With Deadline in Sight, Senate Scrambles on Patriot Act

Sen. Dianne Feinstein pushes new legislation that would criminalize whistleblower activity on national security

By Nadia Prupis

As public outcry against government spying reaches a fever pitch, the U.S. Senate is scrambling to address the USA Patriot Act, key sections of which are currently speeding toward expiration.

President Barack Obama on Tuesday warned the Senate—which is on a weeklong Memorial Day recess—to pass legislation that would renew those provisions, such as Section 215, which are scheduled to sunset on June 1.

“The problem we have now is that those authorities run out at midnight on Sunday,” Obama said. “So I strongly urge the Senate to work through this recess and make sure that they identify a way to get this done.”

The Senate on Friday rejected the legislation, known as the USA Freedom Act, which would have ended the National Security Agency’s (NSA) authority to collect domestic phone records in bulk, but would have renewed Section 215 and other controversial provisions of the Patriot Act which are set to expire next week. The U.S. House passed the USA Freedom Act on May 14.

On Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s watch, lawmakers are set to reconvene on Sunday, May 31 to vote again on the USA Freedom Act, as well as on another deal proposed—and rejected—last week that would have temporarily extended the Patriot Act.

The Senate will also consider legislation introduced by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), which would prohibit “unauthorized disclosures” by an “officer, employee, contractor, or consultant of the United States” or any “recipient of an order” issued under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), who “knowingly comes into possession of classified information or documents or materials containing classified information” of the U.S.

As Kevin Gosztola writes at Firedoglake, Feinstein’s bill—modeled after the Espionage Act—”would not only save spying powers but also codify into law a provision that would expressly enable the government to criminalize any national security whistleblower who may choose to follow the footsteps of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.”

Observers say that the chances are slim that the Senate will embrace any of those bills after overwhelmingly rejecting two of them so recently—and that’s just what privacy advocates are hoping for.

The USA Freedom Act has gotten a lukewarm reception by digital rights organizations like Fight for the Future and the Electronic Frontier Foundation over what they say are insufficient reforms of the NSA’s spying powers.

Fight for the Future called the Senate’s rejection of the bill on Friday a “historic tactical win against surveillance.”

“Sunsetting the Patriot Act is the biggest win for ending mass surveillance programs,” Tiffiniy Cheng, co-founder of Fight for the Future, a coalition of civil liberties and privacy rights organizations, said at the time. “We are seeing history in the making and it was because the public stood up for our rights to freedom of expression and freedom of association—and there’s no turning back now.”

The Electronic Frontier Foundation explained the setup succinctly last week, with senior staff attorney Lee Tien writing in a blog post that the gridlock is “good news: if the Senate stalemate continues, the mass surveillance of everyone’s phone records will simply expire on June 1.”

“We commend every Senator who voted against reauthorizing the unconstitutional surveillance of millions of law-abiding Americans,” Tien wrote.

Congress should again reject renewing Section 215 on Sunday and instead “turn to addressing other surveillance abuses by the US government, including mass surveillance of the Internet, the secretive and one-sided FISA Court, and the problems of secrecy and over-classification that have created the environment that allowed such spying overreach to flourish,” he continued.

As ACLU legislative counsel Michelle Richardson wrote in an op-ed last Friday, “The question before Congress and the American people now is whether that provision should be renewed. The answer is a clear and resounding no.

“Voting for reauthorization of Section 215 now would not just be a missed opportunity for a serious debate about the role of government surveillance in our democracy; it would be an endorsement of the unconstitutional surveillance programs we already know exist, and a tacit endorsement of those we’re still in the dark about.”

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Remember This on Memorial Day: They Didn’t Fall, They Were Pushed

Of all the world’s holidays commemorating wars, Memorial Day should be one of sober reflection on war’s horrible costs, surely not a moment to glorify warfare or lust for more wars.

By Ray McGovern

How best to show respect for the U.S. troops killed in Iraq and Afghanistan and for their families on Memorial Day? Simple: Avoid euphemisms like “the fallen” and expose the lies about what a great idea it was to start those wars and then to “surge” tens of thousands of more troops into those fools’ errands.

First, let’s be clear on at least this much: the 4,500 U.S. troops killed in Iraq – so far – and the 2,350 killed in Afghanistan – so far – did not “fall.” They were wasted on no-win battlefields by politicians and generals – cheered on by neocon pundits and mainstream “journalists” – almost none of whom gave a rat’s patootie about the real-life-and-death troops. They were throwaway soldiers.

And, as for the “successful surges,” they were just P.R. devices to buy some “decent intervals” for the architects of these wars and their boosters to get space between themselves and the disastrous endings while pretending that those defeats were really “victories squandered” – all at the “acceptable” price of about 1,000 dead U.S. soldiers each and many times that in dead Iraqis and Afghans.

Memorial Day should be a time for honesty about what enabled the killing and maiming of so many U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama and the senior military brass simply took full advantage of a poverty draft that gives upper-class sons and daughters the equivalent of exemptions, vaccinating them against the disease of war.

What drives me up the wall is the oft-heard, dismissive comment about troop casualties from well-heeled Americans: “Well, they volunteered, didn’t they?” Under the universal draft in effect during Vietnam, far fewer were immune from service, even though the well-connected could still game the system to avoid serving. Vice Presidents Dick Cheney and Joe Biden, for example, each managed to pile up five exemptions. This means, of course, that they brought zero military experience to the job; and this, in turn, may explain a whole lot — particularly given their bosses’ own lack of military experience.

The grim truth is that many of the crème de la crème of today’s Official Washington don’t know many military grunts, at least not intimately as close family or friends. They may bump into some on the campaign trail or in an airport and mumble something like, “thank you for your service.” But these sons and daughters of working-class communities from America’s cities and heartland are mostly abstractions to the powerful, exclamation points at the end of some ideological debate demonstrating which speaker is “tougher,” who’s more ready to use military force, who will come out on top during a talk show appearance or at a think-tank conference or on the floor of Congress.

Sharing the Burden? (more…)

The West and ISIS

By Jim Wight

Far from the boasts made by the US, British, and French governments that IS would be destroyed, they have been unable to even contain the extremist jihadi group as it marches from city to city and town to town in Syria and Iraq, seemingly without constraint, sowing chaos and carnage in the process.

There are a number of reasons why the West has made a virtue of failure and disaster in the region. The first, of course, is the determination to prosecute a hegemonic strategy regardless of the consequences. We can trace the modern incarnation of this strategy to the 2003 war in Iraq, which only succeeded in destabilizing the country preparatory to it descending into the abyss of sectarian violence and schism, where it exists today, 12 years later.

The short-lived Arab Spring of 2011/12, which after decades spent living under corrupt dictatorships gave millions of people across the region reason to hope for a better future, gave way to an Arab Winter in the form of a counter-revolutionary process driven by Western intervention – first in Libya with the air war unleashed against the Gaddafi regime, and then in Syria with its support for the opposition against Assad. The resulting chaos laid the ground for the emergence of various al-Qaeda affiliated groups, followed by ISIL/ISIS, later morphing into IS (or Daesh in Arabic).

Despite carrying out airstrikes against the organization both in Syria and Iraq, it has taken Ramadi in western Iraq and the ancient city of Palmyra in the district of Homs in central Syria with alarming ease. After failing to take the Kurdish town of Kobane in northern Syria, next to the Turkish border, and losing Tikrit to Iraq government forces earlier this year, its butchery and barbarism is once again resurgent.

The loss of Ramadi in particular, a mere 80 miles from Baghdad, is a major embarrassment for Washington, despite Obama’s incredulous statement that it merely constitutes a “setback.” The billions of dollars funnelled into Iraq by the US to finance the reconstitution of the Iraqi Army has proved akin to pouring money down a drain. The elite Golden Division, for example, stationed in Ramadi, tucked tail and fled almost on first contact with IS forces, leaving in its wake a significant amount of US-supplied hardware and equipment.

What’s clear by now is that a full-blown Sunni-Shia conflict is underway across the region, pitting Sunni-supported IS against an Iranian-supported Shia militia that has already proved its mettle with the taking back of Tikrit. The context of this struggle is the deep enmity between Iran and Saudi Arabia, informing a series of proxy local conflicts in Yemen and most prominently in Iraq and Syria.

Further, when it comes to this conflict, the West is on the wrong side – friendly with those it has no business being friends with, and enemies of those it has no business being enemies with. The Saudis, Qataris, and Turkey have been guilty of fomenting the chaos and carnage with both the active or passive support for IS, without which it could not sustain its existence and enjoyed the success it has.

In particular the Saudi gang of corrupt potentates, sitting in gilded palaces in Riyadh, have long been dredging a deep well of hypocrisy as part of the US-led grand coalition against IS and its medieval barbarism. A state that beheads almost as many people in public as IS, the oil-rich kingdom’s status as a close Western ally is beyond reprehensible. Money talks, but in Riyadh it flows alongside a river of blood spilled in the name of Wahhabism, the perverse and extreme Sunni ideology that underpins the obscene luxury and ostentation of the nation’s ruling clan.

Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah, supported by Russia, are currently leading the ‘real’ struggle against the savagery of IS. Yet each of them is regarded as a threat to regional stability and Western interests, and scorned as such.

The need for a major reorientation of the West’s entire Middle East policy is glaringly obvious. Instead of lurching from one disaster to another – all in the name of ‘democratism’, which is not to be confused with democracy – a coherent strategy to defeat IS and its butchery rather than make it stronger would entail the formation of a coalition of the willing, comprising Iran and the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad.

Syria’s survival as a secular state, in which the rights of minorities are upheld, is from guaranteed as the conflict that has ripped the country apart enters its fourth year. Its people have suffered immeasurable harm over the course of this brutal conflict, suffering that evinces no sign of letting up soon.

The Assad government and the Syrian army, which has bled like no other army has in recent times, have proved unbelievably resolute in resisting both Syria’s invasion by thousands of foreign jihadis, and the enormous pressure levelled against the regime by US and its allies, both within and without the region.

As for Iraq, the damage wrought by the sectarianism of the Maliki government, prior to it being ousted in August 2014, is even worse than most thought. The Iraqi Army is unfit for purpose, riven with corruption and a lack of morale. The fact that 200 IS militants were able to rout the 2000 Iraqi troops defending Ramadi tells its own story. It is also evident that IS has been able to exploit the disaffection of the Sunni population throughout Anbar Province – otherwise known as the Sunni Triangle – without whose either active or passive support they would not have been able to take first Fallujah and now Ramadi.

Iraq’s permanent schism along sectarian lines is closer now than it has ever been. This rather than a Western-style democracy is the end result of Bush and Blair’s war of 2003.

The spreading destabilization of the Middle East is a threat to stability and security everywhere. With every gain made by IS more disaffected young Muslims throughout the West are attracted to its ideology. As Malcolm X said, “You can’t understand what’s going on in Mississippi if you don’t understand what’s going on in the Congo.”

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Copyright © CounterPunch

John Wight is the author of a politically incorrect and irreverent Hollywood memoir – Dreams That Die – published by Zero Books. He’s also written five novels, which are available as Kindle eBooks. You can follow him on Twitter at @JohnWight1

Why Islamic State Is Winning

The Saudi-Israeli alliance and U.S. neocons have pressured President Obama into continuing U.S. hostility toward the secular Syrian government despite major military gains by the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda’s Nusra Front, leading to an emerging catastrophe in the Mideast.

By Daniel Lazare

President Barack Obama and his foreign policy staff are not having a very merry month of May. The Islamic State’s takeover of Ramadi, Iraq, on May 15 was one of the greatest U.S. military embarrassments since Vietnam, but the fall of Palmyra, Syria, just five days later made it even worse. This is an administration that, until recently, claimed to have turned the corner on Islamic State.

In March, Gen. Lloyd Austin, head of U.S. Central Command, assured the House Armed Services Committee that the Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL or Daesh) was in a “defensive crouch” and unable to conduct major operations, while Vice President Joe Biden declared in early April that “ISIL’s momentum in Iraq has halted, and in many places, has been flat-out reversed.”

A couple of weeks later, the President proved equally upbeat following a meeting with Iraqi leader Haider al-Abadi: “We are making serious progress in pushing back ISIL out of Iraqi territory. About a quarter of the territory fallen under Daesh control has been recovered. Thousands of strikes have not only taken ISIL fighters off the war theater, but their infrastructure has been deteriorated and decayed. And under Prime Minister Abadi’s leadership, the Iraqi security forces have been rebuilt and are getting re-equipped, retrained, and strategically deployed across the country.”

But that was so last month. Post-Ramadi, conservatives like Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton, and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, have lost no time in labeling such views out of touch and “delusional.” And, indeed, Obama sounded strangely detached on Tuesday when he told The Atlantic that ISIS’s advance was not a defeat.

“No, I don’t think we’re losing,” he said, adding: “There’s no doubt there was a tactical setback, although Ramadi had been vulnerable for a very long time, primarily because these are not Iraqi security forces that we have trained or reinforced.” It was rather like the captain of the Titanic telling passengers that the gash below the waterline was a minor opening that would soon be repaired.

Not that the rightwing view is any less hallucinatory. Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, faults Obama for not doing more to topple the Assad regime in Damascus, as if removing the one effective force against ISIS would be greeted with anything less than glee by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his hordes.

“We don’t have a strategy,” House Speaker John Boehner complained on Tuesday. “For over two years now, I’ve been calling on the President to develop an overarching strategy to deal with this growing terrorist threat. We don’t have one, and the fact is that the threat is growing than what we and our allies can do to stop it.” But when asked what a winning strategy might be, the House Speaker could only reply, “It’s the President’s responsibility.” In other words, Boehner is as clueless as anyone else.

In fact, the entire foreign-policy establishment is clueless, just as it was in 2003 when it all but unanimously backed President George W. Bush’s disastrous invasion of Iraq. Both Republicans and Democrats are caught in a disastrous feedback loop in which journalists and aides tell them what they want to hear and resolutely screen out everything to the contrary. But facts have a way of asserting themselves whether Washington wants them to or not.

The Whys of Failure (more…)