The case for oversight of the FISA Court

The ghost in charge of our privacy

What is the difference between secret law and no law at all? For American citizens contemplating the amorphous powers of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court and the shrouded body of law upon which its secret decisions are based, the distinction borders on trivial. Recent investigative reports suggest that both the court and the law it administers (and helped to create) exist largely outside the boundaries of established jurisprudence.

Because of the release of documents by former National Security Agency consultant Edward Snowden and subsequent reporting by the news media, the dangers of this un-American exceptionalism are becoming known. The 11-member surveillance court operates in rotating shifts; most of the orders authorizing government surveillance have been signed by a single judge—whichever one is on duty at the moment. Each judge was appointed, without review, by a single man, Chief Justice John Roberts. Although a court of review can be empaneled to hear appeals, in effect, a lone judge, appointed by a lone judge, is the only barrier between the government’s demand for intelligence and a citizen’s constitutional right to privacy…

A few members of Congress are calling for balance and oversight. A possible start; but, more is needed:

First is the court’s lack of an adversarial forum. The government presents its case to a judge, and the judge issues a ruling. No one represents the interests of those being monitored. One idea is to establish a unit in the Justice Department to serve as an advocate for privacy. When justified, the office would challenge the legal basis of surveillance requests. It could even challenge the government’s facts. The presentation of an alternative view might arrest the court’s drift toward national security myopia.

Second is the enormous power invested in the Chief Justice. No single person should appoint all members of the surveillance court without oversight. Democratic Representative Steve Cohen of Tennessee has proposed a system in which the Chief Justice would name 3 of the 11 judges, and each of the four congressional leaders would make two appointments each.

One way or another, Congress should reform the court to more convincingly emulate the character of American justice. The U.S. government is an occasionally maddening system of checks and balances, yet the surveillance court stands out as uniquely shielded from both.

That was the intent of two conservative presidents. The latest better-versed in coming up with “legalness” to mask an anti-democratic process, an unconstitutional transformation of transparency in government.

Colorado town considering drone hunting licenses

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The farming and ranching town of Deer Trail, Colorado, which boasts that it held the world’s first rodeo in 1869, is now considering starting a 21st century tradition – paying bounties to anyone who shoots down an unmanned drone.

Next month, trustees of the town of 600 that lies on the high plains 55 miles east of Denver will debate an ordinance that would allow residents to purchase a $25 hunting license to shoot down “unmanned aerial vehicles.”

Similar to the bounties governments once paid to hunters who killed animals that preyed on livestock, but only after they produced the ears, the town would pay $100 to anyone who can produce the fuselage and tail of a downed drone.

“Either the nose or tail may be damaged, but not both,” the proposal notes.

The measure was crafted by resident Phillip Steel, a 48-year-old Army veteran with a master’s degree in business administration, who acknowledges the whimsical nature of his proposal…

“We don’t want to become a surveillance society,” he told Reuters in a telephone interview.

He said he has not seen any drones, but that “some local ranchers” outside the town limits have seen them.

Under the proposal, hunters could legally shoot down a drone flying under 1,000 feet with a 12-gauge or smaller shotgun.

The town also would be required to establish a drone “recognition program” for shooters to properly identify the targeted aircraft…

The Feds haven’t commented, yet. No doubt the NRA, Republicans and the Tea Party will campaign for the proposal.

Mom covers for her son, the crook – burns stolen paintings that are worth $23 million

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Seven masterpieces stolen from a Dutch museum last year in what has been called the art heist of the century were destroyed in Romania…

The paintings, valued at more than $23 million, were burned in a stove in the eastern village of Carcaliu by the mother of one of the thieves…

Radu Dogaru, one of the men who broke into the Kunsthal museum in Rotterdam, brought the paintings to Romania inside pillows and deposited them at his mother’s house.

The thieves were unable to sell the paintings and Dogaru’s mother panicked after investigators searched her house in February.

She took the paintings by Picasso, Monet, Freud, Matisse, Gauguin and Meyer de Haan and burned them to help her son and keep from going to jail herself, authorities said.

Ashes from the paintings have been sent to Romania’s National Museum of History for a technical analysis.

Police said Dogaru’s mother faces 10 to 20 years in jail. In addition to her son, police have arrested Romanians Adrian Procop and Eugen Darie.

The destroyed works are identified as Picasso’s “Tete d’Arlequin”; “Waterloo Bridge” and “Charing Cross Bridge” by Monet; Freud’s “Woman with Eyes Closed”; Matisse’s “La Liseuse en Blanc et Jaune”; Gauguin’s “Femme Devant une Fenetre Ouverte,” and Meyer de Haan’s “Autoportrait.”

I often comment on those who choose a life of crime as not exactly being the brightest grain of sand on the beach. It can run in the family.

Bernanke admits Congress is the biggest threat to U.S. Economy

Congress is the the main impediment to a more robust economy, Ben S. Bernanke told Congress today in what may well be his swan song on Capitol Hill.

What’s more, lawmakers are on course to make things worse before the end of the year, the custodian of monetary policy warned the caretakers of fiscal policy…

“The risks remain that tight federal fiscal policy will restrain economic growth over the next few quarters by more than we currently expect, or that the debate concerning other fiscal policy issues, such as the status of the debt ceiling, will evolve in a way that could hamper the recovery,” he said.

Bernanke was pointing to one of the under-appreciated realities of the congressional budget discussion ever since Republicans took control of the House three years ago. The parameters of the debate don’t include any discussion of an expansionary fiscal policy — one in which large amounts of federal spending and low rates of taxation give the economy plenty to grow on…

Where the profound disagreement comes is over which way to accomplish the contraction. Republicans say the route should be entirely spending cuts, which would likely be felt most in two of the nation’s biggest economic engines, the health care and military hardware industries.

Democrats say higher taxes on the wealthy is the essential answer, even while conceding that such a move might crimp the pace of investment and thereby expansion…

Bernanke is on the Hill today and Thursday for his required biannual presentations to Congress on Fed monetary policies. Because he’s widely assumed to be stepping down when his second term as chairman ends in January, his appearances before the House Financial Services and Senate Banking committees are likely to be his last as a congressional witness.

He may as well give the Congress-critters a listen to more detail, a more explicit description of how the economic community broadly views the radio comedy that is our legislative branch of government. No doubt there will be a book deal after he leaves. All his expertise on FDR’s battles with incompetent politicians over trudging out of the Great Depression should mate up nicely with his parallel experiences during the Great Recession.