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FRINFORMSUM 12/12/2013: John Podesta Joins the Obama Administration, NSA Chief Argues for Continuation of Bulk Data Collection, and a Top National Security Lawyer Seems to be Trying to Avoid the FOIA

December 12, 2013
John Podesta leaves the Center for American Progress to join the Obama Administration

John Podesta leaves the Center for American Progress to join the Obama Administration

John Podesta will be leaving the Center for American Progress to join the Obama administration as a special advisor, which could be potentially great news for FOIA and transparency advocates. To list just a few of his FOIA bona-fides: Podesta was behind many of the Clinton administration’s important declassification decisions when he was Chief of Staff; he’s called for the declassification of all documents on aliens; he played a role in E.O. 12958 that requires the declassification of most government documents over 25 years old; he’s repeatedly given pro-FOIA testimony; and he spearheaded discussions that played a role in the creation of FOIAonline. Hopefully part of Mr. Podesta’s portfolio will be filling Norm Eisen’s role as FOIA and transparency watchdog and compelling agencies to adhere to the administration’s FOIA demands. With hard work, fulfilling its early pledge to make government transformatively more open (including actual FOIA and declassification reform) and being “the most transparent administration in history” is an achievable second-term goal for the Obama administration.  Hopefully Mr. Podesta is ready and willing to put in the elbow grease to make it a reality.

In other news this week, at a Senate Judiciary hearing yesterday National Security Agency (NSA) head Gen. Keith Alexander stated there would be no other way to “connect the dots” if the NSA’s bulk data collection program was terminated. Alexander implied that were the program scrapped, the U.S. would revert to a “pre-9/11 moment,” leaving the country and its intelligence agencies vulnerable to a terrorist attack. Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) expressed considerable skepticism, saying that the program was “uniquely valuable” in only one terrorism case.

Despite Congressional skepticism, NSA reform advocates will have to wait until 2014 to try curbing domestic surveillance. Two complementary bills forbidding the NSA from collecting bulk phone data without just cause, one in each chamber of Congress, failed to pass their committees this year, but their proponents remain optimistic despite the fact that “the only surveillance bill that has passed out of any committee this fall is a measure sponsored by California Democrat Dianne Feinstein, the chairwoman of the Senate intelligence committee, that would codify bulk phone records collection, and perhaps expand it.”

Outside the beltway, Silicon Valley’s tech giants joined together to pen an open letter requesting the White House limit government surveillance. Google, Apple, Twitter, LinkedIn, AOL, Microsoft, Yahoo, and Facebook, companies that have a combined value of $1.4 trillion, cited their concerns about loss of overseas revenue being “undermined by revelations of massive dragnet surveillance programs.”

A slide from an internal NSA presentation indicating that the agency uses at least one Google cookie as a way to identify targets for exploitation. (Washington Post)

A slide from an internal NSA presentation indicating that the agency uses at least one Google cookie as a way to identify targets for exploitation. (Washington Post)

At the same time, the latest revelation’s from Edward Snowden’s leaks show the NSA is piggybacking off of a Google-specific tracking mechanism, the PREF cookie, to isolate surveillance targets. The Guardian reports that the Cookie-tracking revelation may give further ammunition to privacy advocates who have long “raised concerns about the use of commercial tracking tools to identify and target consumers with advertisements. “

Back in Congress, the nomination of John Carlin to run the Justice Department’s National Security Division, a senior post that aids in authorizing secret surveillance operations and managing national security investigations, is coming under intense scrutiny. According to a recent Foreign Policy article Carlin “has requested that colleagues not copy him on emails about sensitive policy issues” and that many of his conversations take place on the phone, making his communications nearly impossible to FOIA. The article also notes that Attorney General Eric Holder did not support Carlin’s nomination, rather that his position was secured by select White House support.

A new report on intelligence contractors’ financial contributions to the members of Congress sitting on the House and Senate intelligence committees was released this week by Maplight.org. The report notes that of the 40 lawmakers assigned to the committees, “every single one of those lawmakers has received campaign funds from twenty of the largest contractors providing intelligence services to the Defense Department, which accounted for a significant portion of the nation’s overall $75.4 billion intelligence budget in 2012.”

Another report, this time from the Brennan Center for Justice, shows that information sharing between federal and local law enforcement agencies is a patchwork process that results in “organized chaos.” The report notes that “[t]his poorly organized system not only wastes time and resources; it also risks masking reliable intelligence that could be crucial to an investigation.” A representative of the Department of Homeland Security responded to the report’s criticism saying the patchwork nature of the process “should properly be attributed to discrepancies in laws across the 50 states and arguing that the fusion centers contribute strongly to national security while protecting civil liberties.”

The Egyptian cleric captured during the CIA’s extraordinary rendition program in 2003 was convicted on a decade-old terror charge in Milan this week. As previously reported, an August report argued that the threat Osama Moustafa Hassan Nasr posed was exaggerated to justify both his 2003 kidnapping in Italy and to justify Bush’s extraordinary rendition program. Nasr was sentenced to six years in prison.

In declassification news, Government Attic posted declassified documents that shed light on the NSA’s Joint Sobe Processing Center on Okinawa: 1961-1971. Matthew Aid explains that, “in its day [this] was a pretty innovative joint NSA-U.S. military reporting unit that processed, analyzed and reported on all SIGINT targets in Asia. The report makes clear that the experiment, which combined NSA civilian and military SIGINT analysts and reporters in a single unit, was for its time a big success.”

Be sure to read the Rolling Stone profile of Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald, written by Janet Reitman –who wrote the much discussed profile of  Dzhokhar Tsarnaev –with quotes on the operations of the National Security Agency from Archive fellow Matthew Aid.  

Finally this week, the National Security Archive just made its oral arguments before the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in our case against the CIA to release the fifth and final volume of an internal CIA history of the Bay of Pigs invasion. The Archive’s FOIA lawsuit has already won the release of three volumes (a fourth was released by the JFK assassination review board).  The CIA  (supported by the Department of Justice) had argued that volume five (but for some reason not the other volumes) must be withheld under the b(5) deliberative process exemption, because its release could “confuse the public.” We will keep you posted on the case’s progression.

Happy FOIA-ing!

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