October 26, 2011
By Jennifer LaFleur
A proposed rule to the Freedom of Information Act would allow federal agencies to tell people requesting certain law-enforcement or national security documents that records don’t exist – even when they do.
Under current FOIA practice, the government may withhold information and issue what’s known as a Glomar denial that says it can neither confirm nor deny the existence of records.
The new proposal – part of a lengthy rule revision by the Department of Justice – would direct government agencies to “respond to the request as if the excluded records did not exist.”
Open-government groups object.
“We don’t believe the statute allows the government to lie to FOIA requesters,” said Mike German, senior policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, which opposes the provision.
The ACLU, along with Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington and OpenTheGovernment.org said the move would “dramatically undermine government integrity by allowing a law designed to provide public access to government to be twisted.
The Glomar denial arose in the mid-1970s when a Los Angeles Times reporter requested information about the CIA’s Glomar Explorer, built to recover a sunken Soviet submarine and the CIA’s attempt to suppress stories about it.
But the advocacy groups propose another response: You have requested “…records which, if they exist, would not be subject to the disclosure requirements of FOIA…”
They prefer such language because a last resort is to sue to obtain the records, something people requesting information might not do if they assumed that no records existed.
Open government groups also contend that the proposed rule could undermine judicial proceedings.
In a recent case brought by the ACLU of Southern California, the FBI denied the existence of documents. But the court later discovered that the documents did exist. In an amended order, U.S. District Judge Cormac Carney wrote that the “Government cannot, under any circumstance, affirmatively mislead the Court.”
DOJ’s draft FOIA rule was first published in March, but DOJ re-opened comment submissions in September at the request of open-government groups. The new comment period ended October 19.
The DOJ did not immediately respond to a request for comment. We will update as soon as it does.
October 24, 2011
By Dr. Sanjay Gupta and Caleb Hellerman
The connection seems obvious: nearly 400 acres of land set aside to house veterans and thousands of veterans who need a place to call home.
But Los Angeles’ estimated 8,000 homeless vets have been barred from living at the sprawling campus for decades. The West Los Angeles property — some of the most valuable in the nation — was donated in 1888 to “establish, construct and permanently maintain” a branch of a national home for veterans, according to the original deed.
And for nearly a century, that’s what happened: permanent veterans facilities sprang up, including a post office, a trolley system and housing for as many as 4,000 vets, said American Civil Liberties Union lawyer Mark Rosenbaum.
But “beginning with the Vietnam War era, vets were kicked out,” said Rosenbaum, who’s leading a class-action suit over the property against the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Now, a generation after Vietnam, the facility’s abandoned buildings are off limits to the veterans they were intended to serve.
“It’s a shame,” said Carolina Barrie, a descendant of the heiress who donated the land. Veterans should be “given every single opportunity to rehab their lives — and if they have no place to live, a place to live.”
The VA saw fit to lease parts of the property to several businesses. In September, the VA canceled three leases after rising criticism. But other entities remain on the property including a public golf course, a college baseball stadium, a theater and practice fields for the exclusive private Brentwood School.
CNN’s initial requests to the VA for its side of the lawsuit were referred to the Justice Department, which said it wouldn’t comment while the case is still pending.
Iraq war veteran Robert Rissman, 22, isn’t part of the lawsuit, but he has spent years battling addiction, post-traumatic-stress disorder and homelessness.
As an 18-year-old high school senior, Rissman signed up with the Army intending to “go to college and make something of myself,” he said. “And the Army said they’d pay for it. ”
He was deployed to Iraq for a year as part of a quick response unit that saw constant action. Upon his return to Colorado’s Fort Carson, Rissman was diagnosed with PTSD. Nightmares and paranoia haunted him.
It got worse. According to Army papers, he once spent a day drinking and sitting on his bed pointing with the barrel of an illegal sawed-off shotgun in his mouth. “I just wanted to die or go to prison,” he said. “And that was where I was headed and I knew that was where I was going and I was OK with that.”
After leaving the Army, Rissman ended up homeless in Arizona and later Los Angeles, where he “was doing a lot of methamphetamines” and “smoking a lot of dope.”
Accurate figures are hard to come by, but the VA in its most recent report estimates about 107,000 veterans find themselves homeless on any given night. Mental illness plagues 45% of homeless vets and 70% suffer from some kind of substance abuse, according to the VA.
Washington has OK’d $35.5 million to renovate various buildings on the campus including “Building 209 for housing facilities for homeless veterans,” according to a bill signed by President Obama this month.
The facility would provide vets with 70 permanent housing units, far short of the living space needed to house LA’s homeless vets.
The VA has launched an aggressive national plan with an ambitious goal: eliminating homelessness among veterans by 2015.
Under the joint program with the Department of Housing and Urban Development, homeless veterans get federal vouchers to help them pay rent.
This summer the VA granted nearly $60 million to nonprofit groups that help veterans, including more than $7 million to aid an estimated 1,800 vets in California. The money aims to prevent veterans and their families from slipping into homelessness by helping with basic expenses such as rent, utilities security deposits and moving costs.
Occupy the park?
Ron Kovic, whose story was made famous in the 1989 Tom Cruise film “Born on the Fourth of July,” said the $35.5 million isn’t enough.
Paralyzed in the Vietnam War, the former Marine has been working to improve VA treatment of returning troops since his own homecoming in the late 1960s.
Kovic is calling for an occupation protest of the West LA property, not unlike the current Occupy Wall Street movement.
“If that land was given to veterans and if we were able to put at least a small percentage of what we’re spending on these wars in Iraq and Afghanistan toward building a facility for homeless and disabled veterans,” Kovic told CNN, “I think it would be one of the most honorable things we could do as citizens and one of the most honorable things that the VA could do to make up for the mistakes of the past.”
U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, told CNN via an email statement that she’s concerned about the rising number of homeless vets in Los Angeles and believes that “updated and new facilities are needed at the West LA VA .”
“I intend keep working to make sure that Congress doesn’t stop” with the latest improvements, she said. VA Secretary Eric Shinseki “has told me he is committed to renovating two additional buildings on the campus, and we intend to hold him and the administration to that commitment.”
Meanwhile, VA attorneys have asked a federal judge to throw the ACLU lawsuit out of court.
“In fact, according to Rosenbaum the Justice Department attorney said, ‘We don’t believe that the VA has any authority or any responsibility to provide housing.”
But Dr. Dean Norman, chief of staff of Los Angeles’ VA health care system seemed to contradict that. “I think we have the resources with the community to end homelessness for veterans in Los Angeles,” Norman said.
Norman said new housing is being created for homeless vets and those who need help should call 1-877-4AIDVET (1-877-424-3838) to start the process that will put them in safe housing.
As for Rissman, he’s currently living at a halfway house in hopes of leaving his homeless life behind. He thinks the West Los Angeles property could help many more homeless vets win their personal battles. “It would get a number of people in off the street and get them doing what they need to be doing to get their life together,” said Rissman.
Meanwhile, the judge has refused to throw out the case and has appointed a mediator to try and resolve the situation beginning this week.
“I promise you that these gates will be open,” said Rosenbaum. “We will win this case.”
August 16th, 2011
By: Paul Elias, Associated Press
Transit officials said Friday that they blocked cellphone reception in San Francisco train stations for three hours to disrupt planned demonstrations over a police shooting.
Officials with the Bay Area Rapid Transit system, better known as BART, said they turned off electricity to cellular towers in four stations from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. Thursday. The move was made after BART learned that protesters planned to use mobile devices to coordinate a demonstration on train platforms.
“A civil disturbance during commute times at busy downtown San Francisco stations could lead to platform overcrowding and unsafe conditions for BART customers, employees and demonstrators,” BART officials said in a prepared statement.
The statement noted that it’s illegal to demonstrate on the platform or aboard the trains. BART said it has set aside special areas for demonstrations.
The American Civil Liberties Union questioned the tactic.
“Shutting down access to mobile phones is the wrong response to political protests,” the ACLU’s Rebecca Farmer said in a blog post.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation said on its website that “BART officials are showing themselves to be of a mind with the former president of Egypt, Hosni Mubarak.” Mubarak’s regime cut Internet and cellphone services in the country for days early this year while trying to squelch protests demanding an end to his authoritarian rule.
BART officials were confident the cellphone disruptions were legal. The demonstration planned Thursday failed to develop.
“We had a commute that was safe and without disruption,” said BART spokesman Jim Allison.
The demonstrators were protesting the July 3 shooting of Charles Blair Hill by BART police who claimed Hill came at them with a knife.
A July 11 demonstration disrupted service during the rush-hour commute, prompting the closing of BART’s Civic Center station. Several arrests were made.
March 21st, 2011
Electronic Frontier Foundation
The U.S. government, with assistance from major telecommunications carriers including AT&T, has engaged in a massive program of illegal dragnet surveillance of domestic communications and communications records of millions of ordinary Americans since at least 2001.
News reports in December 2005 first revealed that the National Security Agency (NSA) has been intercepting Americans’ phone calls and Internet communications. Those news reports, plus a USA Today story in May 2006 and the statements of several members of Congress, revealed that the NSA is also receiving wholesale copies of their telephone and other communications records. All of these surveillance activities are in violation of the privacy safeguards established by Congress and the U.S. Constitution.
The evidence also shows that the government did not act alone. EFF has obtained whistleblower evidence [PDF] from former AT&T technician Mark Klein showing that AT&T is cooperating with the illegal surveillance. The undisputed documents show that AT&T installed a fiberoptic splitter at its facility at 611 Folsom Street in San Francisco that makes copies of all emails, web browsing, and other Internet traffic to and from AT&T customers, and provides those copies to the NSA. This copying includes both domestic and international Internet activities of AT&T customers. As one expert observed, “this isn’t a wiretap, it’s a country-tap.”
EFF is fighting these illegal activities on multiple fronts. In Hepting v. AT&T, EFF filed the first case against a telecom for violating its customers’ privacy. In addition, EFF is representing victims of the illegal surveillance program in Jewel v. NSA, a lawsuit filed in September 2008 against the government seeking to stop the warrantless wiretapping and hold the government officials behind the program accountable.
EFF is not alone in this fight. There are multiple cases challenging various parts of the illegal surveillance against both the telecoms and the government. This page collects information on EFF’s cases as well as cases brought by individuals, the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California and of Illinois, the Center for Constitutional Rights, and others.
March 4th, 2011
By: Sharon Weinberger
Lawyers today asked a federal court in Alexandria, Va., to quash the Justice Department’s attempt to obtain the records of Twitter users linked to the anti-secrecy organization WikiLeaks.
The department is trying to obtain records associated with several Twitter users, including Bradley Manning, an Army intelligence analyst suspected of passing classified information to WikiLeaks; Julian Assange, WikiLeaks’ editor; and several people who have been associated with the organization.
Lawyers for three of those people — Icelandic lawmaker Birgitta Jonsdottir, Dutch citizen Rop Gonggrijp and computer security expert Jacob Appelbaum — argued today that the government’s request violated the right to freedom of speech and protection from unreasonable search and seizure. They also questioned the relevance of the requested records to the government’s criminal case.
Benjamin Siracusa-Hillman, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, which is representing Jonsdottir, told AOL News that one of the problems with the government’s request is that all three account holders used Twitter extensively, and most of their messages had nothing to do with WikiLeaks.
In the case of Jonsdottir, a member of Iceland’s parliament, her Twitter account includes messages to constituents about politics. “The fact that the entire record is material is something we are challenging,” he said.
An attorney for Gonggrijp declined to comment, and Appelbaum’s attorney did not respond to an e-mailed request to comment.
Assange lashed out at the U.S. government, linking the Twitter case to attempts to quell the pro-democracy protests sweeping the Middle East.
“This is an outrageous attack by the Obama administration on the privacy and free speech rights of Twitter’s customers — many of them American citizens,” Assange said in a statement Monday. “More shocking, at this time, is that it amounts to an attack on the right to freedom of association, a freedom that the people of Tunisia and Egypt, for example, spurred on by the information released by WikiLeaks, have found so valuable.”
WikiLeaks has released thousands of classified documents on the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as well as secret diplomatic cables. Assange, who is in Britain fighting extradition to Sweden for questioning on sexual assault allegations, has said he fears he will be arrested by the U.S.
The Justice Department is arguing that the records requested have nothing to do with politics, only about a criminal case.
“This is not about association rights,” Assistant U.S. Attorney John S. Davis said at the hearing, according to The Washington Post. “This is not about politics. This is about the facts and evidence. It’s about the communications among people that might show association.”
The case is also quickly garnering high-level level legal attention. WikiLeaks announced Monday that Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz is now involved with the organization’s legal defense. Dershowitz’s office confirmed his involvement to AOL News, but he was not immediately available for comment.
In the meantime, it’s unclear when the judge will rule on the current motions, which include a request to unseal records related to requests the government may have made to other social media sites, such as Google or Facebook.
Siracusa-Hillman said the ACLU has had successes in the past on similar motions but decline to speculate on the outcome of today’s hearing.
“We are hopeful, but I think we’ll leave it up to court to make its ruling,” he said.
February 18th, 2011
By: Eric W. Dolan
The FBI urged members of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security on Thursday to update the Communications Assistance to Law Enforcement Act (CALEA) and make it easier for authorities to eavesdrop on Internet.
The act was passed in 1994 and requires telecommunication companies to design their equipment and services to ensure that law enforcement and national security officials can monitor telephone and other communications whenever necessary.
“Over the years, through interpretation of the statute by the Federal Communications Commission, the reach of CALEA has been expanded to include facilities-based broadband internet access and Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) services that are fully inter-connected with the public switched telephone network,” FBI General Counsel Valeria Caproni told the subcommittee.
“Although that expansion of coverage has been extremely helpful, CALEA does not cover popular Internet-based communications modalities such as webmail, social networking sites or peer-to-peer services.”
“As a result, although the government may obtain a court order authorizing the collection of certain communications, it often serves that order on a provider who does not have an obligation under CALEA to be prepared to execute it,” she explained. “Such providers may not have intercept capabilities in place at the time that they receive the order.”
The proposal to expand CALEA would require companies involved in online communications to re-engineer their software so that law enforcement could easily access it.
In October 2010, the New York Times reported that the Obama administration was drafting new regulations to make it easier for authorities to eavesdrop on Internet and e-mail communications.
But, according to Caproni, “the Administration does not have a formal position at this time on whether any legislative changes are necessary.”
Documents obtained by the Electronic Frontier Foundation through a Freedom of Information Act request show that the FBI and Justice Department have been working on amendments to CALEA since 2006 and have been lobbying Congress and the White House to support it.
“Though the administration claims this is just a technical fix, its request will actually change the structure of the Internet, providing the government with a master key to our online communications,” Laura W. Murphy, Director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office, said.
“The proposed changes will not only make it easier and cheaper for the government to invade our privacy, but also make the Internet more vulnerable to penetration from other sources.”
February 9th, 2011
A vast network of high-tech surveillance cameras that allows Chicago police to zoom in on a crime in progress and track suspects across the city is raising privacy concerns.
Chicago’s path to becoming the most-watched US city began in 2003 when police began installing cameras with flashing blue lights at high-crime intersections.
The city has now linked more than 10,000 public and privately owned surveillance cameras in a system dubbed Operation Virtual Shield, according to a report published Tuesday by the American Civil Liberties Union.
At least 1,250 of them are powerful enough to zoom in and read the text of a book.
The sophisticated system is also capable of automatically tracking people and vehicles out of the range of one camera and into another and searching for images of interest like an unattended package or a particular license plate.
“Given Chicago’s history of unlawful political surveillance, including the notorious ‘Red Squad,’ it is critical that appropriate controls be put in place to rein in these powerful and pervasive surveillance cameras now available to law enforcement throughout the City,” said Harvey Grossman, legal director of the ACLU of Illinois.
The Chicago police “Red Squad” program from the 1920s through the 1970s spied on and maintained dossiers about thousands of individuals and groups in an effort to find communists and other subversives.
Outgoing mayor Richard Daley has long championed the cameras as crime-fighting tools and said he would like to see one on every street corner.
Chicago police say the cameras have led to 4,500 arrests in the last four years.
But the ACLU said the $60 million spent on the system would be better spent filling the 1,000 vacancies in the Chicago police force.
It urged the city to impose a moratorium on new cameras and implement new policies to prevent the misuse of cameras, such as prohibiting filming of private areas like the inside of a home and limiting the dissemination of recorded images.
“Our city needs to change course, before we awake to find that we cannot walk into a book store or a doctor’s office free from the government’s watchful eye,” the ACLU said.
A police spokeswoman said the department regularly reviews its policies and maintains an “open dialogue” with the ACLU.
“The Chicago Police Department is committed to safeguarding the civil liberties of city residents and visitors alike,” Lieutenant Maureen Biggane said in an e-mail.
“Public safety is a responsibility of paramount importance and we are fully committed to protecting the public from crime, and upholding the constitutional rights of all.”
November 19th, 2010
More Americans are growing angrier, over what the Transportation Security Administration, admits are more intrusive security put downs at airports.
One woman is comparing her experience at Lambert Airport to a sexual assault.
Business traveler, Penny Moroney, was flying home from St. Louis to Chicago. Like all other airline passengers, she had to go through security first. When the metal in her artificial knees set off the detectors, she had to undergo more screening. When Moroney asked if she could go through a body scanner, she was told none were available.
A pat down was the only alternative.
Moroney explains “Her gloved hands touched my breasts…went between them. Then she went into the top of my slacks, inserted her hands between my underwear and my skin… then put her hands up on outside of slacks, and patted my genitals.”
“I was shaking and crying when I left that room” Moroney says. “Under any other circumstance, if a person touched me like that without my permission, it would be considered criminal sexual assault.”
Moroney complained to the Transportation Security Administration, TSA, supervisor and then complained on the ACLU’s website.
The national office is now monitoring what it calls a “flood of complaints” from across the country.
Edwin Yohnka of ACLU Illinois says there are no laws and no regulations that govern scanners and pat downs.
Moroney said she wishes there were full body scanners everywhere so that she could have avoided a pat down.
The TSA’s response was that their officers’ first priority is safety when asked if putting hands down the front of someone’s pants is excessive.
The TSA said they don’t comment on individual screening procedures at checkpoints.
Anyone who sets off the metal detectors are required to go through a physical pat down, but the TSA says they use a less aggressive touch for children under 12.
The government is currently adding more body scanners at airports across the country.
October 19th, 2010
The Associated Press
A Vermont judge heard arguments but didn’t rule Monday on a lawsuit aimed at forcing the state to reveal whether and how its criminal investigators use cell phone tracking technology to keep tabs on people and their whereabouts.
The ACLU of Vermont sued the state in March after filing public records requests that sought information on the state Attorney General’s use of data from cell phone service providers to pinpoint the location of people.
The state contends that the information is exempt from public records statutes because it involves criminal investigations, which were specifically exempted from disclosure when the Legislature adopted the Access to Public Records Act.
After the state denied the ACLU’s records requests, the ACLU filed a civil suit asking a judge to compel the release of information about instances in the previous two years in which the Attorney General’s office had sought mobile telephone location information from any provider.
At issue in the suit is not the practice itself, but whether the Attorney General’s office acted lawfully in denying the public records request seeking details of its use.
“In a way, the ACLU is bringing a collateral attack on a whole bunch of proceedings without being a part of any of those proceedings,” said Assistant Attorney General Eve Jacobs-Carnahan, who argued the state’s case. “And it’s trying to get into that through a public records request, and that’s not appropriate.”
Washington County Superior Court Judge Geoffrey Crawford, who presided at Monday’s hearing, said that in a sense, the ACLU had already won by virtue of his previous decision to unseal a document submitted by the state in which it said it had made such requests four times.
The requests, which spanned four days last January, had to do with an Orleans County case or cases, but the parties to them weren’t named in the document, nor was it clear if they were criminal or civil.
“So we know something we didn’t know six months ago when we filed this case, and that is that yes, the Attorney General is asking for information from cell companies about data that shows where any of us is at any one time if we had our cell phones on,” said Allen Gilbert, executive director of the ACLU’s Vermont chapter.
“The next question, probably, is how widespread a practice is this? We only asked the AG. We only asked for a limited amount of time. We could ask the same question of police agencies or state’s attorneys around the state,” Gilbert said.
Crawford didn’t rule on the state’s request to dismiss the suit, or say when he would.
What the ACLU wants, according to Gilbert, is a ruling that affirms the public’s right to know what techniques law enforcement is using to investigate crime.
But revealing when and how cell phone tracking is used in an investigation would have widespread ramifications in the criminal process, according to Jacobs-Carnahan.
“The legislature has said that it’s going to protect the investigatory process, and you’re trying to break it up into little pieces and saying `Oh, it would be nice to have this piece of information or that piece of information.’ But once you start going down that road, you’re going to get into all the questions of how you decide which ones are appropriate to disclose and which aren’t.”
October 15th, 2010
By: Diana Williams
This is a story that will likely outrage many moms. Liz Mort gave birth to a beautiful baby girl, but the next day, police and child protective services in Pennsylvania came to her home and took the infant from her – all because of a bagel.
Liz Mort says she never saw it coming.
“I was shocked. I was at a loss for words. I just started crying,” she said.
Child protective services in Pennsylvania were at her doorstep, taking her 1-day-old baby because they thought Liz was abusing drugs.
“Someone was saying that ‘Oh, we’re CYS and we found something in your system,’ and at that time I never even heard of it before. It means that we have to take custody of your child,” Mort said.
Jameson Hospital in New Castle, Pennsylvania, tests mothers of newborns for drugs. State law allows it, but what the hospital did not consider more closely was poppy seeds.
“Opium comes from the poppy plant. Ingesting poppy seeds can cause levels of morphine and codeine in a person’s urine,” Dr. Neil Capretto explained.
On the day Liz gave birth, she says she ate an Everything bagel from Dunkin’ Donuts – a bagel with lots of poppy seeds. Now, the local ACLU is taking on the case.
The hospital issued a statement saying: “We have initiated an investigation to compare our standards to other community and regional hospitals. And if necessary, we will advise our reference lab to critique their standards for consistency.”
But Liz isn’t sure yet it that will be enough.
“I understand that they were doing what they had to do to protect children, but they should have investigated it more. Like I have to drive by that place every day when I go to work, and I just cry every time,” said Liz.
So far, no lawsuit has been filed. The ACLU says it is trying to figure out the next step. Liz did get her baby back, but it took 5 days for the hospital and child protective services to determine she was a fit mother.