?”

In televised remarks last Sunday, Robertson reaffirmed his belief that “activist Democrat judges” were worse than the terrorists who blew up the World Trade Center, and that Muslims should not be allowed to serve as Federal judges.

Over the past 20 years, the former presidential candidate claims to have received instructions directly from God on a wide range of issues, including politics, terrorism, and the economy.

“I’ve never spoken to the man,” said the King of Nations. “He must be thinking of the Other Guy.”

A check of phone records for Robertson’s 700 Club Ministry revealed that calls thought to be from the Almighty actually originated from Stinky’s Tavern, a pool hall located four blocks from the Christian Broadcasting Network studios. Bartender Darl Snopes admitted that various patrons had made the prank calls, disguising their voices to sound more omnipotent.

Dressed in a cardigan and plus fours, God said he’d just finished a round at Valhalla Springs, a 1,889,568-hole golf course he constructed after Ben Hogan died.

The Heavenly Father expressed dismay over calls by Robertson, James C. Dobson, Tom Delay, Bill Frist, and the Family Research Council to pray for the removal of judges whose politics they disagreed with.

“Frankly, I can’t believe you listen to these people,” said the Deity. “Back in the day, I’d smite ‘em faster than you can say Judas Iscariot. But I’m retired. It’s your planet now. You broke it, you own it.”

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Wanted: Military Intelligence

You gotta love our military. They create these TV ads that make joining the Army look like you’re playing the world’s coolest video game, while the real Army is run by a bunch of guys frantically searching their computer keyboards for the “any” key.

Three days ago, the U.S. military published a report regarding the shooting of Italian journalist Giuliana Sgrena as she was being driven to the Baghdad airport on March 4. The driver of the car, Italian intelligence agent Nicola Calipari, was killed. The Army says it was the Italians’ fault; Italy begs to differ.

The heavily redacted 42-page report was posted to a U.S. military Web site in Adobe Acrobat (PDF) format with the classified information blacked out. But the techie who created the file was apparently unaware that PDF files travel with the full text of the document intact, and that merely putting black boxes over stuff you want to hide is about as effective as using a Sharpie to draw a line through it on your computer screen.

An Italian blogger was easily able to reconstruct the document using a complicated keystroke sequence that went something like this: ctrl-a (to select the blacked-out text), ctrl-c (to copy it to the Windows clipboard), and ctrl-v (to paste it into a word processing document where the redacted text could be read … automagically!).

(Rest assured that as you read this, Utah Senator Orrin Hatch is cooking up a bill that will make using the ctrl key a Federal crime.)

So the Italian press published the full, completely unredacted report. What exactly had been blacked out? Nothing too serious: just the rules of engagement employed by the U.S. military for dealing with Iraqi terrorist threats. Can’t imagine anyone who might be interested in that.

But that’s not all. Also revealed was the startling statistic that from November 2004 to March of this year there have been 3,306 attacks by Iraqi insurgents, two-thirds of them aimed at coalition forces.

Let me repeat that: There have been more than 3,300 insurgent attacks in Iraq in less than five months. Would anyone out there who watches the news and reads the papers ever have guessed that?

Also revealed were the names and ranks of the soldiers involved, and various recommendations on how the military can avoid such debacles in the future. Like, for example, putting speed bumps near checkpoints on “Route Irish,” the road leading to Baghdad International airport. It’s been two years since “Mission Accomplished” and yet it has apparently never occurred to anyone to install speed bumps, let alone build an alternate route to the airport. Another suggestion: having a second guard in the watchtower, so one guy doesn’t have to both hold a spotlight and fire an automatic weapon at the same time. A fine idea, just a little too late for Nicola Calipari.

I have nothing but admiration and sympathy for the soldiers on the ground. They’ve been asked to do a shitty job in a place where they should never have been sent. As for the soldiers at HQ, I think maybe the military needs to invest in a few thousand copies of Internet for Dummies.

Nonetheless I see some small hope. The U.S. military was forced to do something it is generally loathe to do: It had to admit to a mistake. They couldn’t deny it, blame the media, or claim that everyone else does the same thing too. Perhaps this will start a trend. Perhaps the rest of the government will gradually learn to admit its mistakes – like shooting innocent civilians, or bartering blood for oil.

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