Topic: Law and Civil Liberties

Use Your Career Deferment to Work for Liberty

Many law firms are asking their incoming first-year associates to defer their start dates (from a few months to a full year) and are offering stipends to these deferred associates to work at public interest organizations.

The Cato Institute invites third-year law students and others facing firm deferrals to apply to work at our Center for Constitutional Studies.  This is an opportunity to assist projects ranging from Supreme Court amicus briefs to policy papers to the Cato Supreme Court Review.

Interested students and graduates should email a cover letter, resume, transcript, and writing sample, along with any specific details of their deferment (timing, stipend, availability, etc.), to Jonathan Blanks at jblanks [at] cato.org (jblanks [at] cato.org.)

Please feel free to pass the above information to your friends and colleagues.  For information on Cato’s programs for non-graduating students, contact Joey Coon at jcoon [at] cato.org (jcoon [at] cato.org.)

Mike German on ‘Intelligence’ Reports

On the ACLU blog (“because freedom can’t blog itself”), Mike German has a great write-up that captures the depth of error in recent DHS “intelligence” reports on ideological groups.

German shows that any ideology can be targeted if the national security bureaucracy comes to use activism as a proxy or precursor for crime and terrorism:

A Texas fusion center warned about a terrorist threat from “the international far Left,” the Department of Homeland Security and a Missouri fusion center warned of threats posed by right-wing ideologues, and a Virginia fusion center saw threats from across the political spectrum and called certain colleges and religious groups “nodes of radicalization.” These are all examples of domestic security gone wrong.

“Gone wrong” means weak in theory, threatening to liberty, and not helpful to law enforcement:

If these “intelligence” reports described recent crimes and the people who perpetrated them, there would be little problem from a civil rights perspective, and it could actually be helpful to the average police officer. Instead, they have followed a “radicalization” theory popularized by the NYPD (PDF). That theory postulates that there is a “path” to terrorism that includes the adoption of certain beliefs, and political, religious, or social activism is viewed as another step toward violence. Actual empirical studies of terrorism conducted in the Netherlands and Britain refute this theory, but the idea that hard-to-find terrorists can be caught by spying on easy-to-find activists appears too hard to resist to U.S. law enforcement.

The takeaway: “Threat reports that focus on ideology instead of criminal activity are threatening to civil liberties and a wholly ineffective use of federal security resources.”

Mike German was a participant in our January conference on counterterrorism strategy.

TLJ: Holder Advocates Some Constitutional Principles

I’m a long-time reader and fan of TechLawJournal. Dogged reporter David Carney produces an amazing amount of content about technology-related goings-on in Washington, D.C. and the courts. Subscription information is here.

I also appreciate his editorial style, which often betrays a dose of concern for civil liberties and healthy skepticism about power. A wonderful example follows, reprinted with permission:

Holder Advocates Some Constitutional Principles
Attorney General Eric Holder gave a lengthy speech at the United States Military Academy in West Point, New York in which he discussed the role of law in “our current struggle against international terrorism”.

It was a plea for adherence to Constitutional principles. However, it was as significant for what he said – about detention of people in places like Guantanamo Bay – as for what he did not say – about interception of communications and seizure of data.

He spoke with specificity about Guantanamo Bay, detainees, and the history of American treatment of detained soldiers and citizens.

But, he said nothing that suggested an intent to reverse, or halt, the deterioration of Constitutional protection of privacy and liberty interests in the context of new communications and information technologies.

Eric HolderHolder (at right) said, “And so it is today, at the beginning of a new presidency, as we face a world filled with danger, that we must once again chart a course rooted in the rule of law and grounded in both the powers and the limitations it prescribes.”

He said that “we will not sacrifice our values or trample on our Constitution under the false premise that it is the only way to protect our national security. Discarding the very values that have made us the greatest nation on earth will not make us stronger – it will make us weaker and tear at the very fibers of who we are. There simply is no tension between an effective fight against those who have sworn to do us harm, and a respect for the most honored civil liberties that have made us who we are.”

This statement could equally apply to government surveillance activities. But, he did not say so. Perhaps Holder intends to speak in a similar speech about surveillance at a later date. Or perhaps, he does not, and his concern for Constitution rights is selective and does not extend to surveillance.

He did make one statement that may pertain to electronic surveillance and data. He said that “many national security decisions must by necessity be made in a manner that protects our ability to gather intelligence, investigate threats and execute wars”.

He did not reference the state secrets privilege, or the government’s assertion of it in legal proceedings involving warrantless wiretaps.

On April 3, 2009, the Department of Justice (DOJ) filed a motion to dismiss and memorandum in support [36 pages in PDF] in Jewell v. NSA, a case against the NSA, DOJ, Holder and officials, arising out of the NSA’s warrantless wiretap program.

The DOJ asserts the state secrets privilege, sovereign immunity, and other arguments, to evade litigation of this case on the merits.

The Electronic Freedom Foundation (EFF) stated in a release that “These are essentially the same arguments made by the Bush administration”.

This case is Carolyn Jewell, Tash Hepting, et al. v. National Security Agency, et al., U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, San Francisco Division, D.C. No. C:08-cv-4373-VRW.

Ed Black, head of the Computer and Communications Industry Association (CCIA), stated in a release issued in response to Holder’s speech that “It’s disturbing that instead of helping investigate the extent of spying by the Bush administration, the new administration is not just defending those policies, but taking them a step further. In its April court brief (Jewel v. NSA), the Obama DOJ argued that the government is completely immune from litigation for illegal spying and even that it can never be sued for violating federal privacy laws with surveillance techniques. Those arguments sound more like ‘1984’ than 2009.”

Black continued that “President Obama appreciates more than most people how the Internet can be used as a tool to allow greater participation in a democracy. That same tool could also be the greatest innovation for surveillance and repression in the wrong regime. Defending practices like this sets a dangerous precedent down the road and makes it easier for a government to expand the programs from surveilling terrorists to surveilling political opponents.”

“The Obama administration had the courage to change policy on the treatment of terrorism suspects and how they were treated and sometimes tortured”, said Black. “But the abuse of the privacy rights of millions of U.S. citizens is a greater long term threat to the rule of law and the Constitutional rights of all Americans. The failure to allow the full investigation of the surveillance abuse by both the government and major collaborating industry giants would be a tragic betrayal by an administration so many were looking to for greater honesty, openness, and respect for all citizens’ constitutional rights.”

Gun Control for the Sake of Mexico: The Meme That Wouldn’t Die

Fox News already debunked the claim that 90% of the guns involved in Mexico’s drug war come from the United States.  Facts aside, the press onslaught continues in a new push for gun control.

The fact is that out of 29,000 firearms picked up in Mexico over the last two-year period for which data is available, 5,114 of the 6,000 traced guns came from the United States.  While that is 90% of traced guns, it means that only 17% of recovered guns come from the United States civilian market.

Where did the rest come from?  A number of places.  To begin with, over 150,000 Mexican soldiers have deserted in the last six years for the better pay and benefits of cartel life, some taking their issued M-16 rifles with them.

Surprisingly, a significant number of the arms are coming to the cartels via legitimate transactions.  They are produced and exported legally every year, regulated by the State Department as Direct Commercial Sales.  FY 2007 figures for the full exports are available here, and State’s report on end-use is available here, alleging widespread fraud and use of front companies to funnel the weapons into the black market.  (H/T to Narcosphere)  This doesn’t even take into account the thousands of weapons floating around Latin America from previous wars of liberation.  This Los Angeles Times article also shows how the cartels are getting hand grenades, rocket launchers, and other devices you can’t pick up at your local sporting goods store.

Perhaps this is why law enforcement officials did not ask for new gun laws to combat Mexican drug violence at recent hearings in front of Congress.

Never mind those pesky facts.  The story at the New York Times recycles the 90% claim.  The associated video is just as bad.  Narrator: “The weapons that are arming the drug war in Juarez are illegal to purchase and possess in Mexico.”  They’re also illegal in the United States.  As the narrator says these words, the Mexican officer is handling an M-16 variant with a barrel less than sixteen inches long.  This rifle would be illegal to possess in the United States without prior approval from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (BATFE).  As the video mentions the expired “Assault” Weapons Ban, the submachine gun in frame would also be classified as a short-barreled rifle and require BATFE approval.  Ditto for many of the rifles shown in the video.  The restrictions on barrel length would not apply to weapons exported as Direct Commercial Sales.  Law enforcement folks call this a “clue.”

The language of gun control advocates is changing subtly to demonize “military style” weapons.  “Military style” weapons is a new and undefined term that means either (1) automatic weapons, short barreled rifles, short barreled shotguns, and destructive devices already heavily regulated by federal law; or (2) a term inclusive of  all modern firearms in a back-door attempt to enact a new gun control scheme.

Yes, ALL modern firearms.  Grandpa’s hunting rifle?  Basis for the system used by military snipers.  The pump-action shotgun you use to hunt ducks and quail?  Basis for the modular shotgun produced for the military.  The handgun you bought for self-defense, a constitutionally protected right?  Used by every modern military.

This is not a new tactic.  The Violence Policy Center has previously tried to fool people by portraying ordinary rifles as machine guns with the term “assault” weapons: “The weapons’ menacing looks, coupled with the public’s confusion over fully automatic machine guns versus semi-automatic assault weapons-anything that looks like a machine gun is assumed to be a machine gun-can only increase the chance of public support for restrictions on these weapons.”

Making our domestic policies based on the preferences of other countries is unacceptable, especially in an activity protected by the Constitution.  One of Canada’s Human Rights Commissioners is on record saying that “[f]reedom of speech is an American concept, so I don’t give it any value.”  (Apparently, it makes the folks at the Department of Homeland Security nervous too)  In a similar vein, the United Nations says “[w]e especially encourage the debate on the issue of reinstating the 1994 U.S. ban on assault rifles that expired in 2004.”

It’s not theirs to say, and we shouldn’t listen to an argument based on lies.  Related posts here and here.

Oprah Escapes the Long Arm of the Law

oprahThe Washington Post reports on the latest ruling by the Federal Election Commission:

William Lee Stotts of Cordova, Tenn., filed a complaint in October alleging that Obama’s appearance on Winfrey’s popular talk show during the Democratic primaries amounted to an unlawful campaign contribution that gave him an ‘an unfair advantage over the other candidates, both Republican and Democrat, who were deprived such an opportunity.’

The FEC decided that Winfrey was a media entity and thus qualified for the “media exemption” from the campaign finance laws. Without that exemption, Obama’s appearance would have become an electioneering communication and thereby a violation of McCain-Feingold.

The FEC provides a timely reminder that we no longer have a unified First Amendment. Congress shall indeed “make no law” regarding the freedom of the media, including the freedom to publicize a presidential candidacy. That’s a good thing, by the way. The bad thing is the rest of us are expected to make do with Congress making all kinds of laws limiting freedom of speech. Some animals, I suppose, are more equal than other animals.

Freedom of Speech Under Attack in Ecuador

Freedom of speech is coming under attack again in President Rafael Correa’s Ecuador. Last year Correa sent armed soldiers before dawn to some 200 private businesses, including three television stations, on the pretext that the owner (an unpopular businessman and critic of the government) had not paid money owed to the government.

It was never clear why the government had to place its own people in charge of running those businesses rather than go through the usual auditing or bankruptcy procedures. The result was to reduce criticism of the government at those TV stations and send a message to the rest of the media. At the time, Gabriela Calderón, Cato’s Ecuador-based editor of our Spanish language web site, www.elcato.org, hosted a weekly talk show program on CN3 TV station with two other market-liberal commentators. The station was one of the ones taken over, after which, Gabriela and her colleagues were told that from then on, their show had to “balanced” and include pro-government spokespersons. Gabriela and her colleagues quit in protest and the show went off the air.

Now Correa is enforcing a law that explicitly violates freedom of speech. Ecuador has been an officially dollarized country since 2000, before Correa came to power. Years of high oil prices have financed an explosion in government spending. With oil prices down, Correa’s populist project is quickly running out of money and people are speculating that he will de-dollarize Ecuador, allowing him to run the printing presses. However, it is illegal in Ecuador to suggest that the country will de-dollarize, as that would violate the law against spreading rumors of devaluation. The first victim has been Rómulo López Sabando, an attorney and long-time columnist for the Diario Expreso. On March 24 he wrote a column indicating that the government is planning to dedollarize. For committing that crime, the government ordered his arrest. He has been in hiding since.

It’s a very good bet that the government will de-dollarize this year, yet the Ecuadorian press has been silent on the matter. As the law victimizes the press and, more generally, Ecuadorian democracy, López remains in hiding and the arrest warrant still holds. Will Obama and other hemispheric leaders meeting at the summit of the Americas later this week denounce these abuses?

Pirates as Tax Collectors?

[Co-authored with Ilya Shapiro.]

As we suspected, with world attention focused on the just-concluded piracy standoff, it was only a matter of time before someone would write something like this: “the right way to think about this problem is that pirates are imposing a tax on shipping in their area. They are a bit like a pseudo-government.” Perhaps the Mafia too –- “pay, or we break your legs” –- is like a pseudo-government.

The difference between a tax and extortion is not subtle, even if it seems to have escaped the cited authorities, including Noam Chomsky. A tax, at least in principle, and most often in practice, is a charge for a service rendered –- not necessarily a wanted or an evenly distributed service, to be sure, but most relevant here, protection from third-party pirates and other lawless predators, domestic and foreign. By contrast, a pirate’s shakedown puts the victim to a choice between two of his entitlements –- his freedom and his property. That distinction –- again, hardly subtle –- is what prompted us to leave the state of nature. Those who would like to return to that state will find it waiting for them on the horn of Africa.