civil liberties

Proposed NSA reforms close one loophole while leaving others open

President Barack Obama rolled out a proposal earlier this week that would end the National Security Agency’s controversial bulk phone metadata collection program. The House Intelligence Committee has a proposal of its own purports to achieve the same end.

The proposal pushed by the White House has been received with cautious optimism from civil libertarians, including Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY). They like what they’ve heard, but have explained that the devil is in the details.

Others, like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), have pointed out that there’s already a proposal in Congress, the USA FREEDOM Act, that would end bulk data collection. Privacy advocates, however, have panned the House Intelligence Committee’s proposal, which is backed by Speaker John Boehner (R-OH).

In Wednesday’s Cato Daily Podcast, Julian Sanchez, a research fellow at the Cato Institute, discussed and dissected both President Obama and the House Intelligence Committee’s proposal, finding them to be welcome news. But he also pointed out that both measures still leave open the possibility of access to Americans’ personal information.

SCOTUS weighs the limits of the First Amendment

The Supreme Court heard the case of Hobby Lobby, et.al. on the HHS mandate that requires most businesses that employ over 50 individuals to provide coverage for 21 forms of birth control. The businesses that are parties to the suit, while they are private for-profit companies, have incorporated or otherwise stated in their mission statements, that their businesses are owned and operated by individuals that include their religious practices in their work.

Due to their religious beliefs, that are freely stated to potential employees before they consent to work for these companies, they object to providing some or all of the contraceptives in the HHS mandate on moral grounds. The government presented the case that since they are not religious organizations per se, they do not have the freedom to run their businesses with religious overtones, at least not when it interferes with governmental mandates.

That is a thumbnail sketch of the case, and in spite of the fact that SCOTUS will not hand down a ruling until June, there are plenty of pundits offering opinions on exactly how that will end up. It’s interesting to attempt to guess what a given Justice will say on this issue, based on the questions presented during the case yesterday, however, it probably isn’t going to serve anyone to do that. Let’s not forget the ruling that the ObamaCare penalties were actually taxes by Chief Justice John Roberts, that got us to this point in the first place.

While it seems that quite a few of the commentators out there seem to think that this will fall in favor of Hobby Lobby, and the other corporations involved, perhaps at this point it would be better to think about “what comes next?” if that isn’t the case.

White House releases brutal panel report on NSA spying

Just two days after a federal judge issued a scathing opinion in which he said the NSA phone metadata program is “likely unconstitutional,” the White House released the report from the five-member panel tasked with reviewing the agency’s data collection methods.

The Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technology recommending 46 changes, some of which are significant, to the how the NSA gathers intelligence. The suggestions in the 303-page report, Liberty and Security in a Changing World, are non-binding.

“We have emphasized the need to develop principles designed to create strong foundations for the future,” said the panel members a letter to President Barack Obama. “Although we have explored past and current practices, and while that exploration has informed our recommendations, this Report should not be taken as a general review of, or as an attempt to provide a detailed assessment of, those practices.”

“We recognize that our forty-six recommendations, developed over a relatively short period of time, will require careful assessment by a wide range of relevant officials, with close reference to the likely consequences. Our goal has been to establish broad understandings and principles that can provide helpful orientation during the coming months, years, and decades,” the members added.

Initial reports indicated that the panel would suggest that the agency dismantle its vast controversial and heavily criticized phone record database, which stores information on virtually every American. Indeed, the panel even says that “the current storage by the government of bulk meta-data creates potential risks to public trust, personal privacy, and civil liberty.”

Congress’ 10 Worst Infringements on Personal Liberty

The focus in on the NSA controversy and ObamaCare got us thinking — what are the worst laws passed by Congress? So we did some thinking and came up with some of the most egregious laws to be passed by Congress. The list was so large that we had to cut it into two posts one on personal liberty and the other dealing with economic liberty, which will be posted next week.

The following list isn’t in any particular order, so don’t take one bad law being ahead of another as anything significant.

Espionage Act (1917)

The Espionage Act, passed nearly two months after the United States entered World War I, has had startling ramifications for free speech in the United States. Shortly after becoming law, Eugene Debs, a socialist and labor leader, was arrested and convicted for giving a speech that “interfered” with the recruitment of soldiers for the war effort. The law primarily used for prosecution of alleged spies and whistleblowers working in the government. For example, the government tried to prosecute Daniel Ellsberg of Pentagon Papers fame under the act, but the jury declared a mistrial. NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden has also been charged under the Espionage Act. Both Ellsberg and Snownden’s disclosures were embarrassments for the government.

Indian Removal Act (1830)

There is reason to feel optimistic on this Constitution Day

Back in 2004, Congress passed an amendment offered by the late Sen. Robert Byrd (D-WV) to an omnibus spending bill to commemorate the signing of the Constitution and declare September 17, the day on which the document was signed by its framers, to be “Constitution Day.”

It’s ironic that a legislative body that frequently steps outside it’s limitations would pass a measure recognizing a document for which they have little regard. In the years preceding the creation of Constitution Day, Congress passed a number of measures that fly in the face of the intent and spirit of the Constitution and the rights protected therein.

But Constitution Day means a little more this year than in the past, given the renaissance the document has seen, particularly in just the past few months.

There are several examples from which we could choose to highlight the rebirth of the Constitution, such as Sen. Rand Paul’s filibuster back in March or the defeat of onerous gun control measures, including expanded background checks and a ban on so-called “assault weapons,” that would have further infringed upon Second Amendment rights. But recent developments concerning the NSA and Syria are, arguably, in the back of most Americans’ minds.

The Domestic Cold War

Joel Valenzuela is the editor of The Desert Lynx. Previously he worked in Washington, D.C. in public policy for organizations such as the Leadership Institute, the Cato Institute, and the White House Office of Public Liaison. He studied Statesmanship at the undergraduate level and Global Affairs at the postgraduate level.

The battle lines are drawn. The great war between America’s government and her people fast approaches.

No, this isn’t some dystopian near-future science fiction scenario. This is present-day America we’re talking about. There’s a growing hostility between the U.S. government and certain incorrigible freedom-loving citizens, with the live-and-let-lives caught on the side of their more rowdy fellows, despite best efforts to bury their heads in the sand.

But where are all the battles? Where are the troops filling the streets? Where are the tanks rolling across the countryside, steamrolling all dissidents in their path? In waiting, that’s where. This isn’t a traditional armed conflict I’m predicting; at least, not yet. It’s a cold war. Each side is building up its record of hostile actions against the other, all stopping short of the point of no return.

First there’s the war over control of information. The degree to which the U.S government has pursued whistleblowers, leakers, and all those who would enforce transparency is worrisome, almost to the point of making the American people out to be some sort of sworn enemy. Almost. As the Bradley Manning trial showed, they will prudently stop short of making that overt declaration of war.

WSJ: NSA programs cover 75% of Internet traffic, keeps some e-mail content

The National Security Agency’s Internet communications surveillance is so vast that it can reach nearly 75% of all online communications, according to a report from the Wall Street Journal.

President Barack Obama has gone to great lengths recently to downplay the NSA’s surveillance apparatus, telling Americans that the government isn’t spying on them and publicly discussing reforms that would protect privacy. But the Wall Street Journal’s report indicates that the snooping programs do in fact retain both email and phone communications between American citizens.

“The system has the capacity to reach roughly 75% of all U.S. Internet traffic in the hunt for foreign intelligence, including a wide array of communications by foreigners and Americans. In some cases, it retains the written content of emails sent between citizens within the U.S. and also filters domestic phone calls made with Internet technology, these people say,” noted the Wall Street Journal.

“The NSA’s filtering, carried out with telecom companies, is designed to look for communications that either originate or end abroad, or are entirely foreign but happen to be passing through the U.S.,” the paper added. “But officials say the system’s broad reach makes it more likely that purely domestic communications will be incidentally intercepted and collected in the hunt for foreign ones.”

Hillary says we must trust our Government

David Fayram (CC)

Hillary Clinton is starting a whirlwind tour to promote the concept of trusting the government, and touting the merits of transparency in government. While it might be very tempting to consider this a really ironic punchline of a joke, that’s really what the former Secretary of State is doing.

On a practical level, it does make some sense that Hillary would consider it necessary to restore the nation’s faith in its government. As to whether or not she really “gets” why she is absolutely the wrong person to attempt to deliver that message will undoubtedly remain a mystery. Yes, it is very likely that detractors from the right will regularly lampoon her with comments including her infamous statement on Benghazi - “What difference does it make?” That will be enjoyable in the short term, but given the nature of the public and mainstream media, it is foolish to expect that will be enough to defuse her attempts to lie her way to a reasonable chance at seating herself in the Oval Office.

Make no mistake, that is exactly what this tour is about. It has nearly nothing to do with its stated aim. Hillary will be out there making it clear that while she’s somewhat the same as her former boss, she isn’t for the cloak and dagger activities of this administration that have been called “phony scandals” in an attempt to keep them out of the public eye. If that isn’t her gameplan, then she really doesn’t have any intention of running in 2016.

Chatting with Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY)

Thomas Massie

“[T]he House and the Senate control the purse strings. It’s the only check that we have besides some oversight on the Executive Branch. And so I’m going to be part of that group that goes into this August recess and goes back home and says, ‘I will not vote for a continuing resolution that funds ObamaCare.’” - Rep. Thomas Massie

The last couple of election cycles have led to several interesting, liberty-minded Republicans being sent to Congress. On Tuesday, United Liberty had a chance to chat with one of those Republicans, Rep. Thomas Massie, who represents Kentucky’s Fourth Congressional District.

Elected last year with strong supports from grassroots groups, Massie quickly established his libertarian tendencies by taking strong stands for civil liberties and economic freedom. He’s an approachable guy and very down to Earth.

Along with Rep. Justin Amash (R-MI), Massie fought hard to get a vote last week on an amendment to the defense appropriations bill to defund the National Security Agency’s broad surveillance of American citizens.

Massie offered an inside baseball account of how a vote on the amendment, which was offered by Amash, came to pass in the face of fierce opposition from President Barack Obama, congressional leaders from both parties and the nation’s security apparatus.

Public debate over NSA spying has only just begun

If you thought last week’s vote on the amendment offered by Rep. Justin Amash (R-MI) to defund the NSA was the end of the fight to restore privacy rights, think again.

Just a couple years ago, it seemed that the PATRIOT Act and other constitutionally questionable legislation were destined to pass each time they came up for renewal. There were some minor victories along the way, but news of the NSA’s broad surveillance program, through which the agency collects third-party records (including phone records and Internet metadata), sparked a welcome backlash from Americans and many members of Congress.

The result was a strong push by civil libertarians from both parties to preserve the Fourth Amendment, which guarantees the right to privacy, but not hamper the intelligence community from doing their jobs. Instead of blanket surveillance, however, Amash’s amendment would have simply required that data collection “pertain to a person who is the subject of an investigation.”

The vote on the Amash amendment was much closer that many civil libertarians thought it would be. Just two years ago, the PATRIOT Act, through which the NSA has claimed the power to broadly surveil Americans, was renewed by a 275-144 vote.


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