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Fixing the problem of NSA spying

There’s been lots of talk about the problem of NSA spying the last few days, and some partisan braying about it.  But the real question is: what do we do now?  The reality is that the majority of Congress stands overwhelmingly in favor of these programs, and Presidents of both parties have supported these programs, which makes it highly unlikely that they’re going to be stopped completely.  What are practical things that can be done to ensure that the privacy impacts of these programs are limited while still giving the government the data it needs to investigate potential terrorist plots?

Realistic policy options fall into two categories:  1.) reduce what data can be collected and 2.) improve transparency.

Reducing the data the NSA can collect

Changing the data the NSA can collect would require Congressional action to modify the relevant statutes in place (principally Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act), and three primary ideas for accomplishing this have come forward:

  1. Allow the data collection to continue but require a warrant based on probable cause to access any of the records for a U.S. citizen.  This approach was introduced as legislation by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Kentucky), and would raise the legal standard for accessing the collected data.
  2. Limit data collection to eliminate purely domestic calls.  Raised as an alternative to the 2008 FISA Amendments Act, this would limit the collection of data to calls where at least one of the callers was foreign, except in cases where a definitive connection to terrorist activity could result in a warrant to acquire that data.
  3. Limit data collection to a suspicion-based standard.  Instead of doing a dragnet of all calls made, data collection could only occur records based on a reasonable suspicion of terrorist activity — of someone suspected of being a terrorist or spy, someone called by a terrorist suspect, or potentially somewhat broader searches, such as calls made from a building where terrorist activity is suspected of taking place.

Improve transparency of current programs

If none of the options above are taken to limit the data collected, perhaps the least we could expect is a better understanding of what sort of data collection is being done in our name.  Here are some of the options available to accomplish this:

  1. Declassify Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) decisions interpreting Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act.  Introduced today as a bill in the Senate by a bipartisan group of eight Senators, including Minnesota Sen. Al Franken, this bill would compel the release of these decisions, so the legal logic could be evaluated and debated.  President Obama could also choose to do this via executive order.
  2. Release more details about how these programs work.  Can the NSA listen in on calls?  If so, when and why?  What is the standard for accessing the collected call metadata?  How long is the data stored?  Has the data ever been accessed for “routine” police work, or is it access limited to solely terrorism/national security related issues?  How are the programs audited for potential abuse?
  3. Permit court challenges towards these programs to move forward.  Multiple lawsuits have been filed against the government over warrantless wiretapping and data collection, but all have failed to reach the trial phase.  This is because the government (under both the Bush and Obama Administrations) have fought these cases on a standing issue.  What this means is that the government has alleged that the persons bringing the lawsuit can’t prove that their data was collected or their calls listened to, so they can’t prove they were harmed by the activity.  With no harm, they don’t have standing to sue in court.  The Verizon allegations — which cover millions of Americans — may make it impossible for the Department of Justice to continue these sorts of claims going forward.  If the Administration feels they are on solid legal ground with these programs, they should allow these cases to go to trial and win them definitively.

None of these six ideas provide a definitive firewall between government and your personal data, but they are practical approaches that could work incrementally to improve the current situation.  Getting them accomplished, though, will require application of political pressure on politicians in both parties.  Calls and e-mails to your Senators and Representatives will help keep the ball moving forward.

Ortman back from War College: firing wildly and with shiny tap-dance shoes

As we mentioned earlier in the week, State Senator (and possible U.S. Senate candidate) Julianne Ortman spent the week at the Army War College’s National Security Seminar.   Part of a new Army recruit’s basic training regimen includes learning how to shine shoes.  Well, it seems Ortman may have taken a lesson or two while there because she came back ready to attack and with shined-up and ready-to-go tap dancing shoes.

Earlier today, Ortman fired off several rounds of criticism at U.S. Senator Al Franken on Twitter, which was countered by myself and a few others — not to defend Franken (because he and the rest of Congress have a lot to answer for), but rather to ask Ortman what she would have done instead.  After all, it’s easy to criticize, but harder to advocate alternatives.   We saw this in effect during this legislative session’s budget battle, where Republicans never articulated an alternative budget.

Did Franken “hide” his knowledge of the NSA program?

Ortman’s initial attack against Franken called out the Senator for “hiding” the NSA program.  As a member of the Judiciary Committee, Franken had been briefed on the program to some level of detail.  Well, it is certainly true that Franken did not comment publicly on this topic until yesterday.  Why is that?  Because it was illegal for Franken to discuss it publicly. 

Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act modifies Section 501 (d) of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act as to say:

“No person shall disclose to any other person (other than those persons necessary to produce the tangible things under this section) that the Federal Bureau of Investigation has sought or obtained tangible things under this section.”

Even worse, the briefings that lawmakers received on such programs were subject to unusually stringent security.  Lawmakers were not allowed to take notes, staffers were not allowed to attend, and per the provisions of the law stated above, the lawmakers were prohibited from talking about the programs.

So did Franken “hide” his knowledge of the programs?  No.  Did he do enough to push back?  The record on that is unclear.  Two Democratic Senators, Ron Wyden of Oregon and Mark Udall of Colorado, have been pushing the limits on these programs, obliquely hinting that there was something afoot.

Ortman seems to be suggesting that Franken should have done more.  Perhaps that’s true.  But one can only imagine if Franken had violated the law and revealed details of a classified national security program.  I sincerely doubt that Ortman would be saluting his whistleblowing — rather, she’d be crying about Franken putting our national security at risk.

Ortman goes on to make an additional charge:  namely, that the PATRIOT Act didn’t authorize such programs.  Unfortunately, Ortman provides no basis to back up her claims that have any merit.  And, sadly, she tap-dances around any of the direct questions asked of her — would she have voted for the PATRIOT Act and FISA modifications?  What is her argument for why these programs were prohibited?  Where was her outrage when these programs were authorized under a Republican administration? Does she think Franken should have broken the law and spread details of these programs?

While I haven’t attended the National Security Seminar, I can only imagine such brazenly partisan behavior probably isn’t considered in our nation’s best interest.  Let’s hope that if Ortman does run against Franken that she finds some lines of attack that aren’t based in distortions and falsehoods.

Here’s the entire exchange, so you can judge for yourself:

Get to the appoint: Chaska Ward 1 looking for a new councilor and other news

Chaska City Councilor Scott Millard resigned his seat effective at the end of the May 20 City Council meeting, and the Council has chosen to appoint a replacement to hold the seat through the end of Millard’s term.  The seat will be up for election in 2014.  Ward 1 residents who are interested in the position are welcomed to pick up an application package at City Hall (inexplicably, there’s no information on this process on the city website’s homepage).  Applications are due back by June 12, and applicants will interview with the Council on June 17.  The appointment will be made at the July 1 City Council meeting.  Don’t know if you live in Ward 1 (the southwest ward)?  Check out this map to see where to fall among the city’s four wards.  Per the Chaska Herald, former Ward 1 Councilor Gino Businaro has indicated he intends to apply.

In other news:

  • State Senator Julianne Ortman (R-Chanhassen) is attending the 2013 National Security Seminar at the U.S. Army War College this week.  Certainly such news can (and will) be viewed within the prism of other rumors.
  • Last week was a crazy week for politics in the Sixth Congressional District (which covers Carver and central and western Carver County) as both U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann and DFL challenger Jim Graves pulled out of the 2014 race.  Former State Representative, current talk show host, and 2010 governor’s race loser Tom Emmer seems poised to jump in the race, making him the leading contender for the GOP nomination.  Meanwhile, no names have emerged on the DFL side thus far.  The Sixth is the strongest Republican district in the state, so there’s a thin bench of state legislators to pick from.  St. Cloud’s Tarryl Clark, who lost to Bachmann in 2010 before failing to secure the DFL nomination in the Eighth Congressional District in 2012, is sure to come up as a possibility.  State Auditor Rebecca Otto also lives in the Sixth, but is considered unlikely to run.  Graves would have likely stood a stronger chance to win the seat given the fundraising he’s already accumulated, which makes his decision curious.  Politicians who fear defeat are unlikely to make a difference in the long run, so perhaps Graves’s decision is less of a loss to Democratic hopes than thought.

Ortman faces uphill climb in potential race against Franken

Public Policy Polling released the first detailed polling on the 2014 U.S. Senate race today.  It shows that U.S. Senator Al Franken is — as of today, anyway — in pretty good shape 17 months out from the election.

Franken currently holds a +9 in his job approval ratings (51% approve vs. 42% disapprove) which is a solid rating for an incumbent heading into a re-election campaign.  Franken also currently holds at least a 15-point lead against any of the possible challengers polled.  Businessman Mike McFadden (the only potential candidate who has publicly expressed interest in the race) and Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek trail Franken by 15 points, while State Senator Julie Rosen trails by 16 and U.S. Representative Michele Bachmann, radio talk show host Jason Lewis, and Chanhassen’s own State Senator Julianne Ortman trail Franken by 17.

There’s not a lot of good news in the polling data for Ortman.  Ortman’s name recognition is low (80% didn’t know who she was), but among those who did know her, almost four times as many had an unfavorable opinion as had a favorable opinion.  Those numbers gave her the lowest favorability numbers among the potential candidates in the poll.  Worse, she had an unfavorable opinion among Republicans and self-identified conservatives who knew who she was.  Franken leads Ortman by 29 points among women and by four points among men (even though Franken polls -8 in job approval among men).  However, her low name recognition does give her the opportunity to introduce herself on her own terms to voters.

Numbers like these help explain why Ortman may have felt the need to take time from the end-of-session rush last week to try and blast Franken over the IRS investigations of Tea Party groups.  If she intends to run, she needs to drive name recognition and establish herself as a credible contender because based on the polling numbers and Franken’s formidable fundraising — it’s going to be an uphill battle.

It’s totally not about that

State Senator Julianne Ortman held a press conference today to try and finger U.S. Senator Al Franken for playing a role in the current controversy over the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) giving unwarranted scrutiny to certain conservative 501(c)(4) groups.

In 2012, Franken and a group of other Democratic Senators sent two letters to the IRS, requesting that they give added scrutiny to 501(c)(4) groups.  Both progressive and conservative organizations had been setting such groups up because they are tax-exempt and not subject to campaign finance disclosures.

You can see the letters at the links below:

February 2012 letter

March 2012 letter

In each, the Senators in question ask the IRS to scrutinize all 501(c)(4)s.  Ideology doesn’t come up in either letter.

So, let’s sum up the argument here.  Ortman is asking us to believe that the letters from 2012 which called for additional scrutiny to be applied to all 501(c)(4)s are significantly responsible for IRS misbehavior that began in 2010 and was actually uncovered and stopped after the letter was sent.  Not even the reliable conservatives at Powerline are buying that one.

Why, then, would Ortman go to the trouble of calling a press conference to highlight this non-news with no real relation to her role as a State Senator?  Oh, yeah:

When asked about such a thing, Ortman played the “who me?” card.

Uh-huh.  It’s totally not about that.

And let’s not forget that Ortman has never exactly been shy about sending letters of her own demanding action by other parts of government.  Earlier this session, she asked Attorney General Lori Swanson to break from usual practice and preemptively give a ruling on whether legislation was constitutional or not.  Last session, Ortman demanded that the Chief Justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court investigate the handling of family cases in the First District.

So it seems that Ortman’s outrage over legislative letter-writing is rather subjective.  Just remember, though, about those 2014 rumors:  it’s totally not about that.

Senate passes marriage equality; Ortman votes no

The Minnesota State Senate today passed the marriage equality bill by a vote of 37-30, following four hours of debate.  State Senator Julianne Ortman (R-Chanhassen) voted no on the issue.  Only one Republican, Senator Brandon Petersen, voted in favor of the bill, while three DFL Senators voted no (Dan Sparks, Leroy Stumpf, and Lyle Koenen).

senatemarriage

Governor Mark Dayton has indicated he will sign the bill, and a signing ceremony is planned for 5 p.m. Tuesday afternoon on the South Side Capitol Steps.  Minnesota will be the 12th state to institute marriage equality.

Rumors were swirling before the vote that Ortman, who had been consistently opposed to marriage equality in recent sessions, may be reconsidering her position.  At times during the debate, she was spotted conferring with Senator Scott Dibble, the bill’s author.  Hanging over Ortman’s vote was the notion that she might be a candidate for higher office in 2014.  Recent speculation has indicated that she may be looking at the race for U.S. Senate against Al Franken.

 

The Republican base is strongly opposed to marriage equality.  Polling from January shows 79% disapproval among Republicans, which likely makes the path to endorsement difficult for a marriage equality supporter.

Meet Your “New” Republican Party!

State Rep. Ernie Leidiger will be holding his annual hog roast fundraiser next month.  This year’s event is themed “Meet The New Republican Party”, and features a pulled pork dinner, silent auction, activities for kids, karaoke, and a bonfire.  On-site camping is also available if needed.  Lots of special guests are also invited, like these fresh faces:

Hog Roast Emcee and failed gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer

U.S. Representative Michele Bachmann

U.S. Representative John Kline

U.S. Representative Erik Paulsen

Radio talk show hosts Jason Lewis and Sue Jeffers

State Senator Julianne Ortman

State Representative Joe Hoppe

Of course, these aren’t “new” faces at all.  These are just the same faces we’ve been seeing and hearing from for years now.  Keep looking down the list and — aha! — here are the new faces we’ve been looking for!

State GOP Party Chair Keith Downey

State GOP Deputy Party Chair Kelly Fenton

State GOP Secretary Chris Fields

Of course, of these folks, only Fields really qualifies a “new” face.  Heck, Fields hasn’t even lived in Minnesota for two years and he already has lost a race for Congress by 49 points.  Downey is a two-term former state representative who was heralded as an ideological leader behind the Republican House majorities that got routed in 2012.  Fenton, meanwhile, is a longtime party activist.

Even more to the point, though, is that while you can theoretically argue some of the faces are “new” — the ideas are the same old stale ones they’ve been peddling for years.  Let’s hope the pulled pork is fresher than the ideology.

[Picture above is 2010 gubernatorial loser and voice of the “new” Republican Party Tom Emmer]


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