5 X 8: The country that spies on its citizens

1) I SPY, THEY SPY, WE ALL SPY

On the list of what makes the United States such a unique country, you can scratch off “the government doesn’t spy on its own citizens who don’t do anything wrong.” Not after The Guardian acquired a secret court order that gives the Obama administration the phone records of its citizens on a daily basis.

It’s all happening under a hotly debated provision of the Patriot Act and a few politicians — very few – tried to warn us. But the “if you’re not doing anything wrong what’s the big deal?” mentality took over, fueled by the fear caused by 19 guys with 99-cent boxcutters.

The document shows for the first time that under the Obama administration the communication records of millions of US citizens are being collected indiscriminately and in bulk – regardless of whether they are suspected of any wrongdoing.

The secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (Fisa) granted the order to the FBI on April 25, giving the government unlimited authority to obtain the data for a specified three-month period ending on July 19.

Under the terms of the blanket order, the numbers of both parties on a call are handed over, as is location data, call duration, unique identifiers, and the time and duration of all calls. The contents of the conversation itself are not covered.

The disclosure is likely to reignite longstanding debates in the US over the proper extent of the government’s domestic spying powers.

You think? Or are we just going to shrug our shoulders because this is the way it is? And who will lead the outcry given that the politicians are the ones who wrote the law under which the spying is taking place?

The New York Times says two U.S. senators — Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon and Senator Mark Udall of Colorado — have lately been raising “cryptic” warnings about the Obama administration spying, and this revelation explains why:

“We believe most Americans would be stunned to learn the details of how these secret court opinions have interpreted Section 215 of the Patriot Act,” they wrote last year in a letter to Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr.

They added: “As we see it, there is now a significant gap between what most Americans think the law allows and what the government secretly claims the law allows. This is a problem, because it is impossible to have an informed public debate about what the law should say when the public doesn’t know what its government thinks the law says.”

“This is a truly stunning revelation,” Elizabeth Goitein, co-director of the Liberty and National Security Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, tells the Washington Post. “This suggests that the government has been compiling a comprehensive record of Americans’ associations and possibly even their whereabouts.”

None of this, perhaps, should be new. In 2011, NSA analyst Thomas Drake told the New Yorker about Thin Thread, a program that was invented to track “enemies outside the United States,” but instead “got twisted” and used for domestic espionage on U.S. citizens.

When Binney heard the rumors, he was convinced that the new domestic-surveillance program employed components of ThinThread: a bastardized version, stripped of privacy controls. “It was my brainchild,” he said. “But they removed the protections, the anonymization process. When you remove that, you can target anyone.” He said that although he was not “read in” to the new secret surveillance program, “my people were brought in, and they told me, ‘Can you believe they’re doing this? They’re getting billing records on U.S. citizens! They’re putting pen registers’ ”—logs of dialled phone numbers—“ ‘on everyone in the country!’ ”

Drake recalled that, after the October 4th directive, “strange things were happening. Equipment was being moved. People were coming to me and saying, ‘We’re now targeting our own country!’ ” Drake says that N.S.A. officials who helped the agency obtain FISA warrants were suddenly reassigned, a tipoff that the conventional process was being circumvented. He added, “I was concerned that it was illegal, and none of it was necessary.” In his view, domestic data mining “could have been done legally” if the N.S.A. had maintained privacy protections. “But they didn’t want an accountable system.”

For revealing what was happening, Drake was arrested and charged under the Espionage Act.

The story renews a debate that occurred after 9/11: In the age of terrorism, is it really possible to live in a free country? And what does free mean, anyway?

2) SIGNS WE’RE MOVING PAST RACISM

If you’re a glass-half-full kind of person — and, really, who around here isn’t? — the controversy over the Cheerios biracial ad (I told you about it earlier this week, you’ll recall) is all to the good.

That’s how Eric Liu, author of The Accidental Asian, sees it in a commentary on Time.com.

There are three lessons to draw from this fevered moment. The first is that this kind of racism is precisely what happens when a society begins moving past racism. Had it not been for the election to the presidency of a biracial man who chooses to identify as black, the Cheerios ad would likely not have been as fiercely attacked or defended. But we do have such a man in the White House. We do live in a time when whiteness and white maleness in particular no longer confer automatic primacy. To angry whites who resent the multicolored future for leaving them behind, lashing out at a mixed-race kid who likes Cheerios might seem like an act of defiant political incorrectness — but it’s the epitome of powerlessness.

The second lesson is that pseudo-controversies often matter not for the “news” or “facts” they purport to convey but for their value as community parables and tales of moral instruction. Why did the media turn this tempest in a cereal bowl into a national phenomenon? Not because every household was already discussing the ad — most of us learned about it only through well-publicized reactions to it — but because this is the kind of thing that (mainly white) news editors and television producers believe that we, as Americans, should collectively disapprove of. And contrived as it all is, this too represents progress.

More signs we’re moving past racism? Yesterday in Saint Paul’s Town Square, one of those junky for-sale tables went up with two women selling various knick-knacks. The jeweled Confederate flag hat that was for sale first thing in the morning was still for sale late yesterday afternoon.

Baby steps, indeed.

3) THE PEOPLE WHO NEED YOUR ORGANS TO LIVE

When is it time to do the right thing and save a kid’s life, and when is it time to protect the integrity of a system that can — and has — saved others?

The world of bioethics has a tremendous case before it following yesterday’s ruling by a judge that a 12-year-old girl should be allowed to receive adult lung tissue she needs to survive.The rules prohibit children from getting adult organs but that rule may be endangered now. The judge ruled the girl should be on the list of recipients for at least the next 9 days, pending a hearing.

“It is not clear why everyone now waiting at the bottom of any transplant list would not seek relief in federal court,” former U of M bioethicist Art Caplan told NBC News. “Unless the judge has reason to think the lung distribution rules are simply a product of age discrimination and nothing more — which seems highly unlikely — then this becomes a troubling instance of non-doctors deciding who is the best candidate to receive a lung or other scarce medical resource.”

On the surface, it seems like a slam-dunk case. Save the kid’s life and move on. But saving her life might mean someone else — in this case, an adult — does not get the transplant he/she needs to stay alive.

And, of course, when we’re asked to donate our organs, we’re not told either that people under 12 years old can’t have them and they might be exactly the kid of person we’d like to save with our innards, as opposed to — say — the older person with a history of alcoholism or drug use.

Curiously, no one in the system told the parents of the girl that there even was a distinction between adult and pediatric transplant patients, NBC said.

What should the judge have done? Take the survey.

Obviously, this wouldn’t be an issue if there were more organs available for transplant. So consider going here and making all of this a moot point.

4) THE LANGUAGE THAT DIVIDES US

As near as we can tell, nothing divides this country like the proper name of the carbonated, sugary drinks you might order at a fast food joint. Is it “pop”, “soda”, or just “Coke”?

Business Insider goes deeper, identifying 22 linguistic disputes that separate the country — pecan, syrup.

And how do we explain the uppity, snobby Northeast calling them sneakers, and the rest of America calling them “tennis shoes?” Why isn’t it the other way around?

I’ll hang up and listen for your response.

5) MARATHON COVERAGE PAYBACK

Remember this New York Post cover?

The two men wrongly portrayed as the Boston Marathon bombers have now filed suit against the newspaper.

“What kind of stereotyping and profiling, what type of reasoning, led the Post to think this was OK to do?” one of the lawyers told the Boston Globe. “And would they have ever done this if this was just some white kid from the suburbs who was standing there with the backpack?”

Bonus I: St. Paul artist plans to build replica of famous architect's house, burn it and call it art.(Pioneer Press)

Bonus II:
The Miss North Dakota pageant hits the Oil Patch, and some people are worried. (Fargo Forum)

TODAY’S QUESTION
How do you feel about the role zoos play in protecting threatened species?

WHAT WE’RE DOING

Daily Circuit (9-12 p.m.) – First hour: Young Republicans and the GOP.

Second hour: We keep hearing that the retirement age is edging further and further back, and that the economy is destroying pensions and 401(k)s – but what are the hard numbers in terms of cash in the bank needed to retire? How much does it take to live comfortably, and to be able to prepare for things like medical bills, etc, so we’re not stuck working into our 90s, or becoming burdens on our adult children? Financial guru Ruth Hayden joins us to give the straight talk about preparing for retirement.

Third hour: Panel discussion from World Science Festival: “The Whispering Mind: The Enduring Conundrum of Consciousness.”

MPR News Presents (12-1 pm): Retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens speaking at JFK Library about the controversial cases the court has decided and will decide.

Talk of the Nation (1-2 p.m.) – As Assad’s forces seize a critical border town, French lab tests confirm the Syrian Army used toxic gas “several times in a localized manner,” and refugees continue to stream over the borders. NPR’s Deborah Amos joins Neal Conan, with the latest.

All Things Considered (3-6:30 p.m.) - Same-sex couples can apply for marriage licenses beginning today in several counties in preparation for August 1st , the first they they can legally marry. MPR’s Sasha Aslanian talks with couples lining up in Hennepin County for the first opportunity to apply for a license.

The last farm bill passed with such overwhelming support that when President Bush vetoed it, both chambers of Congress overrode the veto. This time around, passage through the House seems like a far dicier proposition for what was once a popular, bipartisan piece of legislation. Aides estimate as few as 30 Democrats might vote for the House version of the bill while Republicans also struggle to find the votes need to pass the five-year bill. It’s a sign of the waning influence of agriculture and of moderate representatives who were once a mainstay in Congress, MPR’s Mark Steil will report.

  • vjacobsen

    I’m kind of sad that I went to take the poll but couldn’t see the results after I voted. Seeing what others said after I put in my choice was one of the best parts.

    Re #4: I use soda and sneakers after going to college in NH and just deciding I like those words better. My kids use the words soda and sneakers, too. Rebels, we are!

    • http://blogs.mprnews.org/newscut/ Bob Collins

      Bad configuration on the poll. I changed it to results “public.” sorry.

      • Vjacobsen

        Oh, cool. Thanks!

  • andy

    4) I’m a soda guy. I know I’m in the minority on this one. I’m on board with tennis shoes though. Sneakers?!? Silliness (no offence Bob).

  • MikeB

    Re: #1. Curious as to why the strong reactions now (twitter, at least) when this – the amazing lack of privacy in ordinary life – has been out there for a while, at least since 2002. Hopefully this gets much more traction now but I’m a pessimist here. As observed in the post above is that the lawmakers and the executive branch leveraged fear and apathy to make this happen. There are laws on the books that make this possible. What is the likelihood that the Patriot Act gets a full vetting and review now rather than an attempt to score cheap political points?

    The pseudo scandals we hear about today are nothing compared to the fact that our phone calls and emails, and no doubt other records, can be read by the govt without having to meet minimal threshold other than someone at a desk somewhere wants to see it.

    Have said it before, as have others here, that our rights are not taken away, they are given away.

    • http://blogs.mprnews.org/newscut/ Bob Collins

      Which is something I’ve always said. All the “terrorists” did was drive 4 planes into the building/ground. Everything else we did ourselves to ourselves. I can’t tell whether the terrorists were geniuses, or just lucky. But I can’t imagine they could have possibly dreamed of a better outcome for their day on 9/11.

      • MikeB

        The hopes and dreams of asymetric warfare realized

  • jaime

    #1: Very scary. I tend to be the proverbial ostrich when it comes to issues like this. Hard to wrap my brain around this as it goes against everything we’re taught about our country (although as I get older, I realize most of what i learned in school was the rose-colored glasses, white view). Which leads me to…

    #2: I’m not sure I agree that we’re moving past racism. Maybe some conversations are happening, but based upon some of the issues we’re seeing in schools (hanging effigies, fights between students) and the unwillingness of the schools/community to have a larger dialog about the incidents leads me to believe that we have a L-O-N-G way to go. Also, anyone who would wear a bedazzled confederate flag hat has many issues. Probably a good thing no one bought it, but the fact that it was for sale in the first place is telling.

    #3: Considering I’m not a medical professional, perhaps my opinion doesn’t hold up. But I don’t understand why all candidates wouldn’t be considered equally. If someone is under the age of 12 and they are the next up on the list why wouldn’t they get the same consideration? If the organ isn’t a good fit, then they move on to the next person on the list. Tough times for all of the families on these lists…

    #4: I started using “soda” when I went to school in AZ and it stuck! As others noted, I like that word better than “pop” and definitely better than “coke” (although I have no qualms with drinking an actual Coca-Cola).

    #5: The NY Post deserves to get sued in this case.

  • kennedy

    Re #3: Great post, especially the link to organ donor sign up. I’m already a donor.

    The priority list was determined based on medical data. As I understand, children have lower odds of survival than adults when transplanting adult sized lungs. We should be very uncomfortable in allowing the judicial system to override medical decisions. The judicial system favors those with financial means and could provide an avenue for the wealthy to get preferential treatment.

    • http://blogs.mprnews.org/newscut/ Bob Collins

      There are some aspects of transplant rules that trouble me, though. I wrote a deal a year or so ago (or maybe less, I forget) about a guy who needed a liver transplant and had a donor. but the donor was 60 (or 58, again, I forget) and the hospital had a rule that people over 60 can’t donate living tissue (apparently a pretty common rule). So the guy was back on the list, and, had a young woman not stepped forward, probably would’ve died. I presume the rules are in place for the donor rather than the recipient in those cases but if the person wants to do something in his/her life to help someone else live, what’s the deal?

      • kennedy

        Since it is a system, it needs rules to protect the health of donors. As an example, people are restricted on how often they can donate blood. It doesn’t matter if they want to give more. A system that does not minimize donor risk will end up in court.

        This case is different. It is about where to direct limited resources. Medical judgement deemed that adult sized lungs are better used in an adult recipient. Not better for that particular child, but a better use of a donated organ.

        • http://blogs.mprnews.org/newscut/ Bob Collins

          I guess the experts saw this coming. The parents of an 11 year old in Pennsylvania also filed a suit today.

          • kennedy

            I would do the same if I had a child in a similar situation.

  • boB from WA

    #4 – I thought in the NE states they referred to carbonated beverages as tonic (tahnic).

  • kevinfromminneapolis

    We will never fully move past racism until people stop using it for their own ends. Not comfortable to consider, but true nonetheless.

  • kevinfromminneapolis

    RE: Spying. There’s a story out now of the House INtelligence Chair saying the program thwarted an attack. That is the kind of thing I would like to know accompanying stories like this. How are the records being used? Are they fruitful? Without knowing things like that I feel it’s hard to come to a real conclusion about it.

  • MrE85

    #4 I’m from “Coke” country. Am I the only one?