Topic: Law and Civil Liberties

Who Reads the Readers?

This is a reminder, citizen: Only cranks worry about vastly increased governmental power to gather transactional data about Americans’ online behavior. Why, just last week, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) informed us that there has not been any “demonstrated or recent abuse” of such authority by means of National Security Letters, which permit the FBI to obtain many telecommunications records without court order. I mean, the last Inspector General report finding widespread and systemic abuse of those came out, like, over a year ago! And as defenders of expanded NSL powers often remind us, similar records can often be obtained by grand jury subpoena.

Subpoenas like, for instance, the one issued last year seeking the complete traffic logs of the left-wing site Indymedia for a particular day. According to tech journo Declan McCullah:

It instructed [System administrator Kristina] Clair to “include IP addresses, times, and any other identifying information,” including e-mail addresses, physical addresses, registered accounts, and Indymedia readers’ Social Security Numbers, bank account numbers, credit card numbers, and so on.

The sweeping request came with a gag order prohibiting Clair from talking about it. (As a constitutional matter, courts have found that recipients of such orders must at least be allowed to discuss them with attorneys in order to seek advise about their legality, but the subpoena contained no notice of that fact.) Justice Department officials tell McCullagh that the request was never reviewed directly by the Attorney General, as is normally required when information is sought from a press organization. Clair did tell attorneys at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and  when they wrote to U.S. Attorney Timothy Morrison questioning the propriety of the request, it was promptly withdrawn. EFF’s Kevin Bankston explains the legal problems with the subpoena at length.

Perhaps ironically, the targeting of Indymedia, which is about as far left as news sites get, may finally hep the populist right to the perils of the burgeoning surveillance state. It seems to have piqued Glenn Beck’s interest, and McCullagh went on Lou Dobbs’ show to talk about the story. Thus far, the approved conservative position appears to have been that Barack Obama is some kind of ruthless Stalinist with a secret plan to turn the United States into a massive gulag—but under no circumstances should there be any additional checks on his administration’s domestic spying powers.  This always struck me as both incoherent and a tragic waste of paranoia. Now that we’ve had a rather public reminder that such powers can be used to compile databases of people with politically unorthodox browsing habits, perhaps Beck—who seems to be something of an amateur historian—will take some time to delve into the story of COINTELPRO and other related projects our intelligence community busied itself with before we established an architecture of surveillance oversight in the late ’70s.

You know, the one we’ve spent the past eight years dismantling.

Prosecutorial Immunity

Last week the Supreme Court heard the case of Pottawattamie v. McGhee. The gist is whether prosecutors who fabricate evidence against persons accused of crime can be sued and held liable for money damages, or whether they are immune from suit.  The Crime & Federalism blog reports on the back-and-forth at oral argument in a post entitled “Prosecutors should feel the chill.”

Cato filed an amicus brief in the case.  A ruling is expected by the Supreme Court by June.

The Search for Answers in Fort Hood

The country is unpacking the recent shooting at Fort Hood and analyzing the perpetrator intensely. Along with natural shock and curiosity, a principle reason for doing so is to discover what can prevent incidents like this in the future.

When faced with any risk, including rampaging gunmen, there are four options:

  • Prevention—the alteration of the target or its circumstances to diminish the risk of the bad thing happening.
  • Interdiction—any confrontation with, or influence exerted on, an attacker to eliminate or limit its movement toward causing harm.
  • Mitigation—preparation so that, in the event of the bad thing happening, its consequences are reduced.
  • Acceptance—a rational alternative often chosen when the threat has low probability, low consequence, or both.

(There is much more to risk management, of course. This handy simplification is taken from the DHS Privacy Committee’s “framework” document.)

Taking the facts as they appear now, what lessons can we take from Fort Hood that will help protect military forces and facilities, and the country in general? Let’s go through some of them option-by-option:

Prevention: What circumstances at Fort Hood and elsewhere could be altered to prevent this ever happening again? An obvious one is gun control—if there were no guns, there could be no shooting. But this prescription is complicated by the intrusions on individual rights required to implement it. Depriving citizens of arms directly violates the Second Amendment, and effectively enforcing a gun control regime would almost certainly violate the Fourth.

Removing guns from specific locations might be more palatable and achievable, but gun rampages do not restrict themselves to restricted areas, and widespread possession of guns by law-abiding citizens is an important form of interdiction. Indeed, appropriate gun violence was the interdiction that ultimately stopped further bloodshed.

Interdiction: What steps can be taken against attackers to limit their progress toward causing harm? This is a confounding option because learning what this attack looked like as an embryo won’t tell us what the next one will look like.

Thousands of people are like Nidal Hasan in one respect or another, but they will never commit any attack. There are thousands of people with turmoil or mental illness similar to his, for example. There are thousands of military servicemembers with doubts about U.S. policies. There are thousands of Muslims in the military (whose contributions are highly valuable). There are thousands of people who have investigated or sought contact with Al Qaeda.

If the conclusion from Fort Hood were that all people who share certain traits should be investigated/interdicted, this would violate fundamental rights and values while it wasted investigators’ time: Who is troubled enough in their minds, doubtful enough of U.S. foreign policy, etc. Whose contacts with Al Qaeda or jihadi Web sites indicate a desire to perpetrate bad acts and not curiosity or enmity?

Sending investigators into this quagmire would only work as a salve until some future rampage arose from another unique set of circumstances. We would be no safer for having investigated all who were “like” Nidal Hasan in the ways we decide are material.

Mitigation: I have seen no indication that the facilities and staff of Fort Hood were ill-equipped to deal with the results of this violence. There may be marginal ways they could improve—there always are—but medical services can’t be available everywhere always. There is little prescription for change here.

Acceptance: With the confounding difficulty of prevention and interdiction before us, this option rises a little bit in currency. Television news and commentary may make it feel differently to many people, but there is a very low probability of shootings like this happening. The costs of preventing and interdicting such violence is very high. This is a candidate for “acceptance.”

Acceptance is the least “acceptable” option, of course. Nobody thinks it is ‘ok’ for this kind of thing to happen. But like so many tragedies—indeed, part and parcel of tragedy—it is the loss of innocent life for no good reason.

Fort Hood presents the country with a choice: Invest extraordinary efforts in measures that cost a great deal, that invade prized rights, and that don’t work? Or show our sorrow to the families and community of Fort Hood and make peace with the grief and tragedy of this incident.

Taking Land for Public Uselessness

Over at the Washington Examiner, Tim Carney reports that Pfizer is abandoning its New London offices and deciding what to do with the property it gained in the infamous Kelo v. New London land-grab:

The private homes that New London, Conn., took away from Suzette Kelo and her neighbors have been torn down. Their former site is a wasteland of fields of weeds, a monument to the power of eminent domain.

But now Pfizer, the drug company whose neighboring research facility had been the original cause of the homes’ seizure, has just announced that it is closing up shop in New London.

To lure those jobs to New London a decade ago, the local government promised to demolish the older residential neighborhood adjacent to the land Pfizer was buying for next-to-nothing. Suzette Kelo fought the taking to the Supreme Court, and lost. Five justices found this redevelopment met the constitutional hurdle of “public use.”

That this purported “public use” is now exposed as the façade for corporate welfare that it always was is, of course, little comfort to Suzette Kelo and the other homeowners whose land was seized. But hopefully this will be an object lesson for other companies considering eminent domain abuse as a route to acquire land on the cheap – and especially for state and local officials who acquiesce in this type of behavior.

You can read Cato’s amicus brief for the ill-fated case here. Cato also hosted a book forum for the story of Suzette’s struggle, Little Pink House, featuring the author, Jeff Benedict, the attorney who argued the case, the Institute for Justice’s Scott Bullock, and Ms. Kelo herself, here.

HT: Jonathan Blanks

A Preemptive Word on “Lone Wolves”

As Marcy Wheeler notes, the press seem to have settled on the term “lone wolf” to describe Fort Hood gunman Nidal Malik Hasan, which means it’s probably only a matter of time before we encounter a pundit or legislator who is cynical or befuddled enough (or both) to invoke the tragedy in defense of the PATRIOT Act’s constitutionally dubious Lone Wolf provision. (A “matter of time” apparently meaning the time it took me to write that sentence: We have a winner!) Though the Senate Judiciary Committee has approved a bill that would renew the measure, their counterparts in the House wisely—though narrowly—voted to permit it to expire last week.

To spare anyone tempted by this argument some embarrassment: The Lone Wolf provision is totally irrelevant to this case. It could not have been used to investigate Hasan, nor would it have been necessary.

The Lone Wolf provision permits the targeting of non-U.S. persons when there is probable cause to believe they’re preparing to engage in acts of international terrorism. Even if we assume the statutory definition of “international terrorism” could be stretched to cover the Fort Hood attack—and perhaps it could—the provision would have been inapplicable to the Virginia–born Hasan.

So were investigators powerless? Of course not. PATRIOT’s Lone Wolf clause relates only to whether the tools available under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act can be invoked. Shooting people, however, is a crime even when committed for reasons having nothing to do with jihad, and the standard for obtaining a warrant—probable cause—is the same. The chief advantage of FISA tools is that they tend to be both highly secret and, in certain respects, broader than criminal investigative tools—features that are vital when dealing with trained terror agents who are working with an international network it’s important not to tip off, but not so much for “lone wolves,” who by definition lack any such network.

In fact, though, even if the most ambitious reforms proposed by Democrats had been in place, PATRIOT powers could have been brought to bear on Hasan had investigators chosen to do so. We are told, for instance, that investigators months ago became aware of Hasan’s efforts to contact al-Qaeda affiliates abroad. That alone would have provided grounds—again, under current law and under the most civil-liberties protective modifications being considered—for the issuance of National Security Letters seeking his financial and telecommunications records.

The truth is that the Lone Wolf provision didn’t help—and couldn’t have helped—stop this “lone wolf.” Indeed, it’s hard to imagine what additional powers would have been useful here given what it seems investigators already knew. As our recent history makes all too clear, what typically makes the difference between intelligence success and failure is not how much information you can get, at least past a certain point, but knowing what to do with the information you’ve got. But of course, that’s difficult to do, and doesn’t tend to be the kind of thing that can be fixed with a couple crude statutory provision you can brag about in press releases to your constituents.  So pundits and legislators see a delicate information processing system failing to flag the right targets and conclude, every time, that the right solution is more juice! Turn up the voltage! Try that troubleshooting strategy with your laptop sometime and let me know how it works out.

The Right to Speak in Non-Government-Approved Ways

School officials denied student Pete Palmer the right to wear a shirt supporting John Edwards’s presidential campaign at his Dallas-area high school. They cited the district’s dress code, which prohibited messages on student clothing except for those that supported school activities or district-approved organizations, clubs or teams.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit agreed with the school district that this was a reasonable “time, place and manner” speech restriction. Applying the test from United States v. O’Brien, the court found that the dress code was content- and viewpoint-neutral, and served an important governmental purpose. Palmer now seeks Supreme Court review, citing seemingly contradictory precedents from the Second and Third Circuits and arguing that the regulation here flies in the face of the protection afforded to student speech by the famous case of Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District.

Cato, joined by the Institute for Justice, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, the Christian Legal Society, and the National Association of Evangelicals, filed an amicus brief supporting Palmer’s petition and urging the continued use of Tinker. We argue that the Court should clarify its jurisprudence in this area to stop schools from applying broad restrictions in an attempt to avoid controversy and debate—and thereby threaten the very political and religious speech at the First Amendment’s core.

To prevent the chilling of student speech, the Court should solidify Tinker’s central tenet, reaffirming that so long as speech doesn’t “materially and substantially disrupt” the educational process, students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”

The case is Palmer v. Waxahachie Independent School District. The Court will be deciding early in 2010 whether to hear it.

Give Us Your Tired, Your Energetic, Your Poor, Your Rich — Pretty Much Anyone Who’s Not a Criminal or Terrorist

On Wednesday I blogged about how, for the first time in many years — since the last recession — H-1B skilled worker visas remain available despite the hard cap on their number.  In other words, even foreigners respond to market incentives: when there are no jobs, there are fewer immigrants.

I’ve gotten some interesting email in response to that little notice, one of which I post below, along with my paragraph-by-paragraph responses.

Just read your blog entry on the H-1b visa.  The problem is that this visa has been misused by sponsoring companies, suffering from high rates of fraud.  I find it strange that Cato supports (or appears to support) a labor tool that is anything but free market.  The H-1b visa is more of an indentured servant visa program than anything else – where employees must be sponsored by an employer.  Since employees aren’t free to find new jobs or start their own business, it results in a captive workforce who will do whatever the employee asks, even beyond reason.  They won’t bargain for higher wages, quit if mistreated, join unions, or do anything that might result in their immigration status being jeopardized.

Having myself been on H-1Bs with several employers, including Cato, I agree that the program is seriously flawed, in the ways this correpondent describes and in others.  Ideally, people would be able to apply for a work permit — their application gaining more “points,” say, for language, youth, skills, the needs of the economy, or whatever other criteria the political process determines are important — and then not be tied to an employer and have an opportunity to receive permanent residence and eventual naturalization if they pay their taxes, stay out of jail, etc.  Or, indeed, we could admit all people who want to come here (after screening for security, criminal, and health concerns), and give them the same opportunity.  But until we get to that more perfect world, I see no conflict in advocating for a repeal of the H-1B cap or pointing out how this recession shows that immigrants come for jobs, not to leech off our welfare state (if that’s the concern, then wall off the welfare state, not the country) or commit crimes.

One thing not correct in your blog is that H-1b visa holders cannot get a green-card.  They can, unfortunately most of the workers are from India so it is difficult for those workers to get the green-card because of how, numerically, green-cards are issued.  The H-1b visa is a “dual intent” visa meaning there is a path to permanent residence and after 6 years on the visa holders can extend 1 year until their green-card is processed.  Indian workers call it the “green carrot” and relate it to the picture of where the mule driver holds a carrot on a stick in front of the mule to keep him moving.  No matter how hard the mule tries, the carrot gets no closer.

The H-1B’s “dual intent” provision is categorically not a path to a green card.  All it does is, as the correspondent points out, allow the worker to stay in the country during the green card application process.  That process, however, and the substantive requirements for obtaining a green card, is no different for H-1B holders than it is for anyone else.  Indeed, spending five or six years on an H-1B with one employer can be a detriment, inasmuch as that employer’s sponsorship application cannot take into account the skills gained during that time of employment.  And yes, the nationality-based restrictions are also obnoxious.

The primary sponsors of H-1b workers are Indian outsourcing firms.  In short, the visa is used as a tool to send jobs overseas.  People from Cato may not have a problem with that because of their own views on globalization and free trade, but the majority of Americans do.  You guys are notorious at just looking at one half of the equation when it comes to free market practices unfortunately – which is the corporate side.  Yes, corporations can move people around the world using a variety of immigration programs.  But do the people being moved around control their own destinies or are they at the mercy of the corporations?

Cato is not a corporate shill.  Plenty of what we advocate is counter to the expressed preferences of Big [fill in your preferred Villain] because the business community often prefers stability over liberty-enhancing volatility — smaller, secure profits over potentially larger but not-guaranteed ones — and a place at the government subsidies trough over a truly free market.  Moreover, and with much irony, it is the H-1B’s cap and costly bureaucratic processing that has promoted outsourcing — which in and of itself is not problematic for the American economy as a whole — by preventing American firms from bringing Indian (and other) workers here.  And people on H-1Bs are “at the mercy of corporations” precisely because this visa is tied to one employer, as mentioned in the first quoted paragraph above.

Liberty doesn’t just apply to corporations and the narrow objective of free trade.  I just don’t understand how the Cato Institute and all of your intellectuals don’t see through this visa for what it is.  It deprives people of liberty.  Many American workers don’t care that “an Indian” is being deprived of their liberty, but they should if not for moral reasons than for economic reasons.  If I have a worker that I can exploit and pay less, now I have a bargaining tool against the worker I previously could not.  When one man is deprived of their liberty, in a way we all are.

I couldn’t agree more that our current immigration regime benefits nobody — not big business, not small business, not skilled workers, not unskilled workers, not the American economy as a whole, not certain sectors of it — with the possible exception of populist demagogues of both the left and the right.  The answer to that morass isn’t to attack globalization or free trade — which is not a “narrow objective” but a fundamental mechanism for enhancing peoples’ lives all over the world — but to reform our immigration system.

For more on these and related issues, check out these recent studies put out by my colleague Dan Griswold and his trade and immigration policy team: