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Zoë Carpenter | The Nation

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Zoe Carpenter

Zoë Carpenter

DC dispatches. E-mail tips to zoe@thenation.com.

What Obama Didn’t Say in His Speech on NSA Spying

President Obama speaking on the NSA

US President Barack Obama speaks about the National Security Agency from the Justice Department in Washington January 17, 2014 (Reuters/Kevin Lamarque).

The most illuminating sentences of the speech on intelligence reform that President Obama delivered Friday morning were the first:

At the dawn of our Republic, a small, secret surveillance committee borne out of the ‘The Sons of Liberty’ was established in Boston. The group’s members included Paul Revere, and at night they would patrol the streets, reporting back any signs that the British were preparing raids against America’s early Patriots. Throughout American history, intelligence has helped secure our country and our freedoms.

The choice to begin the speech with an homage to spying—however noble—reflects the practical decision that the president announced: to embrace much of the surveillance activity conducted in the name of national security, while accepting a series of modest reforms that civil liberties advocates greeted as but a first step to curbing the National Security Agency.

The reforms that will likely get the most attention affect the telephone metadata program, which is authorized under section 215 of the Patriot Act. The president said he will end this program “as it currently exists,” by giving the intelligence community two months to develop “alternative approaches” that nevertheless preserve the metadata dragnet. He ordered more immediate constraints on the call records program, too. The FISA court must now approve every query, and analysts will only be able to trace numbers two “hops” from an initial suspect, instead of three.

The really significant parts of Obama’s speech were the things he did not mention. He did not call for a full stop to the bulk collection of communication records, only a transfer of ownership. Instead, he endorsed the idea that data about millions of Americans should be stored and made available to intelligence analysts. Tellingly, Senator Dianne Feinstein and Representative Mike Rogers, the NSA’s most ardent and prominent supporters in the Capitol, applauded the president for affirming that using metadata “is a capability that is ‘critical’ and must be ‘preserved.’”

Even given the new hurdles the government will face in querying the data, its collection alone poses serious privacy questions, as civil liberties advocates have been quick to point out. “The president’s decision not to end bulk collection and retention of all Americans’ data remains highly troubling,” the ACLU said in a statement. “The president should end—not mend—the government’s collection and retention of all law-abiding Americans’ data. When the government collects and stores every American’s phone call data, it is engaging in a textbook example of an ‘unreasonable search’ that violates the Constitution.”

The president did not articulate a specific reason why this information needs to be collected and stored. His own intelligence review panel found that it serves no essential counterterrorism purpose. On the other hand, the same panel (among others) emphasized the intrusiveness of bulk data collection. Quoting Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor the panel explained, “telephone data can reveal ‘a wealth of detail’ about an individual’s ‘familial, political, professional, religious, and sexual associations.’”

Obama omitted much in the historical justifications he offered up, too. Explaining the genesis of the telephone metadata program, Obama said:

The program grew out of a desire to address a gap identified after 9/11. One of the 9/11 hijackers—Khalid al-Mihdhar—made a phone call from San Diego to a known al Qaeda safe-house in Yemen. NSA saw that call, but could not see that it was coming from an individual already in the United States. The telephone metadata program under Section 215 was designed to map the communications of terrorists, so we can see who they may be in contact with as quickly as possible.

In fact, we know that al-Mihdar could have been located well before 9/11. The problem wasn’t a lack of information—it was the fact that intelligence agencies failed to share information with one another.

Still, the phone records program is only one of the many disclosed by Edward Snowden. The president failed to say anything about other types of data collection carried out under Executive Order 12333, which the NSA uses to vacuum up data flowing from Internet servers and information from Americans’ digital address books. He did not address the NSA’s attempts to weaken encryption technologies, a practice that has deeply alarmed US Internet companies. Nor did the president announce substantive changes to dragnet surveillance programs conducted under section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act, which contains a loophole allowing the NSA to search for information about US citizens through their international communications. There was no mention of Dishfire, the latest NSA program to be disclosed, which sweeps up “pretty much everything it can.”

Obama made a few important acknowledgements of the potential for abuse inherent in surveillance programs, but he painted a seriously misleading picture of the NSA’s recent history when he said that he’s learned nothing that “indicated that our intelligence community has sought to violate the law or is cavalier about the civil liberties of their fellow citizens.” In 2009, the FISA court argued that the privacy protocols set for the phone records program had been “so frequently and systematically violated that it can fairly be said that this critical element of the overall…regime has never functioned effectively.” In 2011, the chief judge of the FISA court found that the NSA had, for three years, operated in violation of the Constitution by gathering and searching the contents of tens of thousands of Internet communications sent by Americans, and had repeatedly misled the court about its activities. NSA employees have used surveillance programs to spy on their spouses and exes.

It is not surprising that the president chose to defend rather than challenge the intelligence establishment. He has done so consistently since the first of the Snowden documents came out. Much of what he outlined today are not specific reforms, and instead directives for transparency; assurances to foreigners that they will not be spied on; and further reviews, notably a broad consideration of big data and privacy to be led by adviser John Podesta.

Obama did do something of potentially great significance today: open the door for others to make the big changes that he won’t.

That task now rests with Congress. Obama requested that lawmakers engage on several fronts, most critically in creating an independent panel of privacy and technology experts to inform decisions made by the FISA court, and to consider whether there should be judicial review before the FBI can issue National Security Letters to obtain communication and financial records from business. And many of the most vocal privacy advocates from both parties in Congress have made it clear that they will not stop there.

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“In the wake of these announcements, Congress has important tasks ahead. The President has ordered some significant changes, but more are needed,” said Senator Patrick Leahy, chair of the Judiciary Committee and one of the sponsors of reform legislation. “Section 215 must still be amended, legislatively, to ensure it is not used for dragnet surveillance in the future, and we must fight to create an effective, institutional advocate at the FISA court.”

“We also believe that additional surveillance reforms are necessary, and we will continue to push for these reforms in the coming weeks and months,” Senators Udall, Wyden, and Heinrich said in a joint statement. “I intend to continue the fight to restore Americans rights,” said Rand Paul. “The American people should not expect the fox to guard the hen house.”

If Obama’s speech is a first step, it’s worth thinking about what forced him to make it, beyond the obvious (Edward Snowden). According to reports, it was not so much the programs revealed by Snowden that shocked the president but instead the public outcry that followed. It’s going take a lot more of the same to move the heavy feet of government further.

Read Next: Peter Van Buren debunks ten myths about the NSA.

Push for New Sanctions on Iran Stalls Amid Growing Resistance

Senator Mark Kirk

Along with Democratic Senator Robert Menendez, Republican Senator Mark Kirk is pushing for more sanctions against Iran. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

A bid to slap Iran with a new round of economic sanctions appears to have stalled in the Senate, after leading Democrats amplified concern about the threat such a move poses to a fragile diplomatic process.

Early in the week, reports that a bill introduced by Republican Mark Kirk and Democrat Robert Menendez was within striking distance of a veto-proof majority cast a shadow over news that negotiators had finalized a temporary agreement to freeze Iran’s nuclear program, beginning Monday. New sanctions would likely kill negotiations for a final deal, the White House warned lawmakers, and increase the chances of an armed conflict with Iran.

But Senate majority leader Harry Reid has given no indication that he will bring the bill up for a vote, and the pressure to do so is falling now that top Democrats have intensified opposition to the proposed legislation. The Kirk-Menendez bill gained no new endorsements this week, and even one supportive senator admitted Wednesday to a break in momentum.

Dianne Feinstein, chair of the Intelligence Committee, called the sanctions bill "a march towards war" on Tuesday in a floor speech that was remarkable in detail and force. “I deeply believe that a vote for this legislation will cause negotiations to collapse,” Feinstein said, after thoroughly rebutting many of the claims about the interim deal put forth by the bill’s supporters. “The United States, not Iran, then becomes the party that risks fracturing the international coalition that has enabled our sanctions to succeed in the first place.”

Ten committee chairs circulated a joint statement warning that “new sanctions would play into the hands of those in Iran who are most eager to see the negotiations fail.” Majority Whip Dick Durbin, Jeff Merkley of Oregon, Chris Murphy of Connecticut, Bill Nelson of Florida, and Tim Kaine of Virginia said they opposed the measure at this point. Even one of the co-sponsors of the Kirk-Menendez bill, Richard Blumenthal, indicated that the time wasn’t right for a vote. “I want to talk to some of my colleagues. I’m encouraged and heartened by the apparent progress and certainly the last thing I want to do is impede that progress,” he said on Monday.

Major newspapers condemned the bill, including theNew York Times, the Los Angeles Times, USA Today, and the Washington Post, whose editorial board often betrays a neoconservative streak. More than sixty organizations including J Street, the National Iranian Council, American Baptist Churches, and CREDO delivered a letter to the Senate on Tuesday stating that the law “sets insurmountable demands for a comprehensive nuclear deal” and would “critically endanger the possibility of a diplomatic resolution to the nuclear standoff with Iran, increasing the likelihood of a nuclear-armed Iran and an unnecessary and costly war.”  

The Kirk-Menendez bill has 58 co-sponsors, and the very real chance that it would pass the Senate if given a vote remains concerning. But it’s important to note that rumors that the legislation has enough support to override a potential veto comes from its backers, and so warrant some skepticism. Although 16 Democratics co-sponsored the legislation, the sanctions push has grown increasingly partisan, with Republicans nearly unanimous in their support. Of the 25 senators who have signed on to the bill this year, only one is a Democrat.

The gorilla in the room is the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee, which has been calling for new sanctions for months. Of the 16 Democrats who have endorsed the Kirk-Menendez legislation, several are up for re-election in closely contested states; Senator Kirk himself suggested Tuesday that a vote for new sanctions would be an opportunity for lawmakers to shore up support from the powerful lobby. “The great thing, since we represent a nationwide community — the pro-Israel community is going to be heavily present in most states — this is a chance for senators to go back and tell them, ‘I’m with you,’” Kirk said. Other Democrats pushing for the bill have close ties with the group, particularly Chuck Schumer and Cory Booker.

Tellingly, the Kirk-Menendez bill states that if Israel takes "military action in legitimate self-defense against Iran's nuclear weapons program,” the US "should stand with Israel and provide…diplomatic, military, and economic support to the Government of Israel in its defense of its territory, people, and existence." The language is nonbinding, but it raises flags about whose interests the legislation would truly serve.

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Dianne Feinstein addressed this point more directly than perhaps any other politician so far. “While I recognize and share Israel’s concern, we cannot let Israel determine when and where the US goes to war,” she said. “By stating that the US should provide military support to Israel should it attack Iran, I fear that is exactly what this bill will do.”

Such outspokenness about the relationship between US policymaking in the Middle East and Israeli interests is remarkable. But other lawmakers are signalling that they too are shrugging off the lobby: Democratic Representative Debbie Wasserman-Shultz, normally a high-profile ally for AIPAC, reportedly argued against the Kirk-Menendez bill at a White House meeting attended by several dozen of her colleagues on Wednesday night. How things play out in the next week, and in the duration of the talks with Iran, will be a good test of AIPAC’s influence, which seemed diminished when Congress considered military strikes in Syria last year. Progressives claimed a victory when diplomacy prevailed then; as Peter Beinart points out, the current debate presents a real opportunity for the anti-war left to reassert itself, not only to punish lawmakers who start wars, but to set new expectations for a diplomacy-first approach.

Feinstein asked a good question in the opening of her speech: “Can, in fact, a country like Iran change?” Congress is now weighing whether to double down on a fourth decade of economic screw-tightening when it comes to Iran, a tack that looks increasingly untenable. What’s really being asked is whether things can change at home.  

Read Next: Robert Scheer on the 1953 CIA-supported coup in Iran.

Pro-Choice Advocates Plan Offensive in the States

Pro-choice rally

Pro-choice supporters of Planned Parenthood (Photo courtesy of Flickr user abiodork, CC 2.0)

Three years ago, when he was elected governor of Kansas, Sam Brownback promised to sign any anti-abortion bill that landed on his desk. He’s kept his word, signing a handful restrictive measures to force doctors to give medically unsound information to their patients, impose crippling licensing requirements on clinics and divert funds from health providers to crisis pregnancy centers, among other things.

Now, Brownback is facing a re-election campaign that looks decidedly tougher than most expected, and pro-choice activists are eyeing the race as they seek to reverse the momentum of anti-choice laws sweeping the states. Some early polls show Brownback trailing his Democratic challenger, a little-known state representative named Paul Davis who has voted against many of the anti-choice bills.

“Even if Governor Brownback is put on defense because of his abortion stance, that would matter significantly,” said Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America (and a blogger for TheNation.com). “There’s a perception that because Kansas is deep red, he’s safe as an anti-choice politician.”

Instead, pro-choice advocates will try to make positions like Governor Brownback’s a liability this year. NARAL plans to prioritize gubernatorial and states races where control of the legislature is closely contested, a decision that reflects that the decisive battles over abortion are now fought largely outside Washington. Nationally, the legal right to abortion remains intact. But women in many states are rapidly losing access on a practical level as state lawmakers force clinics out of business and require patients to jump through increasingly burdensome hoops.

States passed fifty-three laws restricting abortion last year, according to the twenty-third edition of NARAL’s report “Who Decides? The Status of Women’s Reproductive Rights in the United States,” which was released Tuesday. They include outright bans on abortion after as little as six weeks of pregnancy, as well as measures to impose crippling restrictions on providers, defund family planning centers, prohibit insurers from covering abortion and force women to undergo biased counseling or delays. Since 1995, states have passed more than 800 anti-abortion measures.

In many recent cases, conservatives have concealed anti-choice provisions within unrelated bills, and then pushed them through at the last minute or in special sessions. In North Carolina, legislators cut insurance coverage for abortion and tightened rules on clinics by inserting the measures into a motorcycle safety bill on the final day of the legislative session. Ohio Governor John Kasich signed a slew of stringent provisions into law after they were attached to the state’s budget bill. Texas lawmakers needed multiple special sessions to pass a sweeping anti-abortion package that included a ban on abortions after twenty weeks and regulations that forced a third of the state’s clinics to close suddenly.

Concerted efforts to disguise anti-abortion measures partially accounts for their success even while Americans remain broadly supportive of the rights affirmed in Roe v. Wade, said Donna Crane, NARAL vice president for public policy, at a press conference this morning. “They’ve learned that their opinions are unpopular, so they obfuscate them,” said Crane.

Crance said the other key factor is how effectively conservatives have manipulated the levers of power, winning control of statehouses and governors’ seats across the country with the aid of outside money. Anti-choice governors now outnumber pro-choice governors twenty-nine to sixteen.

“When we see individual voters suppressed, the first thing that gets thrown under the bus is women’s rights,” said Crane. In Arkansas, for example, the GOP won full control of the legislature in 2012, propelled by a flood of cash from Americans for Prosperity, a Super PAC funded by the Koch brothers. Lawmakers proceeded to pass what was then the most restrictive abortion bill in the country, barring the procedure from twelve weeks onward. Seven other anti-abortion measures passed in the state last year, more than in any other.

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States may have become the laboratory for advancing an anti-choice agenda, but Hogue said they also present the best opportunity for turning the tide. Although NARAL has yet to identify specific races to target Hogue expects to mount a full political program including media and field campaigns in as many as half a dozen states, and to be involved in dozens of others. Exposing anti-choice incumbents who try to repackage themselves in light of the GOP’s efforts to rebrand itself more women-friendly will likely be a key strategy. Nineteen anti-choice governors are up for re-election, including Sam Brownback.

“Would beating him be the holy grail? For sure, but part of the way we shift momentum is forcing these anti-choice extremist who hold political office to actually run on and defend anti-choice records,” Hogue told me. “Reversing this trend is a long-term game,” she said at the press conference. “It’s going to take several cycles to take hold.”

Read Next: Katha Pollitt looks at feminism and women's rights in 2013.

Marco Rubio’s Plan to End Poverty Is a Joke

Marco Rubio

Marco Rubio speaks with a reporter outside of the Senate Chamber on Capitol Hill. (AP Photo/Harry Hamburg) 

Republican Senator Marco Rubio has discovered “the greatest tool to lift children and families from poverty,” which he shared in a speech on Wednesday: “It’s called marriage.”

So much for the GOP’s much-hyped pivot to poverty backed by bold new policy specifics. Speaking at the Capitol, Rubio took the fiftieth anniversary of the War on Poverty as an opportunity to assail the tyranny of the federal government, and to call for a dismantling of the safety net in exchange for a fuller embrace of “the American free enterprise system.”

“I am proposing that we turn Washington’s anti-poverty programs—and the trillions spent on them—over to the states,” Rubio said. It’s easy to guess how well that would work out by studying what happened after the Supreme Court ruled that states could decide whether to accept millions in federal funding to expand their Medicaid programs: states controlled by conservatives largely opted out, ensuring that 5 million low-income people would remain uninsured and vulnerable to catastrophic medical expenses.

Rubio criticized efforts to raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10 an hour, saying that it is not a “solution” for economic inequality. True, but has anyone claimed it is? “The only solution that will achieve meaningful and lasting results is to provide those who are stuck in low-paying jobs the real opportunity to move up to better paying jobs,” Rubio said, an opportunity that could be created by giving states “flexibility” to “put in place programs that give those currently stuck in low-wage jobs access to a job training system.”

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Job training is fine, but neither vocational schools nor Rubio’s one big new policy idea—replacing the earned income tax credit with subsidies to low-income workers—addresses the fundamental driver of the unemployment crisis: the fact that the economy is not producing jobs on par with the number of people looking for them. Still, income subsidies are a surprising idea coming from Rubio, given how frequently Republicans decry “handouts.” The subsidies, Rubio said, “would allow an unemployed individual to take a job that pays, say, $18,000 a year—which on its own is not enough to make ends meet—but then receive a federal enhancement to make the job a more enticing alternative to collecting unemployment insurance.”

To be fair, Rubio does have a proposal for job creation—it just isn’t new: gut regulations and the tax code, and crank up austerity measures. The fact that these ideas have been in play for years is helpful in assessing Rubio’s claim that he wants to “address the causes of opportunity inequality, not just the consequences.” A nice goal, but recent history suggests his proposals would do the opposite.

UPDATE: I spoke with Sharon Parrot, vice president for budget policy and economic opportunity at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, about Rubio’s proposal for replacing the Earned Income Tax Credit with wage subsidies. Parrot said that unless the transition to a wage subsidy program included a significant spending increase, the result of the swap would be an increase in child poverty. That’s because the EITC mainly benefits families and is very restricted for childless adults, whereas Rubio implied his wage subsidies would apply to everyone below a certain threshold. It’s certainly a problem that the EITC is so restricted for singles, but without more spending “the only way to make the math work is to shift large amounts of money from low-income families.” Preserving the credit for families (and increasing it for childless adults) is important, Parrot said, not only because it reduces poverty, but also because it’s been shown to provide the incentive to work that Rubio called for.

Read Next: 86 percent of Americans believe the government should fight poverty.

Eighty-Six Percent of Americans Think the Government Should Fight Poverty

Employment Commission

A woman looks at job postings with her son at the Virginia Employment Commission office in Alexandria, Virginia, on November 6, 2009. (Reuters/Molly Riley)

Fifty years after President Lyndon Johnson announced a “War on Poverty,” a majority of Americans believe that persistent economic hardship is the result of a broken economy, not of personal or government failures. They broadly agree that the government has a responsibility to use its resources to fight poverty, and should pursue a target of reducing it by half over the next decade.

Those are the conclusions of a public opinion survey published Tuesday by the Center for American Progress. The report assessed perceptions of poverty in general, as well as opinions of the War on Poverty in retrospect and of policy proposals on the table now. As lawmakers move to cut benefits and refuse to consider serious investments in the economy, in education and in healthcare, the survey is another reminder that those are precisely the investments people want the government to make.

News of falling unemployment, a rising stock market and an end to the recession hasn’t shaken the public’s perception that a vast proportion of Americans can’t meet their basic needs. In fact, Americans see poverty as being far more widely spread than the government does. Asked what percentage of their fellow Americans were living in poverty, the average guess was 39 percent—a sharp rise from the official estimate of 15 percent. Poverty is also a common personal experience, with more than half of respondents reporting that they knew someone who was poor.

When it comes to equality of opportunity, a majority of Americans don’t believe that poor Americans face a level playing field. And when forced to choose between core arguments about the roots of American poverty—that it stems from a flawed economic system, or from personal failings—nearly two-thirds agreed with the structural argument.

At the heart of opposition to safety net programs is the idea that poor Americans are undeserving of assistance, and that they are poor because they are lazy. It turns out that very few Americans polled by CAP support this core principle. Nearly 80 percent agreed that “most people living in poverty are decent people who are working hard to make ends meet in a difficult economy,” including 66 percent of white conservatives and libertarians. The poll showed nearly equal agreement across race and party lines on the point that a shortage of jobs with good wages is the primary reason for poverty in America, and that the poor receive unfair criticism.

Still, the welfare-queen archetype endures: even while agreeing that laziness is not the cause of poverty, a majority of respondents said that poor Americans abuse government programs. And yet people appear to believe they’re worthwhile anyway. Several progressive policy proposals, including expansions of the safety net, received at least 80 percent total support: financial assistance for childcare, an expansion of nutrition assistance, universal pre-K, more publically funded scholarships, and increasing the minimum wage.

Similarly, more Americans reported a negative association with the term “War on Poverty” than positive, but the perception shifted after the programs made possible by President Johnson’s war were sketched out for them. Then, a whopping 86 percent agreed that the government should use its resources to fight poverty, and 61 percent said the War on Poverty has made at least some positive difference.

We’re sure to hear much this week about the disappointments of Johnson’s war, but that’s simply a convenient means of condemning any new investments in the economy, in education and in the safety net. As The Washington Post reported Tuesday, Republicans including Senators Paul Ryan and Marco Rubio, who will speak separately on the subject on Wednesday, are struggling to put forward specific policies to back up their claims to care about the millions of Americans in economic distress. We’re likely to hear about school choice, “economic freedom zones,” and tax breaks for “job creators.” If some Republicans are distancing themselves from the old argument that personal failings cause poverty, it’s to assert that government failure is responsible instead.

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But privatization is not a new policy, and it’s had countless failures of its own. When it comes to critical tests of their commitment to struggling Americans, Republicans fail again and again. Their refusal to back the expansion of Medicaid and an extension of unemployment benefits are pressing examples. Certainly Americans are concerned about the failings of government, but there are plenty of indications that such frustrations are more about what the government is not doing now than what it did fifty years ago. Even among Democrats, much of the economy talk remains focused the middle class, and lawmakers are loath to embrace any serious spending. But as the CAP poll suggests, many Americans have the appetite for an anti-poverty agenda driven by government investment. That lawmakers, both national and local, found the courage to fight for it could be the story of the year.

Read Next: In Seattle, a new city council member works to raise the minimum wage.

‘60 Minutes’ Does It Again

Wind turbines

Wind turbines near Palm Springs, California (AP Photo/Sandy Huffaker)

“I’m exhausted,” claimed 60 Minutes correspondent Lesley Stahl on Sunday, as she ticked off a list of clean energy companies that have failed in recent years.

What’s really getting exhausting is the amount of shoddy reporting that has aired on CBS’s 60 Minutes in recent weeks, from a retracted account of the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi to segments on the National Security Agency and Amazon’s drones that were more infomercial than news.

The latest hack job is “Cleantech Crash,” a report on the green technology sector. Stahl claims that cleantech has become “a dirty word,” and highlights a handful of failed companies to suggest that private and public investment in renewables has led to “ a string of expensive tax-funded flops.” The report is anecdotal, and ignores key evidence in favor of handwringing about wasted taxpayer dollars.

First, some background. In 2009 the Department of Energy created a loan guarantee program to jumpstart the renewable energy industry. Part of the stimulus package, the program consisted of a $32.4 billion portfolio that included solar, wind, geothermal and other projects in twenty states.

Part of the problem with the 60 Minutes report is that it conflated this federal investment in green energy with venture capital. These stories are linked, but ultimately separate. It’s true that venture capitalists have suffered big losses in cleantech. The government’s record, however, is far better than 60 Minutes portrayed.

In fact, the loan guarantee program has been roughly 98 percent successful, while failed companies like the one that Stahl focused on represent approximately 2 percent of the total loan portfolio, according to a DOE official who spoke to The Nation on background. Several independent reviews have concluded that the gains of the loan guarantee program far outweigh the cost to taxpayers. But Stahl gave virtually no consideration to the program’s successes other than a mention of Tesla, the electric car company. Tesla is exceptional because it has paid back the government in full; most of the loans were designed to be long-term, and the fact that they have not been repayed is expected.

60 Minutes also failed to consider that when it comes to the loan program, success depends on more than the fate of individual companies. As Joe Romm points out at ThinkProgress, the program wasn’t designed as a profit-making enterprise for the government. In fact, Congress anticipated losses, and appropriated $10 billion to cover them. The cost so far is estimated to be far less that lawmakers planned, at only $3 billion.

What the loans were meant to do was spur further investment in the cleantech sector, to make renewables more competitive and diversify the energy supply, and to stimulate the economy. On those grounds, the program seems to have been a success. Some $13 billion was invested in solar projects alone last year, ten times the level of investment in 2007. Solar panels are 75 percent cheaper than they were in 2008, and the number of installations is up tenfold. In 2012, renewables accounted for half of all new electricity generation capacity; wind installations alone generated more capacity than oil and natural gas.

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60 Minutes reported that the program failed to create jobs. “Everything I’ve read there were not that many jobs created,” said Stahl. Actually, the DOE estimates that the program is responsible for 55,000 direct jobs to date, and tens of thousands of indirect positions. For comparison, the State Department estimates that 3,900 temporary jobs would be created by greenlighting the Keystone XL pipeline, and only thirty-five permanent positions. The domestic renewable sector as a whole contributed 110,000 jobs in 2012, according to the American Council on Renewable Energy.

There are plenty of other strange elements to the report, such as the absence of any mention of climate change, and Stahl’s statement, “There’s something that just doesn’t feel right about a Chinese company coming in and scooping it all up after the taxpayers put so much money into it.” Another omission is the vast disparity between the subsidies doled out to fossil fuel and green tech corporations: between 2002 and 2007, companies that generate electricity from fossil fuels received four times as much federal money as green utilities.

“Simply put, 60 Minutes is flat wrong on the facts,” DOE spokesman Bill Gibbons said in a statement. “The clean energy economy in America is real and we are increasingly competitive in this rapidly-expanding global industry. This is a race we can, must, and will win.”

Read Next: Madeline Ostrander on the growing nationwide opposition to pipeline construction.

The Progressive Resurgence and the Most Expensive Painting Ever Sold

(AP Photo/Christie’s)

What does $142 million look like, hung on a wall? At first glance, disappointing. Auctioned at Christie’s in November, Francis Bacon’s triptych portraits of Lucien Freud fetched a price higher than any other work of art ever sold at auction. That distinction creates certain expectations. It’s also drawn crowds to the Portland Art Museum, where the paintings are being temporarily displayed before disappearing into a private collection.

From across the room the panels present a dull expanse of mustard and puce. Freud sits on a wicker chair, his ankle crossed over his knee, presenting the viewer with the sole of his foot, his body partially bound within a geometrically impossible prism. What’s remarkable about the work (to a layperson, at least) is the way it changes with a bit of time. After a few moments what comes forth are smears of purple across his brow and cheek; the energy roped in the muscles of his forearms; the weight of his slouch; the steady gaze of an eyeball.

The triptych’s record-setting price, fetched at an auction that set its own record for total sales, seems a small aside in the list of 2013’s significant events. That some anonymous billionaire acquired a new silver spoon to display at dinner parties may be boring or infuriating, but is it relevant?

Really, the sale of the Bacon triptych was a telling moment in a year marked by new highs for big money. The stock market made record gains, with most of the benefits of the upswell going to the corporate class. In search of new places to park their cash, buyers bandied about ever more absurd amounts of money in battles for prized works. The art market shot up by 27 percent. (Rolls-Royce sales ballooned, too.)

It’s difficult to ignore this glitter in the stratosphere, juxtaposed against the bleak fortunes of workers and the poor. Indeed, plenty has been written about 2013 as the year in which inequality entered the political mainstream—read: the lexicon of cable news. But neither soaring wealth nor the discussion of inequality were new; the previous top-selling painting, Edvard Munch’s The Scream, fetched nearly $120 million in 2012, the same year in which the dismissal of 47 percent of the country may have cost the GOP the presidency. Certainly these post-crash trends were amplified in 2013, but it’s hard to identify a real tipping point.

Pundits have moved on to consider whether 2014 will be the year that all this talking about inequality will propel a resurgence of the Democratic left, inspired by Bill de Blasio in New York and Elizabeth Warren in the Senate. What exactly economic populism will amount to in policy terms seems less clear than the idea that Democrats will find its language useful to distract from Obamacare hysteria in the midterms.

An obvious element is a pro-worker agenda. That is being expressed most forcefully now in calls for raising the minimum wage. Democratic strategists, along with labor and advocacy groups, are organizing an aggressive campaign to raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10 an hour by 2015 and to put minimum wage increases on state ballots in the fall, particularly in states with close House and Senate races. At the state and local level, there’s agitation for paid sick leave and other policies, too.

Defending and extending the safety net is another populist sword that liberals could wield. Democrats should hammer Republican lawmakers for their refusal to extend emergency long-term unemployment benefits, which expired in December. The left flank in the Senate, led by Elizabeth Warren, has called for expanding Social Security benefits. We could also see candidates challenge conservative opposition to the expansion of Medicaid through the Affordable Care Act, a policy that is not only humane but a booster to state economies.

All the expectant rhetoric about the resurgent left is like a record-breaking price tag; it’s hard not to fear that those of us who would like to see it will be let down by 2014. There are important economic principles that Democrats—not to mention Congress—are likely to shy away from in the coming year, like progressive tax reform and stronger regulation and accountability for the financial sector. Boosting wages is a significant move, but it will be cold comfort for the unemployed, whose ranks are nearly three times greater than the number of job openings. As EJ Dionne suggested in The Washington Post on Wednesday, the rise of left-leaning candidates may largely be a win for the center.

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But politics is a long game, and the left should aspire to more than a “liberal moment,” anyway. If the new year presents an opportunity to harness a rising populist sentiment, it also would be a good time to consider how it can be made more durable. We should hope for small wins for progressives in 2014, like a perfect arc of vermillion paint. And guard against small losses, too. Both will be magnified to epic proportions by the election-cycle media, but nothing will spell full victory or defeat for the progressive agenda. That’s not to trivialize the year ahead: control of the Senate is at stake, and as decisions made by state legislatures increasingly shape life in unequal terms, those elections become more critical. It’s just to say that it may be more useful to see 2014 as another year in a long slog—making it all the more urgent that Democrats take larger steps. Sometimes, it takes some time to realize the real value of the big picture.

Listen to Next: Katrina vanden Heuvel discusses the signature progressive achievements of 2013.

A Bad Week for the NSA

White House

(AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

Early in the week, things were looking good for the National Security Agency. 60 Minutes gifted the government an hour-long infomercial, and the newly completed report from a review board that the White House stacked with a handful of intelligence insiders was rumored to have proposed only cosmetic reform. Even so, the administration had decided to keep the report private until January, when President Obama plans to lay out what changes, if any, he’ll make to the intelligence programs.

By Wednesday afternoon significant cracks had opened in the NSA’s defenses. The first came courtesy of Judge Richard Leon, a George W. Bush appointee who ruled Monday that the bulk collection of telephone records “almost certainly” violates the Constitution. The second appeared when the administration decided to release the forty-six recommendations made by the President’s Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies to the public.

In more than 300 pages, the panel argues for reforms to the nation’s intelligence apparatus that are far more comprehensive than expected. It calls for the government to shift its database of call records to private companies, and to strengthen the criteria that make such data available for search; for changes to the structure of the NSA and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) that rules on the agency’s requests for surveillance authority; for the government to “make clear” that it will not undermine global encryption standards; and for greater protections for foreigners, including an extension of the Privacy Act of 1974 to non-US persons.

“There is a lot in this report for a reformer to like,” Senator Ron Wyden, one of leading advocates for reform, said in a statement. Senator Mark Udall, another critic of the NSA, called the recommendations “sweeping,” and said, “They generally embrace the reforms that I have been advocating for several years, in many cases against vociferous opposition from the Administration.”

Neither ruling ensures substantive changes within the NSA. An appellate court could overturn Judge Leon’s opinion. Obama may ignore the recommendations, which still leave open substantial holes. The report fails to address the legality of the NSA’s programs, from both constitutional and statutory perspectives. Many of the recommendations are strong in theory, and short on detail of how they could be enforced in light of the agency’s repeated willingness to bend the rules to suit its needs.

Taken together, though, the court ruling and the panel’s recommendations undermine the government’s defense of its surveillance activities in powerful ways. Both challenge assertions that the data dragnet is a national security imperative; that the record of our phone calls is only a benign dump of data rather than key points in the constellation of our daily lives; that security and civil liberty are at competing ends of a policy stick; and that the greatest threats facing US citizens are from traitorous leaks and media misrepresentation, rather than the surveillance programs in question.

“We cannot discount the risk, in light of the lessons of our own history, that at some point in the future, high-level government officials will decide that this massive database of extraordinarily sensitive private information is there for the plucking,” the report reads. “Americans must never make the mistake of wholly ‘trusting’ our public officials.”

The report should embarrass public officials and legislators who have tried to preserve the NSA’s data collection programs, which Judge Leon called “almost Orwellian.” Senator Dianne Feinstein, the Democrat in charge of the Intelligence Committee, and others have spent months arguing that the phone records program should be enshrined in law, for the paradoxical reasons that metadata is both essential to national security and trivial when it comes to individual privacy. “The assumption behind the argument that meta-data is meaningfully different from other information is that the collection of meta-data does not seriously invade individual privacy. As we have seen, however, that assumption is questionable,” the report reads. Critically, the review confirmed that the information gained from the phone metadata program “was not essential to preventing attacks and could readily have been obtained in a timely manner” by other means. The panel concluded, “There is no sufficient justification for allowing the government itself to collect and store bulk telephony meta-data.”

As privacy advocates have pointed out, it isn’t clear that directing telecom companies or a third party to store communications records will be meaningfully different from the government maintaining such a database itself, because the records would still be available for query if authorized by the FISC.

The report’s essential contribution may not be its specific policy recommendations, but rather the doubt it introduces about the way business is conducted across an entire agency. Five people close to the intelligence community and the administration served on the review board, and prior to the release of the report there was widespread concern that the lack of distance between the reviewers and the White House would defang the recommendations. That makes the panel’s uneasiness with the state of affairs all the more remarkable. Obama may not heed its recommendations, but it will be increasingly difficult to argue that there is nothing to see here.

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The specter of Edward Snowden haunts the report, although he isn’t mentioned. A footnote argues that an Obama directive that extended some protection to whistleblowers “does not go far enough,” and recommends creating a pathway for whistleblowers to report to a new Civil Liberties Oversight Board. Still, the report notes that “the potential danger of leaks is more serious than ever,” and emphasizes the damage that can be done by a “disloyal employee.” Several of the recommendations center on containing this “insider threat,” including restricting access to classified information, seemingly to prevent a future Snowden. But the report does far more to vindicate Snowden as a whistleblower than to condemn him for a betrayal. Its very existence signifies the importance of his disclosures.

The report is a confirmation of pathology, not a perfect prescription. As such it underscores the need for Congress to advance its own reforms. Many of the recommendations align with legislation pushed by the pro-reform coalition that stretches from libertarian Justin Amash to progressive John Conyers in the House, and from Rand Paul to Patrick Leahy in the Senate. Now that Judge Leon and the review panel have cracked the veneer of ordinariness that the administration has worked to paint over the NSA’s activities, there is more space for a discussion of what happens next.

Read Next: John Nichols on voter fraud.

The Internet Giants Oppose Surveillance—but Only When the Government Does it

NSA

(AP Photo)

Eight prominent Internet technology companies unveiled an open letter last week calling for reforms to the government surveillance programs revealed by Edward Snowden. “The balance in many countries has tipped too far in favor of the state and away from the rights of the individual—rights that are enshrined in our constitution,” reads the letter, published on a website that lays out five principles for reform, including greater oversight and transparency, as well as an end to bulk data collection.

Executives from seven of the firms will meet with President Obama on Tuesday, in the shadow of a federal judge’s ruling that the collection of domestic phone records is "almost certainly" unconstitutional. The opinion from US District Judge Richard Leon reinforces the impression that NSA overreach constitutes a primary threat to privacy and civil liberty. But some privacy advocates caution that even if the NSA’s programs are scaled back, surveillance infrastructure will persist in the private sector—thanks to the same companies now calling for reform, whose business models depend on the collection and sale of vast quantities of personal information.

“It’s one-stop shopping for the NSA,” warned Jeffrey Chester, the executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, a consumer privacy advocacy group. “What they’ve done is create a global commercial surveillance system that is engaged in the same kind of pervasive tracking and analysis [as the NSA].”

The engagement of IT companies in the debate about the state’s surveillance powers seems like a clear win for reformers. Though they lack detail, the firms’ principles align with many of the changes called for by privacy advocates. This is the first time that the tech giants—including Google, Facebook, Yahoo, Twitter and Apple—have made a joint political statement, and the move is well-timed: early in the new year Congress will weigh competing legislation with the potential to roll-back some of the NSA’s overreach, or enshrine data collection programs in law. With a combined value of $1.4 trillion and a growing lobbying presence in Washington, these companies wield considerable influence.

“We’re happy to have them in this fight,” said Michelle Richardson, a lobbyist for the American Civil Liberties Union. “Of course the real question is the next step—whether they are willing to put lobbying muscle behind it.”

Another question is how far the interests of the Internet giants really overlap with the concerns of civil libertarians. Nowhere in their calls for reform do the IT companies address the privacy implications of selling troves of personal information collected from millions of Americans to online advertisers. Substantial investment and innovation in data collection by the private sector has enriched shareholders, and enabled the government’s spying programs.

“The accumulation of corporate power in terms of having these very powerful dossiers of every individual, their networks and locations, gives them tremendous influence over our lives. These corporations have agendas as well,” said Chester.

This agenda—in short, to convert users into a source of profit—is less sinister at face value than the prospect that the NSA’s surveillance programs will ossify into the architecture of a police state. Unlike government spying, data collection and tracking by the private sector is largely opt-in: no one forces us to click “agree” at the end of a long and opaque user agreement. And the risks of sharing personal information seem low; Facebook will not haul you off to jail because of who your friends are.

But the national security apparatus is deeply entangled with Silicon Valley, as the Snowden revelations have illustrated. In early December, The Washington Post reported that the NSA is “piggybacking” on the tracking tools that allow advertisers to follow and target users, “using ‘cookies’ and location data to pinpoint targets for government hacking and to bolster surveillance.” Google’s PREF cookies are particularly useful to the NSA, according to the Post, and it isn’t clear to what extent the company cooperates with the agency.

“We certainly believe that many of the privacy problems users face are because of the companies’ own business practices,” wrote Marc Rotenberg, president of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, in an email. “The NSA piggybacking on Google’s use of cookies as persistent identifiers is a good example.”

The Snowden disclosures revealed that many Internet and telecom companies have both complied with the agency’s requests for data and been unwitting prey for back-door data collection. Several IT firms have asked the government for authorization to share information about the requests for data they receive, and the open letter assures consumers the companies are “deploying the latest encryption technology to prevent unauthorized surveillance on our networks.” (Other companies implicated by the Snowden leaks, notably Verizon and AT&T, have not indicated any willingness to be more open about their relationship with the NSA.)

When it comes to its own practices, however, the IT industry has a record of fighting consumer protections. Silicon Valley has lobbied aggressively against legislation in Europe that would help users evade online tracking and targeted advertising. Google has paid more than one multi-million dollar settlement for evading privacy protections built into the Internet browser Safari, and a related lawsuit is pending in the United Kingdom. It appears that, as Christopher Soghoian of the ACLU tweeted last week, Google and other companies “just want to be the exclusive spying source for their customers’ data.”

While the open letter pays lip service to civil liberties, the real concern it expresses isn’t for the rights of the people per se, but for consumer confidence—read, the companies’ bottom line. “Recent revelations about government surveillance activities have shaken the trust of our users, and it is time for the United States government to act to restore the confidence of citizens around the world,” Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer wrote on the new website. Microsoft’s Brad Smith put it more bluntly: “People won’t use technology they don’t trust.” One analyst predicts that Internet companies will lose as much at $180 billion by 2016 because of the damage done to their reputations by the leaks.

That message may have more resonance with lawmakers than concerns about individual rights. The national security apparatus has a compelling interest in maintaining the dominance of US Internet companies, as Marcy Wheeler points out. “Our stewardship of the Internet is not just one of the few bright spots in our economy, but also a keystone to our power internationally. And it gives us huge spying advantages,” she writes.

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How the government will reconcile its competing interests in extensive spying and in maintaining the dominance of America’s Internet services industry is an interesting question. At this point it looks likely that any voluntary changes will be cosmetic, designed to appease angry foreign leaders and reassure Internet users. Even strong checks from the legislative branch now cannot guarantee a permanent firewall between private data pools and the government; Intelligence agencies and administration officials have repeatedly demonstrated their aptitude for contorting the law to fit their designs.

Still, some of the reforms in play in Congress and addressed by the IT giants, particularly those related to transparency, could allow for a more thorough examination of the relationship between the private sector and government surveillance programs.

“We’re not going to stop the collection of data because our digital behaviors have transformed how we live our lives,” said Chester. “There’s no way to dismantle this system. However, we can create some limits. What’s needed are rights for consumers.”

Read Next: John Nichols on the court ruling against the NSA.

Strength of the Volcker Rule Hinges on Implementation

Wall Street

(Martin Keene/PA Wire)

On Tuesday, five federal agencies approved a key financial reform intended to keep banks from making risky bets for their own profit. Known as the Volcker rule, the regulation took three years to finalize and withstood a concentrated lobbying front from Wall Street and business groups.

As recently as last month financial reformers expressed concern that the final rule would leave critical loopholes open and fail to stop banks from engaging in speculative trading, with taxpayers vulnerable to big losses. But after seventy-one pages of official guidelines were unveiled yesterday, reform advocates appear to have won their campaign for a stronger law. But because of critical gray areas in the rule, how much stability it restores to the financial system depends on implementation and enforcement. (For a deeper dive into the specifics of the final rule, read Alexis Goldstein on wins, losses, and toss-ups.)

“Today’s finalization of the Volcker Rule ban on proprietary trading is a major defeat for Wall Street and a direct attack on the high-risk ‘quick-buck’ culture of Wall Street,” said Dennis Kelleher, the president of the advocacy group Better Markets, in a statement. “Regulators have resisted much of the heavy Wall Street pressure to weaken an earlier proposal. In fact, they seem to have strengthened the rule in several significant ways,” wrote Americans for Financial Reform, another advocacy coalition.  

The ultimate goal of the Volcker rule is to make banking boring again by rebuilding a wall between commercial banking activity and the kind of risky trading done by investment firms. The rule bans commercial banks from making bets for their own profit rather than for their customers, a practice known as “proprietary trading.” Banks suffered about $230 billion in proprietary trading losses during the first year of the financial crisis, and taxpayers were on the hook for the massive bailouts required to keep the banks afloat. More recently, proprietary trading disguised as risk hedging caused JP Morgan’s “London Whale” scandal, a loss of $6.2 billion in 2012.

Whether the Volcker rule will truly stop proprietary trading depends in large part how strictly regulators enforce it. Under the rule, banks will establish their own compliance programs, and officials from several agencies will be responsible for policing their activity. There’s plenty of gray areas in the rules, and supervisors from agencies with different perspectives will have to decide when banks are engaged in allowed activities, like risk-hedging and market making, and when they’re cheating.

“Given the absence of a lot of ‘bright-line’ distinctions, I think supervisors are going to bear going forward an important responsibility to make sure that this rule really works as intended,” said Janet Yellen, vice chair of the Federal Reserve board of governors and Obama’s nominee to head the agency. The board voted unanimously to approve the final rule, with several other board members noting that the real strength of the rule depends on implementation.

Sarah Bloom Raskin, long an advocate for a strong Volcker rule, said one of the priorities should be setting guidelines for the examiners who will evaluate banks’ compliance with the rule. “This emphasis on compliance within firm-chosen limits rather than absolute thresholds means that the role of supervisors and examiners…becomes critical,” she said.

Raskin also argued for a deeper consideration of pay schemes at financial institutions, in light of a compensation provision in the Volcker rule that forbids banks from rewarding proprietary trading. “It seems to me that if we’re serious about minimizing financial instability in the context of the Volcker Rule, then we have to engage in some scrutiny of the design of compensation plans and ask ourselves if various pay arrangements are thwarting the rule’s goals,” Raskin said. “As long as compensation arrangements are unconstrained, the Volcker Rule would need to be more restrictive. We need to stay vigilant to the possibility that the compensation arrangements at particular institutions will not be conducive to the minimizing of the potential for financial instability.”

Raskin will soon leave the Fed to serve as the deputy Treasury secretary. In that position she is likely to play key watchdog role in the enforcement of the Volcker rule and other financial reforms.

Members of Congress will scrutinize how the rule is implemented, too. Senators Carl Levin and Jeff Merkley, who amended Dodd-Frank to include the Volcker rule, called its finalization “a big step” toward the goal of separating banks and high-risk trading. “No regulation is ever perfect, and we will carefully monitor implementation and hold regulators and firms accountable,” they said in a statement.

Banks could lose billions if the Volcker rule is strictly enforced, and financial reformers don’t expect Wall Street to stop trying to weaken it now that it’s final. “Public engagement was crucial in pushing the rulemaking process, and it will need to be sustained in the implementation process,” said Americans for Financial Reform, which also warned that more transparency is needed. “The Volcker rule cannot be allowed to disappear into a private conversation between Wall Street and its supervisors.”

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Wall Street is also weighing legal challenges to the law. If they proceed, a business group like the Chamber of Commerce or the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association is likely to front the lawsuit, with funds donated by some of the largest banks and legal representation from Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s son Eugene Scalia. “We will now have to carefully examine the final rule to consider the impact on liquidity and market-making, and take all options into account as we decide how best to proceed,” the Chamber of Commerce said in a statement. Opponents could challenge the rule on procedural grounds, or argue that it improperly considers costs and benefits or contradicts other directives in Dodd-Frank.

The Volcker rule is not the final act of financial reform, as Erika Eichelberger notes at Mother Jones. Federal agencies still have to write or complete hundreds of rules mandated by the Dodd-Frank Act, including requirements for how much capital banks have to hold in reserve and regulations governing credit-rating firms and derivatives trading.

 

Read Next: Gary Rivlin on the army of Wall Street lobbyists working to weaken the Dodd-Frank finance reform act.

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