Friday, October 26, 2007

Dodd and FISA

Hats off to Senator Chris Dodd for putting a hold on a Bill that makes sense. The public should write, e-mail and call to thank him.

Friday, October 19, 2007

FISA Reform Vote Postponed Until Next Week

The fight to revamp the invasive FISA bill passed on August 4, 2007 continues in the Congress. Current efforts to ensure the Fourth Amendment rights of citizens aren’t even being considered by the congress in this bill. Activists from both sides of the aisle continue to monitor the situation, but at this point, committee leaders seem to be in agreement on the bill, which would reform the issue of Fourth Amendment Rights, the issue of the warrantless wiretapping, and calls that are still deemed as subject to surveillance can be monitored, but the committee leaders are debating whether or how to protect telecommunications companies who have already cooperated with the governments NSA surveillance program.

The Senate appears to be supporting the administration's demands that the legislation grant retroactive immunity to those telecoms that released to the government private information on thousands of their customers' calls based on requests from the federal government for such information in violation of the FISA law. The House, at least for now, seems not to be inclined to give the companies such immunity, which would leave customers with no recourse for invasions of their privacy by the communications carriers.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

We rush to war in Iran at our own peril

The beat of war drums along the Potomac — from 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., to Capitol Hill, and from Neo-Con Central at the headquarters of the Weekly Standard to the halls of the Pentagon — is growing in intensity just as it did five years ago in the months leading to the invasion of Iraq. This time, however, the target over which the war hawks are sharpening their spears is not a relatively small and ill-prepared country in the Middle East, but a country larger in land mass than the state of Alaska and with a population nearly four times as large as Iraq's.

Despite the fact that many Americans would probably confuse Iraq with Iran on a map, lumping both together as "Arab" countries, the two countries are more dissimilar than alike. For starters, only about 3 percent of Iran's population is Arab, compared to nearly 80 percent in Iraq. Historically, the predominantly Persian Iran and its Arab neighbor to the west have been at odds more than they've enjoyed cordial relations.

Geographically, Iran presents a much more complex set of logistical concerns than did Iraq. Iran has significantly longer land and maritime borders than does Iraq. Iran borders three bodies of water — the Caspian Sea, the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman; Iraq possesses but a tiny sliver of a sea coast. Iran's much larger land mass and population base, including potential armed forces strength of 15 million to 30 million, and its more homogenous citizenry, work to complicate military planning considerably — if properly done.

The economic muscle Iran wields, while weakened by corruption and inefficiency (as in Iraq), far exceeds that of its Arab neighbor — more than $600 billion compared to Iraq's anemic $88 billion. Iran's international trade, like Iraq's, is predominantly based on petroleum exports, and is about twice Iraq's. However, Iran's list of trading partners is much more diverse than Iraq's, which relies on exports to a single country — the United States — for nearly half its exports. Many U.S. allies, including Japan and Germany, are major trading partners with Iran. China figures just as significantly in Tehran's international trade. Further complicating the picture is the fact that recent intelligence establishes that China is supplying military arms and equipment to Iran.

By most other indices of economic development, Iran far outpaces Iraq (under either Saddam Hussein or the U.S.-backed Maliki government), including such indices as the numbers of telephones, radios and televisions, which provide the means by which the governing authority communicates with the population and its supporters.

While many in the United States delight in ridiculing Iran's president, Mahmud Ahmadinejad — a task made easy by some of the unusual positions espoused by the Iranian leader — such practice can beguile leaders into potentially serious miscalculations about the support the leadership in Tehran enjoys, and would enjoy, if the U.S. were to attack or to be perceived as attacking through surrogates.

Should Washington simply sit back and leave Iran alone — free to support terrorist groups and regimes in other countries, including Iraq, and to develop a nuclear capability? Of course not. Even considering that our lengthy and continuing occupation of Iraq has greatly strengthened Ahmadinejad, the United States has a clear and legitimate stake in what happens in Iran and with regard to matters in which that regime is involved elsewhere.

What is important, however, should be to quell the simplistic blustering by the White House and by many presidential candidates designed to prove each will be tougher on Iran than the others. Also helpful would be putting a lid on unnecessary and repetitive insults and threats directed at the Ahmadinejad administration — a pastime that simply strengthens the regime in Tehran and does nothing to build support for legitimate efforts to weaken the regime.

Positive steps could include strengthening economic and political pressure on Iran, and increased efforts to quietly but actively build on the deep base of political understanding that already exists among a large segment of the Iranian population (and including the more than one million Iranian-Americans).

Unlike the Iraqi population before the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, which had never enjoyed a participatory political system, millions of Iran's citizens have tasted and understand the benefits of such freedom. It would be a shame if, in a rush to prove something politically at home or abroad, the U.S. were to initiate a military confrontation that would not only destroy that base of support, but lead to a conflict vastly more costly and lengthy than the invasion of Iraq has turned out to be.— Former congressman and U.S. Attorney Bob Barr practices law in Atlanta.


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Wednesday, October 3, 2007

'Mission creep' hits airport security: People exhibiting "fear" or "stress" are now just the sort of individuals TSA is on the lookout for

Approach any major airport in the United States in this brave new, post-Sept. 11 world, and there is one message transmitted loud and clear to you — be afraid. Armed police are everywhere. You can't stop your car for more than a few seconds without being warned by an armed police officer that you'd better move on.

Detached voices over the public address system remind you constantly of the applicable "homeland security threat level" (perpetually stuck at orange), and recount what you can and cannot carry on the plane. Your "government-issued identification card" must always be at the ready to show on demand. You have to partially disrobe and traverse a security gauntlet before even getting to the gate area. The oppressive sense of fear fostered by the airlines and the Transportation Security Administration continues from curbside dropoff to exiting the airport in your destination city. Fear has become the currency of modern air travel.

Interestingly, however, people exhibiting "fear" or "stress" are now suspected of being just the sort of undesirable individuals the TSA is on the lookout for, and whom it will single out for special attention, including arrest. A cadre of undercover "Behavior Detection Officers," or BDOs, is roaming America's air terminals (and possibly some in other countries) on behalf of the TSA, peering into the faces of people to discern "slight facial movements" or other behavior characteristics indicating a possible lawbreaker or terrorist.

TSA's Web site proudly pats itself on the back for behaviorally detecting at least one lawbreaker at Baltimore-Washington International Airport — an unlucky man who appeared nervous near a ticket counter. His nervous demeanor led to his detention, search and subsequent arrest for carrying a concealed firearm without the requisite permit.

Many Americans — reflecting the post-Sept. 11 philosophy that whatever government decides to do or wants to do to make us "safe" is permissible, no matter how constitutionally questionable — might applaud the TSA for such actions. But this is the sort of problematic "mission creep" many warned about several years ago when the TSA was established.

Established to screen passengers and cargo for weapons and explosives prior to boarding or loading onto commercial air carriers, the TSA seems now to views its mission as being of a magnitude far in excess of people intending to hijack or destroy commercial aircraft. TSA personnel now believe it their bounden duty to watch for anybody at an airport who might be committing or contemplating committing any crime whatsoever, regardless of any link to a passenger plane.

News accounts, for example, chronicle TSA BDOs identifying persons who turn out simply to be in this country unlawfully, and others who possess illegal drugs. Of course, their zeal has also led BDOs to stopping, detaining and questioning people who are engaging in actions no more "criminal" than simply appearing nervous or "stressful" and who "avoid eye contact" with other people. The obvious question, with all this going on, is who wouldn't be nervous or stressful?

This is not the first time federal agents have attempted to use some form of "profiling" as the basis to detain, search and arrest suspects. For example, beginning in the late 1970s, federal drug agents conducted a series of searches of people at airports who fit a so-called "drug courier profile" — people who, among other things, appeared nervous, avoided eye contact and did not carry baggage. Many of the cases thus developed were declared unconstitutional, with judges correctly concluding that arresting people based on what is in essence a "hunch" that they are acting suspiciously violates the Bill of Rights' requirement that searches be "reasonable." Judges also were mindful of the potential for abuse if law enforcement was permitted to search anyone fitting a subjective "profile."

It will be interesting to see if the federal judges of 2007 handle these most recent "profiling" cases according to the same constitutional standard as their predecessors in the 1970s and 1980s.

While the language of the Fourth Amendment's guarantee against being searched (and arrested) based on suspect "behavior" remains the same in 2007 as 30 years ago, I and many others worry that the largely government-induced fear now pervading our society has created the perfect storm in which government agents will henceforth be able to stop anybody, anytime, anyplace for suspect activity based on a behavior "pattern," all in the name of "fighting terrorism."

And that, friends, ought truly to make you nervous and stressful.

— Former congressman and U.S. Attorney Bob Barr practices law in Atlanta.


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