How The Terrorists Are Winning

In the wake of the February 2015 terrorist attacks in Copenhagen, the Danish parliament is considering legislation that would allow the country’s intelligence service to spy on Danes overseas without a warrant. Australia’s federal police want the nation’s lawmakers to allow domestic drove surveillance. Just a month before the terrorist attack on Paris-based satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, the French government took executive action to expand mass surveillance in the country. In the aftermath of that attack, British Prime Minister David Cameron began parroting calls by FBI Director James Comey that public access to safe, reliable personal encryption technology be banned. Their preferred method: force technology companies to build exploitable flaws into their products to facilitate easier surveillance by America’s National Security Agency and other Western intelligence services.

Always left unsaid by proponents of such technological “back doors” is the reality that hostile intelligence services and malicious hackers could also exploit those vulnerabilities. Compromising encryption for everyone would be just as ineffective at preventing future terrorist attacks as all the mass surveillance conducted to date has been in preventing previous attacks–including the Ft. Hood shooting, the “underwear” bomber, the Boston Marathon bombers, and so on.

And all of these proposals fly in the face of a recent Council of Europe report denouncing mass surveillance as a violation of human rights.

Nils Muižnieks, the Council’s commissioner for human rights, told the Guardian that “The aftermath of the Paris attacks has … seen a broader debate about counter-terrorism in France and Europe. Some proposals – giving security services unfettered access to digital communications, banning encryption, etc – suggest that little has been learned from the Snowden affair about the dangers to human rights, especially the right to privacy, of mass surveillance”.

But in the debate over how best to respond to an ongoing but hardly civilization-threatening terrorist menace, fear is triumphing over facts. Nearly two years after Edward Snowden’s initial revelations about the scope of the NSA’s global assault on the U.S. Constitution and the world’s telecommunications infrastructure, one thing is abundantly clear: the terrorists are winning on a key battlefield–inside the governments of the world’s major democracies.

These assaults on long-cherished civil liberties and privacy rights are the clearest evidence yet that the terrorists are succeeding in changing how we live, rather than vice versa, as former U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld so confidently asserted a decade ago. But the terrorists could not achieve this victory on their own.

Western politicians from Washington to London to Copenhagen are giving the terrorists what they need most–de facto allies inside the democracies ISIS is attacking. Even as ISIS wages a campaign of terror and destruction against the rights and lives of its victims in the Middle East, and now Europe, Barack Obama, David Cameron, Francois Hollande, and Helle Thorning-Schmidt are, through current or proposed legislative and executive actions, effectively waging a war against the rights of their own citizens. All of this is being justified by Western politicians under the guise of “national security”, in response to the murderous actions of a small, desperate and savage international criminal enterprise. The terrorists only hope for victory rests upon our willingness to allow their fear-based tactics to succeed in driving us to self-obliterate over 800 years of human progress towards a freer and more inclusive world. That our elected leaders are, witlessly, helping them achieve this goal should serve as a clarion call for us to replace those leaders before genuinely lasting damage is done to Western civilization.

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In Defense Of ‘Jupiter Ascending’

To date, I’ve read at least two-dozen reviews of this movie–some before I saw it, some after. I think the Wachowski’s nailed it in an interview with CSM:

“There’s directors like John Ford and Christopher Nolan who find a tone and stick with it throughout their careers,” said Lana. “We’re not like that. We’re always looking for the range of what we see in life. That creates a tension between us and our audience because they don’t know what to expect. It makes people excited, but it can also make for frustrated consumers.”


“The summer is built around familiarity,” said Lana. “Many cultural critics who shape awareness for films are obsessed with sequels and derivative material. They wildly crave it. That kind of environment is hostile to originality. It only makes space for derivative material and rejects originality. I think Warner Bros. was uncomfortable with that environment.”


“The cultural obsession with equating a movie’s success to its box office is incredibly damning to this industry,” said Andy. “It’s pushing the industry more and more to making pure product, which is another reason why you constantly have reboots. It’s McDonald’s. People know what they’re going to sit down and watch. Inherently, it’s unhealthy for your brain.”

Unlike the professional critics, this reviewer felt Eddie Redmayne’s performance as the (generally) soft-spoken, tightly-wound and completely irredeemable Balem Abrasax was terrific. I didn’t find the performances of Mila Kunis, Channing Tatum, or the venerable Sean Bean to be wooden or two-dimensional, as so many critics did–in a two-hour action flick with a large primary cast, a lot of deep character development is an impossibility.What those reviews don’t tell you is that this movie makes big statements about the extreme dark side of unbridled capitalism combined with a genocide-driven quest for eternal youth, all played out among three royal heirs who would give any of the characters in “Game of Thrones” a run for their money in terms of sheer amorality and ruthlessness. The sci-fi backdrop is indeed visually spectacular and it left this viewer very much wanting a greater opportunity to explore those worlds.

Overall, a generally fast-paced and entertaining sci-fi ride. Four stars.

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Obama, The Prayer Breakfast And The Burden Of History

Moral introspection and critical self-examination are not exactly American strengths. The latest National Prayer Breakfast “controversy” over President Obama’s remarks about religiously-inspired violence have hightlighted, yet again, those national character flaws. The headlines tell the story in part:

Obama Trolls National Prayer Breakfast, Gets Expected Results

Critics pounce after Obama talks Crusades, slavery at prayer breakfast

Obama, Trying to Add Context to Speech, Faces Backlash Over ‘Crusades’

Bolton: Obama “Missed An Opportunity” at National Prayer Breakfast

Why did Obama compare Crusades to Islamic State at prayer breakfast?

You get the idea.

The President’s full remarks are quite good and speak some unpleasant truths that make religious violence historical whitewashers fulminate in the way we’ve seen in the wake of the event. Indeed, it probably would’ve been in order to remind the audience that the Crusades were not exclusively aimed at Muslims, as Eastern Orthodox Christians know well.

For me, the President’s remarks fell flat not because of his historically accurate claims, but because of the recent history he chose to ignore in the speech. I’m referring here to America’s embrace of torture.

What I’m struck by are the historical parallels between imperial Rome and post-9/11 America. Imperial Roman authorities in ancient Judea detained, tortured and murdered an innocent man whose only crimes were speaking truth to power, attacking the rich for their indifference to the poor, and hearlding a new age in which all humans should seek to care for one another instead of kill one another. Our post-9/11 government tortured innocent detainees, some to the point where they died in our custody. And while the new chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee is attempting to bury that report, some of his clergy constitutents are not letting him off the hook for trying–to their great credit.

The President’s true missed opportunity at the prayer breakfast was in failing to address that report and its findings. He could have furthered the national debate–political and religious–on the topic by using the platform of the prayer breakfast to announce that the was releasing the full report, unredacted.

He could also have announced that he was issuing an executive order barring the Central Intelligence Agency from engaging in detention operations ever again, and then called on Congress to send him legislation that would make such an executive order permanent.

He could have announced the termination of those CIA personnel still on the government payroll who participated in or provided legal cover for the torture program.

He could have announced that any former government officials who participated in or orchestrated the program would, if still serving as government consultants with active security clearances, be barred from being on the government payroll if any form and were having their security clearances revoked.

All of these steps would’ve been more productive, and produced a far more meaningful public debate over America’s moral and political hyporcrisy, than a needless trip down an 800 year-old religious rabbit hole.


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Intelligence Community Oversight: The “Reforming Congress” Angle

The Sunlight Foundation and dozens of other groups today issued a letter to House leadership and a proposal with dozens of suggested/needed reforms to how Congress conducts oversight of the Intelligence Community. The proposed reforms are thoughtful, eminently reasonable, well thought-out and badly needed. For more info, click here.


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The Dark Night Of The American Soul

It was inevitable. Polling on the Senate torture report, that is, in this case from Pew. Here’s the key graphic:

More Say CIA Interrogation Methods Were Justified than Unjustified

Just a reminder to everyone: torture is a crime under U.S. law. No exceptions, period. Would have loved to see Pew ask whether it would have been justified to waterboard Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols to see if they had co-conspirators. What Pew did with its poll on the Senate torture report is effectively present not a truly objective question on the issue of whether torture was permitted under U.S. and international law, not a question seeking to understand whether the public knew torture was ineffective based on centuries of repellent experience, but whether it was justified regardless of its illegality.

And I thought this paragraph was particularly telling:

While the report on the CIA’s interrogation methods captured much of Washington’s attention, it was not the public’s most closely followed story last week. Overall, 23% followed news about the release of the Senate report on CIA interrogations very closely; more (35%) paid very close attention to news about protests around the country in response to police-related violence.

Did Pew even ask if poll respondents read even portions of the report…say, the executive summary? No.

So Pew asked a group of Americans who were barely paying attention to the news reports on this topic and who, so far as I can tell, were not even polled on whether they’d read a single word of the report, whether they thought the CIA’s torture tactics were “justified”. If you’re looking for the real explanation as to why George Tenet, Michael Hayden, Porter Goss and other former and current CIA officials will never be held accountable for their initiation and management of America’s first publicly acknowledged torture program–and why a future torture program remains a possibility–Pew Research just gave you the answer.

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Intel Authorization Bill Would EXPAND Surveillance Against Americans

Below is the full text of the Dear Colleague circulated this afternoon by Rep. Justin Amash (R-MI):

Block New Spying on U.S. Citizens: Vote “NO” on H.R. 4681

Dear Colleague:

The intelligence reauthorization bill, which the House will vote on today, contains a troubling new provision that for the first time statutorily authorizes spying on U.S. citizens without legal process.

Last night, the Senate passed an amended version of the intelligence reauthorization bill with a new Sec. 309—one the House never has considered. Sec. 309 authorizes “the acquisition, retention, and dissemination” of nonpublic communications, including those to and from U.S. persons. The section contemplates that those private communications of Americans, obtained without a court order, may be transferred to domestic law enforcement for criminal investigations.

To be clear, Sec. 309 provides the first statutory authority for the acquisition, retention, and dissemination of U.S. persons’ private communications obtained without legal process such as a court order or a subpoena. The administration currently may conduct such surveillance under a claim of executive authority, such as E.O. 12333. However, Congress never has approved of using executive authority in that way to capture and use Americans’ private telephone records, electronic communications, or cloud data.

Supporters of Sec. 309 claim that the provision actually reins in the executive branch’s power to retain Americans’ private communications. It is true that Sec. 309 includes exceedingly weak limits on the executive’s retention of Americans’ communications. With many exceptions, the provision requires the executive to dispose of Americans’ communications within five years of acquiring them—although, as HPSCI admits, the executive branch already follows procedures along these lines.

In exchange for the data retention requirements that the executive already follows, Sec. 309 provides a novel statutory basis for the executive branch’s capture and use of Americans’ private communications. The Senate inserted the provision into the intelligence reauthorization bill late last night. That is no way for Congress to address the sensitive, private information of our constituents—especially when we are asked to expand our government’s surveillance powers.

I urge you to join me in voting “no” on, H.R. 4681, the intelligence reauthorization bill, when it comes before the House today.


Justin Amash
Member of Congress

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NSA Reform: When 293 Votes Is Not A Majority

Late this afternoon, I was informed that the only NSA reform measure to pass either chamber of Congress this year–the Lofgren/Massie amendment to the FY15 DoD approps bill–is being stripped out of that bill as part of the House-Senate deal on the so-called “CRomnibus”. I wrote about this amendment and it's importance recently, but the consequences of not getting it into law seem to have escaped folks in the Congressional leadership. Let me recap.

To date, the Congress as an institution has failed to pass into law a single provision to rein in the NSA's out-of-control blanket surveillance of every American. Congress has also failed to stop NSA and the Justice Department from pressuring American tech companies to build in surveillance “back doors” to their products to facilitate NSA surveillance (“back doors” which would, of course, also be exploitable by every hostile intelligence service and competent hacker in the world). So if the Massie/Lofgren amendment is ripped out of the DoD appropriations bill, the message from the House and Senate leadership will be clear: the Fourth Amendment is history, and if U.S. businesses continue to be seen as tools of NSA (and lose billions in sales and thousands of jobs in the process), so be it…because, ISIS/9-11/whatever.

The fight over the Constitution centered around increasing individual protections against an over-reaching government. Anti-federalists warned at the time about the dangers of standing armies and permanent military establishments, which is why they opposed both and opposed an overly-powerful executive branch. The last 13 years have given us more than ample proof that their fears were both prophetic and justified.

Despite their sweeping nature, the PATRIOT Act and FISA Amendments Act (FAA) are clearly viewed by the executive as at best minimalist frameworks within which they can find clever ways to still take the action they desire; they do not regard these laws as truly legally-binding “red lines” not to be crossed…unless a federal court outright rules the activity unconstitutional, and the court actually has to be aware of the program in order to be able to render such a ruling.

Remember that the ink on the 2001 AUMF was not even dry when they started STELLAR WIND…and once the program became public via Jim Risen’s piece in December 2005, Congress went through contortions for nearly three years trying to make it legal ex post facto, first via the PAA and ultimately with the FAA.

Viewing statutes and courts as obstacles to be overcome or bypassed is behavior that will not cease until the executive branch is confronted with an obstacle they cannot overcome…or real legal and/or oversight consequences they cannot escape.

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