Archive for June 2013
During a speech last week at the American Constitution Society for Law and Policy National Convention, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren admonished her audience against the Chamber of Commerce’s growing influence on the Supreme Court. “Take a look at the win rate of the Chamber of Commerce,” “According to the Constitution Accountability Center, the chamber moved from a 43 percent win rate during the very conservative Berger court to a 56 percent win rate under the very conservative Rehnquist court. And now they are at a 70 percent win rate under the Roberts court.”
The Chamber of Commerce which fronts as the voice for American small business but operates as the largest anti-business/finance reform lobbying force in Washington has fought every Wall Street reform proposed since the financial collapse of 2008. Laws that would increase the transparency of executive compensation, make financial statements more reliable and accounting fraud more difficult to hide have all been fought by the Chamber’s team of lobbyists and millions of dollars contributed by CEOs from the largest corporations who want to keep their lobbying agenda secret.
In 2012 alone the Chamber of Commerce funneled over $100 million into the election campaigns of politicians who would do their bidding making the Chamber one of the biggest players in the money-access-power nexus that came to light during the 2012 Elections.
Other recent campaigns include the Chamber’s efforts to squash, and today, rollback regulations established under the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, a law passed in 2002 designed to enhance transparency and accounting standards for public company boards and public accounting firms in the wake of the Enron, Tyco and WorldCom scandals. Before his ouster from AIG in 2005, Maurice Greenberg diverted $23 million from the Starr Foundation bankrolling the Chamber in its push against regulations effected by Sarbanes-Oxley. Starr Foundation is one of the largest private foundations in the United States, a non-profit that funds research and education programs in a number of areas, “including education, medicine and healthcare, human needs, public policy, culture and the environment”. The Chamber’s decade-long anti-regulation campaign is really about limiting the control shareholders have over their executives, limiting corporate disclosures to investors, and protecting the secrecy of corporate boardrooms while preventing shareholders and the public from holding the same board rooms accountable.
Then there was the 2009 Chamber funded national ad blitzkrieg attacking the Affordable Health Care Act. The National Journal later revealed how deceitful of the Chamber’s ad campaign was when it reported that major insurers
including Aetna, Cigna, Humana, UnitedHealth Group and WellPoint had funneled between $10 million and $20 million to the U.S. Chamber to fund the campaign. Meanwhile, America’s Health Insurance Plans, the industry trade association, continued to public voice support for reform.
Another memorable 2009 campaign, one that put Elizabeth Warren in the cross hairs was the Chamber’s “Stop the Consumer Financial Protection Agency”. The Consumer Financial Protection Agency was conceived by Warren in a 2007 article she wrote in the Democracy Journal. Her idea was to create and agency that would have the authority and accountability to supervise, examine, and enforce consumer financial protection laws. The Chamber carried out an aggressive ad campaign featuring small business owners complaining that such an agency would crack down on small businesses that offer store credit to customers. Because of laws that do not require 501(c)3s like the Chamber to report donors the banks and credit card companies that financed the multi-million dollar ad and lobbying efforts were never disclosed.
Secrecy and anonymity are the trademark of the Chamber of Commerce. Ruling elites pay the non-profit hundreds of millions a year to secure the lucrative advantages they seek. But the drive for power is ceaseless within the ruling class. Nothing short of total control of all branches of the State will satisfy the appetites of those who wield power behind closed doors. The Chamber of Commerce and the corporations it represents from the shadows have already hijacked the legislative process, elections and government policy. It has already diffused its influence throughout “the least dangerous branch” as the increasing number of rulings favoring Big Business shows. Elizabeth Warren’s warning is prescient. Continuing her speech last week she said, “Follow this pro-business trend to its obvious conclusion and you will end up with a Supreme Court that’s a wholly owned subsidiary of the Chamber of Commerce.”
The NSA, the world’s largest intelligence agency and a central part of the United States military apparatus has received access to droves of civilian communications through its recently revealed PRISM program. Like many other top secret domestic surveillance programs, including Stellar Wind, and the FBI led Project Carnivore (now referred to as the Digital Collection System) that aim to vacuum up electronic data on people in the US, PRISM reveals itself as another powerful tool in the governments rapidly growing surveillance arsenal.
The NSA’s PRISM program functions as a “back door” through which the US government can directly access massive reserves of private data from partnership companies. The companies the NSA has partnered with to form PRISM are Microsoft, Facebook, Google, Yahoo, Skype, Paltalk, Youtube, AOL and just this past year Apple. These nine companies which make up the bulk of email, video, search engines, online communications in general, provide the US government with direct access to their servers. In other words the NSA can directly obtain information stored on the companies servers about anyone and conduct real-time data collection on targeted users. According to the Obama Administration with its radical interpretation of powers enumerated in the FISA Amendment this kind of probing is limited and legal. But a quick look at what the FISA Act of 1978 originally set out to accomplish shows how far we have drifted after two administrations from the legal confines of carrying out surveillance and how the criteria for selecting those targets has changed.
Senate Committee findings in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal where federal resources were discovered to have been used by the Nixon administration to spy on political activist groups prompted lawmakers to create judicial and congressional oversight of government surveillance activities while still providing intelligence agencies the secrecy needed to conduct investigations on “foreign powers” and Americans communicating with them. The idea was to strike a balance between intelligence agencies’ needs to intercept communications pertaining to plots to sabotage and attack the United States and US citizens’ constitutional rights to live free from unwarranted searches and seizures. For that reason Congress passed the FISA Act satisfying national security needs to undermine and intercept foreign plots while preserving civil liberties, in particular the right of US citizen to not have their communications eavesdropped on without a court warrant. For thirty years federal investigators would have to show probable cause to a FISA court (a special court of judges responsible for overseeing federal agents requests for surveillance warrants) that the “target of the surveillance is a foreign power or agent of a foreign power.” Intelligence agencies were emboldened by this law to carry out surveillance on actors subversive to US national security. Furthermore the FISA courts posed virtually no obstacle to intelligence agents seeking to obtain warrants. From the period 1979-2006 a total of 22,990 applications for warrants were made to the Court of which 22,985 were approved. In sum, FISA became primary tool for investigators to combat foreign threats and terrorism. The 2001 Patriot Act, Protect America Act of 2007 and the reviled FISA Amendments Act of 2008 changed all of this by vastly expanding the governments powers to conduct surveillance and increase the number of targets it could surveil. Today these are the legal justifications the Obama Administration is using to carry out its massive dragnet.
Last December’s debate about the renewal of the FISA Amendment ACT shed further light on the Administration’s expanding powers.Tthe ACLU published a policy paper that highlighted the constitutional concerns the Act raised. The NSA’s PRISM program makes the following eight concerns a concrete reality.
1. The law gives the government sweeping surveillance power without requiring it to identify the targets of its surveillance.
2. The law allows the government to intercept U.S. citizens’ and residents’ international telephone and email communications without having to identify the facilities, phone lines, email addresses, or locations to be monitored.
3. The law allows the government to conduct intrusive surveillance without meaningful judicial oversight.
4. The law places no meaningful limits on the government’s retention and dissemination of information relating to U.S. citizens and residents.
5. Nothing in the law prevents the government from compiling huge databases of foreign intelligence information and searching those databases later for information about U.S. citizens and residents.
6. The law does not limit government surveillance to communications relating to terrorism.
7. The law gives the government access to some communications that are purely domestic.
8. The law immunizes the telecoms that participated in the Bush administration’s warrantless wiretapping program.
So what are the implications of the US government having direct access to users data from the largest internet companies including Microsoft, Facebook, Google and Yahoo? While there are many three implications of the PRISM several things immediately stand out.
First and foremost it means that Americans who have absolutely nothing to do with terrorism and who pose no threat to national security are having their communications records stored for digital analysis and where deemed necessary for further analysis by intelligence specialists. The Wall Street Journal reported as far back as 2008 that the NSA receives “transactional data” from a variety of agencies and private companies so it can monitor ‘huge volumes of records of domestic emails and Internet searches as well as bank transfers, credit-card transactions, travel and telephone records.” When suspicious transaction patterns are detected by the NSA’s sophisticated dragnet software leads are spit out to counter terrorism agencies for investigation.
Second the broad sweeping powers of PRISM assure us that the communications of millions of individuals are being intercepted by the United States without warrants, in total secrecy and save the Obama Administration’s radical interpretation of executive authority so similar to that of his predecessor, in violation of the Constitution.
Third the cooperation of private companies with the NSA blurs any line that distinguishes private telecommunications and internet corporations as separate from the growing surveillance state. From Google to Apple, the nine companies participating in the NSA’s PRISM are complicit in providing services for and carrying out the functions of the the United State’s surveillance apparatus.
Fourth that a military/intelligence institution has become so heavily involved in intercepting and analyzing the private communications of individuals across digital networks suggests nothing but the militarization of communications infrastructure.
Finally in parsing through the private communications of millions of individuals who have no connection to terrorism and who are not suspected of having committed a crime the government is keeping record and analyzing the conversations of its citizenry. In this way it comes to know not only what kinds of terrorists plots are brewing but what it’s citizenry is talking about, thinking. This begs the question, why would a government want to know the thoughts of the governed and why would it want to hide the fact that it monitors their communications?