Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Rights Groups Still Waiting for Obama to Deliver

Rights groups still waiting for Obama to deliver

By William Fisher

Apr. 30- While human rights and open-government groups are generally pleased with President Barack Obama's rhetoric during his first 100 days, some are skeptical that he will deliver on his promises.

Caroline Fredrickson, head of the Washington Legislative Office for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), told IPS that Obama's first 100 days "are something of a mixed bag."

She said the president's first-day-in-office executive orders closing the Guantánamo Bay detention center, ordering a review of all cases there, and suspending the military commission trials were "an excellent start."

Frederickson was far less pleased with the president's use of the "state secrets" privilege, which has prevented a number of lawsuits from ever being heard in court. And she questioned the wisdom of the administration's position that detainees at Bagram Air Force base in Afghanistan have no right to challenge their detention.

She also cautioned that there are a number of "unknowns," including the issue of what to do with Guantánamo Bay detainees who are cleared for release, but who have no place to go, as well as where to keep those who are to be tried in U.S. courts and others who cannot be tried because the evidence against them was obtained through torture.

The ACLU is opposed to indefinite detention as well as to the establishment of special security courts. Obama has not yet clarified the administration's position on these issues.

The London-based rights group Amnesty International expressed similarly mixed sentiments, praising Obama for declaring that he will close Guantánamo, but noting that after an "auspicious start" in making a swift announcement, more than 240 detainees are no closer to freedom.

"The bottom line is that… unlawful detentions at Guantánamo Bay continue, and for the vast majority of the detainees, the change in administration has so far meant no change in their situation," Amnesty said.

The group also expressed concerns about suspects held at Bagram airbase in Afghanistan, which it said remained "shrouded in secrecy."

The Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) – which has mobilized a small army of pro-bono lawyers to defend Guantánamo detainees – praised Obama's rhetoric but cautioned that "in many areas of critical importance – like human rights, torture, rendition, secrecy and surveillance – his words have been loftier than his actions."

Vince Warren, CCR executive director, noted that "secrecy was the hallmark of the [George W.] Bush administration. It classified more documents than any administration in history, restricted Freedom of Information Act requests and tried to protect government officials and military contractors from being held liable for illegal actions, such as torture and wrongful death."

"It invoked the state secrets privilege to avoid scrutiny in court and responsibility for government action more times than any other administration," he said.

"Obama has come down on both sides of this issue, ordering far more transparency through cooperation with Freedom of Information Act requests, while at the same time invoking state secrets in a case charging an aviation corporation with complicity in rendering a detainee to torture," Warren said.

He was also critical of Obama on the issue of electronic surveillance, pointing out that the new president "still has not repudiated the executive orders supporting warrantless wiretapping and the legal opinions used to support them."

Warren said that release of the "torture memos" prepared by lawyers in the Bush Justice Department was "welcome," but he noted that "Obama has indicated he will not prosecute former officials who broke the law and committed crimes, saying he would rather look forward than back. For there to be no consequences for creating a torture program not only calls our system of justice into question, but it also could allow the nightmare to happen all over again."

A generally positive assessment was offered by a leading open-government advocacy organization, OMB Watch, which said, "The president and his team have made significant progress in both the right-to-know and regulatory areas."

But it added that "there is still much work to be done as we move deeper into Obama's term in office."

"Overall, the Obama administration has set a strong tone on transparency, but a true assessment cannot occur until the development of agency-wide policies are put in place and fully implemented," the group said.

"During his first full day in office, Obama successfully communicated the importance of transparency to agencies and the public by issuing memorandums on the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and on transparency and open government."

But it was critical of the new president on the issues of "signing statements" and use of the "state secrets privilege" to keep cases out of court on national security grounds.

It said, "Many groups considered Obama's signing statement on the 2009 omnibus appropriations bill to be an affront to whistleblower protections. These groups have interpreted Obama's signing statement as impeding the ability of government employees to communicate with Congress."

"Further, in repeated court cases, Obama administration officials have insisted on maintaining the Bush administration's broad interpretation of executive branch power on the issue of state secrets. There has been no public discussion of reviewing these policies for possible revision."

Source: Inter Press Service

Domestic surveillance draws civil liberties concerns

By Eric Schmitt

Apr. 28- A growing number of big-city police departments and other law enforcement agencies across the country are embracing a new system to report suspicious activities that officials say could uncover terrorism plots but that civil liberties groups contend might violate individual rights.

In Los Angeles and in nearly a dozen other cities, including Boston, Chicago and Miami, officers are filling out terror tip sheets if they run across activities in their routines that seem out of place, like someone buying police or firefighter uniforms, taking pictures of a power plant or espousing extremist views.

Ultimately, state and federal officials intend to have a nationwide reporting system in place by 2014, using a standardized system of codes for suspicious behaviors. It is the most ambitious effort since the Sept. 11 attacks to put in place a network of databases to comb for clues that might foretell acts of terrorism.

But the American Civil Liberties Union and other rights groups warn that the program pioneered by the Los Angeles Police Department raises serious privacy and civil liberties concerns.

"The behaviors identified by L.A.P.D. are so commonplace and ordinary that the monitoring or reporting of them is scarcely any less absurd," the A.C.L.U. said in a report last July.

"This overbroad reporting authority," the report adds, "gives law enforcement officers justification to harass practically anyone they choose, to collect personal information and to pass such information along to the intelligence community."

Muslim-American groups here also view the program with suspicion, especially after the police department's counterterrorism and criminal intelligence bureau proposed in November 2007 to create a map detailing the Muslim communities in the city, ostensibly as a step toward thwarting radicalization. Muslim leaders said the idea amounted to racial or religious profiling, and it was dropped.

Cmdr. Joan T. McNamara, assistant commander of the counterterrorism bureau, said her department was vetting information from the some 1,500 reports so far in the year-old program. Commander McNamara said in an interview that police officers, intelligence analysts and top commanders were training in what kind of suspicious behavior to look for, based on a 65-item checklist that she and her staff created, as well as in privacy and civil liberties issues.

The Los Angeles program has not foiled any terrorism plots, said Commander McNamara and Lt. Robert Fox, who runs the department's suspicious reporting program. But they said 67 of the reports had been referred to the local Joint Terrorism Task Force, headed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

About 20 reports have led to arrests in cases involving explosives, weapons, bomb threats and organized crime, they said, but they declined to give details because the cases are under investigation.

"We're able to connect the dots like we were never able to before," said Commander McNamara, a 26-year veteran and highly decorated former narcotics officer.

The approach is based on experience showing that terrorists typically surveil their targets before an attack, conducting dry runs of their operations to note guard schedules, to gauge how emergency personnel react to false alarms or abandoned packages and to seek out security weaknesses.

Some programs are in their infancy, but senior police officers in other cities said a searchable network of standardized databases could help with reporting and analyzing suspicious behavior possibly linked to terrorism that might previously have fallen through the cracks.

"This is the piece of the whole puzzle that's been missing," said Earl O. Perkins, a deputy superintendent with the Boston Police Department who oversees its intelligence center.

Mr. Perkins said that his department had not detected any terror plots in the nine months the program had been operating but that it had led to arrests involving credit-card fraud and identify theft, crimes associated with terrorism cells in the past.

A branch of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence is sponsoring the national pilot program that in addition to Boston and Los Angeles includes police departments in Chicago, Houston, Las Vegas, Miami, Phoenix, Seattle and Washington, as well as state intelligence fusion centers in Florida, New York and Virginia. Nearly two dozen other cities have expressed interest.

The New York City Police Department has an extensive reporting system that works closely with the F.B.I., said Paul J. Browne, a department spokesman.

After issuing the report critical of the Los Angeles program, A.C.L.U. lawyers have met in recent months with police and federal officials to try to work out tougher safeguards on vetting information that goes into the reports, police training and privacy and civil liberties protections.

"Our concern lies with the investigation of noncriminal, ordinary activity," said Peter Bibring, a staff lawyer with the A.C.L.U. of Southern California, who met recently with Los Angeles police officials. "It remains to be seen how much of my feedback they take."

Civil liberties advocates praise the transparency of the police efforts in Los Angeles and a few other cities. But they also cite problems in places where police or other law enforcement officials have overreached — examples they say will multiply if the program to report suspicious activity expands.

In September 2007, a 24-year-old Muslim-American journalism student at Syracuse University was stopped by a Veterans Affairs police officer in New York for taking photographs of flags in front of a V.A. building as part of a class assignment. The student was taken into an office for questioning, and the images were deleted from her camera before she was released.

Also that year, a 54-year-old artist and fine arts professor at the University of Washington was stopped by Washington State police for taking photographs of electrical power lines as part of an art project. The professor was searched, handcuffed and placed in the back of a police car for almost half an hour before being released.

Police officials acknowledge that problems need to be worked out.

"We want police officers to be aware of criminal activities with nexus to terrorism, but we don't want them stopping everyone who takes a picture of the Golden Gate Bridge," said Tom Frazier, a former Baltimore police commissioner who is executive director of the Major Cities Chiefs Association, which represents the nation's 56 largest police departments.

In Los Angeles, Deputy Chief Michael P. Downing, head of the police counterterrorism bureau, said the program should give law enforcement officials more warning to help avert an attack.

"We should be able to see something coming, harden the target and deploy resources to it," Chief Downing said.

Source: New York Times

Prosecutors end secrets case against AIPAC lobbyists

By Neil Lewis and David Johnston
New York Times

May. 1- A case that began four years ago with the tantalizing and volatile premise that officials of a major pro-Israel lobbying organization were illegally trafficking in sensitive national security information collapsed on Friday as prosecutors asked that all charges be withdrawn.

From the beginning, the case against the lobbyists for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee was highly unusual. The two, Steven J. Rosen and Keith Weissman, were charged under the World War I-era Espionage Act, accused of improperly providing to their colleagues, journalists and Israeli diplomats sensitive information they had acquired by speaking with American policy makers.

Some lawyers at the Justice Department had always had significant reservations about the case, some current and former officials said. They believed that Mr. Rosen and Mr. Weissman had acted imprudently, but doubted that either man should be criminally prosecuted. Nevertheless, F.B.I. agents poured substantial resources into the case, and the decision to seek a dismissal infuriated many within the law enforcement agency.

But several current and former officials said the decision to abandon the case was no surprise. With adverse judicial rulings making the prosecution increasingly risky, lawyers in the United States Attorney's Office in Alexandria, Va., and at Justice Department headquarters met on several occasions in recent weeks, agonizing over whether to go forward with the trial, which was scheduled to begin June 2.

Last week, officials from the F.B.I.'s Washington office who investigated the case made their final pleas to keep the case alive, arguing that there was enough evidence to persuade a jury to find the two men guilty. But prosecutors—including some who had worked on the case for years — disagreed.

Joseph Persichini Jr., the top official at the F.B.I.'s Washington office, praised the work of the F.B.I. agents on the case, and said he was "disappointed" in the decision to drop the charges.

The case had raised delicate political issues about the role played by American Jewish supporters of Israel and their close, behind-the-scenes relationships with top government officials. Advocates of civil liberties and of open government asserted that the defendants were being singled out for activities that were part of the accepted and routine way that American policy on Israel and the Middle East had been formulated for years, with people exchanging information.

The decision to drop the case comes just days before Aipac is scheduled to begin its annual policy conference in Washington, which has often served as an advertisement of its influence. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel is scheduled to address the event via satellite.

Lawyers for Mr. Rosen and Mr. Weissman said in a statement that while they were pleased at the decision, the government had erred in bringing the case in the first place and had caused great damage to their clients. Aipac dismissed the men early in 2004 after prosecutors presented some of their evidence to an Aipac lawyer. The group later agreed to subsidize their legal costs.

The Justice Department said that the decision to drop the case had been made solely by career prosecutors in Alexandria, and that senior officials of the Obama administration had acted only to approve the recommendation.

Several other officials said, however, that while senior political appointees at the Justice Department did not direct subordinates to drop the case, they were heavily involved in the deliberations. These officials said David S. Kris, the newly appointed chief of the department's national security division, and Dana J. Boente, the interim United States attorney in Alexandria, had conferred regularly with prosecutors and ultimately decided to accept the recommendation to abandon the case. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. was informed and raised no objections.

The case would have been the first prosecution under the espionage law in which no documents were involved and in which the defendants were not officials who provided the information, but the private citizens who received it from them in conversations.

While Mr. Rosen and Mr. Weissman trafficked in facts, ideas and rumor, they had done so with the full awareness of officials in the United States and Israel, who found they often helped lubricate the wheels of decision-making between two close, but sometimes quarrelsome, friends.

The move by the government to end the case came in a motion filed with the Federal Court in Alexandria.

In pretrial maneuvering, the prosecution suffered several setbacks in rulings from the trial judge, T. S. Ellis III, that were upheld by a federal appeals court in Richmond, Va. Judge Ellis rejected several government efforts to conceal classified information if the case went to trial. Moreover, he ruled that the government could prevail only if it met a high standard; he said prosecutors would have to demonstrate that Mr. Rosen and Mr. Weissman knew that their distribution of the information would harm United States national security.

The investigation of Mr. Rosen and Mr. Weissman also surfaced recently in news reports that Representative Jane Harman, a California Democrat long involved in intelligence matters, was overheard on a government wiretap discussing the case. As reported by Congressional Quarterly, which covers Capitol Hill, and The New York Times, Ms. Harman was overheard agreeing with an Israeli intelligence operative to try to intercede with Bush administration officials to obtain leniency for Mr. Rosen and Mr. Weissman in exchange for help in persuading Democratic leaders to make her chairwoman of the House Intelligence Committee.

Ms. Harman has denied interceding for Mr. Rosen and Mr. Weissman, and has expressed anger that she was wiretapped.

Over government objections, Judge Ellis had also ruled that the defense could call as witnesses several senior Bush administration foreign policy officials to demonstrate that what occurred was part of the continuing process of information trading and did not involve anything nefarious. The defense lawyers were planning to call as witnesses former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice; Stephen J. Hadley, the former national security adviser; and several others. Government policy makers indicated they were clearly uncomfortable with senior officials' testifying in open court over policy deliberations.

The government's motion to dismiss said the government was obliged take a final review of the case to consider "the likelihood that classified information will be revealed at trial, any damage to the national security that might result from a disclosure of classified information and the likelihood the government would prevail at trial."

Source: New York Times

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