Topic: Law and Civil Liberties

You Could Have Read It Here First

If you’ve been reading Cato at Liberty and www.cato.org, then you already know, as the lead story in the Washington Post reported this morning, that both the constitutionality and the necessity of the NSA’s massive surveillance are in doubt:

From the moment the government’s massive database of citizens’ call records was exposed this year, U.S. officials have clung to two main lines of defense: The secret surveillance program was constitutional and critical to keeping the nation safe.

But six months into the controversy triggered by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, the viability of those claims is no longer clear.

In a three-day span, those rationales were upended by a federal judge who declared that the program was probably unconstitutional and the release of a report by a White House panel utterly unconvinced that stockpiling such data had played any meaningful role in preventing terrorist attacks.

UPDATE: OH Legislator Drops Anti-Homeschool Bill

In the wake of a “grassroots tsunami,” the Ohio legislator who had proposed the worst anti-homeschooling bill to date has now withdrawn the controversial and misguided legislation:

On Thursday, [Democrat State Senator Capri] Cafaro released the following statement in regard to Senate Bill 248 [a.k.a. “Teddy’s Law”]:

“SB 248 was never meant to be a policy debate about educating children in the home. It was meant to address weaknesses in the law pertaining to child protection. Unfortunately, the true intent of the bill to curtail child abuse has been eclipsed the by the issue of homeschooling.”

In fact, the bill was entirely about homeschooling. The bill would have forced all would-be homeschoolers to seek permission from the government to educate their own children at home. Homeschooling parents would have had to submit to background checks and social services would interview each member of the family separately, then the government would decide whether homeschooling was in the children’s “best interest.” In other words, the government would treat all homeschooling parents as child abusers until proven innocent.

 It is said that the price of liberty is eternal vigilance. This episode demonstrates that vigilance pays off.

Reviewing the Review Group: Practice What You Preach

The “President’s Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies” has issued their report. Convened in late summer to advise the president on what to do in the wake of the Snowden revelations (without mentioning Snowden), the group was rightly criticized for its ‘insider’ composition. The report has beaten the privacy community’s low expectations, which is good news. It advances a discussion that began in June and that will continue for years.

Some observations:

- Contrary to expectations, the report is outside the White House’s “comfort zone.” That’s good, because, as noted, this group could easily have decided to ratify the status quo, handing the administration and the National Security Agency a minor victory. The report positioned Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) to say: “The message to the NSA is now coming from every branch of government and from every corner of our nation: You have gone too far.”

- There is no reason to treat the report as a reform “bible.” This was a problem with the 9/11 Commission report, for example, which was held up as sacrosanct even when it was wrong. The Review Group report is right about some things, such as eliminating administratively issued National Security Letters, it is wrong about some things, and it omits some key issues, such as the government-wide penchant for secrecy that created the current problems.

- Weaknesses are more interesting than strengths, and a particular weakness of the report is its call for retaining the phone calling surveillance program. Recommendation Five calls for legislation that “terminates the storage of bulk telephony meta-data by the government under [USA-PATRIOT Act] section 215, and transitions as soon as reasonably possible to a system in which such meta-data is held instead either by private providers or by a private third party.” The debate over data retention mandates ended some years ago, and the government was denied this power. The NSA’s illegal excesses should not be rewarded by giving it authorities that public policy previously denied it. Outsourcing dragnet surveillance does not cure its constitutional and other ills.

- The data retention recommendation is in conflict with another part of the report, which calls for risk management and cost-benefit analysis. “The central task,” the report says, “is one of risk management.” So let’s discuss that: Gathering data about every phone call made in the United States and retaining it for years produces only tiny slivers of security benefit, the NSA’s unsupported claims to the contrary notwithstanding. Considering dollar costs alone, it almost certainly fails a cost-benefit test. If you include the privacy costs, the failure of this program to manage security risks effectively is more clear. The Review Group’s conclusion about communications surveillance is inconsistent with its welcome promotion of risk management.

Most legal scholars and most civil liberties and privacy advocates punt on security questions, conceding the existence of a significant threats, however undefined and amorphous. They disable themselves from arguing persuasively about what is “reasonable” for Fourth Amendment purposes. Concessions like these also prevent one from conducting valid risk management and cost-benefit analysis. Some of us here at Cato don’t shy from examining the security issues, and we do pretty darn good risk management. The Review Group should practice what it preaches if it’s going to preach what we practice!

Obama Commutes Some Sentences

From the Miami Herald:

President Barack Obama on Thursday issued 13 pardons and commuted the sentences of eight individuals.

The commuted sentences involved men and women serving long terms on drug charges, including several sentenced to life without parole.

“Each of them has served more than 15 years in prison,” Obama noted. “In several cases, the sentencing judges expressed frustration that the law at the time did not allow them to issue punishments that more appropriately fit the crime” …

Another prisoner whose sentence Obama commuted, Clarence Aaron of Mobile, Ala., was sentenced to life without parole in 1993 following his conviction on cocaine charges. Aaron has been a “model prisoner (who) has taken courses in religious studies, economics, Spanish, photography and behavioral development,” according to Families Against Mandatory Minimums.

Obama’s actions here are welcome news to the prisoners and their families, but, from a big picture perspective, the president’s actions are stingy and long overdue.  For additional background, go here and here.  The Pardon Power blog has more details.

Flashback:  I call for the Bush administration (2007!) to pardon Clarence Aaron.

Vermont’s Chief Justice Cites Cato Portugal Study

Chief Justice Paul Reiber at Vermont Law School in South Royalton

From the Seven Days publication:

In recent weeks, Vermont Chief Justice Paul Reiber has gone public with an unusually assertive critique of the war on drugs and the “tough on crime” approach that has defined criminal justice for decades.

Reiber, who holds an office in which occupants usually avoid saying anything remotely controversial, has stopped short of recommending policy or criticizing any individuals or government bodies. But in a pair of speeches and a brief interview with Seven Days, he has declared ineffective the current reliance on police and punishment, and touted the merits of treatment-based models for dealing with crime rooted in substance abuse….

In his Boston speech, Reiber highlighted reforms in Portugal, which in 2001 abolished criminal penalties for possession of all drugs, and replaced incarceration with drug treatment. Vermont’s chief justice called the results of that experiment “astonishing,” citing a study from the libertarian Cato Institute showing that Portugal experienced a large drop in drug use and a spike in the number of people seeking treatment.

Check out the Cato report on Portugal’s drug decriminalization policy here.

The Economic Impact of NSA Spying

At some point, I hope someone does a thorough, empirical study of the impact of NSA spying on U.S. companies.  But for now, all we have is anecdotal evidence, like this:

Today Brazil’s government announced it won’t buy $4.5 billion worth of US fighter jets in a move attributed to anger over controversial US intelligence-gathering that targeted Brazilian citizens and officials, including president Dilma Rousseff.

The Brazilian government’s official statements pointed to performance and cost issues as the reason to pick Sweden’s Saab AB to develop 36 fighters, though many observers had believed Boeing had the upper hand while bidding to expand Brazil’s air force.

Calling the decision “disappointing” in a statement, Boeing says it isn’t done trying to sell to Brazil, a major client for the company’s commercial air business, noting that ”over the next several weeks, we will work with the Brazilian Air Force to better understand its decision.”

One way to understand it: “The NSA problem ruined it for the Americans,” a Brazilian government official told Reuters. Public opinion turned against the US, and Brazil is leading the charge for a United Nations resolution that would limit electronic surveillance. Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor whose leaks revealed the US surveillance, obliquely requested asylum in Brazil earlier this week, but it looks the country isn’t interested in hosting the whistleblower.

Today, a White House panel charged with assessing American electronic snooping released a report urging new limits on US intelligence agencies. One of its recommendations is to more carefully assess the costs of surveilling foreign leaders like Brazil’s Rousseff. On this front, Brazil’s decision on the fighter planes is a costly object lesson for the US government.

Justice Delayed Is Justice Denied

Four years is too long to wait for a ruling on a constitutional claim. Not for the ultimate vindication of a right that’s been summarily denied, mind you, but a mere ruling in a case asserting this right that has long ago been briefed and argued.

That’s the situation faced by my colleague Tom Palmer and his fellow plaintiffs in a lawsuit challenging the District of Columbia’s complete ban on carrying guns for self-defense outside the home. Palmer v. District of Columbia was one of many suits filed in the wake of the Supreme Court’s 2008 ruling in District of Columbia v. Heller, which found that the Second Amendment protects an individual right to keep and bear arms. (Recall that two years ago the Seventh Circuit struck down a similar ban in Chicago, the only other place in the country where there is no legal way to exercise the right to carry – forget places like New York, New Jersey, and Maryland, where it’s possible in theory even if local law enforcement can, and always do, deny requests in practice.)

This case has now been pending for more than four years without a resolution of cross-motions for summary judgment – both parties agreed that the case can be decided by the judge on the law, without fact-finding or a trial. The docket (see pages 37-42 of this document) is one of the weirdest I’ve ever seen for a federal case: Palmer was filed in August 2009 and a hearing was held in January 2010, at which point Judge Henry Kennedy took the case under advisement. In July 2011, Chief Justice John Roberts (!) reassigned the case from Judge Kennedy to Judge Frederick J. Scullin, Jr. of the Northern District of New York. (In other words, Judge Kennedy sat on the case for 18 months and then retired.) There was a status conference soon after, then a motion hearing scheduled for August 2012 (more than a year later), which was rescheduled for October 2012, after which Judge Scullin took the case under advisement, and then… nothing. Plaintiffs’ counsel Alan Gura (my friend and sometime co-author) filed a motion to expedite in August 2013, and then a petition for a writ of mandamus – a request that a higher court command a government official to do something – with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit in October 2013.