Philip Weiss writes: The lobby is doing its utmost to sandbag the breakthrough agreement between the U.S. and Iran. The Congress is now readying yet more sanctions bills; the Forward says Democrats are backing the legislation or doing nothing to oppose it because “These are the men and the women, after all, who are on a first-name basis with most of the board of AIPAC.” MJ Rosenberg says the Israel lobby is the reason Sens. Tim Kaine, Sherrod Brown and — conspicuously — progressive Elizabeth Warren have been silent on the diplomatic breakthrough.
One reason that supposed liberals can get away with this is that the New York Times and the Washington Post give them no heat. In reporting on the sanctions effort, our leading papers leave out the lobby’s role, allowing the nightflower to remain a nightflower. [Continue reading...]
Time magazine: In a wide-ranging interview with TIME in Tehran on Dec. 7, Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif spoke to writer and Iran expert Robin Wright about how the Geneva nuclear deal came together, how the government has to appeal to Iran’s own parliament not to undermine the interim pact, and how any new sanctions passed by the United States Congress would kill the deal. The agreement, reached between Iran and six world powers in November, calls for a freeze on parts of Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for an easing of sanctions. It is meant to pave the way for a final settlement between Iran and the international community on Iran’s nuclear program. Iran says the program is for civilian purposes only; world powers fear that it has a military component. Speaking in the ornate Foreign Ministry building, Zarif also indicated that Iran might not be wedded to Syria’s President Bashar Assad, a long-time ally, and he said that Iran hoped for a “duly monitored” democratic election in Syria. Iran’s most high-profile cabinet official warned that the deepening sectarianism playing out in Syria does not recognize borders and has implications “on the streets of Europe and America.” [Continue reading...]
Ryan Lizza writes: On March 12, 2013, James R. Clapper appeared before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence to discuss the threats facing America. Clapper, who is seventy-two, is a retired Air Force general and Barack Obama’s director of National Intelligence, in charge of overseeing the National Security Agency, the Central Intelligence Agency, and fourteen other U.S. spy agencies. Clapper is bald, with a gray goatee and rimless spectacles, and his affect is intimidatingly bureaucratic. The fifteen-member Intelligence Committee was created in the nineteen-seventies, after a series of investigations revealed that the N.S.A. and the C.I.A. had, for years, been illegally spying on Americans. The panel’s mission is to conduct “vigilant legislative oversight” of the intelligence community, but more often it treats senior intelligence officials like matinée idols. As the senators took turns at the microphone, greeting Clapper with anodyne statements and inquiries, he obligingly led them on a tour of the dangers posed by homegrown extremists, far-flung terrorist groups, and emerging nuclear powers.
“This hearing is really a unique opportunity to inform the American public to the extent we can about the threats we face as a nation, and worldwide,” Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat and the committee’s chairman, said at one point. She asked committee members to “refrain from asking questions here that have classified answers.” Saxby Chambliss, a Georgia Republican, asked about the lessons of the terrorist attack in Benghazi. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican, asked about the dangers of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood.
Toward the end of the hearing, Feinstein turned to Senator Ron Wyden, of Oregon, also a Democrat, who had a final question. The two senators have been friends. Feinstein held a baby shower for Wyden and his wife, Nancy Bass, before the birth of twins, in 2007. But, since then, their increasingly divergent views on intelligence policy have strained the relationship. “This is an issue where we just have a difference of opinion,” Wyden told me. Feinstein often uses the committee to bolster the tools that spy agencies say they need to protect the country, and Wyden has been increasingly concerned about privacy rights. For almost a decade, he has been trying to force intelligence officials like Clapper to be more forthcoming about spy programs that gather information about Americans who have no connection to terrorism.
Wyden had an uneasy kind of vindication in June, three months after Clapper’s appearance, when Edward Snowden, a former contractor at the N.S.A., leaked pages and pages of classified N.S.A. documents. They showed that, for the past twelve years, the agency has been running programs that secretly collect detailed information about the phone and Internet usage of Americans. The programs have been plagued by compliance issues, and the legal arguments justifying the surveillance regime have been kept from view. Wyden has long been aware of the programs and of the agency’s appalling compliance record, and has tried everything short of disclosing classified information to warn the public. At the March panel, he looked down at Clapper as if he were about to eat a long-delayed meal. [Continue reading...]
Jeff Jarvis writes: Whose side are you on? That is the question MP Keith Vaz asked Alan Rusbridger last week when he challenged the Guardian editor’s patriotism over publishing Edward Snowden’s NSA and GCHQ leaks.
And that is the question answered today by eight tech giants in their letter to the White House and Congress, seeking reform of government surveillance practices worldwide. The companies came down at last on the side of citizens over spies.
Of course, they are also acting in their own economic (albeit enlightened) self-interest, for mass spying via the internet is degrading the publics’, clients’, and other nations’ trust in the cloud and its frequently American proprietors. Spying is bad for the internet; what’s bad for the internet is bad for Silicon Valley; and — to reverse the old General Motors saw — what’s bad for Silicon Valley is bad for America.
But in their letter, the companies stand first and firmly on principle. They propose that government limit its own authority, ending bulk collection of our communication. They urge transparency and oversight of surveillance, which has obviously failed thus far. And they argue against the balkanization of the net and the notion that countries may insist that data respect national borders.
Bravo to all that. I have been waiting for Silicon Valley to establish whether it collectively is a victim or a collaborator in the NSA’s web. I have wondered whether government had commandeered these companies to its ends. I have hoped they would use their power to lobby for our rights. And now I hope government — from Silicon Valley’s senator, NSA fan Dianne Feinstein, to president Obama — will listen.
This is a critical step in sparking real debate over surveillance and civil rights. It was nice that technology companies banded together once before to battle against the overreaching copyright regime known as SOPA and for our ability to watch Batman online. Now they must fight for our fundamental — in America, our constitutional — rights of speech and assembly and against unreasonable search and seizure. ‘Tis a pity it takes eight companies with silly names to do that. [Continue reading...]
The makeup of the band of corporate reformists seems to have been dictated by PowerPoint, which is to say, everyone named on the slides leaked by Snowden wants to salvage their reputation. But the problem with this type of appeal for reform is that it’s no different from the kind that might be made by any toothless advocacy group. Indeed, if these companies just want to present a wish-list of the kind of reform they claim they would like to see, then it’s pretty obvious that if no such reform is forthcoming then it will be back to business as usual.
The only thing about which we can be absolutely confident is that now, as always, corporations will act in accordance with what they determine are their own interests.
The Center for Public Integrity: Most intelligence-related spending by the U.S. government is subject to independent scrutiny and monitoring by a small number of people — primarily, the 40 lawmakers assigned to the House and Senate intelligence committees, plus the roughly 100-member staffs of those two committees.
The lawmakers are meant to provide a key check on waste, fraud, abuse, and potential illegalities, since intelligence-related spending and activities are ordinarily well outside the public’s view.
According to a new report, however, every single one of those lawmakers has received campaign funds from twenty of the largest contractors providing intelligence services to the Defense Department, which accounted for a signficant portion of the nation’s overall $75.4 billion intelligence budget in 2012.
The total, election-related benefits for current intelligence committee members, including ex-officio members, provided by companies in the industry they directly oversee amount to at least $3.7 million from the companies’ PACs and employees since 2005, according to the report released Dec. 9 by Maplight.org, a nonpartisan group that investigates campaign finance issues.
The best and the brightest: More members with PhDs from U.S. universities in Rouhani’s cabinet than in Obama’s
Moisés Naím writes: Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s president, has more cabinet members with Ph.D. degrees from U.S. universities than Barack Obama does. In fact, Iran has more holders of American Ph.D.s in its presidential cabinet than France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, or Spain — combined.
Take, for example, Rouhani’s chief of staff, Mohammad Nahavandian. He spent many years in the United States and has a Ph.D. in economics from George Washington University. Or Javad Zarif, the foreign affairs minister and chief negotiator in the recent nuclear deal between Iran and six global powers. He studied at the University of San Francisco and completed his doctorate at the University of Denver. For five years, he lived in New York and was Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations. Ali Akbar Salehi, head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, has a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from MIT. Mahmoud Vaezi, the communication minister, studied electrical engineering at Sacramento and San Jose State Universities and was enrolled in the Ph.D. program at Louisiana State University (he ultimately earned a doctorate in international relations at Warsaw University). Other cabinet members have advanced degrees from universities in Europe and Iran. Abbas Ahmad Akhoundi, the transportation minister, has a Ph.D. from the University of London, while President Rouhani got his from Glasgow Caledonian University in Scotland. The new government in Tehran, in other words, might well be one of the most technocratic in the world.
Does this matter? On the surface, perhaps not much. We all know how often the governments of the “best and the brightest” disappoint. And it’s important to keep in mind that many of these highly credentialed cabinet members were also active participants in former Iranian administrations and backed policies that earned Iran’s theocracy its bad name. [Continue reading...]
Mike Masnick writes: It appears that the heads of the Senate and House Intelligence Committees, Senator Dianne Feinstein and Rep. Mike Rogers, are recognizing that their strategy for keeping their co-dependent relationship with the NSA going is failing and that the American public and an increasingly large segment of Congress no longer believes their bogus claims. Perhaps that’s because every time they open their mouths, it takes all of about an hour before many of their claims are completely debunked, if not outright mocked for obviously being bogus. So their latest strategy? To basically yell “Ooga Booga Terrorists!” as loud as they can to try to scare people based on absolutely nothing. [Continue reading...]
Cameron Abadi writes: When Secretary of State John Kerry joined the nuclear negotiations at the Intercontinental Hotel in Geneva last Saturday, he employed the oldest negotiating trick in the book, evoking Congress as the bad cop to the Obama administration’s good cop. Kerry told Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif that if they failed to reach an agreement that day, the Obama administration would be unable to prevent Congress from passing additional sanctions against Iran. Less than 24 hours later, Kerry and Zarif walked into the hotel lobby to announce that they had struck a deal to freeze Iran’s nuclear program temporarily.
In the face of criticism from members of Congress and U.S. allies in the Middle East, administration officials have insisted that the Geneva agreement is just the first step toward a more far-reaching disarmament deal. But such a deal will require that the Obama administration promise not just to forestall the imposition of new sanctions, but also to reduce dramatically the sanctions already in place. And that depends on the cooperation of a Congress that has been singularly uninterested in assuming the role of good cop in the showdown with Iran.
The White House has some discretion to rescind the Iran sanctions without Congress’s approval. The method for removing any given set of sanctions depends on how those sanctions were passed in the first place. If they’re the product of an executive order, as many of the existing sanctions against Iran are, removing them requires only that the White House decide to stop enforcing them. That’s exactly how Obama will be making good on its promise to Iran, as part of last week’s interim agreement, to restore access to $7 billion held in foreign bank accounts.
Removing sanctions that have been passed into law by Congress, however, is a much more difficult challenge. Despite the partisan gridlock in Washington over the past several years, bipartisan majorities have managed to cooperate on three separate rounds of sanctions since 2010, including measures targeting Iran’s central bank, which Iran will undoubtedly want rescinded. Removing those laws from the books will force the White House to go through Congress all over again. That will require overcoming the partisanship and procedural hurdles that have consumed Congress in recent years. [Continue reading...]
Senators Ron Wyden, Mark Udall, and Martin Heinrich write: The framers of the Constitution declared that government officials had no power to seize the records of individual Americans without evidence of wrongdoing, and they embedded this principle in the Fourth Amendment. The bulk collection of Americans’ telephone records — so-called metadata — by the National Security Agency is, in our view, a clear case of a general warrant that violates the spirit of the framers’ intentions. This intrusive program was authorized under a secret legal process by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, so for years American citizens did not have the knowledge needed to challenge the infringement of their privacy rights.
Our first priority is to keep Americans safe from the threat of terrorism. If government agencies identify a suspected terrorist, they should absolutely go to the relevant phone companies to get that person’s phone records. But this can be done without collecting the records of millions of law-abiding Americans. We recall Benjamin Franklin’s famous admonition that those who would give up essential liberty in the pursuit of temporary safety will lose both and deserve neither.
The usefulness of the bulk collection program has been greatly exaggerated. We have yet to see any proof that it provides real, unique value in protecting national security. In spite of our repeated requests, the N.S.A. has not provided evidence of any instance when the agency used this program to review phone records that could not have been obtained using a regular court order or emergency authorization.
Despite this, the surveillance reform bill recently ratified by the Senate Intelligence Committee would explicitly permit the government to engage in dragnet collection as long as there were rules about when officials could look at these phone records. It would also give intelligence agencies wide latitude to conduct warrantless searches for Americans’ phone calls and emails.
This is not the true reform that poll after poll has shown the American people want. It is preserving business as usual. [Continue reading...]
Lawrence Wilkerson and Kate Gould write: The nuclear deal that the US just struck with Iran is nothing short of historic. This agreement is a victory for everyone who wants to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran and a catastrophic war.
The deal is one of the many triumphs that have resulted from the great American tradition of negotiating with adversaries to advance US interests. President Kennedy’s talks with Premier Khrushchev delivered the world from the brink of nuclear war. Ten years later, President Nixon’s visit to Mao’s China revolutionized the US role in Asia, and the world. A decade later, President Reagan’s diplomatic engagement of President Gorbachev achieved historic nuclear arms reductions.
UN weapons inspectors are now on track to peacefully disarm Syria of its chemical weapons because Washington was willing to engage the Syrian regime through diplomacy with Moscow, rather than through Tomahawk cruise missiles. And under the deal reached in Geneva this weekend, Iran will stop advancing its nuclear program for the first time in nearly a decade.
Iran’s nuclear program will now be under an expanded inspections regime to help ensure that Iran’s nuclear program is used for purely peaceful purposes. In exchange, Iran will receive modest sanctions relief.
Make no mistake: this is a good deal, and it should be protected so that our diplomats have the space to negotiate a final agreement to prevent war and a nuclear-armed Iran once and for all.
That is why former secretary of state Madeleine Albright and former national security advisors Zbigniew Brzezinski and Brent Scowcroft have already endorsed the deal. These three most pre-eminent national security officials have cautioned Congress against pushing for new sanctions that could sabotage the tremendous progress that our diplomats have achieved. [Continue reading...]
Reuters reports: Republican and Democratic U.S. senators on Sunday voiced skepticism about an interim nuclear deal reached with Iran but Congress looked likely to give President Barack Obama room to see if the agreement works.
The deal does not need to be ratified by Congress and Obama is using his executive power to temporarily suspend some existing U.S. sanctions on Iran.
Senators have been discussing for months imposing even tighter sanctions, which could anger Tehran and put Sunday’s deal reached in Geneva in jeopardy.
But influential Democrats – who control the Senate – made clear that any new sanctions against Iran would include a six-month window before they took effect.
That would allow time to see if Iran is sticking by the pact, worked out between Tehran, the United States and other world powers.
“It is a choice between a pause or imminent war. I choose a verifiable pause,” Senator Bill Nelson, a Democrat from Florida said.
Influential Democratic Senator Robert Menendez, who is known as a hawk on Iran, said forthcoming legislation would “provide for a six-month window to reach a final agreement before imposing new sanctions on Iran.” [Continue reading...]
Fred Kaplan writes: The Iranian nuclear deal struck Saturday night is a triumph. It contains nothing that any American, Israeli, or Arab skeptic could reasonably protest. Had George W. Bush negotiated this deal, Republicans would be hailing his diplomatic prowess, and rightly so.
A few weeks ago, a “senior administration official” outlined the agreement that President Obama hoped to achieve in Geneva. Some reporters who heard the briefing (including me) thought that the terms were way too one-sided, that the Iranians would never accept them. Here’s the thing: The deal just signed by Iran and the P5+1 nations (the United States, Britain, France, Russia, and China plus Germany) is precisely the hoped-for deal laid out at that briefing.
It is an interim agreement, not a treaty (which means, among other things, that it doesn’t require Senate ratification). It is meant as a first step toward a comprehensive treaty to be negotiated in the next six months. More than that, it expires in six months. In other words, if Iran and the other powers can’t agree on a follow-on accord in six months, nobody is stuck with a deal that was never meant to be permanent. There is no opportunity for traps and trickery.
Meanwhile, Iran has to do the following things: halt the enrichment of all uranium above 5 percent and freeze the stockpile of uranium enriched to 3.5 percent; neutralize its stockpile of uranium that’s been enriched to 20 percent (either by diluting it to 5 percent purity or converting it to a form that cannot be used to make a weapon); stop producing, installing, or modernizing centrifuges; stop constructing more enrichment facilities; halt all activities at the Arak nuclear reactor (which has the potential to produce nuclear weapons made of plutonium); permit much wider and more intrusive measures of verification by the International Atomic Energy Agency, including daily inspections of all facilities.
Without going into a lot of technical detail (which can be read here), the point is this: The agreement makes it impossible for the Iranians to make any further progress toward making a nuclear weapon in the next six months—and, if the talks break down after that, and the Iranians decide at that point to start building a nuclear arsenal, it will take them much longer to do so. [Continue reading...]
NBC News reports: Iran will not honor the nuclear agreement it just signed with the United States and other world powers if Congress imposes new sanctions, Iran’s foreign minister told NBC News after the deal was announced.
“If there are new sanctions, then there is no deal. It’s very clear. End of the deal. Because of the inability of one party to maintain their side of the bargain,” Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said during an exclusive interview with NBC News.
After four days of marathon bargaining, on Sunday the United States and its allies agreed to offer Iran “modest relief” from harsh economic sanctions and access to a portion of the revenue that the country has been denied through these sanctions. In exchange, Iran will give inspectors broader access to nuclear sites and allow spontaneous inspections.
If NBC News actually read the text of the agreement, they would not be reporting “Iran’s foreign minister told NBC News.” They would have seen it in black and white:
The U.S. Administration, acting consistent with the respective roles of the President and the Congress, will refrain from imposing new nuclear-related sanctions.
Can the crazy people on Capitol Hill exercise some restraint over the coming months? We’ll see.
An editorial in the New York Times says: There was a lot that was ordinary about the hearing in Courtroom 20B of the Manhattan federal courthouse on Friday morning: a team of lawyers at the plaintiff’s table, spectators in the gallery. What was extraordinary was the defendant, the United States government, and the lawsuit it is facing over the National Security Agency’s seven-year-old, once top-secret phone-surveillance program, which until this week it never had to defend in open court.
Until Edward Snowden, a disaffected N.S.A. contractor, came along and documented the stunning scope of the phone program — which vacuums up information about every call made in the United States every day for the purpose of identifying possible terror suspects — intelligence and law-enforcement officials were accustomed to operating in the friendlier confines of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.
That is not a court by any standard definition. A rotating slate of federal judges considers secret warrant applications from the government and issues secret opinions, without hearing any opposing argument. In 2012, the court approved 1,855 of 1,856 requests that came before it.
The environment on Friday was very different, as lawyers for the A.C.L.U. vigorously contested the legality of the phone-data sweep, and Federal District Judge William Pauley III expressed a proper skepticism of the government’s claim that the program raised no constitutional concerns. When a government lawyer argued that Congress twice reauthorized the Patriot Act section under which the phone program has been approved, Judge Pauley reminded him that several members of Congress have said publicly they were not made aware of what was in the program. Others have said they believe it is being abused.
The A.C.L.U., which filed its suit days after the revelation of the phone-data sweep, called the program a “vast dragnet” that violates both federal law and the Constitution. The fact that the government must show a higher level of suspicion before it can examine a specific call’s data is irrelevant, the group’s lawyers said. The collection of so much data on millions of innocent Americans is itself an unconstitutional search, they argued, and under the government’s theory, the power to collect even more is “absolutely without limit.”
In the wake of the Snowden disclosures and the ensuing public debate, the agency and the intelligence court have declassified some rulings and other documents in an attempt to justify the various surveillance programs. But far from providing comfort, the releases have only highlighted the dubious grounds on which the programs have been approved, and how often and how systematically the N.S.A. violates the court’s orders.
However Judge Pauley and the other federal judges facing similar litigation eventually rule, the most important reforms to the programs must come from Congress, which has the power to end or drastically curtail the bulk data collection and to strengthen oversight and transparency of an agency that needs much more of both.
Ars Technica reports: On Thursday, the House Intelligence Committee approved a spending bill to fund the National Security Agency and other intelligence organizations. Included in the bill is a provision that would set aside $75 million for the NSA to improve its internal security and mitigate insider threats to classified material. In other words, the bill seeks to prevent future Edward Snowdens.