The hawks’ playbook for opposing an Obama nuclear deal with Iran

Foreign Policy reports: Though the United States has yet to secure a final deal to restrain Iran’s nuclear program, an influential pair of hawks in Washington have already devised a way for Congress to unravel any potential agreement after the ink is dry.

The plan, obtained by Foreign Policy, calls on Congress to oppose the lifting of financial sanctions on Iran until it proves that its entire financial sector, including the Central Bank of Iran, has sworn off support for terrorism, money-laundering, and proliferation. Some of those topics haven’t been part of the ongoing U.S.-led talks with Tehran, which means that linking sanctions relief to those conditions after a deal is made would likely drive the Iranians off the wall, say experts. Tehran would likely see any such measures as moving the goalposts and as evidence that the United States wasn’t genuinely interested in backing up its end of the deal.

The two authors of the plan — Mark Dubowitz, the executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington think tank, and Richard Goldberg, the former senior foreign-policy advisor to Illinois Republican Sen. Mark Kirk — each played pivotal roles in shaping the Iran sanctions debate in the past year. Rather than blowing up an historic agreement, they both insist the paper is simply a guide for how to keep sanctions in place that will deter and punish Iran if it doesn’t comply with a final deal.

Whatever their motivations, the detailed strategy document is of keen interest to advocates on both sides of the Iran debate given the immense political clout its authors enjoy on Capitol Hill and the significant role Congress will have in approving, modifying, or rejecting a final deal.

“This plan will elicit a lot of support on the Hill,” said Suzanne Maloney, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “They have an enormous amount of sway on the Hill on the issue of sanctions, both because of their expertise and their energetic efforts to advance their case.” [Continue reading...]

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Sen. Wyden releases details of backdoor searches of Americans’ communications

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., released the following statement in response to a letter provided by the Office of Director of National Intelligence, which details the number of backdoor searches performed by U.S. intelligence agencies. As this response makes clear, intelligence agencies are searching through communications collected under Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act – an authority that Congress intended to be used to target foreigners – and are deliberately conducting warrantless searches for the communications of individual Americans.

“The Office of the Director of National Intelligence has now responded to my longstanding question regarding warrantless searches for Americans’ emails and other communications, and I appreciate the candid and straightforward nature of their reply.

When the FBI says it conducts a substantial number of searches and it has no idea of what the number is, it shows how flawed this system is and the consequences of inadequate oversight. This huge gap in oversight is a problem now, and will only grow as global communications systems become more interconnected. The findings transmitted to me raise questions about whether the FBI is exercising any internal controls over the use of backdoor searches including who and how many government employees can access the personal data of individual Americans. I intend to follow this up until it is fixed.

While intelligence officials have often argued that it is impossible to estimate how many Americans’ communications are getting swept up by the government under Section 702, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court has noted that the NSA acquires more than two hundred and fifty million Internet communications every year using Section 702, so even if US communications make up a small fraction of that total, the number of U.S. communications being collected is potentially quite large. The scale of this activity seems to be something that could be conducted pursuant to probable cause warrants, particularly given the exceptions that are included in the bipartisan bicameral legislation that I and others have proposed.

I and other reformers in Congress have argued that intelligence agencies should absolutely be permitted to search for communications pertaining to counterterrorism and other foreign threats, but if intelligence officials are deliberately searching for and reading the communications of specific Americans, the Constitution requires a warrant. The bipartisan, bicameral legislation that I and other reformers have supported would permit the government to conduct these searches pursuant to a probable cause warrant or emergency authorization, and it would include an exception for searches for individuals who are believed to be in danger.

Last week the House of Representatives voted 293-123 to require a warrant for these searches, and I’ll be urging my colleagues in the Senate to follow suit. Reformers believe that it is possible to protect Americans’ security and American liberty at the same time, and the American public expects nothing less.”

The full ODNI response is available here. The letter came in response to a question by Sen. Wyden during an open hearing of the Senate Intelligence Committee on June 5.

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In surprise vote, House backs NSA limits

The Hill reports: A proposal to block intelligence agencies from conducting warrantless and “backdoor” searches of U.S. communications passed in the House late Thursday night.

Adopted 293-123, with one member voting present, the amendment to the 2015 Defense appropriations bill would prohibit the search of government databases for information on U.S. citizens without a warrant. It would further cut off funding for the CIA and National Security Agency to build security vulnerabilities, or “backdoors,” into domestic tech products or services for surveillance purposes. Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-Ill.) was the only member to vote present.

Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.), the chief sponsor of the bipartisan amendment, said it would limit the controversial NSA spying.

“The American people are sick of being spied on,” Massie said. [Continue reading...]

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Iraq’s Maliki: I won’t quit as condition of U.S. strikes against ISIS

The Guardian reports: A spokesman for the Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, has said he will not stand down as a condition of US air strikes against Sunni militants who have made a lightning advance across the country.

Iraq’s foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari, on Wednesday made a public call on al-Arabiya television for the US to launch strikes, but Barack Obama has come under pressure from senior US politicians to persuade Maliki, a Shia Muslim who has pursued sectarian policies, to step down over what they see as failed leadership in the face of an insurgency.

Dianne Feinstein, the chair of the Senate intelligence committee, told a hearing on Wednesday that Maliki’s government “has got to go if you want any reconciliation”, and Republican John McCain called for the use of US air power but also urged Obama to “make very clear to Maliki that his time is up”. [Continue reading...]

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Washington and Tehran’s shared interests in Iraq

Robin Wright writes: On Monday, Iran and the United States, along with envoys from Britain, China, France, Germany, and Russia, will meet again in Vienna to work on specific terms for a nuclear agreement. The talks resume just as Washington and Tehran suddenly find that they have common cause in preventing Iraq’s abrupt disintegration. For both, their longtime strategies toward Iraq appear to be failing, as a few thousand thugs in the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) burn their way across the country.

Washington and Tehran have started using the same language. President Obama, in his remarks on the South Lawn of the White House on Friday, said, “Nobody has an interest in seeing terrorists gain a foothold inside of Iraq, and nobody is going to benefit from seeing Iraq descend into chaos.” An hour later, Iran’s Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif, told me, by telephone, from Tehran, “It is in the interest of everybody to stabilize the government of Iraq. If the U.S. has come to realize that these groups pose a threat to the security of the region, and if the U.S. truly wants to fight terrorism and extremism, then it’s a common global cause.”

Obama said that Washington is “going to pursue diplomacy” across the region. Zarif told me that he’d been working the phones with Iraq’s neighbors for the past two days. Obama warned of the dangers of the Sunni extremists trying to “overrun sacred Shia sites.” Iran is the world’s largest Shiite country, and its interests in Iraq are focussed on protecting the Shiite plurality that was long dominated by a Sunni minority.

Twitter pundits are already speculating about the potential for de facto coöperation between the countries. Among the scenarios: U.S. drones striking ISIS targets and, in effect, providing air cover for Iranian Revolutionary Guards dispatched to help hold back the ISIS jihadis, who have been pushing toward Baghdad. In our conversation, Zarif denied reports that Tehran has already dispatched battalions of Revolutionary Guards to aid and protect Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s government, but its élite Quds Force has long had a presence — in various forms — inside Iraq. [Continue reading...]

The Guardian adds: The US should “sit down and talk” with Iran over the crisis in Iraq, top Republican senator Lindsey Graham said on Sunday.

Graham, a leading foreign policy hawk, also attacked President Barack Obama for what he said was his “delusional and detached” response to the crisis.

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NSA reform bill finds few allies before Senate intelligence committee

The Guardian reports: Senators on the intelligence committee expressed deep doubts about curbing the National Security Agency’s broad data collection powers as the upper legislative chamber begins to consider a landmark surveillance bill that passed the House last month.

Lawmakers attacked the USA Freedom Act as insufficiently protective of both privacy and national security as intelligence and law enforcement officials, who now back the bill, conceded that under its provisions they would still have access to a large amount of US phone and other data.

Deputy attorney general James Cole told the Senate intelligence committee on Tuesday that the bill allows the NSA to collect information “two hops“, or degrees removed from a targeted phone account. “It gives us the prospective collection, it gives us a wider range of information that we wouldn’t have under normal authorities,” he said.

That account bothered three Democratic privacy advocates on the panel – Oregon’s Ron Wyden, Colorado’s Mark Udall and New Mexico’s Martin Heinrich – but most of the consternation shown by the panel came from the opposite direction, indicating that a surveillance bill whose privacy protections have been largely weakened will still face a difficult road in the Senate.

The panel’s leaders, Democrat Dianne Feinstein of California and Republican Saxby Chambliss of Georgia – both of whom remain staunch advocates of the bulk domestic phone metadata collection that the bill is aimed at ending – feared that restricting the volume of data to which the NSA has access will leave the US vulnerable to a terrorist attack.

In some cases, the panel, charged with overseeing the intelligence agencies and preventing abuse, advocated greater authorities for the surveillance agency than the NSA itself requested. [Continue reading...]

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The House committee on intelligence needs oversight of its own

Rep. Rush Holt and Steven Aftergood write: Who watches the watchmen?

In the U.S. House of Representatives, the answer to that question – in theory, at least – is the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI), which is charged with overseeing the nation’s spy agencies: the National Security Agency, the Central Intelligence Agency, and more.

HPSCI was created in 1977 in the wake of Nixon-era surveillance abuses to serve as a powerful counterbalance to the spy agencies’ inclination to spy on everyone, everywhere, all the time.

Because of the sensitive nature of HPSCI’s work, the committee usually meets in secret, deliberates in secret, and even passes legislation in secret. But all this secrecy creates a problem: How do we know that HPSCI is, in fact, watching the watchmen effectively?

Last year, all the world learned it wasn’t. As the explosive revelations from Edward Snowden and others demonstrated, the intelligence community had been collecting the communications of essentially every American.

Now, for the first time since Snowden’s disclosures, HPSCI has brought its annual intelligence authorization bill to the House floor, where it quickly passed by a vote of 345-59 on Friday morning. This should have represented an opportunity for a dramatic overhaul of the intelligence community and for some critical examination of HPSCI’s own role. But it appears that HPSCI has lost sight of its founding principles – that it is, in effect, choosing allegiance to our nation’s spies, rather than to the law-abiding citizens who are being spied upon. [Continue reading...]

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Resistance to climate change is killing the government’s ability to use science

Michael White writes: We’ve invested heavily in research institutions in order to understand the risks of climate change; those institutions are now telling us the situation is dire. But rather than use these assessments to develop evidence-guided policies to address the urgent challenges identified, our elected officials are attempting to kill the messenger by attacking the resources and the credibility of those institutions.

Two weeks ago the U.S. House Appropriations Committee voted to pass an appropriations bill that singles out climate change research for cuts. In this bill, the NSF would get a total budget increase of 3.2 percent, well above the expected rate of inflation, but the NSF Geosciences Directorate, which funded one of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet studies, is deliberately excluded from this increase. NASA would be slated for a modest boost, but that would largely be targeted to planetary science programs focused on the Solar System, with offsetting cuts to earth science. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association budget would decline relative to inflation, and climate change research at the agency would get reduced by $36 million. The cuts to climate change research in this bill are in line with the spending priorities laid out last month by Paul Ryan and the House Budget Committee, and with earlier efforts to chip away at funding for climate change research. [Continue reading...]

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The NSA bill got to the House at warp speed. Senators are our only hope

Trevor Timm writes: In just over two weeks, the bill known as the USA Freedom Act – formerly the best chance to pass meaningful NSA reform in Congress – has gone from strong, to weak, to horrible. So naturally, after months of stalling the once-promising bill, the House of Representatives rushed to pass a gutted version on Thursday.

Now that the bill has passed, the NSA’s biggest supporters will surely line up to call this legislation “reform” so they can go back to their angry constituents and pretend they did something about mass surveillance, while really just leaving the door open for it to continue. But the bill is still a long way from the president’s desk. If the Senate refuses to pass a strengthened version of the USA Freedom Act this summer, reformers should consider what 24 hours ago was unthinkable: abandon the bill and force Section 215 of the Patriot Act to expire once and for all in 2015. Because it’s one thing to pass a weak bill, but it’s entirely another to pass off smoke and mirrors as progress.

It really is astonishing to look at how abruptly this legislation has been warped. All the major civil liberties organizations dropped their support for the USA Freedom Act as soon as the new version – re-written in secret at the last minute, with help from the NSA’s lawyers and the Obama administration – was made public on Tuesday. The privacy groups’ withdrawal was followed quickly by the major tech companies like Google, Facebook and Twitter. But that apparently doesn’t matter to the White House or Congressional leadership, who barred amendments that could have potentially strengthened the bill from being offered on the floor ahead of Thursday’s vote. [Continue reading...]

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Obama’s revamp of anti-terror policies stalls

The Washington Post reports: A year after President Obama announced a major new counterterrorism strategy to take the country beyond the threats that flowed directly from the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, much of the agenda he outlined remains unfinished or not even begun.

In an ambitious address delivered a year ago Friday at the National Defense University, Obama said that the core of al-Qaeda was “on the path to defeat” and that the upcoming end of the war in Afghanistan had brought America to a “crossroads.”

But many of the changes Obama outlined have proved easier said than done, including new rules governing the use of force abroad, increased public information on and congressional oversight of lethal attacks with drones, and efforts to move the CIA out of the killing business.

Some initiatives have become mired in internal debates, while others have taken a back seat to other pressing issues and perceived new terrorism dangers. Congress, while demanding faster change in some areas, has resisted movement in others. [Continue reading...]

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Changes to surveillance bill stoke anger

The New York Times reports: Leaders of both parties in the House of Representatives, at the Obama administration’s request, have changed a surveillance overhaul bill that restricts the power of the government to obtain Americans’ records in bulk.

A revised version of the bill was unveiled on Tuesday, and the House may vote on it this week.

Several civil liberties groups that had backed a previous version argued that the changes weakened the limits in a way that leaves the door open for the government to obtain enormous volumes of records. They said they were withdrawing their support. [Continue reading...]

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Everyone should know just how much the government lied to defend the NSA

Trevor Timm writes: If you blinked this week, you might have missed the news: two Senators accused the Justice Department of lying about NSA warrantless surveillance to the US supreme court last year, and those falsehoods all but ensured that mass spying on Americans would continue. But hardly anyone seems to care – least of all those who lied and who should have already come forward with the truth.

Here’s what happened: just before Edward Snowden became a household name, the ACLU argued before the supreme court that the Fisa Amendments Act – one of the two main laws used by the NSA to conduct mass surveillance – was unconstitutional.

In a sharply divided opinion, the supreme court ruled, 5-4, that the case should be dismissed because the plaintiffs didn’t have “standing” – in other words, that the ACLU couldn’t prove with near-certainty that their clients, which included journalists and human rights advocates, were targets of surveillance, so they couldn’t challenge the law. As the New York Times noted this week, the court relied on two claims by the Justice Department to support their ruling: 1) that the NSA would only get the content of Americans’ communications without a warrant when they are targeting a foreigner abroad for surveillance, and 2) that the Justice Department would notify criminal defendants who have been spied on under the Fisa Amendments Act, so there exists some way to challenge the law in court.

It turns out that neither of those statements were true – but it took Snowden’s historic whistleblowing to prove it. [Continue reading...]

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Bill to curb NSA spying looks like change, but isn’t really

McClatchy reports: The bipartisan bill that aims to put serious curbs on the National Security Agency’s mass collection of Americans’ communications is being hailed by Republicans and Democrats as a big breakthrough.

It’s not.

“The bottom line: This is largely faux reform and a surveillance salve,” said Thomas Drake, a former NSA senior official turned whistle-blower who’s critical of the agency’s collection programs. “To date, neither the House nor Senate attempts go far enough.”

That’s not easy to discern, thanks to an outpouring of raves for the legislation. Democrats, Republicans and traditionally skeptical watchdog groups have put their muscle behind the USA Freedom Act.

The House of Representatives is expected to vote on its version of the bill next week, the first time since news about the surveillance broke last year that major legislation supported by top congressional leaders like this has come to the floor. The Senate might take up its own version as early as this summer.

The top Republican and Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee even issued a joint statement praising the bipartisan cooperation, a rarely seen trait around Congress these days.

But peek just past all the good will and there’s serious concern that Congress has much more to do. Not only are loopholes easy to find but also the government has other ways of collecting the data. [Continue reading...]

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U.S. senators remove requirement for disclosure over drone strike victims

The Guardian reports: At the behest of the director of national intelligence, US senators have removed a provision from a major intelligence bill that would require the president to publicly disclose information about drone strikes and their victims.

The bill authorizing intelligence operations in fiscal 2014 passed out of the Senate intelligence committee in November, and it originally required the president to issue an annual public report clarifying the total number of “combatants” and “noncombatant civilians” killed or injured by drone strikes in the previous year. It did not require the White House to disclose the total number of strikes worldwide.

But the Guardian has confirmed that Senate leaders have removed the language as they prepare to bring the bill to the floor for a vote, after the director of national intelligence, James Clapper, assured them in a recent letter that the Obama administration was looking for its own ways to disclose more about its highly controversial drone strikes. [Continue reading...]

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Behind closed doors, Google and Facebook are fighting efforts to stop NSA spying

Vice reports: Revelations about the National Security Agency’s most controversial surveillance program, which centers on the bulk collection of hundreds of billions of records of Americans’ phone conversations, were quickly greeted with calls for reform by major internet powerhouses like Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo last year. But all four companies, along with dozens of other major tech firms, are actively opposing an initiative to prevent NSA spying known as the Fourth Amendment Protection Act, leaning on secretive industry lobbying groups while they profess outrage in official statements.

Virtually immediate public condemnation of government spying put the industry in an uncomfortable position when the Snowden leaks began pouring out in June 2013, and in carefully written responses to news reports claiming that they’d cooperated with the now notorious PRISM apparatus, these tech companies emphasized their compliance with existing laws that require them to hand over user data under certain conditions.

“When governments ask Facebook for data, we review each request carefully to make sure they always follow the correct processes and all applicable laws, and then only provide the information if [it] is required by law,” Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook, wrote in a blog post last June. “We will continue fighting aggressively to keep your information safe and secure.”

Statements like this suggest Zuckerberg and his industry peers would support legislative efforts to rein in surveillance, and it’s true that they’ve called for reform in letters to the Senate Judiciary Committee applauding a bill known as the USA Freedom Act. Google, Facebook, and six other tech giants have even hired a firm that claims to fight NSA surveillance on their behalf.

The real action, however, has been much subtler, with the industry wielding its influence behind closed doors using two lobbying groups to oppose certain restrictions on internet surveillance: the IT Alliance for Public Sector (ITAPS) and the State Privacy and Security Coalition (SPSC). A look at the actions of these two groups suggests that the companies want reform, sure, but only on terms that don’t affect their day-to-day business.

In particular, VICE has uncovered that ITAPS and SPSC have sent letters to politicians lobbying against the Fourth Amendment Protection Act, a wide-sweeping bill that would limit the NSA’s ability to read private electronic communications without a warrant. [Continue reading...]

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FBI abruptly walks out on Senate briefing after being asked how ‘insider threat’ program avoids whistleblowers

Mike Masnick writes: While we’ve been disappointed that Senator Chuck Grassley appears to have a bit of a double standard with his staunch support for whistleblowers when it comes to Ed Snowden, it is true that he has fought for real whistleblower protections for quite some time. Lately, he’s been quite concerned that the White House’s “Insider Threat Program” (ITP) is really just a cover to crack down on whistleblowers. As we’ve noted, despite early promises from the Obama administration to support and protect whistleblowers, the administration has led the largest crackdown against whistleblowers, and the ITP suggests that the attack on whistleblowers is a calculated response. The program documentation argues that any leak can be seen as “aiding the enemy” and encourages government employees to snitch on each other if they appear too concerned about government wrong-doing. Despite all his high minded talk of supporting whistleblowers, President Obama has used the Espionage Act against whistleblowers twice as many times as all other Presidents combined. Also, he has never — not once — praised someone for blowing the whistle in the federal government.

Given all of that, Senator Grassley expressed some concern about this Insider Threat Program and how it distinguished whistleblowers from actual threats. He asked the FBI for copies of its training manual on the program, which it refused to give him. Instead, it said it could better answer any questions at a hearing. However, as Grassley explains, when questioned about this just 10 minutes into the hearing, the FBI abruptly got up and left: [Continue reading...]

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