Topic: Law and Civil Liberties

I Got Hooked on the White Stuff Back in the ’70s

disco-stu.bmpNo, not that white stuff. And not the white stuff that Disco Stu bought from Garth Motherloving. The white stuff I got hooked on (growing up on the family dairy farm) is raw milk — milk that has not been pasteurized or homogenized. Today’s NYT has an article on the growing black and gray markets in raw milk, which the Food and Drug Administration and 15 state legislatures want to shut down.

Yes, that’s right — Uncle Sam and 15 state governments prohibit consumers from buying milk fresh from the cow. And in the nannies’ defense, milk was responsible for much food-borne illness in the era before universal pasteurization. Most consumers likely prefer protection from nasty bugs like E. coli and salmonella.

But others are willing to risk exposure to those illnesses. Some raw milk enthusiasts claim the white stuff is more healthful than processed milk. Others (I count myself among these) say simply that it tastes better that the milk you buy at the store — people who try raw milk for the first time often comment that it tastes more like melted ice cream than the stuff that comes in cartons.

So why should raw milk fans be prohibited from buying the product they want?

That question also underlies Tim’s post, yesterday, about another FDA prohibition — keeping terminally ill patients from accessing experimental medicines. There is no public health issue with these products (my drinking raw milk might make me sick, but it’s not going to make sick the people I interact with on the street). And there is no fraud and abuse issue — these consumers know that they’re buying raw milk; indeed, they want raw milk. Consumers of raw milk (or experimental drugs to fight their cancers or HIV) realize that there is risk to these products but, given their medical conditions and their preferences, they’re willing to bear that risk in exchange for the products’ (possible) benefits.

Government prohibition of the sale of these products is nothing more than bureaucracy’s blanket imposition of its own risk preference on a large, heterogenous population that includes many people with differing preferences. One of the chief virtues of a free market is that it does a far better job of satisfying the heterogenous preferences of a population of consumers than a central planner ever could. Unfortunately, government often intervenes in markets and diminishes that virtue.

As Tim writes in his post, the FDA and its state-level imitators put a happy face on that intervention, claiming they are looking out for the public’s health. But in these cases, why aren’t members of the public permitted to look out after their own health?

A Tragic Legacy

Bestselling author Glenn Greenwald spoke here at Cato on Tuesday on his latest book, A Tragic Legacy: How a Good vs.  Evil Mentality Destroyed the Bush Presidency.  There was a sharp, but civil, exchange with guest commentator, Lee Casey, who has published many articles in defense of Bush administration policies.  C-SPAN was here to tape the event and it will be airing soon.  Of course, all Cato events are archived on the website, so you can watch or listen to this event at your convenience.  For a sneak preview, check out today’s podcast interview with Greenwald.

Greenwald’s blog posts can be found over at Salon.  For related Cato work on the legacy of the Bush administration, read this and this.

No Right to Life?

Open the newspaper, turn on the television, or surf the net, and you’ll find people saying the government can solve our problems and make life better.  This is the happy face of government:

Behind the happy face is an institution that is willing to strip of us of our right to self-defense, and, worse, deprive dying patients of life-saving drugs.   Who do these politicians and bureaucrats think they are?

For more on the right to life, go here, here, and here (pdf).

More on the Spying Bill

I’ve got a write-up of this weekend’s spying bill up at Ars Technica. It’s pretty bad:

Before undertaking surveillance activities, intelligence officials would need to obtain a certification from the Attorney General and the Director of National Intelligence—both subordinates of the president—that there were “reasonable procedures” in place for ensuring that the eavesdropping “concerns” persons located outside the United States, and that the foreign intelligence is a “significant purpose” of the surveillance activities. That certification would only be reviewed after the fact, and only to determine if the procedures were, in fact, “reasonable.” A single certification could approve a broad surveillance program covering numerous individuals, and no judge would review the list of individual targets.

Moreover, the requirement that surveillance “concern” non-U.S. persons could plausibly permit spying on the relatives, friends, and business associates of a foreign target. Indeed, the administration might argue that the only way to obtain all information regarding foreign targets is to conduct dragnet surveillance of American communications and sift through them to find relevant information.

The legislation empowers the administration to “direct” individuals to “provide the government with all information, facilities, and assistance necessary” to carry out foreign surveillance. These quasi-subpoenas would not be subject to judicial review before they were issued. The targets of such orders—who will typically be telecom company executives, not terrorism suspects—have the option of appealing the order to the FISA court, but given the broad scope of surveillance activities authorized by the legislation, it seems unlikely that such challenges would succeed. Moreover, the legislation offers legal immunity to those who comply with such orders, so telecom providers will have little incentive to resist them.

The only real bright spot is that the legislation sunsets after six months. That will give Congress the opportunity to do what it should have done this weekend: require that no surveillance of domestic communications occur without prior judicial approval of each surveillance target. I’m not going to hold my breath.

Bush, Congress, and Terrorism

Last year President Bush was able to rush the dubious Military Commission Act through the Congress.  This year he was able to rush through another surveillance measure.  In my view, the President’s legislative ‘achievements’ have little to do with persuasion.  It is about the politics of anti-terrorism legislation.  That is, if a member of Congress does not support the proposal under consideration, it means he or she is too ‘soft.’  Even though we’re about six years past 9/11 and even with the track record of Attorney General Gonzales, most legislators put their reservations aside, curl up into the fetal position and say “I am against the terrorists too,” as they vote in favor.  Last year, Senator Specter went so far as to say that he hoped the courts would strike down as unconstitutional the bill he just voted for.  Whatever one thinks about the legislative details of the Patriot Act, the Military Commission Act, or this “Protect America Act of 2007,” all friends of liberty ought to be disturbed by this political climate.  The question is: When will this vicious cycle of anti-terrorism legislation stop?  In a Giuliani administration?  In a Clinton administration?

For more on the new law, go to the Balkinization blog.  Tomorrow, Glenn Greenwald and Lee Casey will be here discussing the legacy of the Bush presidency.  Watch it online.

Mr. Gonzales

Alberto Gonzales is arguably our worst attorney general. It is true that he has misled Congress, the courts, and the public, but there is too much attention being paid to political questions such as: Who put together that list of U.S. attorneys to be fired? Was it Gonzales, his chief of staff, or did Karl Rove say something about a U.S. attorney to anyone else in the administration at some point?

Instead, members of Congress investigating Gonzales should focus on these misleading policy statements:

1.  Gonzales on Bush’s order creating military tribunals: “The order preserves judicial review in civilian courts.”

This is what the order says: Individuals who are designated “enemy combatants” by President Bush “shall not be privileged to seek any remedy or maintain any proceeding, directly or indirectly, or to have any such remedy or proceeding sought on the individual’s behalf, in (i) any court of the United States, or any State thereof, (ii) any court of any foreign nation, or (iii) any international tribubal.” (Section 7(b)(2) of Bush Military Order, November 13, 2001; emphasis added). This order “preserves” judicial review?

2.  In February 2002, President Bush pledged that prisoners in the war on terror would be treated humanely. As White House counsel, Gonzales presumably helped the president with this pledge. When newspaper reports of mistreatment began to appear, members of Congress pressed Gonzales about administration policy. Gonzales then admitted that the administration’s humane policy order did not bind CIA personnel involved in prisoner interrogations. A minor oversight?

3.  “National Security Letters” direct recipients to hand certain specified items over to the FBI agents who serve the Letters. When constitutional questions were raised about these Letters, Gonzales argued that citizens would just know that they really didn’t have to comply with the Letter and that they could consult with an attorney and challenge it in court — nothwithstanding the letter’s warning not to discuss the matter with any person. 

It is common sense to do the opposite of what FBI agents demand? That’s a curious statement from an Attorney General. 

 Of course, we should also be alarmed by Gonzales’s straightforward statements of policy:

1.  In legal briefs in the Padilla case, this administration argued that Americans can be whisked away to military prison on the say-so of the president.

2.  The habeas corpus provision in the Constitution does not guarantee anything.

Gonzales should go. More background here.

Is the NSA Above the Law?

As I report today in Ars Technica, a federal judge in California allowed continued investigations by five state regulators into allegations that AT&T has been collaborating with the National Security Agency in a massive warrantless wiretapping program.

However, the judge, Vaughn R. Walker, declined to rule on the government’s central argument, that the investigation could run afoul of the state secret privilege. On that issue, Judge Walker deferred to the Ninth Circuit, which is currently considering the case of Hepting v. AT&T, a class-action lawsuit alleging that AT&T has violated its customers’ rights by participating in the NSA program. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, which is representing the plaintiffs in the case, has secured a sworn statement from a former AT&T employee alleging that the company has allowed the NSA to build a secret facility inside its San Francisco office and diverted massive amounts of Internet and voice traffic through the room to allow the NSA to use the information as it wishes.

I’m not an expert on the legal minutia of the state secrets privilege, but the Bush administration is making what strikes me as an incredible claim: that the NSA program’s very existence (or non-existence) is a state secret, that it would be impossible to litigate such a case without revealing sensitive information about how such a program worked, and that therefore any case related to such a program must be dismissed immediately, before it reaches trial or even discovery.

It’s hard to see how this position can be reconciled with the rule of law. Americans have rights under the Fourth Amendment and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act against indiscriminate domestic surveillance. But if the government can defeat all legal challenges to a program merely by designating it a state secret, it’s hard to see how those rights can ever be vindicated.

I suppose if the Bush administration can opt out of habeus corpus merely by declaring someone an enemy combatant, they can opt out of the Fourth Amendment by declaring their surveillance activities to be state secrets.