Senate Measure Would Expand FBI’s Power to Target Internet Thought Crimes Under Guise of Fighting Terrorism

FBI Director James Comey

The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence approved a measure in the 2016 intelligence authorization bill, which would require social media websites and email services to flag “terrorist activity” for the FBI and other law enforcement and security agencies.

According to the Washington Post, the measure would not “require companies to monitor their sites if they do not already do so.” It would apply to “electronic communication service providers,” and ensure they report videos or other content posted by “suspected terrorists.”

The expansion of power, which would increase the government’s power to undermine freedom of expression, is supposedly not supported by “industry officials” from companies like Facebook, Google, and Twitter.

From the Post:

…“Asking Internet companies to proactively monitor people’s posts and messages would be the same thing as asking your telephone company to monitor and log all your phone calls, text messages, all your Internet browsing, all the sites you visit,” said one official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the provision is not yet public. “Considering the vast majority of people on these sites are not doing anything wrong, this type of monitoring would be considered by many to be an invasion of privacy. It would also be technically difficult.”…

Government officials may claim it is necessary for the fight against the Islamic State and other terrorist groups. However, what the measure would do is increase the capability of the United States security state to engage in preemptive prosecution—to target and prosecute individuals or organizations who have beliefs, ideology, or a religious affiliations which make them a person of interest for the government.

For example, consider the case of Tarek Mehanna, who is currently serving a seventeen and a half-year prison sentence after he was convicted of material support for terrorism in December 2012.

Mehanna was “born in the United States to Egyptian immigrant parents and grew up outside of Boston. He became a devout Muslim who was fiercely critical of US foreign policy, especially in Muslim countries,” Amna Akbar wrote for The Nation. “He believed deeply in the right of Muslims living in Muslim-majority countries to defend against foreign occupation. And he talked about it. He subtitled “jihadi” videos; he translated an archaic oft-translated Arabic text 39 Ways to Serve and Participate in Jihad [by Anwar Al-Awlaki]; and he engaged in religious and political debate online through instant messages, emails and web postings.”

Mehanna took a trip to Yemen in 2004 for “religious and language instruction.” The government has conceded there were no terrorism training camps in Yemen. Still, the government maintained he traveled to Yemen to train with a terrorist group.

The FBI began to spy on him in 2005 and attempted to turn him into an informant. When Mehanna refused, the FBI pledged to make his life difficult. Mehanna continued to translate texts, including various works about jihad by Afghan and Iraqi scholars. He posted them to his website, along with poetry and other writings. Mehanna was arrested in 2008 and charged with “conspiracy to give material support to terrorism by translating radical Arabic writings into English and posting them on his website,” according to the Project for the Support and Legal Advocacy of Muslims (Project SALAM).

Mehanna never acted under the direction of Al Qaeda yet the government insisted in court that his work had been intended to “inspire others to engage in violent jihad.” In fact, as Akbar noted, at no point did the government present evidence that Mehanna had provided support to any designated terrorist organization. There was no evidence that his translations caused harm. There was no evidence that his translation had incited “imminent criminal conduct.” What he was convicted of committing was inspiring others to “support opinions the United States government finds objectionable,” particularly opinions related to radical Islamic thought.

In 2013, Mehanna’s appeal was denied, which further solidified the power government prosecutors have to target people for speech and expression deemed dangerous. He is serving his sentence in a “communications management unit” in a prison in Terre Haute, Indiana, which means he is living in conditions of solitary confinement and confined to a cell 23 hours a day.

Mehanna’s postings would undoubtedly fall in the category of activity the FBI and other security agencies would want internet companies to flag, even though there was no explicit intent to incite any violence whatsoever. (more…)

Congress Did Not Pass an Anti-Surveillance Law (And Other Thoughts About the USA Freedom Act)

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When President Barack Obama signed the USA Freedom Act, it did not end bulk data collection or mass surveillance programs. It did not address many of the policies, practices or programs of the NSA, which NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed. It did not sharply limit surveillance nor was it an anti-surveillance law. The USA Freedom Act renewed Patriot Act provisions, which had sunset days ago. However, it is difficult to disagree with Snowden’s generally optimistic assessment.

During an Amnesty International UK event, as the Senate was about to pass the law, Snowden declared, “For the first time in forty years of US history, since the intelligence community was reformed in the ’70s, we found that facts have become more persuasive than fear.”

Snowden continued, “For the first time in recent history we found that despite the claims of government, the public made the final decision and that is a radical change that we should seize on, we should value and we should push further.”

He was specifically referring to how the Congress and courts had rejected this NSA surveillance program.

In that sense, June 2 was a day that the people won against the security state. US citizens took away the government’s control of nearly all of their domestic call records. And power was forced to act because their operation of a program and the operations of a secret surveillance court, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, were no longer seen as legitimate.

The extent of the victory, however, probably ends there.

As another NSA whistleblower, Bill Binney, said during an event in Chicago, the USA Freedom Act was a “surface change.” The government still has Executive Order 12333, which it can use for “content collection of US domestic communications as well as metadata. It’s all done through the Upstream programs. It’s done without oversight at all. There’s no oversight by Congress or the courts.” [Upstream is the series of different cables and fiber optic taps that the NSA uses to collect data that passes through fiber networks. Phone calls, emails, cloud transfers, pictures, and video, according to Binney, can all be collected.]

Journalist Marcy Wheeler pointed out that bulk collection of Americans’ international phone calls will continue. “Backdoor searches” under Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act will continue, as the NSA can collect emails, browsing and chat history of US citizens without a warrant.

A number of the senators who voted for the USA Freedom Act did so because the three Patriot Act provisions had expired. They wanted something passed quickly so the NSA could resume spying operations that were supposed to be put on hold. So, some senators saw the USA Freedom Act as both a law to protect security as well as privacy.

Senator Bernie Sanders voted against the USA Freedom Act and explained in a released statement that it would still give the NSA and “law enforcement too much access to vast databases of information on millions of innocent Americans.”

The independent senator voted against the Patriot Act and both of the law’s extensions in 2005 and 2011.

The only Democratic senator to vote against the law. (more…)

Some of Former CIA Detainee Majid Khan’s Memories of Torture Are Declassified

majidkhanThe Center for Constitutional Rights has released new details about the torture of Majid Khan, a prisoner at Guantanamo Bay who was captured by the United States in March 2003. Khan was held in secret detention at CIA black sites until 2006 when he was transferred to Guantanamo.

According to declassified notes, his doctors were some of his “worst torturers.” Khan pleaded for a physician to help him. The physician responded by sending Khan back to an interrogation room to be hung from a metal bar, where he remained for 24 hours.

Khan had already experienced this torture. He was interrogated afterward and emasculated by guards as they “forced” him “to write his own ‘confession’ while being filmed naked if he wanted some rest.” Afterward, he was “numb” and unable to move for several days.

In May and July 2003, Khan was waterboarded.

“Guards and interrogators brought him into a bathroom with a tub,” according to CCR. “The tub was filled with water and ice.”

“Shackled and hooded, they placed Khan feet-first into the freezing water and ice. They lowered his entire body into the water and held him down, face-up in the water. An interrogator forced Khan’s head under the water until he thought he would drown.”

An interrogator then pulled Khan’s head out of the water and demanded he answer his questions. He forced his head back into the ice bath. Khan also had water and ice poured on his mouth and nose when his head was not being held under water.

Guards repeatedly beat and threatened to beat Khan with tools. In one instance, a hammer was pulled out and shown to Khan. The guard threatened to bash Khan’s head in with the hammer. Sometimes the men who threatened him smelled of alcohol.

Khan was sexually assaulted and had his “private parts” touched while he was hanging naked from the ceiling. He was subject to rectal feeding, which was included in the Senate intelligence committee’s report on CIA torture.

While at a black site, Khan was hung by his hands “from a wooden beam for three days.” He was “naked and shackled” and given water but not food. This torture also sought to destroy his masculinity. (more…)

The Marvelous Moment When a Few Patriot Act Spying Powers Sunset

Sen. Mitch McConnell

Three powers in the Patriot Act expired on Sunday night. Though temporary, the development marked the first time since the September 11th attacks that the expansive and covert global security state suffered a setback, where power was lost.

It was all because of National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden and a shift in public consciousness brought about by what Snowden revealed about massive government surveillance.

Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was livid as he found himself with no choice but to call for a vote on a motion to debate the USA Freedom Act, a watered-down piece of reform legislation supported by President Barack Obama’s administration and the intelligence community which he had opposed.

On May 20, Senator Rand Paul held the Senate floor for ten and a half hours as he opposed extending provisions of the Patriot Act. His action single-handedly put the Senate in a position, where it would be difficult to prevent expiration.

There was one option: pass the USA Freedom Act, which maintained the “roving wiretap” and “lone wolf” provisions but made changes to the bulk phone records collection program.

On May 22, the USA Freedom Act failed to pass in the Senate. Senators scrambled to save the government’s spying powers. Senator Richard Burr and Senator Dianne Feinstein each proposed their own bills, which would have been very favorable to the country’s intelligence agencies had either piece of legislation gained support.

The Senate’s only alternative to simply letting powers expire was to support a bill that had failed earlier in May. McConnell had to call for a cloture vote on a bill that does not give government the same exact power agencies have had under the Patriot Act. In other words, McConnell had to concede that security hawks would suffer a rare defeat this round. (more…)

Senate Democrats Fold, Obama To Get Fast-Track On TPP

For a brief shining moment it looked like Senate Democrats might actually stand up for their own constituents and oppose a terrible so-called “trade deal.” But now comes the seemingly inevitable capitulation with Senate Democrats agreeing to give President Obama fast-track authority to advance the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

The cosmetic concessions offered to the weak-kneed Democrats included some empty votes on currency manipulation and an extension of an African trade agreement – in short, nothing. Senate Democrats have set themselves up to get rolled when TPP comes up for a final vote and voting no means scuttling an agreement all their donors will be demanding they approve. Then again, maybe that was the plan all along – offer token opposition to appease the base, cave, then say your hands are tied because the fast-track has made the vote on TPP so binary you have to vote yes.

For all the drama, Senate Democrats may have ended up where they started, with tough trade enforcement provisions that are broadly supported but without a vehicle to get them into law. Lawmakers from both parties say that even if the enforcement and currency bill passes Thursday, they may try to break off some provisions as amendments to the trade promotion bill that Mr. Obama must sign into law.

Same as it ever was.

In any case, the White House continued to crow that TPP is the “The most progressive trade agreement in history,” with pairs well with their claim that they are “The most transparent administration in history.” Neither statements are true, but when has that stopped a talking point from being repeated ad nauseum?

And as the economic statecraft heats up to empower Western corporations in Asia so to does the military planning. The US Marines recently announced a new project to integrate military forces in Asia with the exclusion of China which compliments new expansive US military agreements with China’s neighbors such as Japan.

Can you guess where America’s next war will be?