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WEEKLY WONK

Originally Published: 6/22/2013

Meet GCHQ:  Five Eyes is an “electronic eavesdropping alliance” formed by the U.S., the U.K., Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Britain’s GCHQ is the equivalent of the U.S.’s NSA. But it’s better. Or, you may say, worse. According to documents disclosed by leaker Edward Snowden to the Guardian, GCHQ “has secretly gained access to the network of cables which carry the world’s phone calls and internet traffic and has started to process vast streams of sensitive personal information which it is sharing with its American partner, the National Security Agency (NSA).” I guess the goal is reflected in its title: “Mastering the Internet.” It has another title, too: Global Telecoms Exploitation.” GCHQ’s “operation Tempora” has found a way to tap into and store “huge volumes of data drawn from fiber-optic cables for up to 30 days so that it can be sifted and analyzed.” It gathers up phone calls, email messages, Facebook entries, and internet user’s browsing history. GCHQ boasts that it has boasted that it has the “biggest internet access” of any member of the Five Eyes. And it’s given access to its data to 850,000 NSA and U.S. private contractors. For you techies, Guardian has an explanation of how the surveillance works. What’s interesting is how they get around their laws which, like ours, require warrants. The law allows for GCHQ “to perform more sweeping and indiscriminate trawls of external data if a minister issues a ‘certificate’ along with the warrant.” GCHQ claims it has 10 basic certificates. (Guardian)

 

FISA Court:  The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) isn’t the “oversight” we think it is. “Top secret” documents disclose that FISC judges “have signed off on broad orders which allow NSA to make use of information ‘inadvertently’ collected from domestic U.S. communications without a warrant.” The documents also show how the FISC has interpreted the laws and set its own policies. The policies allow NSA to “keep data that could potentially contain details of U.S. persons for up to 5 years; retain and make use of ‘inadvertently acquired’ domestic communications if they contain usable intelligence, information on criminal activity, threat of harm to people or property, are encrypted, or are believed to contain any information relevant to cybersecurity; preserve ‘foreign intelligence information’ contained within attorney-client communications; access the content of communications gathered from ‘U.S. based machine[s]’ or phone numbers in order to establish if targets are located in the U.S., for the purposes of ceasing further surveillance.” (Guardian) Does anyone else think there’s something strange about a law regarding “foreign” surveillance being used to justify “domestic” surveillance? Watch some nut-job trying to solve the problems by changing the name.

 

NSA Whistleblowers:  Wonder why Snowden leaked in the way he did? Probably because he was aware of 3 top-level NSA whistleblowers who’ve been trying to get someone to look at this for years. They have been claiming that the NSA collects “huge swaths of communications data from U.S. citizens. . . [T]hey complained first to their superiors, then to federal investigators, congressional oversight committees and, finally to the news media.” They got nowhere. They “have been investigated as criminals,” and have lost their careers and reputations. They claim that Snowden has done what they couldn’t. Watch the roundtable with them and reporters Susan Page and Peter Eisler. (USA Today)

 

Surveillance Drones:  FBI Director Robert Mueller has admitted that they have used drones over U.S. soil for domestic surveillance. He said their use has been “very minimal.” (Guardian) Yeah, right.

 

California:  Southern California Edison has announced that it will retire units 2 and 3 of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station. (Edison)

 

Florida:  The legislature passed, and Gov. Rick Scott (R) signed, a new law that blocks local governments from enacting mandatory paid sick leave measures. Of course, it was Big Business who wanted the bill - most notably Walt Disney World, Darden Restaurants, the Florida Chamber of Commerce, and “a broad array of powerful business interests.” (Orlando Sentinel)

 

Michigan:  The Detroit emergency manager is preparing to implement the rich people’s solution to everything - screw everyone so they can have more money. Kevyn Orr wants to raid the Detroit employees’ pension fund to pay the banksters. (Think Progress)

 

Nevada:  Gov. Brian Sandoval (R) vetoed a bill requiring background checks for gun sales between private parties. He said it was an “unreasonable burden” but in fact it’s a money-boom for arms manufacturers. (Las Vegas Sun) I guess burying loved ones isn’t an “unreasonable burden.”

 

North Carolina:  It repealed the Racial Justice Act, a law that “allowed death row inmates to seek a reduced sentence if they could prove racial bias affected their punishment.” It was the only law like it in the U.S. It “led to 4 inmates getting their sentences changed to life in prison without parole after taking effect in 2009.” Apparently Governor Pat McCrory (R) hopes that repealing this law will remove the “procedural roadblocks” that keep the state from executing more people. (Reuters) Kill as many as possible.

 

Tennessee:  Sherwin Smith, deputy director of the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, warned a group of Maury County residents that they need to “make sure that when [they] make water quality complaints [they] have a basis, because, federally, if there’s no water quality issues, that can be considered under Homeland Security an act of terrorism.” There is no such law. (The Tennessean)

 

Supremes on Voter Registration Laws:  In a 7-2 decision, the Supreme Court has invalidated Arizona’s voter registration law. It required people to show proof of citizenship when registering to vote. And here’s a shock. The opinion was written by Justice Antonin Scalia. Dissenters were Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito. (Surprise!) They held that the state law was trumped by the 1993 National Voter Registration Act which requires only that a registrant provide 1 piece of identification and sign a statement claiming that he/she is a citizen. No proof of citizenship is necessary. It seems that their major problem with the law is that, when rejected by the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, the state didn’t challenge that decision with a lawsuit against the Commission. The Supremes said that Arizona could still request permission from the Commission in the future or it could challenge the Commission’s decision in a lawsuit. The ruling also effects voter laws in Georgia, Alabama, and Kansas. (Reuters)

 

Supremes on Pay-For-Delay:  When a pharmaceutical company wants to delay the sale of low-cost versions of a medication, they pay those companies not to produce it. (TWW, Big Pharma, 3/30/13; Antitrust, 6/27/09) The Supreme Court, in a 5-3 decision (Justice Samuel Alito “didn’t take part in the case.” No reason was given.), ruled that they can be sued for this. The decision “shifts the rules governing the release of generic drugs. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) had earlier declared that pay-for-delay costs consumers as much as $3 to $5 billion a year - all of which goes into the coffers of Big Pharma. (Bloomberg)

Supremes on the Right to Remain Silent:  If you don’t claim it before you’re arrested, you lose it. In a 5-4 decision, the Supremes said that what you say to a police officer before you’re arrested can be used against you. (NY Times)

Supremes on Sentencing:  In another 5-4 decision the Supremes “overruled a 2002 decision that had required judges to impose mandatory minimum sentences even if they were not supported by jury findings.” If a jury doesn’t find the defendant guilty of something, it cannot be used in the sentencing. (NY Times)

 

Supremes on Privacy:  “The court ruled that trial lawyers in South Carolina ran afoul in part of the federal Driver’s Privacy Protection Act by using information obtained from a state motor vehicles department to solicit clients for a lawsuit about overcharges from car dealerships.” (NY Times)

 

Supremes on Class Actions:  They delivered another blow to class action lawsuits. In another 5-3 decision (Justice Sonia Sotomayor recused herself) they enforced arbitration agreements that prevent merchants from banding together to make antitrust claims against American Express. (Reuters) Let me remind you that the 7th Amendment insures everyone a right to a trial by jury.

 

Supremes on NGOs:  In a 6-2 decision (Elena Kagan recused herself) the Supremes declared that the federal requirement that non-governmental organizations receiving funds for HIV/AIDS programs overseas must adopt a policy explicitly opposing prostitution violates the First Amendment. (ScotusBlog)

 

Inequality:  We know that the inequality between the wealthiest Americans and the middle-class and poor Americans is increasing. However, a study by the Brookings Institute has found that the condition is permanent, not transitory, meaning it will take major public policy changes to turn things around. Yes, inequality was created. Let Robert Reich explain it. (Inequality Is)

 

Farm Bill:  The House Republicans wanted to cut almost $21 billion from food stamps. Interestingly, several members who support these cuts have benefitted significantly from the various subsidies in the annual farm bill. Top on the list is Stephen Fincher (R, TN) who has taken $3,483,824 since 1999. Next is Doug LaMalf (R, CA) who has taken $1,710,385 since 1995. Check out the list at Think Progress. An amendment was added that would let states drug-test food stamp recipients and another that would pay states to reduce enrollment. (Huffington Post) And yet another Amendment would have allowed states to introduce work requirements for the program. The bill failed in the House, 234-195. Speaker of the House John Boehner (R, OH) had put off bringing this to the floor for a year, waiting until he had the votes to pass it. Apparently he miscounted. The defeat was bipartisan - Democrats hated the cuts and amendments to the food assistance program and Tea Partiers wanted bigger cuts. (NY Times)

 

IRS-gate:  Rep. Elijah Cummings (D, MD), the ranking Democrat on the House Oversight Committee, released a full transcript of the testimony of the self-described conservative Republican IRS manager in the Cincinnati office who supervised the screeners of applications for tax exempt status. (TWW, IRS-gate, 6/15/13; 5/25/13; 5/18/13) Rep. Darrell Issa (R, CA), using “cherry-picked transcripts of IRS officials,” has been suggesting that the decision to screen the applications originated in the White House. However, the transcript shows that his testimony was that the scrutiny was not directed by the White House. (MSNBC) The Hill covers more of the political rhetoric on the subject.

 

Voter Fraud:  They finally got a case to prosecute. In Virginia Adam Ward collected 11,000 signatures to get the required 10,000 on the petition to allow Newt Gingrich on the state’s primary election ballot. The problem was that 4,000 of them were false. He pled guilty to 36 counts of voter fraud and perjury. (NBC29)

 

Immigration:  Republican and Democratic senators reached an agreement designed to help get the immigration bill through through Congress. It’s called the “border surge” plan and it doubles the size of the border patrol, requires 700 miles of border fencing, and requires “a detailed comprehensive south border security plan including high-tech protections.” I suppose this means more drones on the border. (NBC News) Since the price tag on the plan was $30 billion, it wasn’t going anywhere, so they came up with another plan. This one would just increase the number of agents on the border to 40,000. (The Hill) I haven’t been able to find out what this will cost.

 

Pain-Capable Act:  The Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, which would only go into effect in the District of Columbia (because Congress has no control over anything else), passed the House. It would cut off abortions at 20 weeks after fertilization. Anyone want to put money on the odds of this getting through the Senate? What’s interesting is that this bill - and others like it being enacted in states - is based on a scientifically-disputed theory that fetuses can feel pain before the 3rd trimester of pregnancy. Rep. Michael Burgess (R, TX), a doctor, asserts that he’s seen male fetuses masturbating as early as 15 weeks after conception and that this proves they feel pain. (Raw Story) Yeah. I’m not kidding.

 

Toxic Waste Spill:  A toxic oil spill has occurred in Alberta, about 9.5 million litres of toxic waste from an oil and gas operation owned by Apache Corp. Its size “exceeds all of the major recent spills in North America. It comes amid heightened sensitivity about pipeline safety, as the industry faces broad public opposition to plans for a series of major new oil export pipelines to the U.S., British Columbia, and eastern Canada.” (Globe and Mail) The pipeline is only 5 years old and it was designed to last 30 years. “Vegetation and trees across the 104-acre spill site have been destroyed in the 3rd major waste spill the area has seen.” (Pollution Solutions)

 

Monsanto:  A new study has found glyphosate, “a globally used weed killer” used on Monsanto GMO crops, in the urine of residents of 18 European states. 44% of the volunteers had it in their urine. “It is yet unclear how the herbicide got into their systems.” Glyphosate “may disrupt the human hormone system,” may be an “endocrine disruptor,” and may cause DNA damage and even cancer. (RT)

 

Fukushima:  High levels of strontium-90, a highly toxic substance, has been found in the groundwater at the nuclear plant. Tokyo Electric Power Co. (Tepko), the owner of the plant, has been attempting to get permission to release contaminated water with low levels of radiation into the ocean. (Reuters) Hope whoever is in charge denies this request.

 

Keystone XL:  145 staffers from the Obama 2012 campaign have sent him an open letter encouraging him to reject the pipeline. (Swampland)

 

Ratings Agencies:  Thanks to lawsuits, “documents that for the most part have never been seen by the general public” about the bank meltdown are shedding new light on what happened. “[W]e now know that the nation’s 2 top ratings companies, Moody’s and S&P, have for many years been shameless tools for the banks, willing to give just about anything a high rating in exchange for cash.” (Rolling Stone) We need more regulation.

 

Foreclosures:  Statements made in federal court last week in a lawsuit against Bank of America have yielded some interesting admissions. “Bank of America’s mortgage servicing unit systematically lied to homeowners, fraudulently denied loan modifications, and paid their staff bonuses for deliberately pushing people into foreclosure.” (AlterNet) We need more regulation.

 

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