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Several years ago, your faithful correspondent wrote to the then-junior senator from Illinois, Barack Obama, and asked him what he thought of the illegal domestic wiretapping that had recently come to light. Senator Obama’s response seems especially pertinent today. I have boldfaced those statements that today seem ironic in view of the scandals currently besetting the Obama administration.

Thank you for contacting me concerning the President’s domestic surveillance program. I appreciate hearing from you.

Providing any President with the flexibility necessary to fight terrorism without compromising our constitutional rights can be a delicate balance. I agree that technological advances and changes in the nature of the threat our nation faces may require that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), enacted in 1978, be updated to reflect the reality of the post 9/11 world. But that does not absolve the President of the responsibility to fully brief Congress on the new security challenge and to work cooperatively with Congress to address it.

As you know, Congress has been considering the issue of domestic surveillance since last year. The debate continues, but the shift in party control on Capitol Hill has clearly had an impact on this critical discussion over the balance of power in our system of government. On January 17, 2007, after conducting its wiretapping program without court approval for over 5 years, the Justice Department announced that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court had approved its program to listen to communications between people in the U.S. and other countries if there is probable cause to believe one or the other is involved in terrorism. Then, in early February, the Justice Department announced that it would give the Intelligence and Judiciary Committees of both chambers of Congress access to previously withheld documents on the NSA program. The congressional committees with jurisdiction over this issue hailed the agreement as a step in the right direction.

However, there is still significant work to be done. Just before the August recess in 2007, Congress passed hastily crafted legislation to expand the authority of the Attorney General and the Director of National Intelligence to conduct surveillance of suspected foreign terrorists without a warrant or real oversight, even if the targets are communicating with someone in the United States. This legislation was signed into law by the President on August 5, 2007, and expires after six months.

As you are aware, Congress is working on reforms to the FISA bill to be enacted before the expiration of the current legislation. On November 15, 2007, the House of Representatives passed H.R. 3773, the Responsible Electronic Surveillance That is Overseen, Reviewed, and Effective Act of 2007 (RESTORE Act) by a vote of 227-189. The House bill does not provide retroactive immunity for private companies that may have participated in the illegal collection of personal information, nor does it provide immunity for Administration officials who may have acted illegally.

On February 12, 2008, the Senate passed S. 2248, making its own reforms to FISA. I am disappointed that S. 2248, if signed into law, will grant an unprecedented level of immunity for telecommunications companies that cooperated with the President’s warrantless wiretapping program. I was proud to cosponsor several amendments, including the Dodd-Feingold amendment to strike the immunity provision, which would have enhanced privacy protections while maintaining the tools to fight terrorism. However, with the defeat of this amendment, telecom companies will not be held accountable even if it could be proven that they clearly and knowingly broke the law and nullified the privacy rights of Americans. I am frustrated by the President’s decision to play politics by threatening to veto any legislation not containing immunity. Why the President continues to try to hold this important legislation captive to that special interest provision defies explanation. The House and Senate must reconcile differences between the two versions of the bill before being signed into law.

The American people understand that new threats require flexible responses to keep them safe, and that our intelligence gathering capability needs to be improved. What they do not want is for the President or the Congress to use these imperatives as a pretext for promoting policies that not only go further than necessary to meet a real threat, but also violate some of the most basic tenets of our democracy. Like most members of Congress, I continue to believe that the essential objective of conducting effective domestic surveillance in the War on Terror can be achieved without discarding our constitutionally protected civil liberties.

Thank you again for writing. Please stay in touch as this debate continues.

Sincerely,

Barack Obama
United States Senator

Money from the U.S. Federal government may have helped pay for the guns and ammunition used by James Holmes to murder a dozen people and wound scores of others in the movie theater massacre in Aurora, Colo., July 20.

This startling news was reported in the July 23 New York Times—but it was buried deep within the paper, halfway through a story about President Obama’s visit to Aurora.

In the story, the Times reports: “The police believe that Mr. Holmes began planning his rampage for months, when he began acquiring the materials that he would use in both the shooting and to rig his apartment.”

The article goes on to say:

“There were also clues as to how Mr. Holmes might have paid for the weapons and other materials he acquired. He was receiving a $26,000 stipend, in monthly installments of $2,166, for a National Institutes of Health neuroscience training grant for the graduate program he was enrolled in at the University of Colorado-Denver Anschutz Medical Campus, a spokeswoman said.”

In a front-page article in the same edition of the newspaper, the Times reports that Holmes “ordered 3,000 rounds of handgun ammunition, 3,000 rounds for an assault rifle, and 35 shells for a 12-gauge shotgun—an amount of firepower that costs roughly $3,000 at the online sites—in the four months before the shooting.”

There is no reason to believe—as of yet—that anyone within any Federal agency was directing Holmes to buy firearms or ammunition. There is no hard evidence to suggest the involvement of any government agency in the incident in any way. But the fact remains that federal dollars were likely used to pay for the weapons and ammunition.

“Oh, what a stretch!” some might exclaim. But is it? How would the Federal government itself view a situation in which an individual funneled $2,000 per month to someone who used that money to buy weapons and ammunition to commit a domestic atrocity against civilians? Would the Federal government be at all interested in looking into the matter to determine whether the funds were transferred with the intent to bankroll terrorism?

If the Patriot Act and the United States Code are any guide, then the Federal government would be very interested indeed. In fact, Federal law provides for prison terms of up to 15 years for anyone who provides “material support” of terrorism and life imprisonment if such support results in loss of life.

Under Title IV, Subtitle B of the Patriot Act, the phrase “to engage in terrorist activity” is given numerous definitions, including this one:

. . . to commit an act that the actor knows, or reasonably should know, affords material support, including a safe house, transportation, communications, funds, transfer of funds or other material financial benefit, false documentation or identification, weapons (including chemical, biological, or radiological weapons), explosives, or training . . .

[emphasis added]

Under 18 USC § 2339A of the United States Code, anyone who provides “material support or resources or conceals or disguises the nature, location, source, or ownership of material support or resources, knowing or intending that they are to be used in preparation for, or in carrying out” certain terrorist acts may be “imprisoned not more than 15 years, or both, and, if the death of any person results, shall be imprisoned for any term of years or for life.”

Material support of terrorists is defined in the same section of the United States Code as, among other things, “currency or monetary instruments or financial securities.”

Should this transfer of Federal money to a man who bought arms and ammunition to commit an atrocity not at least be examined? Or is the Federal government above being held to its own standards of scrutiny?

A federal protection that comes with exemptions is no protection at all. Note that the feds do not vouch for the accuracy of the information they secretly keep. This is a formula for gross abuse.

Last Friday, the federal government’s new anti-terror database, the Terror Screening Watchlist Service, went live. The database is loaded with an unknown amount of personal information, including names, photographs and biometric data. In a new turn that has civil liberties advocates crying foul, the Department of Homeland Security is claiming all information contained in the watchlist is confidential.

Earlier today, the Electronic Privacy Information Center, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and several other groups filed a formal complaint with DHS about the blanket exemptions to the Privacy Act.

Under DHS’ rules guidelines for the Terror Watch Lists, individuals “do not have an opportunity to decline to provide information” for the database, and cannot obtain the relevant information through the Federal Privacy Act. The Privacy Act is one of the milestone reforms passed in the wake of the Watergate spying scandal. It permits individuals to obtain law enforcement files about them by the government, with the intent of correcting incorrect information.

Read the rest at KALW News.

Libyan rebels backed by American progressive democrats lynch a black man in Benghazi

No one should be surprised that many on the American right support military action against the regime of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi. Attacking countries that pose no threat to the U.S. is typically cheered by many American republicans, especially those of the neocon variety.

What’s surprising is that many on the American left support the current aggression against Libya as well—surprising because American democrats typically like to portray themselves as anti-war and anti-imperialist.

What makes the situation in Libya especially ironic is that American “progressives” of the left may, without knowing it, be supporting Libyan rebels who have committed—and may still be committing—atrocities against soldiers and civilians suspected of being aligned with the Gaddafi regime. These atrocities, by many reliable accounts, have included the lynching of black Africans.

Yes, American liberals are throwing their support behind mobs that have lynched black people.

Make no mistake: Muammar Gaddafi is a vicious tyrant who appears willing to do anything to cling to power, and his military forces have committed some atrocious acts of their own. What’s at issue here is the way in which a fairly typical civil war was been recast as a story of valiant civilians taking on a modern military force—and the way in which this contrived narrative has been used to get American liberals to go along with the war, if not enthusiastically support it.

The official story of the war in Libya is being woven in order to bring the left in Europe and the U.S. on board to support a NATO military venture. Who stands to profit from this venture? Why, the usual institutions, of course: military contractors, big banks, and multinational corporations that are in the business of extracting mineral and fossil resources from nations whose leaders have defied the western corporate empire in one way or another.

The reason the Libyan venture enjoys the support of the American left is that the left has been deceived into believing NATO’s aggression against Libya is a humanitarian mission. This belief is based on flimsy propaganda that many appear to have accepted without asking the most fundamental questions or exercising the most basic skepticism.

Think back to the accounts from the early days of the war about Libyan jet fighters strafing civilians. It turns out that the strafing probably never happened. And yet many still believe it occurred.

The Russian military was monitoring Libyan airspace at the time of the supposed strafing attacks and says the attacks never took place. Russia Today reports:

The reports of Libya mobilizing its air force against its own people spread quickly around the world. However, Russia’s military chiefs say they have been monitoring from space—and the pictures tell a different story. According to Al Jazeera and BBC, on February 22 Libyan government inflicted airstrikes on Benghazi—the country’s largest city—and on the capital Tripoli. However, the Russian military, monitoring the unrest via satellite from the very beginning, says nothing of the sort was going on on the ground. At this point, the Russian military is saying that, as far as they are concerned, the attacks some media were reporting have never occurred.

And who can forget the preposterous tales of Gaddafi loyalists being issued Viagra so they could go out and rape civilian women? Last April 29, Reuters reported, with a straight face:

(Reuters) – The U.S. envoy to the United Nations told the Security Council on Thursday that troops loyal to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi were increasingly engaging in sexual violence and some had been issued the impotency drug Viagra, diplomats said.

Several U.N. diplomats who attended a closed-door Security Council meeting on Libya told Reuters that U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice raised the Viagra issue in the context of increasing reports of sexual violence by Gaddafi’s troops.

“Rice raised that in the meeting but no one responded,” a diplomat said on condition of anonymity. The allegation was first reported by a British newspaper.

Reuters did not identify this “British newspaper.”

Two days after the Reuters report was published, MSNBC reported that “There is no evidence that Libyan military forces are being given Viagra and engaging in systematic rape against women in rebel areas, US military and intelligence officials told NBC News on Friday.”

The MSNBC report went on to say that “several diplomats said Rice provided no evidence for the Viagra allegation, which they said was made in an attempt to persuade doubters the conflict in Libya was not just a standard civil war but a much nastier fight in which Gaddafi is not afraid to order his troops to commit heinous acts.”

An attempt to persuade doubters the conflict in Libya was not just a standard civil war. In other words, the Viagra story was propaganda, pure and simple, and rather preposterous propaganda at that. Likewise, the story of jets strafing civilians appears now to have been invented in order to “persuade doubters” that the Libyan civil war was a war worth intervening in.

The American left would probably never support intervening in a “standard civil war.” But how about a war in which a cartoonish bad man is doing mean things to women and children? Now there’s a war “progressive” liberals can get behind and cheer for. Never mind if the narrative used to justify it is fiction.

As stories like the ones about the strafing jets and the Viagra were finding prominent play in the western corporate press, there were other stories, less prominently reported if reported at all, about atrocities being committed by the anti-Gaddafi rebels. Even today, such reports are murky, difficult to trace back to their sources, and rarely reported by the U.S. and European press.

There have been exceptions. The Austrian newspaper Der Standard published an interview July 6 with Donatella Rovera, a crisis researcher for Amnesty International who was in rebel-held areas of Libya during the early weeks of the war. In the interview, Rovera alluded to the absurdity of the Viagra story and mentioned that black African migrant workers were being lynched on suspicion of being Gaddafi mercenaries. (The Google Translate page of this interview is here.)

“We have carefully examined and found no evidence [that Gaddafi uses African mercenaries]. The opposition has spread everywhere these rumors, which had dire consequences for African migrant workers: it was held a regular hunt on immigrants, some were even lynched, arrested many. Meanwhile, there is even the opposition, that the mercenaries were not, almost all were released and have returned to their home countries. . . .”

As for the Viagra story, Rovera expressed surprise that anyone could actually have believed it:

“That has not really taken seriously someone, right? On 21 March, prior to the first air attacks of the French troops at Benghazi-Qaddafi, presented us with a young man who worked in the media center, several boxes of the impotence remedy. He claimed to have found in destroyed tanks. The vehicles were completely burnt out, but the packaging looked like new. I cannot imagine that anyone has believed him.”

In March, the Los Angeles Times published a series of photographs by staff photographer Luis Sinco showing detainees accused by anti-Gaddafi rebels of being mercenaries. Sinco described his unsettling suspicion that the men he was viewing had already been condemned and would soon die:

I moved on to other prisoners who had also been trotted out for photographs and questions. The whole scene had an unsettling feel, as if these men had already been tried and convicted—and all that was left were their executions. In a strange twist, I learned that internal security officers of the Kadafi regime formerly used the facility to detain, torture and kill political dissidents.

A representative from Human Rights Watch looked on silently, taking notes but declining to comment on the proceedings.

All I know is that the Geneva Convention explicitly prohibits prisoners of war from being paraded and questioned before cameras of any kind. But that’s exactly what happened today. The whole incident just gave me a really bad vibe, and thank God it finally ended.

Times reporter David Zucchino, our interpreter and I skipped the bus ride back and instead got a lift from a passing motorist. In the car, our interpreter, a Libyan national, asked Zucchino: “So what do you think? Should we just go ahead and kill them?”

Just when I thought this war couldn’t get any weirder, it did.

Reports that anti-Gaddafi rebels have systematically rounded up and murdered black Africans have come through official channels as well, but none of these reports has seen wide dissemination through the U.S. or Europe. These reports, after all, don’t fit the official narrative—the heavily promoted view that the rebels are the good guys.

As Reuters reported in April, the nation of Chad formally demanded that NATO protect its citizens in rebel-occupied areas of Libya—not from Gaddafi’s troops but from rebels on the prowl for suspected mercenaries:

N’DJAMENA, April 3 (Reuters) – Chad on Sunday called on coalition forces to protect its citizens in rebel-held areas in Libya, saying dozens had been accused and executed for allegedly being mercenaries in the pay Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.

When protests against Gaddafi’s government led to violence in February, rebels said Gaddafi had brought in African mercenaries from countries such as Chad and Zimbabwe to help in the crackdown after Libyan troops proved unreliable.

“Since the beginning of the Libyan crisis, Chadians in Libya, especially those in areas controlled by the transitional national council, have been singled out,” a statement from Chad’s government spokesman Kalzeubet Pahimi Deubet said.

“Dozens of Chadians have known this sad fate,” he said.

The statement said several Chadian nationals had been arrested, some were “paraded on television as mercenaries and sometimes executed” despite denials that Libya had recruited any mercenaries from its southern neighbour.

The government of Chad had said about 300,000 of its citizens resided in Libya before the crisis.

“The Chadian government is calling on international coalition forces involved in Libya and international human rights organisation to stop these abuses against Chadians and other migrant Africa workers,” the statement said.

As reports like these have trickled out, so have videos like this one, posted June 26, which purports to show Libyan civilians—the supposed good guys, remember, the ones backed by the U.S. and NATO—lynching a black man. (Warning: This video is disturbing.)

[Note: Videos of lynchings in Libya are being removed from Youtube nearly as quickly as they can be uploaded. If the above video is missing, that is why.]

At the same time reports and videos like these were trickling out, members of the U.S. Congress were arguing over President Obama’s decision to commit U.S. forces to the NATO venture without congressional approval. The president’s lawyers argued that the U.S.’s role in the NATO invention didn’t rise to the level of full military engagement. Thus, the argument went, the president wasn’t constitutionally obligated to seek approval from Congress.

Several resolutions came to the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives in late spring seeking either to support or to block the president’s commitment of U.S. airpower to NATO’s invention in Libya. Curiously, the majority of republicans opposed intervention, while the majority of democrats supported it. This reversal of standard roles may be attributed to two factors: the portrayal of the Libyan civil war as a story of intrepid civilians fighting a comic-book villain, and the impulse among democrats to go along with anything the president proposes—along with the equivalent impulse among republicans to defy the president at every turn.

Typical of the “progressive” democrats who have sided with the president every step of the way in his decision to use military force against Libya is Rep. Janice Schakowsky of Illinois. In an interview on Chicago’s WLS-AM radio several months ago, Schakowsky justified her support of military aggression against Libya by comparing the Libyan civil war with the tribal mayhem that swept Rwanda in 1994:

“Although the president does want to see Muammar Gaddafi gone, that the mission, the use of force is to protect civilians and I understand not wanting another Rwanda on our hands. If you ask Bill Clinton, one of the regrets [was not getting involved in Rwanda],” Schakowsky said.

Never mind that the “civilians” in Libya being protected by NATO constitute a well-organized and armed militia that’s committing war crimes. And never mind that Rwanda was a different situation altogether—one in which mass murder was committed not by a strong-armed dictator but by masses of civilians settling old tribal scores. In fact, if anything, destabilizing and removing Muammar Gaddafi, bad as he is, could have the unintended consequence of unleashing the very sort of lethal tribal animosities that Schakowsky and others like her say they want the U.S. and NATO to prevent.

In the same interview, Schakowsky also said that she’d like to see how the U.S.’s military’s intervention “turns out.” A wait-and-see approach is perfectly understandable for one who enjoys the security and trappings of congressional office and has reelection to think about. The same sentiment, however, could hardly be expected to be shared by someone in Libya facing the imminent threat of a lynch mob. In such a situation, waiting to see how things “turn out” probably wouldn’t be an attractive option.

Several questions remain unanswered. Why has the American left failed to ask difficult questions about Libya?  Is it possible that American liberals are loath to question a president in whom they have so much invested emotionally? Is it possible that they are so thoroughly compromised by political contributions that they must remain silent? Are they simply not well informed?

Perhaps more to the point: If they are aware that the rebels they’re backing have lynched black people, how do the supporters of the Libyan intervention—particularly “progressive” democrats, who claim to be motivated by a passion to defend the little guy—look themselves in the mirror?

Well, of course BART’s action resembles a strategy employed by Middle East dictatorships. The high-tech control grid is being deployed uniformly around the world. And yet many in America and Europe and other “social democracies” are stuck in the illusion that we have liberty.

BART’s shut-off of subterranean cell phone service in its downtown San Francisco stations may have prevented a protest Thursday, but it sparked accusations Friday that the action stifled free speech and smacked of the kind of government intrusion employed by Middle East dictators.

“All over the world, people are using mobile devices to protest oppressive regimes, and governments are shutting down cell phone towers and the Internet to stop them,” said Michael Risher, a staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California. “It’s outrageous that in San Francisco, BART is doing the same thing.”

Read the rest at the San Francisco Chronicle.

Consider Google’s motto: “Don’t be evil.” Have you ever stopped to think about that motto? Isn’t it a little bit like Richard Nixon saying “I am not a crook”? Does it not sound like a reassurance intended to refute that which is true? “Give the lady what she wants”—now there’s a motto that confirms that a company’s priority is the customer. But why would a truly good corporation need to urge its employees not to be evil? And what about the choice of the word evil? Why choose the extreme? No, “Don’t be evil” is something a serial killer my say to himself when his killing is out of control. Good people don’t need to tell themselves not to be evil.

Google has admitted complying with requests from US intelligence agencies for data stored in its European data centers, most likely in violation of European Union data protection laws.

Gordon Frazer, Microsoft UK’s managing director, made news headlines some weeks ago when he admitted that Microsoft can be compelled to share data with the US government regardless of where it is hosted in the world.

At the center of this problem is the USA PATRIOT ACT, which states that companies incorporated in the United States must hand over data administered by their foreign subsidiaries if requested.

Not only that, but they can be forced to keep quiet about it in order to avoid exposing active investigations and alert those targeted by the probes.

This situation poses a serious problem for companies like Microsoft, Google or Amazon, which offer cloud services around the world, because their subsidiaries must also respect local laws.

Read the rest at Softpedia.

Is there nothing they won’t consider harassing us over? Do they not realize they are killing the proverbial goose that laid the golden egg? Once all private enterprise is crushed, whom will they leech off of?

A new rule being proposed by the federal Department of Transportation would require farmers to get commercial drivers licenses.

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, which is a part of DOT, wants to adopt standards that would reclassify all farm vehicles and implements as Commercial Motor Vehicles, officials said. Likewise, the proposal, if adopted, would require all farmers and everyone on the farm who operates any of the equipment to obtain a CDL, they added.

The proposed rule change would mean that anyone who drives a tractor or operates any piece of motorized farming equipment would be required to pass the same tests and complete the same detailed forms and logs required of semi-tractor trailer drivers.

Drivers would keep logs of information including hours worked and miles traveled. Vehicles would be required to display DOT numbers. A CDL in Virginia costs $64 for eight years, or $8 per year, not including the cost of an instructional class and the written test.

Read the rest at the Gazette-Virginian.

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