Archive for January 6, 2013

Change We Can Believe In, XXXVII

January 6, 2013 Leave a comment


Change We Can Believe In: We’re Still Listening

Last week, Congress approved and President Obama signed a five-year extension of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. The war on terror continues to be war on ourselves. Reporting in the NYT, Robert Pear writes:

Congress gave final approval on Friday [December 28] to a bill extending the government’s power to intercept electronic communications of spy and terrorism suspects, after the Senate voted down proposals from several Democrats and Republicans to increase protections of civil liberties and privacy.

The Senate passed the bill by a vote of 73 to 23, clearing it for approval by President Obama, who strongly supports it. Intelligence agencies said the bill was their highest legislative priority.

Critics of the bill, including Senators Ron Wyden of Oregon, a Democrat, and Rand Paul of Kentucky, a Republican, expressed concern that electronic surveillance, though directed at noncitizens, inevitably swept up communications of Americans as well.


The No. 2 Senate Democrat, Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, said the surveillance law “does not have adequate checks and balances to protect the constitutional rights of innocent American citizens.”

“It is supposed to focus on foreign intelligence,” Mr. Durbin said, “but the reality is that this legislation permits targeting an innocent American in the United States as long as an additional purpose of the surveillance is targeting a person outside the United States.”

However, 30 Democrats joined 42 Republicans and one independent in voting for the bill. Three Republicans — Mr. Lee, Mr. Paul and Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska — voted against the bill, as did 19 Democrats and one independent.

Mr. Merkley said the administration should provide at least unclassified summaries of major decisions by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

“An open and democratic society such as ours should not be governed by secret laws,” Mr. Merkley said, “and judicial interpretations are as much a part of the law as the words that make up our statute.”

The Economist’s Jon Fasman offered informative commentary on the FISA extension, concluding:

Mr Obama first ran for office five years ago promising to roll back some of his predecessor’s more outrageous violations of civil liberties. He has done nothing of the sort. Mr Obama signed the FISA extension into law on December 30th, and he won the right to keep his rationale for killing Americans secret three days later. He deserves full measures of opprobrium for both, but this is no more about him than the Patriot Act was about his predecessor. The extension lasts for five years, by which time Mr Obama will no longer be in office. This is about America’s imperial presidency and the fourth amendment, which it has trampled into irrelevant ink smudges.

Categories: Law, Politics

Change We Can Believe In, XXXVI

January 6, 2013 Leave a comment


Change We Can Believe In: Hear No Evil, See No Evil (And, Secrecy)

You may have missed news of the unanimous ruling last month by the European Court of Human Rights that the CIA tortured Khaled el-Masri. That he was wrongly arrested, imprisoned, and interrogated isn’t in doubt. The CIA admitted as much and released him. What’s new is that the CIA actions have now been found to be torture (not that that was really in doubt either).

From Richard Norton-Taylor’s report at The Guardian:

CIA agents tortured a German citizen, sodomising, shackling, and beating him, as Macedonian state police looked on, the European court of human rights said in a historic judgment released on Thursday.

In a unanimous ruling, it also found Macedonia guilty of torturing, abusing, and secretly imprisoning Khaled el-Masri, a German of Lebanese origin allegedly linked to terrorist organisations.

Masri was seized in Macedonia in December 2003 and handed over to a CIA “rendition team” at Skopje airport and secretly flown to Afghanistan.

It is the first time the court has described CIA treatment meted out to terror suspects as torture.

“The grand chamber of the European court of human rights unanimously found that Mr el-Masri was subjected to forced disappearance, unlawful detention, extraordinary rendition outside any judicial process, and inhuman and degrading treatment,” said James Goldston, executive director of the Open Society Justice Initiative.

He described the judgment as “an authoritative condemnation of some of the most objectionable tactics employed in the post-9/11 war on terror”. It should be a wake-up call for the Obama administration and US courts, he told the Guardian. For them to continue to avoid serious scrutiny of CIA activities was “simply unacceptable”, he said.


Masri was released in April 2004. He was taken, blindfolded and handcuffed, by plane to Albania and subsequently to Germany, after the CIA admitted he was wrongly detained. The Macedonian government, which the court ordered must pay Masri €60,000 (£49,000) in compensation, has denied involvement in kidnapping.

UN special rapporteur on human rights and counter-terrorism, Ben Emmerson, described the ruling as “a key milestone in the long struggle to secure accountability of public officials implicated in human rights violations committed by the Bush administration CIA in its policy of secret detention, rendition and torture”.

He said the US government must issue an apology for its “central role in a web of systematic crimes and human rights violations by the Bush-era CIA, and to pay voluntary compensation to Mr el-Masri”.

President Obama and Attorney General Holder have already made clear their lack of interest in looking backward. Scott Horton wrote immediately after the European Court’s decision:

The El-Masri ruling is a watershed event principally because it reflects the first high-profile, binding judicial determination that the CIA used torture practices in connection with its renditions program. Thus far, litigation of the issue in the United States has failed as federal courts — deferring to the executive’s attempts to avoid scrutiny of well-documented and severe human rights abuses by invoking secrecy — have generally refused to allow cases to proceed to trial.


… the perpetrators of El-Masri’s torture have not been held to account under criminal law. According to an investigation run by the Associated Press, CIA officer Alfreda Frances Bikowsky played a key role in El-Masri’s abusive treatment, ignoring his protests because her “gut told her” he was a terrorist. Bikowsky was quickly promoted following the El-Masri incident, and she now occupies a senior counterterrorism post, from which she exercises great influence on sensitive operations.

Recall too Holder’s announcement last August that he would not prosecute CIA interrogators.

Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. announced Thursday [August 30, 2012] that no one would be prosecuted for the deaths of a prisoner in Afghanistan in 2002 and another in Iraq in 2003, eliminating the last possibility that any criminal charges will be brought as a result of the brutal interrogations [i.e., torture, but the NYT doesn’t call it that; see next sentence though] carried out by the C.I.A.

Mr. Holder had already ruled out any charges related to the use of waterboarding and other methods that most human rights experts consider to be torture. His announcement closes a contentious three-year investigation by the Justice Department and brings to an end years of dispute over whether line intelligence or military personnel or their superiors would be held accountable for the abuse of prisoners in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

The closing of the two cases means that the Obama administration’s limited effort to scrutinize the counterterrorism programs carried out under President George W. Bush has come to an end.

That’s moral leadership for you.

Categories: Law, Torture

Change We Can Believe In, XXXV

January 6, 2013 Leave a comment


Change We Can Believe In: Constitution-in-Wonderland

Should I be retiring this series? I haven’t had a new installment in three months. Obama’s second term starts in two weeks. With the madness that has taken control of the Republican Party, I don’t want to give the false impression that all the problems besetting this country are Obama’s fault. On the other hand, some are. Like this one. Sure, his predecessors put anti-constitutional secrecy in place. But he’s the one who promised to change it and instead has chosen to entrench it.

This was never more in evidence than last week, when federal district court judge Colleen McMahon ruled on Freedom of Information Act requests by the New York Times and the ACLU. Adam Liptak explains:

A federal judge in Manhattan refused on Wednesday to require the Justice Department to disclose a memorandum providing the legal justification for the targeted killing of a United States citizen, Anwar al-Awlaki, who died in a drone strike in Yemen in 2011.

The ruling, by Judge Colleen McMahon, was marked by skepticism about the antiterrorist program that targeted him, and frustration with her own role in keeping the legal rationale for it secret.

“I can find no way around the thicket of laws and precedents that effectively allow the executive branch of our government to proclaim as perfectly lawful certain actions that seem on their face incompatible with our Constitution and laws while keeping the reasons for their conclusion a secret,” she wrote.

“The Alice-in-Wonderland nature of this pronouncement is not lost on me,” Judge McMahon wrote, adding that she was operating in a legal environment that amounted to “a veritable Catch-22.”


Even as she ruled against the plaintiffs, the judge wrote that the public should be allowed to judge whether the administration’s analysis holds water.

“More fulsome disclosure of the legal reasoning on which the administration relies to justify the targeted killing of individuals, including United States citizens, far from any recognizable ‘hot’ field of battle, would allow for intelligent discussion and assessment of a tactic that (like torture before it) remains hotly debated,” she wrote.

Here is Judge McMahon’s full decision.

Categories: Law, Politics

Pickpocket Magic

January 6, 2013 Leave a comment

Readers of Ron’s View this past year may have noticed that I read an unusual number of books (for me). This came at a price. New Yorkers, New York Reviews of Books, Golf Worlds, and assorted other magazines piled up unread. I would download each issue of the New Yorker to my iPad when it became available on Sunday night and check what articles I would want to read when the print version arrived later in the week, then not read them.

Maybe this year will be different. Fewer books for sure. More magazine articles? I don’t know. But to get me started, I began reading a great article yesterday in the latest New Yorker, Adam Green’s piece on the pickpocket magician Apollo Robbins. It is freely available at the moment, not behind the New Yorker’s paywall. Check it out while you can.

Here’s the opening:

A few years ago, at a Las Vegas convention for magicians, Penn Jillette, of the act Penn and Teller, was introduced to a soft-spoken young man named Apollo Robbins, who has a reputation as a pickpocket of almost supernatural ability. Jillette, who ranks pickpockets, he says, “a few notches below hypnotists on the show-biz totem pole,” was holding court at a table of colleagues, and he asked Robbins for a demonstration, ready to be unimpressed. Robbins demurred, claiming that he felt uncomfortable working in front of other magicians. He pointed out that, since Jillette was wearing only shorts and a sports shirt, he wouldn’t have much to work with.

“Come on,” Jillette said. “Steal something from me.”

Again, Robbins begged off, but he offered to do a trick instead. He instructed Jillette to place a ring that he was wearing on a piece of paper and trace its outline with a pen. By now, a small crowd had gathered. Jillette removed his ring, put it down on the paper, unclipped a pen from his shirt, and leaned forward, preparing to draw. After a moment, he froze and looked up. His face was pale.

“F—. You,” he said, and slumped into a chair.

Robbins held up a thin, cylindrical object: the cartridge from Jillette’s pen.

The New Yorker has also posted a video in their culture blog of Robbins talking to Green and demonstrating his pickpocketing approach, with brief text by Myles Kane. I can’t embed the video. Go to the post, here, and watch it. It’s just under seven minutes long and well worth the time. Embedded up top as a substitute is another video of Robbins, which I have yet to watch in full.

Categories: Journalism, Video