ACLU

  • June 6, 2013

    by Jeremy Leaming

    The Obama administration, obsessed with leaks of secret government actions, is likely seething over reporting by The Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald, Ewen MacAskill and Spencer Ackerman on the secretive order granting the federal government sweeping power to collect “telephone records of millions of US customers of Verizon,” regardless of any suspected connection to terrorist groups or activities.

    The report reveals an order from the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court -- created by the Foreign Intellegince Surveillance Act of 1978 (FISA) -- granting power to the even more secretive National Security Agency to collect phone data over a three-month period. As The Guardian reporters and others note we have no idea if the FISA Court order is one in a series of orders granting the NSA ability to collect the information.

    Salon’s Alex Pareene notes that the nation’s intelligence agencies have continued to amass power for decades. Both parties and presidents have done nothing to rein in the NSA. “While the fact the NSA has the power to do this has been public for some time, we’ve never seen, until the Guardian obtained one, an actual Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court warrant. They are very top secret. Someone will probably be prosecuted for leaking this one. That, in fact, is one of the primary issues civil libertarians, like the ACLU and the Electronic Frontier Foundation have been raising: If the way the administration interprets the law is secret, the law itself is effectively secret. Now we know more. But the recent history of the U.S. and domestic surveillance suggests knowing more won’t lead to doing anything about it.”

    The ACLU and other civil liberty groups and a few Senate Democrats have tried to raise concern over the unwieldy and largely unaccountable intelligence apparatus. In a June 5 press statement, the ACLU’s Deputy Legal Director Jameel Jaffer said, “From a civil liberties perspective, the program could hardly be any more alarming. It’s a program in which some untold number of innocent people have been put under the constant surveillance of government agents. It is beyond Orwellian, and it provides further evidence of the extent to which basic democratic rights are being surrendered in secret to the demands of the unaccountable intelligence agencies.”

    In a piece for Cato at Liberty, Jim Harper looks at the indifference Americans have toward the FISA Court and the power of the nation’s intelligence apparatus. He notes that last summer and then in late December Congress reauthorized, expanded FISA powers for another five years, “continuing the government’s authority to collect data like this under secret court orders.” One of the staunchest supporters of expanding FISA powers was Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.).

  • May 30, 2013

    by Jeremy Leaming

    President Obama’s address to the National Defense University was quickly embraced by many high-profile pundits as evidence the 44th president would actually and finally offer change one could believe in. Specifically, change from the way his predecessor presided over a never-ending war on terror.

    As noted here, during his May 23 speech the president provided some lofty rhetoric suggesting significant change was underway to counter intensifying criticism from civil libertarians and human rights advocates that the Obama administration is trampling fundamental constitutional principles and values while waging the so-called war on terror.

    The New York Times editorial board lauded Obama’s speech as “the most important statement on counterterrorism policy since the 2001 attacks, a momentous turning point in post 9/11 America. For the first time a president stated clearly and equivocally the state of perpetual warfare that began nearly 12 years ago is unsustainable for a democracy and must come to an end in the not-too-distant future.”

    Many other pundits also heralded the speech as a major shift in policy, while others, such as Alex Pareene warned that those concerned about human rights and civil liberties would likely be seriously disappointed.

    Today, The Times reported that Pakistani officials said a CIA drone strike had supposedly “killed a top member of the Pakistani Taliban, an attack that illustrated the continued murkiness of the rules that govern the United States’ targeted killing operations.” Before his much-trumpeted counterterrorism speech, The Times reported that the administration would start shifting control of the drone strikes from the CIA to the military.

    Obama’s speech received a lukewarm response from the ACLU, which has fought to obtain more information about the administration’s drone warfare. This blog also noted that a mere speech without action would not squelch criticism of counterterrorism efforts that violate U.S. and international law. The president declared early in his first term that we must protect fundamental values, such as due process under the law, as vigilantly as we wage war against terrorists. But such talk has too often proven hollow.

    In a piece for The Guardian, Glenn Greenwald scored the president for a trend of advancing rhetoric that doesn’t reflect reality. Greenwald wrote, “what should be beyond dispute at this point is that Obama’s speeches have very little to do with Obama’s actions, except to the extent that they often signal what he intends not to do. How many times does Obama have to deliver a speech embracing a set of values and policies, only to watch as he then proceeds to do the opposite, before one ceases to view his public proclamations as predictive of his future choices?”

  • May 22, 2013

    by Jeremy Leaming

    Some legal scholars and defenders of the indefinite war on terror are coming, mostly with strained arguments, to the defense of the Obama administration’s abuse of freedom of speech. The First Amendment’s speech clause includes protection for a free press, a fairly fundamental way people communicate.

    But the Obama administration, which has carried on some of the Bush administration’s counterterrorism tactics, and escalated others, such as the drone war, is obsessed with going after public officials and others suspected of leaking important details of counterterrorism activities and other national security concerns.

    The Department of Justice has trolled the phone records of Associated Press reporters in a leak investigation of the AP’s coverage of a foiled terrorist plot in Yemen, and spied on the work of Fox News correspondent James Rosen, in another leak case involving a 2009 story about North Korea’s announcement of launching a nuclear missile. The Washington Post reported that the DOJ “used a security badge to access records to track the reporter’s comings and goings from the State Department… and “traced the timing of his calls with a State Department security adviser suspected of sharing the classified report.” The DOJ, The Post continues, obtained a search warrant for Rosen’s personal e-mails. The DOJ didn’t stop there. It’s arguing that Rosen may have been a co-conspirator in the leak. So now you have the federal government using the Espionage Act to go after alleged leakers, and a journalist, whose job partly entails keeping the public informed about its government.

    Gabe Rottman for the ACLU’s Blog of Rights says “never before has the government argued that newsgathering – in this case, asking a source to provide sensitive information – is itself illegal. That would, quite literally, make virtually any question by a reporter implicating classified information a potential felony.”

    Last week, when taking questions about his administration’s leak investigation involving secretly culling AP phone records, Obama said no apologies were necessary and provided a tired defense of his administration’s obsession with investigating and prosecuting leaks. Essentially Obama said trust the executive branch and leakers are bad.

    But as noted here before war, as George Orwell once wrote has the effect of not meshing terribly well with individual liberties. In Homage to Catalonia about the Spanish Civil War, Orwell wrote, “The fact is that every war suffers a kind of progressive degradation with every month that it continues, because such things as individual liberty and a truthful press are simply not compatible with military efficiency.”

  • April 29, 2013

    by Jeremy Leaming

    A federal judge in Los Angeles took a step recently to bolster the nation’s indigent defense system for some undocumented immigrants. It was an all-too-rare legal action to help the most vulnerable among us, and unlikely to be celebrated by opponents of immigration reform.

    But poverty in this country is not exclusive to documented Americans, neither are basic human rights. U.S. District Judge Dolly M. Gee, as Bloomberg reports, moved to address the glaring inequality when she recently ruled that three states must pay for legal counsel for mentally disabled immigrants who are detained for potential deportation.

    Gee said that mentally disabled plaintiffs do not have meaningful access to the legal proceedings against them without counsel. “Plaintiffs’ ability to exercise these rights is hindered by their mental incompetency, and the provision of competent representation able to navigate the proceedings is the only means by which they may invoke these rights,” the judge ruled in José Antonio Franco-González v. Holder.

    As Bloomberg noted, federal agencies took action to ensure the measure would apply nationwide.

    In an April 22 statement, the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security announced “a new nationwide policy for underrepresented immigration detainees with serious mental disorders or conditions that may render them mentally incompetent to represent themselves in immigration proceedings.”  

    In its landmark Gideon v. Wainwright opinion, the Supreme Court ruled that criminal defendants have a constitutional right, secured by the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments, to legal representation even if they cannot afford it. During a recent symposium sponsored by the Harvard Law & Policy Review and ACS, UNC Law School Professor Gene Nichol argued that one of the legal system’s greatest failures, which mirror the nation’s overall treatment of the poor, is its ongoing inability to provide the most vulnerable among us competent legal help even in civil matters.

  • April 25, 2013

    by Jeremy Leaming

    Once again lawmakers in Congress have introduced legislation intended to advance equality for LGBT people, this time with a few more Republicans on board and in an atmosphere of heightened public support.

    The Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) would prohibit employers from discriminating against people based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. As noted earlier this week, other variations of ENDA have languished in past congressional sessions. But the effort – to outlaw employment discrimination of LGBT people – is integral to advancing equality. The U.S. Supreme Court is considering cases involving marriage equality and nine states and the District of Columbia recognize same-sex marriages. Rhode Island and Delaware state lawmakers are considering legislation to allow same-sex couples to wed. (Rhode Island’s Senate has approved a marriage equality bill.)

    So while there has been positive movement on marriage equality -- though a setback could be forthcoming depending on the how the Roberts Court handles the cases before it – efforts to bar employment discrimination against LGBT persons have seen more mixed results. As the ACLU notes more than 30 states include laws that fail to provide LGBT people solid protection from employment discrimination.

    But Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) in a press statement announcing the introduction of ENDA sounded an upbeat note, saying that “bipartisan coalitions” in both chambers are supporting the measure. Merkley’s statement concludes, “In a sign of the growing momentum to end discrimination against LGBT Americans, the Senate sponsors expect the Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee” to take action on the legislation in this Congress.

    The ACLU, Lambda Legal, the National Center for Lesbian Rights and the Transgender Law Center issued a statement today concluding, in part, that in a “country that values fairness and equal treatment under the law, we believe the current situation is unacceptable.” That situation centers on the fact that there remain far too many states without protections against employment discrimination of LGBT people.