Tag: oversight

A Chance to Fix the PATRIOT Act?

As Tim Lynch noted earlier this week, Barack Obama’s justice department has come out in favor of renewing three controversial PATRIOT Act provisions—on face another in a train of disappointments for anyone who’d hoped some of those broad executive branch surveillance powers might depart with the Bush administration.

But there is a potential silver lining: In the letter to Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) making the case for renewal, the Justice Department also declares its openness to “modifications” of those provisions designed to provide checks and balances, provided they don’t undermine investigations. While the popular press has always framed the fight as being “supporters” and “opponents” of the PATRIOT Act, the problem with many of the law’s provisions is not that the powers they grant are inherently awful, but that they lack necessary constraints and oversight mechanisms.

Consider the much-contested “roving wiretap” provision allowing warrants under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to cover all the communications devices a target might use without specifying the facilities to be monitored in advance—at least in cases where there are specific facts supporting the belief that a target is likely to take measures to thwart traditional surveillance. The objection to this provision is not that intelligence officers should never be allowed to obtain roving warrants, which also exist in the law governing ordinary law enforcement wiretaps. The issue is that FISA is fairly loosey-goosey about the specification of “targets”—they can be described rather than identified. That flexibility may make some sense in the foreign intel context, but when you combine it with similar flexibility in the specification of the facility to be monitored, you get something that looks a heck of a lot like a general warrant. It’s one thing to say “we have evidence this particular phone line and e-mail account are being used by terrorists, though we don’t know who they are” or “we have evidence this person is a terrorist, but he keeps changing phones.” It’s another—and should not be possible—to mock traditional particularity requirements by obtaining a warrant to tap someone on some line, to be determined. FISA warrants should “rove” over persons or facilities, but never both.

The DOJ letter describes the so-called “Lone Wolf” amendment to FISA as simply allowing surveillance of targets who are agents of foreign powers without having identified which foreign power (i.e. which particular terrorist group) they’re working for. They say they’ve never invoked this ability, but want to keep it in reserve. If that description were accurate, I’d say let them. But as currently written, the “lone wolf” language potentially covers people who are really conventional domestic threats with only the most tenuous international ties—the DOJ letter alludes to people who “self-radicalize” by reading online propaganda, but are not actually agents of a foreign group at all.

Finally, there’s the “business records” provision, which actually covers the seizure of any “tangible thing.”  The problems with this one probably deserve their own post, and ideally you’d just go through the ordinary warrant procedure for this. But at the very, very least there should be some more specific nexus to a particular foreign target than “relevance” to a ongoing investigation before an order issues. The gag orders that automatically accompany these document requests also require more robust judicial scrutiny.

Some of these fixes—and quite a few other salutary reforms besides—appear to be part of the JUSTICE Act which I see that Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI) introduced earlier this afternoon.  I’ll take a closer look at the provisions of that bill in a post tomorrow.

Czar of All the Americans

Anger about Obama’s many “czars” is rising, reports the Washington Post:

On paper, they are special advisers, chairmen of White House boards, special envoys and Cabinet agency deputies, asked by the president to guide high-priority initiatives. But critics call them “czars” whose powers are not subject to congressional oversight, and their increasing numbers have become a flash point for conservative anger at President Obama.

Critics of the proliferation of czars say the White House uses the appointments to circumvent the normal vetting process required for Senate confirmation and to avoid congressional oversight.

I have tended not to take concern over “czars” very seriously. After all, advisers to the president can’t exercise any power that the president doesn’t have (or assume without response from Congress or the courts). And I figured the White House doesn’t call people “czars,” that’s just a media term, so it’s not really fair to blame the White House for what reporters say.

But then, thanks to crack Cato intern Miles Pope, I discovered that the White House does call its czars czars, at least informally. A few examples:

In an interview on April 15, 2009 Obama said, “The goal of the border czar is to help coordinate all the various agencies that fall under the Department of Homeland Security…”

In a March 11, 2009, briefing, press secretary Robert Gibbs turned to “address the czar question for a minute, because I think I’ve been asked in this room any number of times if the czars in our White House to deal with energy and health care had too much power.”

On March 11, 2009 Vice President Biden said, “Today I’m pleased to announce that President Obama has nominated as Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy – our nation’s drug czar – Gil Kerlikowske…”

More examples here.

So they do like czar imagery. So have at them, critics.

And while I said that the advisers have no real power, there’s at least one who does – a real czar – the “pay czar,” Kenneth Feinberg. He “has sole discretion to set compensation for the top 25 employees” of large companies receiving bailouts, and his “decisions won’t be subject to appeal.” Now that’s a czar.

The Legacy of TARP: Crony Capitalism

When Treasury Secretary Hank Paul proposed the bailout of Wall Street banks last September, I objected in part because the TARP meant that government connections, not economic merit, would come to determine how capital gets allocated in the economy. That prediction now looks dead on:

As financial firms navigate a life more closely connected to government aid and oversight than ever before, they increasingly turn to Washington, closing a chasm that was previously far greater than the 228 miles separating the nation’s political and financial capitals.

In the year since the investment bank Lehman Brothers collapsed, paralyzing global markets and triggering one of the biggest government forays into the economy in U.S. history, Wall Street has looked south to forge new business strategies, hew to new federal policies and find new talent.

“In the old days, Washington was refereeing from the sideline,” said Mohamed A. el-Erian, chief executive officer of Pimco. “In the new world we’re going toward, not only is Washington refereeing from the field, but it is also in some respects a player as well… . And that changes the dynamics significantly.”

Read the rest of the article; it is truly frightening. We have taken a huge leap toward crony capitalism, to our peril.

Bailouts Could Hit $24 Trillion?

ABC News reports:

“The total potential federal government support could reach up to $23.7 trillion,” says Neil Barofsky, the special inspector general for the Troubled Asset Relief Program, in a new report obtained Monday by ABC News on the government’s efforts to fix the financial system.

Yes, $23.7 trillion.

“The potential financial commitment the American taxpayers could be responsible for is of a size and scope that isn’t even imaginable,” said Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., ranking member on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. “If you spent a million dollars a day going back to the birth of Christ, that wouldn’t even come close to just $1 trillion – $23.7 trillion is a staggering figure.”

Granted, Barofsky is not saying that the government will definitely spend that much money. He is saying that potentially, it could.

At present, the government has about 50 different programs to fight the current recession, including programs to bail out ailing banks and automakers, boost lending and beat back the housing crisis.

We used to complain that George W. Bush had increased spending by ONE TRILLION DOLLARS in seven years. Who could have even imagined new government commitments of $24 trillion in mere months? These promises could make the implosion of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac look like a lemonade stand closing.

Is an Independent Fed Better?

Rep. Ron Paul now has a majority of the House of Representatives supporting his bill for an independent audit of the Federal Reserve System. He presented his case at a Cato Policy Forum recently, with vigorous responses from Bert Ely and Gilbert Schwartz.

Now more than 200 economists have signed a petition calling on Congress to “defend the independence of the Federal Reserve System as a foundation of U.S. economic stability.” The petition seems implicitly a rebuttal to Paul’s bill.

Allan Meltzer, a leading monetary scholar and frequent participant in Cato’s annual monetary conferences, declined to sign the petition and explained why: “I wrote them back and said, ‘the Fed has rarely been independent and it strikes me that being independent is very unlikely’” in the current environment.

Cato senior fellow Gerald O’Driscoll adds:

it is not the critics of the Fed who threaten its independence, but the Fed’s own actions.  Its intervention in the economy is unprecedented in size and scope. It is inevitable that those actions would lead to calls for further Congressional oversight and control. 

One of the lessons here is that once you create powerful government agencies, from tax-funded schools to central banks, there are no perfect libertarian rules for how they should be run. The way to protect freedom is to let people make their own decisions in civil society.  Schools have to decide what to teach, offending the values of some parents and taxpayers. The Fed can be independent and unaccountable and undemocratic, or it can be subject to the political whims of elected officials; neither is a very attractive prospect.

Transparency: Good News / Bad News

Last week was an interesting week for transparency, with some good news and some bad news.

On the “good” side of the ledger, the administration rolled out “Data.gov,” a growing set of data feeds provided by U.S. government agencies. These will permit the public to do direct oversight of the kind I discussed at our “Just Give Us the Data!” policy forum back in December.

My metric of whether Data.gov is a success will be when independent users and Web sites use government data to produce new and interesting information and applications. The Sunlight Foundation has a contest underway to promote just that. Get ready for really interesting, cool, direct public oversight of the government.

Also under the White House’s new “Open Government Initiative,” an Open Government Dialogue “brainstorming session” began last week. The public can submit ideas for making the government more transparent, participatory, and collaborative. This is important stuff, an outgrowth of President Obama’s open government directive, issued on his first full day in office.

That directive called for the Office of Management and Budget to require specific actions of agencies “within 120 days,” which meant the final product was due last week. And that missed deadline is where we start to slide into the “bad” on the transparency ledger.

Last week, President Obama gave an important speech on national security (which I blogged about here and here). But you couldn’t find the speech in the “Speeches” section of the Whitehouse.gov Web site. It’s buried elsewhere. That’s “basic Web site malpractice,” I told NextGov.com. And I cautioned my friends in the transparency community not to forget Government 1.0 for all the whiz-bang Gov 2.0 projects flashing before our eyes. Whitehouse.gov should be a useful, informative resource for average Americans.

The current top proposal on the “brainstorming” site referred to above is to require a 72-hour mandatory public review period on major spending bills. This is reminiscent of President Obama’s promise to hold bills five days before signing them. But, as Stephen Dinan reports in the Washington Times, the president signed several more bills last week without holding them the requisite time.

The White House protests that they posted links to bills on the Thomas Web site at the Whitehouse.gov blog. But that does not give the public meaningful review of the bills in their final form, as they have come to the president from Congress. “Posting a link from WhiteHouse.gov to THOMAS of a conference report that is expected to pass doesn’t cut it,” says John Wonderlich at Sunlight.

President Obama signed nine new laws since we last reviewed his record on the “Sunlight Before Signing” promise. Alas, it’s been a case study in pulling defeat from the jaws of victory.

Five of the bills were held by the White House more than five days before the president signed them, but they weren’t posted! Simply posting them on Whitehouse.gov in final form would have satisfied “Sunlight Before Signing.”

President Obama’s average drops to .043, and that’s crediting him one win for the DTV Delay Act, which was posted at Whitehouse.gov in its final form for five days after Congress passed it, but before presentment, which is the logical time to start the five-day clock.

Here is the latest tally of bills passed by Congress, including the date presented, date signed, whether they’ve been posted or linked to at Whitehouse.gov, and whether they’ve been posted for the full five days after presentment. (Corrections welcome - there is no uniform way that the White House is posting bills or links, so I may have missed something.)

Public Law Date Presented Date Signed Posted (Linked) for Comment? Five Days?
P.L. 111-2, The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009
1/28/2009
1/29/2009
1/29/2009
No
P.L. 111-3, The Children’s Health Insurance Program Reauthorization Act of 2009
2/4/2009
2/4/2009
2/1/2009
No
P.L. 111-4, The DTV Delay Act
2/9/2009
2/11/2009
2/5/2009
Yes and No
P.L. 111-5, The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009
2/16/2009
2/17/2009
2/13/2009
No
P.L. 111-6, Making further continuing appropriations for fiscal year 2009, and for other purposes
3/6/2009
3/6/2009
No
n/a
P.L. 111-7, A bill to designate the facility of the United States Postal Service located at 2105 East Cook Street in Springfield, Illinois, as the “Colonel John H. Wilson, Jr. Post Office Building”
2/26/09
3/9/2009
No
n/a
P.L. 111-8, The Omnibus Appropriations Act, 2009
3/11/2009
3/11/2009
3/6/2009
No
P.L. 111-9, To extend certain immigration programs
3/18/2009
3/20/2009
No
n/a
P.L. 111-10, To provide for an additional temporary extension of programs under the Small Business Act and the Small Business Investment Act of 1958, and for other purposes
3/19/2009
3/20/2009
No
n/a
P.L. 111-11, The Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009
3/30/2009
3/30/2009
3/30/2009
No
P.L. 111-12, The Federal Aviation Administration Extension Act of 2009
3/24/2009
3/30/2009
No
n/a
P.L. 111-13, The Generations Invigorating Volunteerism and Education Act
4/20/2009
4/21/2009
No
n/a
P.L. 111-14, To designate the United States courthouse under construction at 327 South Church Street, Rockford, Illinois, as the “Stanley J. Roszkowski United States Courthouse”
4/14/2009
4/23/2009
No
n/a
P.L. 111-15, The Special Inspector General for the Troubled Asset Relief Program Act of 2009
4/14/2009
4/24/2009
No
n/a
P.L. 111-16, The Statutory Time-Periods Technical Amendments Act of 2009
4/30/2009
5/7/2009
No
n/a
P.L. 111-17, A joint resolution providing for the appointment of David M. Rubenstein as a citizen regent of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution
4/28/2009
5/7/2009
No
n/a
P.L. 111-18, A bill to repeal section 10(f) of Public Law 93-531, commonly known as the “Bennett Freeze”
4/28/2009
5/8/2009
No
n/a
P.L. 111-19, The Civil Rights History Project Act of 2009
4/30/2009
5/12/2009
No
n/a
P.L. 111-20, The Protecting Incentives for the Adoption of Children with Special Needs Act of 2009
5/5/2009
5/15/2009
No
n/a
P.L. 111-21, The FERA
5/19/2009
5/22/2009
No
n/a
P.L. 111-22, The Helping Families Save Their Homes Act of 2009
5/20/2009
5/22/2009
No
n/a
P.L. 111-23, The Weapon Systems Acquisition Reform Act of 2009
5/21/2009
5/22/2009
5/14/2009
No
P.L. 111-24, The Credit Cardholders’ Bill of Rights Act of 2009
5/20/2009
5/22/2009
5/14/2009
No

DoJ Fails to Report Electronic Surveillance Activities

Unlike with wiretaps, law enforcement agents are not required by federal statutes to obtain search warrants before employing pen registers or trap and trace devices. These devices record non-content information regarding telephone calls and Internet communications. (Of course, “non-content information” has quite a bit of content - who is talking to whom, how often, and for how long.)

The Electronic Privacy Information Center points out in a letter to Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) that the Department of Justice has consistently failed to report on the use of pen registers and trap and trace devices as required by law:

The Electronic Communications Privacy Act requires the Attorney General to “annually report to Congress on the number of pen register orders and orders for trap and trace devices applied for by law enforcement agencies of the Department of Justice.” However, between 1999 and 2003, the Department of Justice failed to comply with this requirement. Instead, 1999-2003 data was provided to Congress in a single “document dump,” which submitted five years of reports in November 2004. In addition, when the 1999-2003 reports were finally provided to Congress, the documents failed to include all of the information that the Pen Register Act requires to be shared with lawmakers. The documents do not detail the offenses for which the pen register and trap and trace orders were obtained, as required by 18 U.S.C. § 3126(2). Furthermore, the documents do not identify the district or branch office of the agencies that submitted the pen register requests, information required by 18 U.S.C. § 3126(8).

EPIC has found no evidence that the Department of Justice provided annual pen register reports to Congress for 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, or 2008. “This failure would demonstrate ongoing, repeated breaches of the DOJ’s statutory obligations to inform the public and the Congress about the use of electronic surveillance authority,” they say.

It’s a good bet, when government powers are used without oversight, that they will be abused. Kudos to EPIC for pressing this issue. Senator Leahy’s Judiciary Committee should ensure that DoJ completes reporting on past years and that it reports regularly, in full, from here forward.